Thanksgiving Side Dishes

American Thanksgiving meals often feature elaborate spreads of side dishes. And everyone has a favourite. A common theme around the holiday is for media outlets to conduct surveys to see which ones are most popular where. In today’s piece we have one such survey from pollster YouGov. In particular, I wanted to focus on a series of small multiples maps they used to illustrate the preferences.

Big splashes of colour do not necessarily make for a great map
Big splashes of colour do not necessarily make for a great map

I used to see this approach taken more often and by this I hope I do not see a foreshadow of its comeback. Here we have US states aggregated into distinct regions, e.g. the Northeast. One could get into an argument about how one defines what region. The Midwest is one often contested such region—I have one post on it dating back to at least 2014.

Instead, however, I want to focus on the distinction between states and regions. This small multiples graphic is a set of choropleth maps that use side dish preferences to colour the map. Simple enough. However, the white lines delineating states imply different fields to be coloured within the graphic. Consequently, it appears that each state within the region has the same preference at the same percentage.

The underlying data behind the maps, at least that which was released, indicates the data is not at the state level but instead at the regional level. In other words, there are no differences to be seen between, say, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Consequently, a more appropriate map choice would have been one that omitted the state boundaries in favour of the larger outlines of the regions.

More radically, a set of bar charts would have done a better job. Consider that with the exception of fruit salad, in every map, only one region is different than the others. A bar chart would have shown the nuance separating the three regions that in almost all of these maps is lost when they all appear as one colour.

I appreciate what the designers were attempting to do, but here I would ask for seconds, as in chances.

Credit for the piece goes to the YouGov graphics team.

Food Flows Connect Counties

For my American audience, this week is Thanksgiving. That day when we give thanks for Native Americans giving European settlers their land for small pox ridden blankets. And trinkets. Don’t forget the trinkets. But we largely forget about the history and focus on three things: family, food, and American football. Not necessarily in that order.

But this week I am largely going to want to focus on the food.

Today we can look at a graphic coming from a team of researchers at the University of Illinois who examined the flows of food across the United States, down to the county level. It helped produce this map that shows the linkages between counties.

Oh look at that Mississippi River trail
Oh look at that Mississippi River trail

To be sure, the piece uses some line charts and other maps to showcase the links, but the star is really this map. But aside from its lack of Alaska and Hawaii, I think it suffers from one key design choice: leaving the county borders black.

The black lines, while thin, compete with the faint blue lines that show the numerically small links between counties. Larger trade flows, such as those within California, are clearly depicted with thicker strokes that contrast with the background political boundaries of the counties. But the light blue lines recede into the background beneath the borders.

I wonder if a map of solid, light grey fills and white county borders would have helped showcase the blue lines and thus trade flows a little bit better. After all, the problem is especially  noticeable in the eastern half of the United States where we have much geographically smaller counties.

Hat tip to friend and former colleague Michael Schaefer for sharing the article in question.

Credit for the piece goes to Megan Konar et al.

Casual Fails?

In a recent Washington Post piece, I came across a graphic style that I am not sure I can embrace. The article looked at the political trifecta at state levels, i.e. single political party control over the government (executive, lower legislative chamber, and upper legislative chamber). As a side note, I do like how they excluded Nebraska because of its unicameral legislature. It’s also theoretically non-partisan (though everybody knows who belongs to which party, so you could argue it’s as partisan as any other legislature).

At the outset, the piece uses a really nice stacked bar chart. It shows how control over the levers of state government have ebbed and flowed.

You can pretty easily spot the recent political eras by the big shifts in power.
You can pretty easily spot the recent political eras by the big shifts in power.

It also uses little black lines with almost cartoonish arrowheads to point to particular years. The annotations are themselves important to the context—pointing out the various swing years. But from an aesthetic standpoint, I have to wonder if the casualness of the marks detracts from the seriousness of the content.

Sometimes the whimsical works. Pie charts about pizza pies or pie toppings can be whimsical. A graphic about political control over government is a different subject matter. Bloomberg used to tackle annotations with a subtler and more serious, but still rounded curve type of approach. Notably, however, Bloomberg at that time went for an against the grain, design forward, stoic business serious second approach.

