Back in the USSR

So, those of you a little bit older than me—not to date myself—probably remember the evil Reds of Soviet Russia. Some my age do as well. Younger than me, it’s probably all ancient history. And so for those of you who forget, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, if I am to simplify, a Russian empire that featured a centralised, command and control economy and a dictatorial government. In 1991, the empire fell apart for a number of reasons and became 15 independent countries, Russia still being the largest. And a lot has happened in the twenty years between 1991 and 2011.

Twenty years being a long time, the BBC has remembered the event by creating a relatively simple piece that compares the fates of the various countries in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s breakup. One takes one drop-down list and selects a country and then another country from the other list. And in the centre one can control whether the comparison is of wealth (GDP), health (life expectancy), or leadership (no. of times the presidency has changed hands).

Comparing Russia to the Ukraine
Comparing Russia to the Ukraine

I have an issue with some of the metrics and whether they are the best suited to describe the wealth, health, and democracy of the former Soviet republics. But, I think the strength really is not so much the charts but the brief summaries for each country that try to capture the story of the past two decades.

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.

Everybody Wants to Rule the (Top of the) World

To the victors go the spoils of war. Often unheralded of course is the spoil of drawing the new map. But, in and among the Himalayas, the territory of Jammu and Kashmir is yet to be won decisively by any side. Look at 1947, 1965, and 1999, we still have the territory contested and different parts controlled by different countries.

The current boundaries in Kashmir
The current boundaries in Kashmir

The Economist, noting the potential flashpoint, created an interactive map to highlight the region and the situation, wherein one can view the different claims and how they overlap. Nothing particularly fancy, but it need not be to clearly communicate the fact that Jammu and Kashmir is mess of the most sovereign order.

However, the interesting bit of the story is how in India the government, which claims the entirety of the territory, censored the print-edition of the Economist wherein the conflicting claims and current lines-of-control were drawn with a sticker because the map was incorrect, to use the BBC’s word, as it showed the region divided between India, Pakistan, and China.

Note here the Pakistani claim versus the Indian claim—I shall leave you, the reader, to investigate the differences between the Chinese claim.

The Pakistani claim
The Pakistani claim
The Indian claim
The Indian claim

Obama and His Irishness

Ireland, the ancestral land of many Americans, can also be claimed by President Obama. His maternal great-great-great-grandfather was a shoemaker. The BBC created this graphic to complement their news article. And I must admit to being quietly amused at the % ‘Irishness’; Approximate label.

The Irishness of Obama
The Irishness of Obama

Finnish Election Results

Finland held an election that was worth watching because of the rise of a nationalist party whose name translates to True Finns. The leader of the True Finns was interviewed and at the end he reassured all watching that they “are not extremists. So you can sleep safely.” For Europe, the issue is their opposition to the bailouts of the various European economies, such as Ireland and Greece. And now that Portugal is in the midst of bailout negotiations, the True Finns could complicate matters if they manage to make it into government.

The Finnish Ministry of Justice released a small, interactive piece detailing the results. The parties are represented by acronyms, with PS for the True Finns. And here one can see that they performed third-best with about 19% of the vote. The True Finns actually beat the Centre Party, which was the leading party in the last coalition government. In short, a remarkable rise whose impact is yet unknown.

Overall Vote in Chart Form
Overall Vote in Chart Form

The interactive piece, however, is a tad confusing. While one story is certainly the improvement of the True Finns from the last election to the current one, does that need to be shown in the default view as we have here? And what I perceive to be shading or some sort of split colouration in the bars lends itself to the idea of having two separate sets of data encoded in the bar. Although I can see no such data and am thus confused.

But, fortunately, one can also change one’s views of the data, from column to bar to table. And I daresay that the table, in this instance, I find best. Not because the data could not be visualised in an interesting, compelling and comprehensible fashion, but because it was not.

Overall Vote in Table Form
Overall Vote in Table Form

Certainly, the election results provide interesting data sets. And in this case we clearly have an interesting story, the rise of the True Finns from a small, rural party of 5 seats in the Finnish parliament (200 total seats) to the third-largest party with 39 seats. Alas, this piece leads does not make it easy to tell that story—let alone the results of the election.

