If Money Grew on Trees…

I would have become an arborist…alas, I am a mere designer in a world where trees shed leaves, not cash. The government, on the other hand, now that sheds a lot of cash.

President Obama released his budget proposal for 2012, proposal because the responsibility actually falls to the House of Representatives to pass spending bills and budgets. The New York Times, crediting Shan Carter and Amanda Cox, has put together a nice little interactive piece explaining the proposal. (It would be rather interesting to see if they compare the proposal to the passed budget, whenever that happens.)

Cropping of the US Budget for 2012 (Proposed)
Cropping of the US Budget for 2012 (Proposed)

From one side of the aisle we hear arguments about how we must cut spending from things like education and infrastructure while the other side pushes back. However, what this piece does quite nicely is allow the user to isolate mandatory spending. That is, we see that if we really wanted to cut spending, we would need to look at reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and then cutting the Defense Department budget. At last, something on which we see bipartisan agreement, reforming and cutting those budgets is too tough (read likely to cost representatives, senators, and presidents their jobs) and so they are left alone. But, I digress.

Furthermore, the piece adds the change in spending since 2010 for the various programs by way of greens and reds. While certainly not necessary—one could argue that the inclusion of such data makes a sometimes difficult chart type that much more difficult—I think that in this case the additional data is more than worthwhile. This year’s theme seems to be austerity and that means cuts. So while highlighting, say, the massive portion of government spending that is Medicare, Medicaid, and the US military we can also highlight that much of all that spending is still rising.

South Sudan

For those who may not be aware, part of Africa’s largest country is holding a referendum on whether it should remain a part of Sudan or secede and become an independent state, Southern Sudan—though one wonders if they would not come up with a different name. About 2005 a peace agreement all-but-ended a decades-long civil war in Sudan and as that violence subsided the attention in Sudan shifted to Darfur. The terms for the peace deal included a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan, long since joined with the northern half of Sudan as part of a British colony in Africa to control the Nile River.

Map of Southern Sudan
Map of Southern Sudan

The two halves of the country were and are very much different and the BBC has used maps to highlight these differences. The problem is that there are oil fields along the proposed border and a disputed region, called Abeyi, has significant deposits of its own. And so the question of who controls the oil and thus the money and the power remains. That, however, is a story for another post. This is just to highlight the maps.

Overall, not bad. I find using the different hues for the different subject matters a smart idea. The shift forces the audience to focus on the change in meaning, which is very important if the shape of the coloured area is not otherwise changing. That said, the infant mortality choropleth uses too great a shift in hues between data bins when compared to the water, education, and food security maps. The oil field map, while not necessarily a data-heavy map in the same way as the choropleths, is a nice bookend to what started the series, i.e. the satellite view. These highlight the sheer environmental and, in a fashion, economic differences between the two regions of Sudan.

I find the ethnic groups map, however, the most difficult to fit into the series. Certainly from a subject matter it is the most important. However, the colours chosen to represent the various ethnic groups seem disparate. The southern Dinka, for example, are represented as an olive-green whereas the northern Beja are more of a bluish-green. I think a better solution would have been to keep the three main groups, i.e. the Arabs, Northern Sudan, and Southern Sudan, and then assign each a different hue, for the sake of an example say the three primary colours. Then within those groups, different tints for the various but related ethnic groups. This would highlight the various ethnic groups existing across Sudan, but show the geographic split between the two groups.

Overall, a good effort from the BBC to highlight the stark differences between Northern and Southern Sudan.

May I Have Pepperoni on That Pie (Chart)?

I love pizza. I think most people do too, though, we can all disagree on whether thin crust or thick crust is better. Yet as someone who has now eaten both…well…I shall not wade into the matter. But, I will toss up this piece from the New York Times.

a Pizza Pie Chart
a Pizza Pie Chart

The paper has an article about Domino’s adding more cheese to their pizza to increase sales as part of a plan from a US government-supported agency. At the same time, the US government is also trying to reduce the amount of saturated fats consumed to reduce obesity. And of course cheese contains saturated fat.