Then we get to a choropleth map. It shows the current state of control for each state.

X marks the spot?

X marks the spot?However, here the indicator for recent party switches is a set of x’s. These have the same casual approach as the arrows above. But in this case, a careful examination of the x’s indicates they are not unique, like a person drawing a curve with a pen tool. Instead these come from a pre-determined set as the x’s share the exact same shape, stroke lengths and directions.

In years past we probably would have seen the indicator represented by an outline of the state border or a pattern cross-hatching. After all, with the purple being lighter than the blue, the x’s appear more clearly against purple states than blue. I have to admit I did not see New Jersey at first.

Of course, in an ideal world, a box map would probably be clearer still. But the curious part is that the very next map does a great job of focusing the user’s attention on the datapoint that matters: states set for potential changes next November.

Pennsylvania is among the states…
Pennsylvania is among the states…

Here the states of little interest are greyed out. The designers use colour to display the current status of the potential trifecta states. And so I am left curious why the designers did not choose to take a similar approach with the remaining graphics in the piece.

Overall, I should say the piece is strong. The graphics generally work very well. My quibbles are with the aesthetic stylings, which seem out of place for a straight news article. Something like this could work for an opinion piece or for a different subject matter. But for politics it just struck a loud dissonant chord when I first read the piece.

Credit for the piece goes to Kate Rabinowitz and Ashlyn Still.

Revenge of the Flyover States

Just before Halloween, NBC News published an article by political analyst David Wasserman that examined what airports could portend about the 2020 American presidential election. For those interested in politics and the forthcoming election, the article is well worth the read.

The tldr; Democrats have been great at winning over cosmopolitan types in global metropolitan areas in the big blue states, e.g. New York and California. But the election will be won in the states where the metropolitan areas that sport regional airports dominate, i.e. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. And in those districts, support for Democrats is waning.

The closing line of the piece sums it up nicely:

…to beat Trump, Democrats will need to ask themselves which candidates’ proposals will fly in Erie, Saginaw and Green Bay.

But what about the graphics?

We have a line chart that shows how support for Democrats has been increasing amongst those in the global and international airport metros.

Democrats aren't performing well with the non-global and international types of metros
Democrats aren’t performing well with the non-global and international types of metros

It uses four colours and I don’t necessarily love that. However, it smartly ties into an earlier graphic that did require each series to be visualised in a different colour. And so here the consistency wins out and carries on through the piece. (Though as a minor quibble I would have outlined the MSA being labelled instead of placing a dot atop the MSA.)

A lot of these global metros are in already blue states
A lot of these global metros are in already blue states

The kicker, however is one of those maps with trend arrows. It shows the increasing Republican support by an arrow anchored over the metropolitan area.

Lot of Trump support in the battleground states
Lot of Trump support in the battleground states

The problem here is many-fold. First, the map is actually quite small in the overall piece. Whereas the earlier maps sit centred, but outside the main text block, this fits neatly within the narrow column of text (on a laptop display at least). That means that these labels are all crowded and actually make it more difficult to realise which arrow is which city. For example, which line is Canton, Ohio? Additionally with the labels, because they are set in black text and a relatively bolder face, they standout more than the red lines they seek to label. Consequently, the users’ focus falls not on the lines, but actually on the labels—the reverse of what a good graphic should do.

Second, length vs. angle. If all lines moved away from their anchor at the same angle, we could simply measure length and compare the trending support that way. However, it is clear from Duluth and Green Bay that the angles are different in addition to their sizes. So how does one interpret both variables together?

Third, I wonder if the map would not have been made more useful with some outlines or shading. I may know what the forthcoming battleground states are. And I might know where they are on a map. But Americans are notorious for being, well, not great when it comes to geography. A simple black outline of the states could have been useful, though it in this design would have conflicted with the heavy black labelling of the arrows. Or maybe a purple shading could have been used to show those states.

Overall, the piece is well worth a read and the graphics generally help tell the narrative visually. But that final graphic could have used a revision or two.

Credit for the piece goes to Jiachuan Wu and Jeremia Kimelman.

Auto Emissions Stuck in High Gear

The last two days we looked at densification in cities and how the physical size of cities grew in response to the development of transport technologies, most notably the automobile. Today we look at a New York Times article showing the growth of automobile emissions and the problem they pose for combating the greenhouse gas side of climate change.

