Radiation…Tastes Like Metallic Tang

It is a mad, mad world out there these days and I suppose this is the point at which we all begin to run around shouting that the sky is falling. Despite all the madness in Libya, the constitutional referendum  in Egypt, the protests in Syria, the election in Haiti, and the president’s overseas trip to Brazil we still have the aftermath of the Sendai earthquake and the subsequent Pacific tsunami. The latter being particularly important because of the damage to the now infamous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station in northeastern Japan.

Fukushima will likely be up there with the three other major nuclear disasters of a power station variety: the Windscale Fire in Cumbria, England; Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and of course, Chernobyl in the Ukraine (then the Soviet Union). We sometimes have heard the media compare Fukushima as the next great nuclear disaster, but how bad has it really been?

This graphic by XKCD comes to me via my coworker, Brian Morgan, and it breaks down our average exposure to ionising radiation—the bad stuff—from nuclear accidents from Chernobyl to Fukushima to x-ray machines to the natural radioactivity in the soil. Yes, you are likely being irradiated as you read this post.

A cropping of a radiation dose chart
A cropping of a radiation dose chart

Radiation is bad. But we will all find better solutions to problems if we keep our fears both in proportion and in check. Fukushima is not good. But it is far, far from the end of the world.

…to the Shores of Tripoli…

Two hundred years later, and the US Navy is again in action off the shore of Tripoli. Except instead of calling it the Barbary Coast, we now typically see the name the Maghreb. Things will surely be fluid and changing far faster than I can hope to detail in graphics, let alone follow casually. However, this here details what I have learned since this morning. Nothing too fancy, just mapping out some places to show just how far American, British, and French warplanes are flying to reach Libya. Then what aircraft are being used, at least that we know of, what ships are in the blockade and lastly who supported the Resolution 1973.

Detailing the Libyan Crisis as of 20 March
Detailing the Libyan Crisis as of 20 March

By Monday we shall surely be seeing further attempts by news and media agencies.

A (Multiethnic) Apple Falls Not Far From The Tree

One of my interests is genealogy/family history. While everyone is certainly more than the sum of their parts, that sum of parts is the history that led to your existence. And I find that notion fascinating.

When looking around the New York Times, I came across this interactive piece about complicated family histories. I am unaware of the exact impetus behind the project, but it probably has something to do with the unfolding US Census results and the increasing number of mixed marriages and thus genealogies. But I cannot say for certain.

Lou Diamond Phillips Genealogy
Lou Diamond Phillips Genealogy

The design of the piece is an interesting decision. Instead of a complicated and unwieldy diagram with lots of details, the designers chose to focus merely on photographs, when available, and little, coloured leaves to denote the ethnicity of each individual. This works to a degree in communicating simple ethnic ancestries, however, when one begins to have shades of light blue to distinguish between disparate ethnicities, one can begin to see a flaw in the system.

From an interactive perspective, I certainly think one of the more interesting bits is the inclusion, at least here in Lou Diamond Phillips’ tree, is the inclusion of the audio story as recounted by an individual. It brings a level of human connection that is always lost in diagrams. (Although these diagrams do have softer, curvier lines than most ergo they are more human. No?)

As someone interested in genealogy, the details are a bit light—but that was not likely the main intent of the piece. Beyond that, there are privacy issues with which to contend. But, if you wish, the New York Times does allow you to upload your own tree and even audio—to 10 megabytes. Perhaps in the future I shall upload a simple version of mine.

All in all, an interesting piece.

You Say You Want a Revolution…

If you have been living under a rock—or perhaps I should say isolated at an oasis deep in the Sahara—you may not have heard that these are some interesting times in northern Africa and the Middle East. Popular protests begat revolutions that have now toppled two governments, Tunisia and Egypt, and quite possibly a third in the near future, Libya. And for those that have not seen governments fall, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco have all been disrupted to some degree by protests against the governments in power.

Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of these movements have been the social-networking and mobile communications that spread the news of protests, riots, and crackdowns like wildfire. Sites like Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in passing word and for many other, people simply used their mobile phones to spread the news.

CNN has this series of maps to highlight internet and mobile phone use in the region. Nothing particularly fancy about the maps, though I wonder about the choice of green to represent so many Arab nations. Intentional or coincidence? Regardless of the colours, I think these maps are an example of using simple informational-based graphics to support a story. And given the goings-ons in the world, I thought this worth posting.

Internet and Mobile Phone Use in Northern Africa and the Middle East
Internet and Mobile Phone Use in Northern Africa and the Middle East

From CNN via a post at the Map Room.

