The 2013 Budget Proposal Visualisation Comparison Part II

The previous two entries have been about visualisations of the administration’s budget proposal for 2013. Today’s will be (probably) the last in such a theme. Perhaps some wonder if not the bubbles and circles of the Times’ visualisation, what?

Some might answer bar charts. Because we all love bar charts. But, as in this example from the Philadelphia Inquirer, sometimes we are left wanting more.

Budget overview
Budget overview

The graphic captures the size of the budget by general spending and revenue areas, but misses the story on how each has changed on account of this new era of austerity. What colour was in the previous examples, here instead we see it used to group the different categories of spending. From an aesthetic standpoint, the depth in the third dimension is distracting and the space between the two stacked bars (and the line separating them) does not aid in comparison.

In brief review, of the three visualisations presented over the past three days, I have to say that the Washington Post’s tree maps are the most useful from a design perspective, but sadly lacks in the granularity we see—regardless of the clarity or lack thereof in presentation—in the piece from the New York Times.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

The 2013 Budget Proposal Visualisation Comparison

Yesterday’s post was about the administration’s 2013 budget proposal as visualised by the New York Times. This morning we have a brief comparison to the visualisation of the Washington Post.

The budget proposal overview
The budget proposal overview

The main visualisation shows spending by department compared against revenue, the difference between being the grey box of deficit. Of note is that this piece also contains the revenue, and not just the spending, unlike the New York Times version. You can also see that the level of granularity is different; the Post looks only at department-level data while the Times delves into specific programmes. Critically, the arrangement of the budget components in this graphic makes it easier to attempt comparisons of area and thus weigh Education against Defence.

Defence spending details
Defence spending details

If you click a particular department, you swap out the revenue side of the budget equation with the details of previous spending in that area, broken down into presidential administrations that are coloured by party. The same holds true for revenue, clicking on those reveals the amount of revenue taken in by administration. Of some note is the deficit, which shows how we did briefly have a budget surplus back in the 1990s and how that compares to the deficits of today.

Deficit details
Deficit details

All in all, while the level of detail is not present in the Post’s visualisation, I find that the comparison at the departmental level stands strongly in the favour of the Post. The Post also benefits from presenting the other side of the budget story, revenue. Unfortunately, if you care to dig any deeper into any particular part of the budget, say weapons procurement or education grants, you cannot in the Post. That leaves space for a nicely designed, detailed, clear, and informative piece should someone or some organisation be so inclined to build it.

Credit for the piece goes to Wilson Andrews, Dan Keating and Karen Yourish.

2013 Budget Proposal

Normally, I look forward to the release of the president’s budget proposed budget—fully understanding that it will never pass as proposed. We get to see lots of visualisations trying to show that we really do spend quite a lot on defence. And an awful lot on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And a little bit on a lot of other varied programs and departments.

Last year was a very nice tree map by the New York Times, see my post about it here to refresh your memory. This year’s, well, frankly, is not so nice. To be fair, the piece is aesthetically pleasing and well designed; the transitions and interactions are all spot on.

What is not so much is the use of circles and bubbles.

In the tree map of last year, all the various leaves fit nicely against each other inside branches as part of the tree. See the below screenshot for a reminder. There were small spaces between the branches and leaves, but no more than necessary. Does the overall shape or size of the tree map represent anything? No, but note how the leaves are grouped by branches. And how, in a pinch, you can compare vertical and horizontal axes of each cell against is neighbours to gain a size comparison.

The 2012 budget proposal tree map
The 2012 budget proposal tree map

This year’s overall spending graphic shows large gaps between some circles and overlap of others. It is difficult to compare circle to circle and thus gain any true meaning of the size differences between programmes. Furthermore, the spaces do not group like with like, in fact every time I reload that view, the circles are in a new arrangement, making it difficult to return to the programme I had just been viewing. Compare that to the tree map where everything is ordered by department and, because all the changes and filtering happen within the view, the cells remain in place.

All spending in 2013 proposal
All spending in 2013 proposal

This year’s budget proposal has an additional three views presented: types of spending, changes, and department totals. The first moves the circles into two camps: discretionary and mandatory spending. But, the areas of the circles are hard to compare against each other, and the placement of the circles seems arbitrary. Compare that to last year’s which highlighted the types of spending within the tree map and blanking out the other. The cells remained in place and by their positioning against each other, a more accurate sense of scale and relationship was created.

Changes sorts the circles into department, though that part is not entirely clear at first glance. Otherwise, this view makes sense, though I wonder if a more clean scatter plot could not be more useful in plotting size and growth on the x and y axes with colour remaining the change from the previous year. Though one loses the grouping by government department, such a grouping seems less important throughout the 2013 piece except in the by department view.