The article is well worth a read. It shows just how problematic the auto-centric American culture is to the goal of combating climate change. The key paragraph for me occurs towards the end of the article:

Meaningfully lowering emissions from driving requires both technological and behavioral change, said Deb Niemeier, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland. Fundamentally, you need to make vehicles pollute less, make people drive less, or both, she said.

Of course the key to that is probably in the range of both.

The star of the piece is the map showing the carbon dioxide emissions on the roads from passenger and freight traffic. Spoiler: not good.

From this I blame the Schuylkill, Rte 202, the Blue Route, I-95, and just all the highways
From this I blame the Schuylkill, Rte 202, the Blue Route, I-95, and just all the highways

Each MSA is outlined in black and is selectable. The designers chose well by setting the state borders in a light grey to differentiate them from when the MSA crosses state lines, as the Philadelphia one does, encompassing parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. A slight opacity appears when the user mouses over the MSA. Additionally a little box remains up once the MSA is selected to show the region’s key datapoints: the aggregate increase and the per capita increase. Again, for Philly, not good. But it could be worse. Phoenix, which surpassed Philadelphia proper in population, has seen its total emissions grow 291%, its per capita growth at 86%. My only gripe is that I wish I could see the entire US map in one view.

The piece also includes some nice charts showing how automobile emissions compare to other sources. Yet another spoiler: not good.

I've got it: wind-powered cars with solar panels on the bonnet.
I’ve got it: wind-powered cars with solar panels on the bonnet.

Since 1990, automobile emissions have surpassed both industry emissions and more recently electrical generation emissions (think shuttered coal plants). Here what I would have really enjoyed is for the share of auto emissions to be treated like that share of total emissions. That is, the line chart does a great job showing how auto emissions have surpassed all other sources. But the stacked chart does not do as great a job. The user can sort of see how passenger vehicles have plateaued, but have yet to decline whereas lorries have increased in recent years. (I would suspect due to increased deliveries of online-ordered goods, but that is pure speculation.) But a line chart would show that a little bit more clearly.

Finally, we have a larger line chart that plots each city’s emissions. As with the map, the key thing here is the aggregate vs. per capita numbers. When one continues to scroll through, the lines all change.

Lots of people means lots of emissions.
Lots of people means lots of emissions.
There's driving in the Philadelphia area, but it's not as bad as it could be.
There’s driving in the Philadelphia area, but it’s not as bad as it could be.

Very quickly one can see how large cities like New York have large aggregate emissions because millions of people live there. But then at a per capita level, the less dense, more sprawl-y cities tend to shoot up the list as they are generally more car dependent.

Credit for the piece goes to Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu.

Different Paths to Density

Yesterday we looked at the expansion of city footprints by sprawl, in modern years largely thanks to the automobile. Today, I want to go back to another article I’ve been saving for a wee bit. This one comes from the Economist, though it dates only back to the beginning of October.

This article looks at the different ways a city can achieve density. Usually one things of soaring skyscrapers, but there are other paths. For those interested, the article is a short read and I won’t cover it here. But for the sake of the graphic below, there are three basic paths: coverage, height, and crowding. Or to put in other terms, how much of the city is covered by homes, how tall those homes go, and how many people fit into each home.

Reticulating splines
Reticulating splines

I really like this graphic. It does a great job of using small multiples to compare and contrast three cities that exemplify the different paths. Notably, it keeps each city footprint at the same scale, making it easier to see things such as why Hong Kong builds skyward. Because it has little land. (It is, after all, an island and the tip of a peninsula.)

One area where I wish the graphic had kept to the small multiples is its display of Minneapolis. There, the scale shifts (note the lines for 5 km below vs. Minneapolis’ 10 km). I think I understand why, because the sprawling city would not have fit within the confines of the graphic, but that would have also hammered home the point of sprawl.

I should also point out that the article begins with a graphic I chose not to screenshot, but that I also really enjoy. It uses small multiples to compare cities density over time, running population on the x-axis and people per hectare on the y-. It is not a perfect graphic (it uses I think unnecessary arrowheads at the end of the line), but scatter plots over time are, I think, an underused graphic to show how two variables (ideally related) have moved in tandem over time.