Maps Made by Hand (Or Simulations Thereof)

Le Monde is a French-language publication and so I never really bother with it, despite favourable reviews. However, they do have a small site with some content in the English language that I check from time to time. Frequently they have maps or other graphics of some interest, and this time upon visiting—done to see if they have anything on Libya given the lead taken by France and the UK—they had a few maps of the situation in North Africa.

Political Situation in North Africa and the Middle East
Political Situation in North Africa and the Middle East

By and large, nothing radical or ground-breaking in the maps. But, the designer, Philippe Rekacewicz, used a different cartographic perspective than I am at least accustomed to seeing for infographics. And then the aesthetic of the map is interesting, and quite different than what one typically sees. In a refreshingly interesting way. Now, whether he used a texture or filter in Photoshop to create the background map or whether he physically drew the map (and then overlaid the informational elements digitally), it matters little as the style works. I enjoy the idea of mixing the hand-made and data visualisation—though it needs to be well-executed.

He created a few sets of maps; each makes use of a slightly different palette. These certainly help create the visual distinction necessary between data sets. The pie charts are not particularly helpful, but they at least are kept simple: looking at only two parts of the whole. The comparison within each nation by bar charts of internet connectivity and higher-education learning works. It begins to work not so well as one tries to compare country to country. Though, the separation of the bars into ten-percentage point sub-bars begins to alleviate that issue. The main map, that highlights the political situation does a nice job of putting these countries into broader context. That is, who has oil and who has control over the key waterways in the region.

the three smaller maps
the three smaller maps

All in all, a refreshing set of maps that illustrate the fluid situation in North Africa and the Middle East.

Little Red (or blue or yellow or light-blue) Riding (neighbour-)Hoods

While not new news, if you have not heard, Canada’s minority government fell and Canada is having an election. And, as we all know, elections mean infographic insanity. Map mania. Graphs galore. You get my drift.

The Globe and Mail, a Toronto-based newspaper, printed an infographic about the 50 ridings to watch. (A riding is, for my mostly US-based readers, similar to a congressional district.) They complemented this with an online, interactive piece. They did all of this a few days ago.

the print version
the print version

I have been meaning to write about this for a few days, but am only now sitting down to write it up and an interesting thing has happened. Whereas before, I was able to click the Globe and Mail’s link to their print graphic, now I get directed to their Google map pushpin overlay. Bye-bye, print graphic.

online version
online version

And that is a shame, because, the print graphic is far better than the interactive. Yes, the pushpin can be clicked to read a small snippet of summary about the riding, however, at the same scale of print graphic, good luck finding all the pushpins. And while one can certainly zoom-in to find all the urban ridings, one loses seeing the whole and that riding’s relationship to the rest of Canada. Compare that to the print graphic where equally-sized boxes represent the ridings, and the boxes are spread out across a map of Canada in the background, showing the total apportionment of ridings to the provinces and territories. Whereas the pushpins do not. The arrangement of the boxes also has urban ridings grouped together and delineated from more rural ridings. Whereas the pushpins do not. And the boxes are not tied specifically to a point. Whereas the pushpins are. And that is most helpful, because one can only assume that the Western Arctic riding is located inside Yellowknife’s city hall. Right?

Pushpins are great for locating a specific point. Note the point of the pin. The boxes are great for eliminating the distorting effects of electoral districts in rural vs. urban settings. For comparison, look at the congressional districts in and around cities like New York and compare them to those in places like Montana.

I think the print graphic is better also because it included three charts that summarised and provided context of the 50-key ridings in the context of the whole general election across Canada. Google’s pushpin map overlay thing…does not.

Is the print graphic perfect, no. As I noted above, it does not specifically name the 50, as one can discover by clicking on the pushpins. Nor does it provide the name of the candidates or a very brief summary of the situation, as one can discover by clicking on the pushpins. But I have a better grasp of how the little piece fits into the whole from the print graphic.

Perhaps the best solution would have been to create a unique interactive piece that married the best of both designs. Scrap the Google maps bit and create a set of interactive boxes that mirror the print graphic, and so by clicking on the boxes one can access the same information in the pushpin. And then one would also have a reason to write something in the print article about checking the website for the online version that has even more information. But that is surely crazy talk.

As an additional point of comparison, the two screenshots are both roughly the same size in width—the main concern in showing all of Canada—and just note the amount of data presented in both versions.

A more interesting question, though, is why was the print graphic was removed from the site? (Or at least made so difficult to find that I could not find it.)