Sorting by change in spending
Sorting by change in spending

That view resorts the circles into a matrix with each department receiving a square-like cell into which its circles are dropped. This was handled much more adeptly and clearly by the tree map of last year.

I appreciate the need to create new and more interesting visualisations every year. But, whereas last year’s was a solid piece, this is a shaky step backward. I would have liked to see a more nuanced and featured improvement to last year’s tree map instead of throwing it out.

Credit for the piece goes to Shan Carter.

Adding Guided Context to Maps

Maps are cool. They show the geographic distribution of data. And that is fantastic if there is a story in said distribution. But even if there is a story, sometimes given both the scale of the map and the amount of data encoded in the map, how could you possibly expect to find the story? Which little region of the map do you search to find the interesting nuggets?

On Sunday, the New York Times published an interesting solution to that very quandary. The context is an article looking at the anger and resentment felt by some towards government assistance via the social safety net, and yet how these very same people depend upon that safety net through programmes like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, &c. The map, a choropleth, examines several different metrics that comprise government assistance, e.g. Medicaid payments as a percentage of income.

Government benefits overview
Government benefits overview

One can easily toggle through the various metrics at the scale of the entire United States. This is a rather standard feature for such maps. However, in the upper-left corner, the designers placed a ‘guide’ that provides context and stories for each metric. But, not only does the guide provide text to support the map, but it zooms in on specific areas and regions that then support the text and best exemplify the point.

Here we see the map of the whole US for Medicaid, which appears to be scattered pockets of higher percentages. Interesting perhaps, but the user likely has few ideas as to what that visualisation actually means.

Medicaid's broad overview
Medicaid's broad overview

Compare that to the guide’s view of the map, which focuses on the large cities on the East Coast.

Medicaid's eastern core context
Medicaid's eastern core context

Providing context and guiding a reader/user through the stories contained in the map, or at least those deemed interesting by the designers and editors, is an interesting solution to the problem of finding the story in maps such as these. However, by moving away from a strict visualisation of the data, the New York Times and others that try similar avenues introduce human biases in the story-telling that may otherwise be unwanted or distracting.

Credit for the piece goes to Jeremy White, Robert Gebeloff, Ford Fessenden, Archie Tse and Alan McLean.

Comparing the (Display of) Results in Colorado

Mitt Romney lost badly last night. No way around that. But as I watched the results come in through various sources, I noticed two interesting design decisions that made me think; one from the Guardian (the British perspective), and the other from the New York Times.

Using only Colorado as an example, here is the map of county results by the Guardian.

Results map from the Guardian
Results map from the Guardian

Note how the map is presented in 3-D that therefore allows the use of height as another encoded variable, in this case the size of the lead. Now compare that to the map used by the New York Times.

Results map from the New York Times
Results map from the New York Times

Note how this map is flat. So much less cool, right? But try to compare the results in Denver County. When I look at the Times’ map, I see blue; Mitt Romney won. When I look at the Guardian’s map, I see…actually, I can’t. That label is in the way. And then even when I begin to interact with the map, Denver County is hidden by the height of Arapahoe County.

But what about the size of the lead? I cannot see that encoded in the New York Times map. No, one cannot. However, they added a toggle function to change the data displayed on the map—though the utility of that view can be left for another discussion.

And now to a minor point about comparing the totals.

Again, a look at the Guardian’s presentation.

Results table from the Guardian
Results table from the Guardian

And now the New York Times. Numbers are numbers and faces are faces. But look at the graphic element representing the percentage. With the Guardian, I can just barely discern that the size of the circles for Santorum and Romney are not the same. And the same goes for Gingrich and Paul. But when I look at the Times’ presentation, I see a simple bar chart that more clearly shows the relationships between the results.

Results table from the New York Times
Results table from the New York Times

So interesting design decisions lead to one view that I find far more successful in showing the data: the New York Times.

Apple And Its Suppliers

American companies have long been moving their manufacturing overseas. Apple is no exception. However, Apple does audit its suppliers to ensure they are in compliance with the company’s code of conduct. The New York Times reported on this and included a graphic along with its article.

Apple Audits Its Suppliers
Apple Audits Its Suppliers

We have small multiples of line charts with small blurbs of text to highlight key stories. Clean, clear, and communicative. I contrast this with the number of charts one might see in business presentations, which presumably would have similar content in terms of audits and performance for a company, where these lines would normally be smashed together into one chart. At that point lines become indistinguishable from each other and the individual stories are missed among a muddle of a main story. Furthermore, in my experience, a business presentation would make full use of the width of the medium, in this case some 900 pixels or so. And for this story in particular that would mean, at most, by my count, 900 pixels for 5 plotted points in a timeline.

