European Debt Crisis Explained

The European debt crisis affects all of us. Shares fall on the exchanges in Frankfurt, Paris and London and then ripple westward to New York before finally reaching Hong Kong and Tokyo. But does anyone understand actually understand who owes whom what?

This interactive piece is yet another from the New York Times and is an online version of a print graphic that appeared in Sunday’s paper. Online, interactivity is used to focus attention on particular elements of the story, highlighting key components of the tangled debt web that anchors the whole piece. The width of the lines relate the difference between borrowers and lenders.

An Overview of the European Debt Crisis
An Overview of the European Debt Crisis

Hidden in the width of the arrows, however, is the gross lending. The lending may appear to cancel itself out, but the banks and other sources of the loans may not all be lending to each other, i.e., some big players could still take a hit if the crisis worsens.

The colours reflect the level of ‘worry’ in the country—though how worry is defined is left unstated.

Different parts of the story and potential scenarios are revealed by clicking buttons on the left-hand side of the piece. Elements of the large graphic that are not needed to tell that part of the story, though remaining pieces remain in place. This is an effective means of reminding the audience where they are situated in the overall web, but I wonder if not a slight shadow or faint trace of the web in the background could have been used instead of losing all the information entirely.

Overall, the interactive piece is quite effective in telling the story. But, because this was in the Sunday paper, the lazy afternoon paper, we also have a large-scale printed infographic that the interactive piece accompanied.

The Printed Explanation
The Printed Explanation

This has a lot more text—dreaded words—to further explain just what is happening. In my mind this adds to the story. For example, what I noted above about the net loans between two parties obscures the gross loans of both sides. This point is explicitly made about Britain and Ireland, which have enjoyed a very strong bilateral trade arrangement for a number of years. This context is added by a little text blurb crafted into the overall design of the piece.

Different scenarios are highlighted at the bottom with a reduction of the main piece creating small multiples of the diagram instead of how the interactive piece removed unnecessary elements. I think this is an equally effective means of solving that problem.

The New York Times created two separate but very much related pieces to explain a story that affects us all. The first media, the interactive piece, takes advantage of the ability to replace on the screen what is not necessary with what is necessary. Further, it allows some data that is not so relevant at first glance to be hidden. Mouse over the various lines and countries to reveal the data behind the problem for each. Do we need this information at first? No. Our first order is to try and work out the web we weaved. Well, that the bankers weaved.

That is very different than the print edition, which cannot be changed. All the content must be available at once. But, the data is made smaller because the print resolution is finer than that of a screen. Small text that might not be legible on a screen can be printed and read just fine. The printed edition also allows more space and thus more text for context. And this is okay knowing that the Sunday paper is likely to be read while relaxing with a fine cup of tea or coffee.

Credit for the piece goes to Bill Marsh.

The Northeast Passage

The Northeast Passage was supposed to be a shortcut to Asia from Europe through an open waterway in North America. Many tried to find the route. They failed. Because we have a mountain range running from the northernmost part of North America to the Isthmus of Darien where, perhaps desperate for the route, we dug the Panama Canal.

Climate change, however, is shrinking the Arctic ice cap and making the northern shores of Canada, Russia, the US and a few others navigable. True, the best times for travel are in summer. True, there are still icebergs the further from the coast you go. But you can now travel the Northeast Passage, sailing north from Japan, skirting the Russian coast and then down the North Sea into the commercial ports of northern Europe.

The New York Times has a piece about the improving business opportunities for those daring enough to ply the route. Accompanying the article is this map, a cropping of which appears below.

The Northeast Passage
The Northeast Passage

Surveying Sentiment

How do you feel about the economy?

Economic Outlook, scaled
Economic Outlook, scaled

The New York Times has posted an interesting interactive visualisation detailing the sentiment expressed by participants—defaulting to the most recent 100—answering several questions on the state of the economy. As a survey, this is—and it is framed as such—an unscientific sampling of trending opinions of only those who feel inclined to comment and are registered members of the New York Times.

What makes this more interesting is the ability to demographically filter the responses to find, for example, that the unemployed feel worse about their job status than the employed…perhaps that is not the best of examples, but, hey, it works.

One can also find the specific response tied to a marker on the field/band/spectrum of responses by mousing over and then clicking on the symbol. A little and unfortunate quirk here is that clicking on the person forces one down the page to the specific comment, but then leaves one with no easy way of returning to the broader picture short of scrolling all the way back to the top.

Less Pie for Fewer Less Fortunate Foreigners

Foreign aid is the ‘soft’ power of a country vis-a-vis the ‘hard’ power of military force. Think blankets with ‘from the USA’ during earthquake relief in Kashmir instead of Abrams tanks in Kandahar. Some also goes to building infrastructure and increasing the standard of living for those in emerging countries. If you boost the income, you boost the buying power and thus boost the total possible market size.

Scaled image of US foreign aid spending
Scaled image of US foreign aid spending

This chart, which supports this article, from the New York Times is simple but effective. Not only does it show the decreasing amount spent in terms of absolute dollars, but also as part of the overall budget. After all, one can, in theory receive a smaller (by angle) slice of pie, but if the size of the pie increases, you net more pie. And who doesn’t want more pie?

Although this is the Republican-led House of Representatives, so the pie is being made much smaller. So…

Interestingly, in Britain, where the right/centre-right Conservatives are in power (with the liberal Liberal Democrats), the government of David Cameron is also cutting spending. But there, areas like defence spending are falling under the axe. One of only two, if I recall correctly, areas not being cut is foreign aid spending. (The other is healthcare.) Furthermore, if I recall, Britain, despite its austerity drive, is actually increasing spending on foreign aid. Maybe the Brits just will have new markets for all that British engineering…

The Greek Tragedy

The Euro…yeah, that pesky bugger and all of the complications it is causing for the European Union at the moment. In July, the BBC released this animation explaining the Greek debt crisis. It’s worth a check, though some of the graphics could use improvement…like the one using scaled buildings in a bar chart.