Credit for the print graphic image I have is to the Map Room, which is from where I first learned of the map to begin with.

Complex Nigeria

The BBC has a new feature on Nigeria, one of Africa’s most important—and most complicated—countries. And a few days ago it was supposed to hold elections. But these have been postponed, apparently on logistical problems. This piece attempts to explain the complexities of modern Nigeria across several different metrics via maps. Overall, it is very similar to a piece I mentioned that the BBC ran on South Sudan in the run up to that soon-to-be-country’s independence referendum.

Map of Nigeria by Various Metrics
Map of Nigeria by Various Metrics

Overall, the piece works for me as a means of quickly and broadly explaining the geographic breakdown of Nigeria in terms of ethnicity, politics, health, et cetera. The colours work, especially shifting between hues for the one-variable maps. The one thing that the Nigeria map adds over the Sudan map is the name of each state. However, these begin to become a bit cluttered and distracting—not to mention that in all-caps they sit at roughly the same level of the neighbouring country names despite being a touch smaller. Perhaps the maps could have been made to do more with less, and only label those states mentioned in the explanatory text. Or they could have been included but treated in a subtler fashion.

Counting People

The Census Bureau has been releasing state population figures over the past several weeks and one means of accessing those figures is through a small, interactive map feature. Clicking through makes for some interesting observations—although not all states are currently available. In this screenshot, one can see an interesting story. Western Pennsylvania is shrinking whereas eastern Pennsylvania is growing. And, perhaps importantly, Philadelphia has perhaps reversed its long-term trend of population decline and saw a 0-5% increase in population while its further suburbs have seen increases in the 5–25% range.

census map feature
census map feature

If one is not viewing the piece in fullscreen mode, the navigation can be a bit small, especially for small counties. And the counties over which one rolls with the mouse cannot be selected, they are purely rollover functions that display census data from 1960 and the total population as of 2010. I would have liked the ability to select a particular county and then compare it to others by rolling over neighbouring counties. The colour choice, blues and a light, brownish-beige work rather well within the overall blue motif of the site. And by restricting the palette there, one gains the ability to use an altogether different colour, here green, to indicate which counties are rolled over along with differentiating the rollover box from the remainder of the map piece.

I wonder if more could not have done with the ethnic breakdowns on the right. Certainly the overall breakdown is effective, but it appears to lack a summary of sorts. What was the overall change for the state? And on a minor note, the person symbol is downright distracting.

To get to the first state, one clicks on said state from an overall map of the United States. States are blue if they have had their data released, grey otherwise. However, once looking at a state, there is no way back to the overall map as states are chosen from a small button in the upper-right. This works just fine, we are here to look at state data, not for a geography lesson. However, that they use the map at the beginning seems incongruent with the remainder of the experience. I wonder if they could not remove the map at the start, or keep the map but make it more useful. After all, it would be interesting to see the percentage change in the states displayed—the unpublished states could remain grey.

Further below the first map is a second map.

Census map 2
Census map 2

Here, one does have access to the state population change figures. Much of the critique above remains salient here, except the light brown for population loss in the first map is here replaced by a garish and obnoxious orange. An interesting addition is the range of historical data, from the 1910 census through the 2010 census and to see how those population changes affected the apportionment of seats in Congress. Another interesting story that one can glimpse is the ‘filling-in’ of the North American continent. Population density in 1910 was high only in the Northeast, but ever since, the people have spread, concentrating along the coasts and then moving inwards towards the vast centre of the continent.

Rule, Britannia

The United Kingdom. England. Britain. All pretty much mean the same thing, right? No. But, if you do not believe me, might I recommend going to Glasgow or Edinburgh and calling a local an Englishman. It may very well be a quick education.

Colin Grey attempts to untangle the constitutional and jurisdictional mess in both a video and an accompanying chart. The video takes about five minutes and is largely correct with most of the errors I have picked up on being rather small in nature, e.g. Ireland is not the Republic of Ireland but just Ireland…not a big deal unless one wants to be enraged by minutiae.

The chart is simple and effective in delineating the structure of the UK and expands about how the UK fits into Europe.

Breaking Down the United Kingdom
Breaking Down the United Kingdom

Credit for the piece is to Colin Grey and thanks to Kim Nguyen for the tip.