Seeing work like this is refreshing.

Show Europe the Money

The Guardian has an interactive piece that details payments to and from European Union member states to institutions, determining whether each state is a giver or receiver.

Comparing payments and receipts in EU member states
Comparing payments and receipts in EU member states

The concept sounds all well and good. However, the piece itself feels clumsy with too much scrolling and whipping about to pan across the whole EU. The charts look a tad heavy—which could have been remedied for a more concise piece—and the callouts beg for a level of interactivity that is otherwise lacking.

Lastly, I have concerns about the list of countries at the top, although these may stem only from the point of view of an American not too familiar with Europe. Flags are not circles, they are, in most cases, rectangular in shape. Does cropping a symbol or icon of a country make it more or less useful of a symbol or icon? Furthermore, do the British recognise the flags of their fellow EU member states?

The country icons/flags call for some type of sorting function, to compare payments and receipts and their balance. But, instead, they sit there in unalterable silence, providing only an economic overview when clicked. An overview that through its staid design feels more like an afterthought.

Killed in Action in Iraq, State by State

The Iraq War is over. And now it is time to reflect on what we have gained and what we have lost. This map by the Guardian details the number of soldiers killed in action in Iraq. (Other options include total wounded, killed by non-hostile, &c.)

Killed in Action in Iraq by State
Killed in Action in Iraq by State

Unfortunately, I call it a ‘no kidding’ type of map. The data, accessible via the Guardian here, corresponds nicely with a list of states by total population. Of the top ten countries in KIA, only Virginia is not among the top ten in population; it is 12th. The country thus not in the top ten in KIA, but in population is North Carolina. It’s rank in terms of KIA? 11th.

The data is interesting and worth depicting if we are to reflect. But, perhaps a more suitable visualisation could have been chosen.

On a personal note, these Google Maps overlays are annoying when, in the cases of, e.g., Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the shapes are incorrect. Perhaps coastlines are not as easy as states with ‘straight lines’ for boders, but we would do well to try and make irregular coasts at least somewhat correct.

The European Debt Crisis. Again.

Nearly a month ago, the New York Times released an interactive piece along with a printed infographic about the European debt crisis in an attempt to explain just what is going on; I wrote about it here.

Now, the BBC has an interactive graphic showing how different countries relate to each other. The width of the lines relates to the amount of debt and the colours fall into three groups: red for high risk, yellow for medium risk, and grey for low risk. These are all fairly sensible and are echoed in the New York Times piece.

The BBC's explanation of the European debt crisis
The BBC's explanation of the European debt crisis

However, one advantage of the diagram used by the BBC is that the arrows emerge from an arc and show the total amount of debt going to the selected European (and US) economies. At least, I hope they do. That is how I read it, but it is not explicitly stated. I hope that I am correct. If so, this is better than the Times version which simply has a proportionally wide line starting from a circle. But without other lines, one cannot see the useful supplemental information about how much total trade the country has.

One element that sticks out is the selected state of the diagram. This uses a blue line that is rather crudely drawn atop the arc. Distractingly so. The colour choice works as blue contrasts with the reds, yellows, and greys, but the execution of the line drawing is simply poor.

Overall, the data is interesting, and if my assumption is correct, and presents a more meaningful picture of trade relations between the chosen countries. However, the execution of the piece’s design does leave me wanting more. And that, given the need to tell this story both completely and correctly, is unfortunate.

Much Improved Mapping of American Migration

Forbes released Jon Bruner’s latest map of migration in the United States. It uses IRS figures to show inbound and outbound movement from counties across the United States. The work itself is an improvement from his map from last year, which was a bit more difficult to read. Beneath is the new version, and at the end, for comparison, the old.

This year's migration map
This year's migration map

Firstly, the colour palette is far more sophisticated. Secondly, and most crucially, the user can hide the lines on the map, which obscures a key part of the story of migration in urban areas—higher income people moving out of the city and into the suburbs. Thirdly, the map data now includes additional years, which are available by clicking the small chart in the upper right—a welcome addition that allows the data from last year’s map to become accessible this year. Fourthly, and to be fair this may have existed previously but not that I can recall, the new map is accompanied by essays.

These essays use the map and its data to tell stories and explain what one sees going on with the data. It is (relatively) easy for one to put together a piece of data visualisation from a data set. But, without knowing where to look, users may not actually find anything valuable in the visualisation. By pointing to these essays, the map—already much improved from a design perspective—takes on a much more rounded and mature character and becomes more about generating information and knowledge than simply figures and statistics.

Last year's migration map
Last year's migration map