Naturally, the supporting graphic should make use of pizza. And in what better form than as a pie chart.

Though having now been looking at this for quite some time, I am in the mood for pizza. Though I could do without the saturated fat…

The Candidate Says Tweet Tweet

Yesterday, the New York Times released this interactive piece to look at the popularity of particular candidates in that seemingly ubiquitous world of Twitter. Perhaps it was inevitable that the Times or somebody else would create something like this. Regardless, it is out there and I have to say, I am left confused.

A cropping of the interactive piece.
A cropping of the interactive piece.

No, not by the how it works. I understand that more activity makes for larger bubbles. (Although at this point I shall refrain from my usual diatribe on bubbles.) And if you click on a particular bubble/candidate, the vector and colour of the little bubbles describes the type of activity. Understand? Check.

But why are the bubbles placed where they are on the screen?

Perhaps the rationale is explained somewhere…but I have yet to find it. And after sitting down with a colleague yesterday, the two of us could not quite figure it out. Vaguely one gets the impression of representing actual geography—except for things like Delaware being in the bottom corner. Perhaps the bubbles’ centre points are randomly generated? They do not appear to be on separate loads of the Flash piece.

And so I am left with the thought that the bubbles are a needless distraction and, in fact, lead to greater confusion. What if, for example, the candidates were not bubbles but bars? The bars would create a visual rhythm as they grow and shrink and each could be clickable. One could sort the bars by some sort of a hierarchy: alphabetic, geographic, political, &c. You could even still click on a bar for more detailed views and perhaps do some other neat things.

I am just left scratching my head on this one.

Midwestern Shrinkage

Charting the Rise and Fall of the Midwestern Congressional Delegation
Charting the Rise and Fall of the Midwestern Congressional Delegation

The United States was founded on the East Coast as English (and the odd Scottish) colonies with the old cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. These first colonies became the original 13 states. Ever since the 18th century, we have expanded westward into the Ohio Territory, the Northwest Territory, French colonies, Spanish colonies turned Mexico, and then again the British in the Pacific Northwest. (Overly simplified history of the United States’ growth, but it shall do.)

Every ten years, the United States is constitutionally obligated to hold a census. You cannot elect representatives to make political decisions for you if you do not know how many of you there are and where you live. But what these decennial censuses show are how the demographics of the United States have changed, with the population shifting from the East Coast, once almost 100% of the population, to the lands south and west. It’s only natural when you consider how unpopulated that part of the continent is.

But, because we rely on these censuses to redraw political districts and boundaries, every ten years politicians make much ado about…well, something. This article by the New York Times looks at how these changes are set to affect the Midwest in particular and this graphic, while simple, charts the congressional power of the Midwest through the total number of seats held in Congress over the years.

Immaculately Conceived

Immaculately Conceived
Immaculately Conceived

I normally do not comment on advertising and such, but I found this story, via the BBC, of interest. This British advertisement for Antonio Federici ice cream, with the tag line ‘immaculately conceived’, has been banned for mocking Catholics on the eve of the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom. I found it funny and clever and was disappointed to hear that the advert had been banned. This second image is from the same campaign. No word on whether it too has been banned.

We Believe in Salivation
We Believe in Salivation

These are screen captures from the ice cream company’s website. According to Campaign the company did the work in house, specific credit not given.

Delaware, Home of Tax Free Shopping and Political Upsets

The big voting day in November is slowly—or rapidly—approaching. But before we get to the main fight, we have all the small-ring events to tease us. And to whet our appetite for magic walls and holographic projections and all the other technological wizardry that shall amaze and astound us all, we have nice graphics about the primaries.

