Follow the State’s Money

In politics, it is really easy and often popular to bash the federal government. Especially when it comes to its penchant for collecting taxes to pay for things. And sometimes those things are in other states than your own. But do you know how much federal money goes back to your own state? Well now you can thank the Pew Charitable Trusts for putting together this piece that explores what percentage of state budgets is comprised of federal grant money.

Federal money for state budgets
Federal money for state budgets

While the piece also includes a donut chart—because why not?—my biggest gripe is with the choropleth and the choice of colour for the bins. If you look carefully at the legend, you will see how both the lowest and highest bins use a shade of blue. That means blue represents states that receive less than 25% of their budget from federal grants and also states that receive more than 40% of their budget from the same federal grants. But if your state is between 25% and 40%, your state suddenly turns a shade of green. It really makes no sense. I think the same colour, either blue or green, could be used for the entire spectrum. Or, if the designers really wanted a divergent scheme, they could have used the national average and used that as the breakpoint to show which states are above and which are below said average.

Credit for the piece goes to the Pew Charitable Trusts graphics department.

The Price of Petrol

How much does a gallon of milk cost? That, of course, is one of the classic election questions asked of candidates to see how in touch they are with the common man. But the same can be understood by enquiring whether or not they know how much a gallon of petrol or gasoline costs. And Bloomberg asked that very same question of the United States relative to the rest of the world. And as it turns out, here in the States, fueling our automobiles is, broadly speaking, not as painful as it would be in other countries.

The piece includes the below dot plot, where different countries are plotted on the three different metrics and the dots are colour coded by the country’s geographic region. But as is usually the case with data on geographies, the question of geographic pattern arises. And so the same three metrics presented in the dot plot are also presented on a geographic map. Those three maps are toggled on/off by buttons above the map.

How the US ranks compared to the rest of the world
How the US ranks compared to the rest of the world

A really nice touch that makes the piece applicable to an audience broader than the United States is the three controls in the upper-right of the dot plot. They allow you to control the date, but more importantly the currency and the volume. For most of the world, petrol is priced in litres in local currencies. And the piece allows the user to switch between gallons and litres and from US dollars to the koruna of the Czech Republic.

Credit for the piece goes to Tom Randall, Alex McIntyre, and Jeremy Scott Diamond.

The Shrinking Extent of ISIS

Yes, ISIS does receive a lot of attention in the media and during the presidential debates. But you might be surprised to learn that actually the organisation has lost a significant amount of territory lately. This BBC article details the territorial changes through a nice interactive map slider.

Use the scroller to see the changes over time
Use the scroller to see the changes over time

You could create a single map showing the losses/gains instead of using this light-duty interactive piece. And to the BBC’s credit they did. However, between the image quality and territorial changes, I think in this instance the interactive piece does add clarity to the story.

All in one map
All in one map

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Gerrymandered Districts

Well last night was the debate and it was a doozy. But while I was looking for some graphics capturing the debate itself, I came upon an article over on the Washington Post about gerrymandering. For those that do not know, gerrymandering is when state-level politicians draw the maps for congressional districts to preserve or diminish support for various representatives. And Pennsylvania is one of those states with a lot of oddly shaped districts.

Comparing a gerrymandered Pennsylvania to a not-so-much option
Comparing a gerrymandered Pennsylvania to a not-so-much option

Credit for the piece goes to the Washington Post graphics department.

Hurricane Forecast Maps

In moving back to Philadelphia from Chicago, I have forsaken polar vortices for hurricanes and nor’easters. And this current weekend, it appears increasingly likely that the weather will be impacted by Hurricane Matthew, presently tearing its way through the Caribbean. So of course I am following projections and forecasts of just where this storm will be headed.

Thankfully Mashable has an article that attempts to explain just what the National Hurricane Center (NHC) means when it publishes its cone of uncertainty charts. Because, according to the article, it turns out most people do not entirely understand just what it means.

Clearly light sprinkles are forecast within the cone
Clearly light sprinkles are forecast within the cone

Credit for the piece goes to the National Hurricane Center.

Raining Maps Monday

One of the things I like about Chicago’s WGN network is its weather blog. They often include infographic-like content to explain weather trends or stories. But as someone working in the same field of data visualisation and information design, I sometimes find myself truly confused. That happened with this piece last Friday.

