Axis Lines in Charts

The British election campaign is wrapping up as it heads towards the general election on Thursday. I haven’t covered it much here, but this piece from the BBC has been at the back of my mind. And not so much for the content, but strictly the design.

In terms of content, the article stems from a question asked in a debate about income levels and where they fall relative to the rest of the population. A man rejected a Labour party proposal for an increase in taxes on those earning more than £80,000 per annum, saying that as someone who earned more than that amount he was “not even in the top 5%, not even the top 50”.

The BBC looked at the data and found that actually the man was certainly within the top 50% and likely in the top 5%, as they earn more than £75,300 per annum. Here in the States, many Americans cannot place their incomes within the actual spreads of income. The income gap here is severe and growing.  But, I want to look at the charts the BBC made to illustrate its points.

The most important is this line chart, which shows the income level and how it fits among the percentages of the population.

Are things lining up? It's tough to say.
Are things lining up? It’s tough to say.

I am often in favour of minimal axis lines and labelling. Too many labels and explicit data points begin to subtract from the visual representation or comparison of the data. If you need to be able to reference a specific data point for a specific point on the curve, you need a table, not a chart.

However, there is utility in having some guideposts as to what income levels fit into what ranges. And so I am left to wonder, why not add some axis lines. Here I took the original graphic file and drew some grey lines.

Better…
Better…

Of course, I prefer the dotted or dashed line approach. The difference in line style provides some additional contrast to the plotted series. And in this case, where the series is a thin but coloured line, the interruptions in the solidity of the axis lines makes it easier to distinguish them from the data.

Better still.
Better still.

But the article also has another chart, a bar chart, that looks at average weekly incomes across different regions of the United Kingdom. (Not surprisingly, London has the highest average.) Like the line chart, this bar chart does not use any axis labels. But what makes this one even more difficult is that the solid black line that we can use in the line charts above to plot out the maximum for 180,000 is not there. Instead we simply have a string of numbers at the bottom for which we need to guess where they fall.

Here we don't even a solid line to take us out to 700.
Here we don’t even a solid line to take us out to 700.

If we assume that the 700 value is at the centre of the text, we can draw some dotted grey lines atop the existing graphic. And now quite clearly we can get a better sense of which regions fall in which ranges of income.

We could have also tried the solid line approach.
We could have also tried the solid line approach.

But we still have this mess of black digits at the bottom of the graphic. And after 50, the numbers begin to run into each other. It is implied that we are looking at increments of 50, but a little more spacing would have helped. Or, we could simply keep the values at the hundreds and, if necessary, not label the lines at the 50s. Like so.

Much easier to read
Much easier to read

The last bit I would redo in the bar chart is the order of the regions. Unless there is some particular reason for ordering these regions as they are—you could partly argue they are from north to south, but then Scotland would be at the top of the list—they appear an arbitrary lot. I would have sorted them maybe from greatest to least or vice versa. But that bit was outside my ability to do this morning.

So in short, while you don’t want to overcrowd a chart with axis lines and labelling, you still need a few to make it easier for the user to make those visual comparisons.

Credit for the original pieces goes to the BBC graphics department.

From Order to Chaos?

A few weeks ago we said farewell to John Bercow as Speaker of the House (UK). Whilst I covered the election for the new speaker, I missed the opportunity to post this piece from the BBC. It looked at Bercow’s time in office from a data perspective.

The piece did not look at him per se, but that era for the House of Commons. The graphic below was a look at what constituted debates in the chamber using words in speeches as a proxy. Shockingly, Brexit has consumed the House over the last few years.

At least climate change has also ticked upwards?
At least climate change has also ticked upwards?

I love the graphic, as it uses small multiples and fixes the axes for each row and column. It is clean, clear, and concise—just what a graphic should be.

And the rest of the piece makes smart use of graphical forms. Mostly. Smart line charts with background shading, some bar charts, and the only questionable one is where it uses emoji handclaps to represent instances of people clapping the chamber—not traditionally a thing that  happens.