Having Your (Presidential Birthday) Cake and Eating It Too

Presidents’ Day originally celebrated the birthday of George Washington, the first president of the United States. (Though, one could get crazy and say it was actually Samuel Huntington, but I fear I would digress.) Now technically the holiday still does celebrate Washington as the official name of the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday, but by and large we group folks like Lincoln in there too.

Regardless of who exactly is remembered, we remember a United States of the 18th and 19th centuries. And thus it seems appropriate to share a piece from Charles Blow over at the New York Times.

United States' Ranking
United States' Ranking

The information graphic is a heat chart of various rankings and index numbers that compare the United States across various metrics to the rest of the world’s “advanced economies”, as decided by the IMF. I certainly have some issues with a few of the metrics, for example what exactly does Gallup mean by percentage of people thriving? And are the math and science scales out of 600 total points? I presume as much but cannot be certain. These could have briefly explained in the footer, or similar to how the food insecurity metric is handled—though I suspect that would be too much from an aesthetic standpoint. The use of drop shadows, from a design perspective, I disagree with; the dark crimson should surely be enough distinction to stand alone. And for completeness, I would have included what appears to be the beigish middle ground between the best and the worst in the scale at the top of the piece.

As to the story the piece supports, I leave that for the audience to decide. Is the United States of the President Obama/Bush as great as that of President Washington/Adams?

If Money Grew on Trees…

I would have become an arborist…alas, I am a mere designer in a world where trees shed leaves, not cash. The government, on the other hand, now that sheds a lot of cash.

President Obama released his budget proposal for 2012, proposal because the responsibility actually falls to the House of Representatives to pass spending bills and budgets. The New York Times, crediting Shan Carter and Amanda Cox, has put together a nice little interactive piece explaining the proposal. (It would be rather interesting to see if they compare the proposal to the passed budget, whenever that happens.)

Cropping of the US Budget for 2012 (Proposed)
Cropping of the US Budget for 2012 (Proposed)

From one side of the aisle we hear arguments about how we must cut spending from things like education and infrastructure while the other side pushes back. However, what this piece does quite nicely is allow the user to isolate mandatory spending. That is, we see that if we really wanted to cut spending, we would need to look at reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and then cutting the Defense Department budget. At last, something on which we see bipartisan agreement, reforming and cutting those budgets is too tough (read likely to cost representatives, senators, and presidents their jobs) and so they are left alone. But, I digress.

Furthermore, the piece adds the change in spending since 2010 for the various programs by way of greens and reds. While certainly not necessary—one could argue that the inclusion of such data makes a sometimes difficult chart type that much more difficult—I think that in this case the additional data is more than worthwhile. This year’s theme seems to be austerity and that means cuts. So while highlighting, say, the massive portion of government spending that is Medicare, Medicaid, and the US military we can also highlight that much of all that spending is still rising.

South Sudan

For those who may not be aware, part of Africa’s largest country is holding a referendum on whether it should remain a part of Sudan or secede and become an independent state, Southern Sudan—though one wonders if they would not come up with a different name. About 2005 a peace agreement all-but-ended a decades-long civil war in Sudan and as that violence subsided the attention in Sudan shifted to Darfur. The terms for the peace deal included a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan, long since joined with the northern half of Sudan as part of a British colony in Africa to control the Nile River.

Map of Southern Sudan
Map of Southern Sudan

The two halves of the country were and are very much different and the BBC has used maps to highlight these differences. The problem is that there are oil fields along the proposed border and a disputed region, called Abeyi, has significant deposits of its own. And so the question of who controls the oil and thus the money and the power remains. That, however, is a story for another post. This is just to highlight the maps.

Overall, not bad. I find using the different hues for the different subject matters a smart idea. The shift forces the audience to focus on the change in meaning, which is very important if the shape of the coloured area is not otherwise changing. That said, the infant mortality choropleth uses too great a shift in hues between data bins when compared to the water, education, and food security maps. The oil field map, while not necessarily a data-heavy map in the same way as the choropleths, is a nice bookend to what started the series, i.e. the satellite view. These highlight the sheer environmental and, in a fashion, economic differences between the two regions of Sudan.