Pay attention to the map in the upper-right
Pay attention to the map in the upper-right

The map in the upper-right in particular caught my attention and not in the good way. The overall piece discusses the heavy rainfall in the Chicago area on Thursday and the map looks at the percentage increase in extreme weather rainfall precipitation. All so far so good. But then I look at the map itself. I see blue and thing blue > water > rainfall. The darker/more the blue, the greater the increase. But, no—check out Hawaii. So blue means less rainfall. But also no, look at the Midwest and Southeast. So does green mean anything? Beyond being all positive growth, not that I can tell. As best I can tell, the colour means nothing in terms of rainfall data, but instead delineates the regions of the United States—noting of course they are not the standard US Census Bureau regions.

So here is my quick stab at trying to create a map that explains the percentage growth. I have included a version with and without state borders to help readers distinguish between states and regions.

My take on the map
My take on the map

And what is that at the bottom? A bar chart of course. After all, with only eight regions, is a map truly necessary especially when shown at such an aggregate level? You can make the argument that the extreme rainfall has, broadly speaking, benefitted the eastern half of the United States. But, personally speaking, I would prefer a map for a more granular set of data at the state or municipality level.

Credit for the piece goes to Jennifer Kohnke and Drew Narsutis.

Airplanes in Hangars

Today’s post features a simple set of graphics on the BBC, however the creators were actually the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The background? The increasingly tense geopolitical situation in the South China Sea, where China claims numerous islands and reefs claimed by other countries—and to a smaller extent other countries make similar such claims. Just a few weeks back, the Hague ruled against Chinese claims against islands within the Philippines territorial waters. But as these graphics show, it takes more than a legal decision to effect change on the ground.

Satellite photography shows military installations on numerous Chinese-held islands. But what makes the images potent in the communicative sense is the simple overlay of white plane illustrations. They show how many fighter jets, support aircraft, patrol aircraft, &c. that China can base at the various military installations. It is a simple but incredibly effective touch.

Fiery Cross Reef
Fiery Cross Reef

Credit for the piece goes to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

Where do Philly’s Cops Live?

I am on holiday for a few days and am visiting Philadelphia. So what better time to cover some Philadelphia-made content? This interactive piece came out last year from Philly.com alongside coverage of the Philadelphia mayoral contest.

Where the cops live
Where the cops live

I want to call out the colour palette for the choropleth in particular. We can see a blue to red system with a stop at yellow in the middle—a divergent palette. With this kind of a setup, I would expect that yellow or the light blue to be zero or otherwise straddle the point of divergence. Instead we have dark blue meaning 0 and dark red meaning 401+. The palette confuses me. It could be that the point of divergence—something around the 200 number—could be significant. It could be the city average, an agreed upon number for good neighbourhood relations, or something. But there is no indication of that in the graphic.

Secondly the colour choice itself. I often hesitate using red (and green) because of the often-made Western connotation with bad. Blue here, it works very well with the concept of the thin blue line, NYPD blue, blue-shirted police. If we assume that there is a rationale for the divergent palette, I would probably place the blue on the high-end of the spectrum and a different colour at the negative end.

Lastly, from the perspective of the layout, Philly has a weird shape. And so that means between the bar chart to the right and the city map on the left the piece contains an awkward negative space. The map could be adjusted to make better use of the space by pointing north somewhere other than up.—why is north up?—to align the Delaware River with the bars. Or, the bars could abut West Philly.

The interactions, however, are very smooth. And a nice subtle touch that orients the reader without distracting them is the inclusion of the main roads, e.g. Broad Street. The white lines are sufficiently thin to not distract from the overall piece.

Credit for the piece goes to Olivia Hall.

President Bloomberg?

I am not watching the conventions for the first time I can recall, because no cable television. But, I am occasionally dipping into live feed coverage. And while Michael Bloomberg spoke FiveThirtyEight linked to a few pieces of content they published earlier. I covered one about candidates abandoning the middle ground earlier. But this one I had skipped. It looked at the possibility of Michael Bloomberg stepping into the White House as president.

If Bloomberg ran, Election Night 2016
If Bloomberg ran, Election Night 2016

Credit for the piece goes to the FiveThirtyEight graphics department.