Content wise it also nailed a few important things, chiefly Bercow’s penchant for big words. The piece did not, however, cover his amazing sense of sartorial style vis-a-vis neckties.

Overall a solid piece with which to begin the weekend.

Credit for the piece goes to Ed Lowther & Will Dahlgreen.

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.

The Shifting Suburbs

Last we looked at the revenge of the flyover states, the idea that smaller cities in swing states are trending Republican and defeating the growing Democratic majority in big cities. This week I want to take a look at something a few weeks back, a piece from CityLab about the elections in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

There’s nothing radical in this piece. Instead, it’s some solid uses of line charts and bar charts (though I still don’t generally love them stacked). The big flashy graphic was this, a map of Virginia’s state legislative districts, but mapped not by party but by population density.

Democrats now control a majority of these seats.
Democrats now control a majority of these seats.

It classified districts by how how urban, suburban, or rural (or parts thereof) each district was. Of course the premise of the article is that the suburbs are becoming increasingly Democratic and rural areas increasingly Republican.

But it all goes to show that 2020 is going to be a very polarised year.

Credit for the piece goes to David Montgomery.

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.

Hoyle’s House

John Bercow is no longer the British Speaker of the House. He left office Thursday. Fun fact: it is illegal for an MP to resign. Instead they are appointed to a royal office, in Bercow’s case the Royal Steward of the Manor of Northstead, that precludes them from being an elected MP. Consequently the House of Commons then had to elect a new Speaker.

For my American audience, despite the same title as Nancy Pelosi, John Bercow had a very different function and came to it in a very different fashion. First, the position is politically neutral. Whoever the House elects resigns from his or her party (along with his or her three deputies) and the political parties abide by a gentlemen’s agreement not to contest the seat in general elections. (The Tories were so displeased with Bercow they were actually contemplating running somebody in the now 12 December election to get rid of him.) Consequently, the Speaker (and his or her deputies) do note vote unless there is a tie. (Bercow actually cast the first deciding vote by a speaker since 1980 back in April.)

Because the position is politically neutral, all MPs vote in the election and debate is chaired by the Father of the House, the longest continuously serving MP in the House. Today that was Ken Clarke, one of the 21 MPs Boris Johnson booted from the Tory party for voting down his No Deal Brexit and who is not standing in the upcoming election. The candidates for Speaker must receive the vote of 50% of the House. And so they are eliminated in successive votes until someone reaches 50% of the total votes cast, though not all MPs cast votes, since some have already started campaigning. (Today there were 562, 575, 565, 540 votes per round.)

Notably, today’s vote occurs just days before Parliament dissolves prior to the 12 December election. Bercow, who chose to retire on 31 October, essentially ensured that the next Parliament will have a Speaker not chosen what could well likely be a pro-No Deal Brexit, one of the things which the Tories have against him.

So all that said, who won? Well I made a graphic for that.

A very different accent will occupy the big green chair.
A very different accent will occupy the big green chair.

Credit for the piece goes to me.

Canadian Election Results

Yesterday Canada went to the polls for the 43rd time. Their prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has had a bad run of it the last year or so. He’s had some frivolous scandals with wearing questionable fashion choices to some more serious scandals about how he chose to colour his face in his youth to arguably the most serious scandal where an investigation concluded improperly attempted to influence a criminal investigation for political gain. (Sound familiar, American readers?) Consequently, there was some chatter about whether he would lose to the Conservatives.

But nope, Trudeau held on.

So this morning I charted some of the results. It was a bad night for Trudeau, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. He remains in power, albeit head of a minority government.

That's a steep drop in seats, but it could have been worse
That’s a steep drop in seats, but it could have been worse

Credit for the piece goes to me.

Brexit Trilemma Update

This week is the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester where the Tories unveil their government programmes and platforms. Naturally it has been overshadowed by allegations that Boris Johnson groped one (maybe two) reporters at a dinner in 1999. Just prior to that scandal, however, there was another. In this, Johnson was allegedly having an affair with an American businesswoman for whom he then arranged lucrative business deals whilst in office as the Mayor of London. Johnson has been referred to a police unit for further investigation in that matter. Sounds like some, you might say, golden parallels to…someone or something.