Overall, this is a strong piece from the Economist.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist graphics department.

Mapping the Growth of Cities

This is an older piece from back in August, but I was waiting for a time when I would have some related articles to post alongside it. To start off the series of posts, we start with this piece from CityLab. As my titles implies, it looks at the growth of cities, but not in terms of people or technology but in terms of area/land.

The basic premise is that people look for a 30-minute commute and have done so throughout history. To make that point, the authors look at how transport technology evolved to enable people to live and work at further distances from each other, expanding the urban core.

The designer then chose to overlay the city limits of several cities largely defined by these technologies atop each other.

From small, compact, and dense to large, sprawling, and fluffy.
From small, compact, and dense to large, sprawling, and fluffy.

Conceptually the graphic works really well. The screenshot is of an animated. gif leading into the article that step-by-step reveals each city. However, throughout the article, each de facto section is introduced by a city outline graphic.

The graphic does a really nice job of showing how as technology allowed us to move faster, people chose to be further removed from the city core. Of course there are often multiple factors in why people may move out of the core, but transport certainly facilitates it.

Credit for the piece goes to David Montgomery.

How Worldly Is the World Series?

The World Series began Tuesday night. But, as many people reading this blog will know, baseball is not exactly a global sport. But is it really? CityLab looked at the origin of Major League Baseball players and it turns out that almost 30% of the players today are from outside the United States. They have a number of charts and graphics that explore the places of birth of ball players. But one of the things I learned is just how many players hail from the Dominican Republic—since 2000, 12% of all players.

There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.
There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.

The choropleth here is an interesting choice. It’s a default choice, so I understand it. But when so many countries that are being highlighted are small islands in the Caribbean, a geographically accurate map might not be the ideal choice. Really, this map highlights from just how few countries MLB ball players originate.

Fortunately the other graphics work really well. We get bar charts about which cities provide MLB rosters. But the one I really enjoy is where they account for the overall size of cities and see which cities, for every 100,000 people, provide the most ballplayers.

One of the other things I want to pick on, however, is the inclusion of Puerto Rico. In the dataset, the designers included it as a foreign country. When, you know, it’s part of the United States.

Credit for the piece goes to David H. Montgomery.

Where Is That Pesky Mason–Dixon Line?

It’s no big secret that genealogy and family history are two of my big interests and hobbies. Consequently, on rainy days I sometimes like to enjoy an episode or two of Who Do You Think You Are (I prefer the UK version, but the American one will do too) or Finding Your Roots. So I decided to watch one last night about Megan Mullally of Will & Grace fame. Long story short, her family has a connection to Philadelphia (only one block away from where I presently live) and so I paid a bit of attention to the map.

Now, DRM prevented me from taking a straight screenshot, so this is a photo of a screen—my apologies. But there is something to point out.

Mason and Dixon would be disappointed
Mason and Dixon would be disappointed

The borders are wrong. So I made a quick annotation pointing out the highlights as it relates to Pennsylvania.

So many mistakes…
So many mistakes…

Credit for the piece goes to the Who Do You Think You Are graphics department.

The annotations are mine, though as for their geographic accuracy, they are approximate. I mean after all, I’m using Photoshop to put lines on a photograph of a laptop screen.

Leaf Peeping

Autumn arrived this week in Philadelphia. And with the cooler weather came blustery winds blowing yellowing leaves from city trees. The yellows and reds of trees beneath blue skies makes for some great photography. But what is really going on? Thankfully, the Washington Post published an article exploring where and why the leaves change colour (or don’t).

The star of the piece is the large map of the United States that shows the dominant colours of forests.

All the colours
All the colours

Little illustrations and annotations dot the map showing how particular trees (whose leaf shapes are shown) turn particular colours. The text in the piece elaborates on that and explains what is going on with pigments in the leaves. It adds to that how weather can impact the colour change.

Later on in the piece, a select set of photos for specific locations show at a more micro-level, how and where leaf colours change.

Overall, a solid piece for those of you who enjoy leaf peeping to read before this weekend.

Credit for the piece goes to Lauren Tierney and Joe Fox.