Critiquing Brexit Results Designs: Part 2

So now it is two weeks since the Brexit vote. Yesterday, I looked at the results designs from the New York Times. Today I want to take a look at those of the BBC. Not surprisingly the two share in the use of choropleth maps; the choice makes a lot of sense. People vote within districts and those form the most granular unit of data available. But, whereas the New York Times led and really focused on one giant map, the BBC opted to use multiple, smaller maps. (They did choose a different page for their live results, but we are comparing post-result coverage.) For example, their piece leads in with a map of Leave’s results share.

Leave's share
Leave’s share

There are a few key differences between this and the New York Times. First and foremost, this map is interactive. Mousing over various districts provides you the name, and by clicking you move into a zoomed-in view of the district. It displays the district name, the vote totals and share for the two camps, and then voter turnout. From a design standpoint, the problem with the zooming in is that the scales of the outlining stroke does not change.

Zoomed in, looking at central London
Zoomed in, looking at central London

A thin stroke at the national, zoomed-out view, translates to a thick, clunky, and awkward-looking outline at the local, zoomed-in view. And as the above screenshot highlights, many of the urban districts are small in comparison to the more rural districts. Unfortunately the map does not offer the functionality of zooming-in prior to selecting a district. So many of the districts in the more urban areas like London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Belfast are difficult to see and select. Thankfully, below the map the BBC offers a function to type in your district, post code, or Northern Irish constituency to help you find smaller districts.

Another design criticism I have with the piece is the colour palette. Broadly speaking, the piece uses blue and yellow. The two colours make sense in a few ways. Both are present on the European Union flag, with yellow stars on a blue field. (Importantly the twelve stars do not represent EU members like the US flag’s fifty stars represent the states.) Another, far looser interpretation could be the blue of the Conservatives and the yellow closer to the gold of the UK’s Liberal Democrats, the former broadly anti-EU and the latter pro-EU. Regardless of the rationale, the choice of yellow to display multiple levels of data is less than stellar (pun intended), as this Remain share map highlights.

Remain's share
Remain’s share

Having multiple tints and shades of yellow makes the map difficult to read. The lowest value yellow is brighter than the next higher level, and so stands out more vividly on the map than those districts that had a higher share of Remain votes. Using yellow against blue does work, especially in the bar charts throughout the piece and seen in the aforementioned Islington screenshot. But, as a colour for wider, more intense use, yellow was not the wisest decision.

The BBC also included several other choropleth maps exploring the vote breakdown. In this instance of voter turnout, we have the same choropleth map, but a green colour indicating the total vote turnout.

Voter turnout
Voter turnout

The colour and its choice makes broad sense; green is what one gets when they mix yellow and blue, when you combine Remain and Leave. However, the map functionality of clicking to reveal results still shows the overall results.

Should the vote results be given the highest priority?
Should the vote results be given the highest priority?

At this point, we have moved on from the vote results themselves to the breakdown of the vote. I would have redesigned the mouse-click to display a results view that highlighted turnout over the results themselves. Certainly keeping the results is important, but the focus of this map is not the vote, but the turnout. The data display should be designed to keep that consistent.

One part of the piece where I quibble with the designer selection of chart type follows on from turnout: a comparison of turnout to the youth population.

The turnout vs the youth
The turnout vs the youth

Asking people to compare undistinguished districts on one map to those of another—note the white district lines have here disappeared—is difficult. My first thought: I would have instead opted for an interactive scatterplot. Comparing the turnout on one axis and youth on the other, the user would have an easier time identifying any correlations or clusters of data.

In contrast, the following map comparison would not work via a scatterplot. Here we compare June’s results to those of a vote in 1975. In the intervening years, the geography of the voting districts changed, and so a one-to-one comparison is impossible.

1975 vs. 2016
1975 vs. 2016

The broad scope, however, is clear. A resounding vote to stay part of the European Market or single market in 1975 evolved into a narrow but decisive vote to leave the European Union in 2016.

The piece then closes out with an interactive map of the total results and then, importantly, a long list of bar charts showing each district’s results. Unlike the map, however, the bar charts are a static graphic. And with a few hundred to view, it becomes difficult to isolate and compare two in particular. But the selection of the visualisation type makes a user’s comparison far more precise.

The results as a series of bar charts
The results as a series of bar charts

Overall, I would rate the piece a solid work, but with some clear areas of improvement. And who knows? Maybe there will be a second referendum. Or a new general election. And in that case, the BBC could improve upon the designs herein.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.