I find the ethnic groups map, however, the most difficult to fit into the series. Certainly from a subject matter it is the most important. However, the colours chosen to represent the various ethnic groups seem disparate. The southern Dinka, for example, are represented as an olive-green whereas the northern Beja are more of a bluish-green. I think a better solution would have been to keep the three main groups, i.e. the Arabs, Northern Sudan, and Southern Sudan, and then assign each a different hue, for the sake of an example say the three primary colours. Then within those groups, different tints for the various but related ethnic groups. This would highlight the various ethnic groups existing across Sudan, but show the geographic split between the two groups.

Overall, a good effort from the BBC to highlight the stark differences between Northern and Southern Sudan.

Growing Pains

An information graphic looking at obesity in the United States
An information graphic looking at obesity in the United States

This piece comes from my coworker, Ben, who found the graphic in Scientific American. Broadly speaking the piece is looking at the obese and the overweight in the United States, comparing the numbers of both children and adults in 1980 to 2008. These numbers are supplemented by the risk of death posed to both men and women from a few different causes. (I know at least diabetes is linked to weight, but as to whether the others are linked I am unaware.)

I have a few quibbles with the piece; for in general I think educating the public about the health risks of obesity a worthy endeavour. From a more scientific-ish point of view, as I recall, BMI (body mass index) is not a particularly useful tool in determining obesity because it fails to differentiate people who are heavy with fat from those who are heavy with muscles. A strong and regular weight-lifter is not necessarily overweight, but simply has a lot of muscles. Does that make the weight-lifter less healthy than those with lots of body fat? Methinks not.

From the data side, I am curious to know why only the two years? It may very well be that they are the only two years for which relevant data exists. But I doubt that. 1980 compared to 2008 is interesting, but perhaps already well-known. What would perhaps be more interesting is whether over the past few years, the increasing attention paid to weight and other health issues has begun to affect the growth of the obesity problem—poor pun very much intended.

The accompanying text makes a point about the number of adult Americans being obese. Certainly the dots as a percentage of the population achieve that goal of showing percents—though I hasten to add that their arrangement around the body in the centre does very little to aid in comparing the adults of 1980 to 2000 let alone the children. And as to the children, the article points out that they are growing fastest. At this, however, I can only take the authors at their word for the graphic does nothing to visualise this statement. Perhaps they outgrew the adults—but then the adults were themselves at one point children, but that is another matter—but their growth could now be slowing as a recent turn of events. But since we only have two years, we cannot know for certain.

The risk of death by [type of death] is interesting. But running bar charts as more of a radial chart could become a bit confusing. Is there any reason the bars grow in width as they extend further out? Or was that part of an all-too-obvious play on the problem. After all, the growth in area could be significant; a simple line of constant stroke to a point along the radial distance markers would have sufficed. And then I would be particularly curious to know whether any of these types of death are related to obesity. Neither the article nor the graphic provide any clues besides whatever knowledge the viewer brings to the table. (Okay, I think I am done with the puns.) And if one happens across the article with almost no knowledge of what diseases or medical conditions are caused by obesity, how does the graphic tie into the cost of healthcare costs brought upon the country by obesity.

Overall, I think the graphic is well-intentioned. The public is becoming more accustomed to seeing data visualised. However, we need to make certain that we are communicating clearly by making datapoints easier to compare. (Looking at things across half of a circle is a bit tricky.) And then we need to make certain that the data we are visualising supports our statements. (Are children really the fastest growing? Over what span of time?) And then take the time to explain to the audience those things that may not be common knowledge. Does that mean dumb a piece down to the lowest common denominator of someone who has absolutely no knowledge? No. Design needs to elevate and educate its audience. Perhaps some of the finer details remain unexplained because of sheer complexity, but when amidst a host of details well-understood, that confounding bit may push an unsure viewer to do some additional research and educate him- or herself about the subject matter. And that, surely, is not a bad thing.

If Kites Could Fly to the Future, What Would They Find?

If only Benjamin could see this…

The Control Room
The Control Room

These are photographs from a small series published by CNET that focuses on a power grid control room. As one can imagine, managing the flow of electrical energy across somewhere the size of New England could be a bit…complicated. And so one can see from some kind of network map (perhaps?) on the main display. At the very least I can make no sense of it.

Voltage Map (right) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)
Voltage Map (center) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)

On the other hand, I only wonder what would happen if Homer were sitting behind a bank of those monitors?

Photographs by Martin LaMonica, CNET

Won’t You Be My Neighbour

The BBC has an article about the massiveness of Facebook—at least in the United States. They have taken the data and spent time to do a little bit of visualisation. It is worth a look; the design is not perfect but acceptable in a broad sense.

Social Networking Usage
Social Networking Usage

Poor MySpace.