10 year interest rates compared, from the animation
10 year interest rates compared, from the animation

Critically for US readers, who have to put up with all this talk about how we cannot run a deficit, pay close attention to the bit about lenders. Deficits are not expensive until interest rates go up. And they only go up when lenders fear the inability of a government to repay its loans.

Back in the USSR

So, those of you a little bit older than me—not to date myself—probably remember the evil Reds of Soviet Russia. Some my age do as well. Younger than me, it’s probably all ancient history. And so for those of you who forget, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, if I am to simplify, a Russian empire that featured a centralised, command and control economy and a dictatorial government. In 1991, the empire fell apart for a number of reasons and became 15 independent countries, Russia still being the largest. And a lot has happened in the twenty years between 1991 and 2011.

Twenty years being a long time, the BBC has remembered the event by creating a relatively simple piece that compares the fates of the various countries in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s breakup. One takes one drop-down list and selects a country and then another country from the other list. And in the centre one can control whether the comparison is of wealth (GDP), health (life expectancy), or leadership (no. of times the presidency has changed hands).

Comparing Russia to the Ukraine
Comparing Russia to the Ukraine

I have an issue with some of the metrics and whether they are the best suited to describe the wealth, health, and democracy of the former Soviet republics. But, I think the strength really is not so much the charts but the brief summaries for each country that try to capture the story of the past two decades.

Credit Rating Distribution

A small graphic from the New York Times, this supports an article about the rarity of a credit rating of AAA in S&P 500 companies.

Distribution of Credit Ratings, per Standard and Poor's ratings.
Distribution of Credit Ratings, per Standard and Poor's ratings.

I don’t quite know about the colour, nor do I know about the efficiency of using squares to represent the units that could be used in a bar chart, but I suspect they go towards making a graphic interesting and visually compelling. Fortunately, neither actually distorts the data.

Useful Africa

Another rather recent infographic from Le Monde’s Philippe Rekacewicz is this, called Useful Africa.

Useful Africa
Useful Africa

One of the key problems for African development is its lack of infrastructure. Here we see the proposed and under-construction projects that will hopefully raise Africa up from its current state. But the infrastructure is only as good as it is economically useful. Hence the connection between those same infrastructure projects and areas of mineral or hydrocarbon reserves.

This is an example of where a map is incredibly useful, as opposed to say a choropleth that shows which countries in Africa have the highest concentrations of oil reservers, of natural gas reserves, and of mineral reserves. The geography here is key to understanding the transport links between major population centres, ports and points of distributions, and the raw materials to be exported—if not processed and refined.

Maps Made by Hand (Or Simulations Thereof)

Le Monde is a French-language publication and so I never really bother with it, despite favourable reviews. However, they do have a small site with some content in the English language that I check from time to time. Frequently they have maps or other graphics of some interest, and this time upon visiting—done to see if they have anything on Libya given the lead taken by France and the UK—they had a few maps of the situation in North Africa.

Political Situation in North Africa and the Middle East
Political Situation in North Africa and the Middle East

By and large, nothing radical or ground-breaking in the maps. But, the designer, Philippe Rekacewicz, used a different cartographic perspective than I am at least accustomed to seeing for infographics. And then the aesthetic of the map is interesting, and quite different than what one typically sees. In a refreshingly interesting way. Now, whether he used a texture or filter in Photoshop to create the background map or whether he physically drew the map (and then overlaid the informational elements digitally), it matters little as the style works. I enjoy the idea of mixing the hand-made and data visualisation—though it needs to be well-executed.

He created a few sets of maps; each makes use of a slightly different palette. These certainly help create the visual distinction necessary between data sets. The pie charts are not particularly helpful, but they at least are kept simple: looking at only two parts of the whole. The comparison within each nation by bar charts of internet connectivity and higher-education learning works. It begins to work not so well as one tries to compare country to country. Though, the separation of the bars into ten-percentage point sub-bars begins to alleviate that issue. The main map, that highlights the political situation does a nice job of putting these countries into broader context. That is, who has oil and who has control over the key waterways in the region.

the three smaller maps
the three smaller maps

All in all, a refreshing set of maps that illustrate the fluid situation in North Africa and the Middle East.

Complex Nigeria

The BBC has a new feature on Nigeria, one of Africa’s most important—and most complicated—countries. And a few days ago it was supposed to hold elections. But these have been postponed, apparently on logistical problems. This piece attempts to explain the complexities of modern Nigeria across several different metrics via maps. Overall, it is very similar to a piece I mentioned that the BBC ran on South Sudan in the run up to that soon-to-be-country’s independence referendum.

Map of Nigeria by Various Metrics
Map of Nigeria by Various Metrics

Overall, the piece works for me as a means of quickly and broadly explaining the geographic breakdown of Nigeria in terms of ethnicity, politics, health, et cetera. The colours work, especially shifting between hues for the one-variable maps. The one thing that the Nigeria map adds over the Sudan map is the name of each state. However, these begin to become a bit cluttered and distracting—not to mention that in all-caps they sit at roughly the same level of the neighbouring country names despite being a touch smaller. Perhaps the maps could have been made to do more with less, and only label those states mentioned in the explanatory text. Or they could have been included but treated in a subtler fashion.