But today’s big news about the government’s plans is that they might have one regarding Brexit. And that plan is to essentially create a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, violating certainly the spirit if not the letter of the Good Friday Agreement that brought the end to the Troubles.

Why is this a big deal? Well, one, remember all the debates during the Brexit Referendum campaign about the Irish border, how the different groups had different solutions to this fundamental problem?

Oh wait, yeah, nobody ever brought this up. Sorry.

So back to my trilemma graphic. I’ve updated it to show which two sides of the triangle Boris Johnson seems to be choosing. To be fair, as I’ve said many times, the UK cannot have all three points of the triangle. They need to pick two. And so, unlike Theresa May, Johnson is at least picking two. My problem is that this was never discussed during the Brexit debates and it seems a rather drastic decision to not have it be confirmed by the people since they never explicitly voted on it.

You may not like it, but at least Johnson is picking sides…
You may not like it, but at least Johnson is picking sides…

Credit for the graphic is mine.

Brexit Crazyness Continues

The British Supreme Court ruled today that Boris Johnson unlawfully advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament. And because the advice was unlawful, the act was therefore unlawful. And because the act was unlawful, the effects of said act were unlawful. And because the effects were unlawful, said effects are null and void. So, you know, prorogation never happened.

So the Prime Minister has misled the Queen. He has failed to pass all but one bill in Parliament (it was a bill for the restoration of the Palace of Westminster totally unrelated to Brexit). He lost three seats, one via a by-election and two by defecting MPs. And then he purged 21 MPs from his party to completely obliterate his working majority. In any other year, this would be cause for the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister. Instead he is sticking around in New York to give a speech about, what else, Brexit, before flying back to London tonight (Eastern US time).

So what’s next? Who really knows. This has never before happened in the history of the United Kingdom. But one possible option is that the opposition parties may hold a no confidence vote. But there will be significant pressure against that, because, as my graphic shows, any election that would likely result, would mean Brexit happening with Parliament dissolved. And that would, ahem, defeat the entire purpose of preventing a No Deal Brexit. Consequently, a no confidence vote or general election is unlikely. (Unless, the opposition and Tory rebels can agree to a non-Jeremy Corbyn caretake prime minister, e.g. Ken Clarke or Margaret Beckett.)

Omnishambles. Even Iannucci couldn't have made this stuff up.
Omnishambles. Even Iannucci couldn’t have made this stuff up.

Regardless, get ready for a crazy day of Parliamentary procedure tomorrow.

Prorogation of Parliament

If you’re among my British/European audience, you are probably well aware Boris Johnson has prorogued, or suspended, Parliament. He and cabinet ministers stated it was a normal, average-length prorogation to prepare for a Queen’s Speech. (The Queen’s Speech is the formal opening of a new session of Parliament that sets out a new legislative agenda and formally closes/kills any unpassed legislation from the old session.) Except that in documents revealed in a Scottish court case, we now know that the real reason was to shut down Parliament to prevent it from interfering in Boris’ plans for a No Deal Brexit. And just this morning the Scottish High Court did indeed rule that the prorogation is illegal. The case now moves to the UK Supreme Court.

But I want to focus on the other claim, that this is a prorogation of average length. Thankfully instead of having to do a week’s hard slog of data, the House of Lords Library posted the data for me. At least since 1900, and that works well enough for me. And so here we go.

Back to the 1930s?
Back to the 1930s?

So yeah, this is not an average prorogument. If you look at only proroguments that do not precede a general election—you need time for the campaigning and then hosting the actual election in those cases—this is the longest prorogument since 1930. (Also, a Parliament does not necessarily need to be prorogued before it is dissolved before an election. And that happened quite often in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.)

And as I point out in the graphic, Parliament was prorogued during the depths of World War II to start new legislative sessions. But in those cases, Parliament opened the very next day, during a time of national crisis. One could certainly make the argument that Brexit is a national crisis. So wherefore the extraordinarily long prorogument? Well, quite simply, Brexit.

Credit for the piece goes to me.