Troop Levels in Iraq

A few days ago, President Obama announced that all but perhaps 150 US troops in Iraq would be home before 1 Jan 2012. While the mission may have been accomplished over 8 years ago, we are finally seeing an end to the Iraq War.

Both the BBC and the New York Times created charts to show the strength of US forces in Iraq since the start of the war up until the end—the New York Times also compares these to troop levels in Afghanistan where we have a new ‘surge’ of troops.

The two are slightly different. The first from the New York Times is an interactive piece that allows you to mouse over each bar and access the actual number of troops present in Iraq that month. The bars are spaced tightly together with only the necessary gap to break apart years and provide the vertical scale.

New York Times chart
New York Times chart

The BBC piece is a static image with no interaction. I do not care for the clustering of years, it breaks the visual rhythm of the piece and interrupts the story. I think in the design of the piece that the New York Times has the better and more effective chart. However, where the BBC truly succeeds is in offering bits of explanation for changes in the chart.

BBC chart
BBC chart

One might think that the war lasted several years with periods of great battles and great troop losses because the  number of soldiers stays roughly at 140 thousand. But the text lets us know otherwise. The first is obvious, the war begins. But it progresses to things like the declaring of mission accomplished, the surge, and when US troops left Iraqi cities.

These are not difficult pieces of analysis, nor do they require much investigatory journalism, but they provide the context that allows the chart to tell the story in its numbers.

Oh Great Gatsby

Income inequality basically means that the wealth of a country, in this case, is unevenly distributed with most of it falling in the hands of a very few people or families. Think the era of, as the title alludes to, Gatsby and the 1920s before the Crash.

Broadly speaking, a middle class requires a more dilute concentration of wealth, and as this graphic from the New York Times shows, we are seeing—Great Recession aside—the growing wealth of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the country. Look at, for example, the 1950s, 60s, and 70s when the highest income bracket had its marginal tax rate in the 70% range. The top 1% owned only about 10% of the wealth. Just before the subprime crisis hit, that number was just under 25%.

Ownership of US wealth for the top 1%
Ownership of US wealth for the top 1%

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

Show Me the Money

Campaign finance is always an interesting subject during election cycles. I believe I have heard that once a congressman wins election he needs to raise $1000 per week to stand a chance of re-election in two years’ time. One need only imagine the difference in scale for presidential contests.

Or do you…

Show Me the Money
Show Me the Money

The New York Times created an interactive piece that details the financing, principally of this year’s primary campaigns, but alongside data from four years ago. Inflation hasn’t been too terrible, so the numbers are relatively comparable.

Of some note, however, is that this time around this is not an ‘open’ election. In 2008 the sitting president was term-limited and his vice president was not running so both the Republicans and Democrats were open contests for any challenger to win. In 2012, President Obama will not (likely) have to fight other Democrats for the nomination of his party and his funding can be marshalled solely against his Republican challengers. Whereas the Republican challengers need to spend considerable amounts of their funding simply to get through the primaries.

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…

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.

Farewell to the Space Shuttle

As most of us know, the final space shuttle mission lifted off on Friday. Appropriately, the New York Times created an infographic for the news stories accompanying the mission that details the history of the entire shuttle program’s flights. If you are a space-y kind of guy like me, it’s worth a look.

shuttles

The West Bank Archipelago

This post is about an older work from Le Monde, the link to which I now forget. However, given all the talk these days about Israel and Palestine and 1967 borders, I figured it may well be advantageous to remind all that the borders likely will not be those of 1967, for the sheer fact that Israel has divided the West Bank between security zones and settlements. The end result is that the Palestinian areas of the West Bank now resemble more an archipelago nation better suited for the islands of Indonesia or the Caribbean rather than the desert of the Middle East.

This link takes you to a New York Times blog post about the land problem and includes the map, which one can see at a reduced scale down in the article.

Detail of the map
Detail of the map

Credit for the original goes to Julien Bousac of Le Monde.