Screenshot from the Delaware Senate Primary Page
Screenshot from the Delaware Senate Primary Page

This comes from the New York Times, in particular covering the Delaware primary where Mike Castle, long-time moderate Republican, has lost his party’s primary to a Tea Party candidate. (One wonders what would happen if the Tea Party candidates ran as an actual third party instead of co-opting the Republican party.) In general, the Times has there coverage pretty nailed down.

It is worth checking out their site for the mid-terms coming up if not for the news but then for the maps and charts they use to visualise all the data. (And with modern-day polling, how could we ever not have enough data to visualise?) After all, I will probably comment upon their work a few more times before Election Day.

Turkey Votes…Against Orange

Turkish Vote Results
Turkish Vote Results

I like maps, I really do. And I also like politics. And that means I love election maps. Or just voting maps. This here comes from a Turkish news outlet, Today’s Zaman, via the Economist’s article on the election. A (very) brief background for those unfamiliar with the matter at hand: Turkey wants to be admitted into the European Union (EU), but the EU requires reforms made to the Turkish constitution to bring Turkey up to EU standards in terms of law, liberalism, &c. All well and good, except that Turkey has a unique history of being a staunchly secular country where Islam is the dominant religion. Relaxing the rules against Turkey’s strict brand of secularism has stoked resentment and controversy from those on the staunchly secular side. And the constitutional changes that upset this group of people are being enacted by a political party whose history is that of a party based in Islam. It gets a bit tricky…

But about the graphic…

First, I think a good if not expected place to start is with the three-dimensional pie chart and map. These two visual elements add little if not subtract from the overall graphic. By putting the ‘No’ vote in the background it is made to appear smaller than the ‘Yes’ vote and can be seen as marginalising that portion of the vote. Furthermore, note the change in the colour of the type for each section of the chart. While the orange and white is certainly a high contrast, the black versus white is even higher.

As to the map, I am not an expert in Turkish geography, but this appears to simply be adding a weird three-dimensional effect to the edges of an otherwise flat map. At least I should hope the map is otherwise flat and not distorting the geography. One can always make the argument that a map is not needed to show a single datapoint, in this case the ‘victor’ in the vote. However, from the perspective of an American not familiar with Turkish provinces (assuming they are indeed called provinces), this map is far more meaningful than would a statistically  more valuable chart highlighting the discrepancy in the vote. After all the little miniature pies in each province are largely useless except in the most obvious of differences. To actually show and detail the degree of victory a bar chart for all provinces would be more useful.

Or perhaps a compromise that would show each province in a colour that reflects the overall victor, yes or no, and the degree to which that camp beat the other through use of a gradient. Would that be ideal for showing the details of the numbers? No, not at all, but it would highlight that while the ‘No’ vote was concentrated along the western and northern provinces—do they share a political similarity because of their bordering on the Aegean or some other reason?—but that the strongest ‘No’ vote was in the very northwest—geographically the most European part—of Turkey, excepting some exceptional province in the centre of the country. None of this, of course, deals with the density of the population in each province, for none of that is known to me as a non-Turkish observer.

The colours, white and orange, work when considered against the blueish background. Of course, why the bluish background? It might be a branding element or some other such visual styling well-established with the news outlet with which I am unfamiliar. But if not, it does not really add anything other than that glossy feel. The white as a choice for the ‘Yes’ vote is interesting, because it draws more attention to the presence of the ‘No’ vote in the north and west whereas the positioning of the wedges of the pie in the pie chart would hint that the important element to draw forward is that of the ‘Yes’ vote. In terms of the message or the thesis of the graphic, I am unsure. However, using white to allow the orange to come forward is itself a nice visual touch to bring out one or the other camp. Now if only I could figure out which the graphic was going for…

All in all, it is an interesting piece that puts the news story in more context than I might typically read in a straight, text-only article. It has some flaws, but that might be owing to my perspective as an outsider looking in.

Clerks. And Not the Death Star Discussing Type.

The New York Times has a story about the clerks supporting the Supreme Court justices. And how, surprisingly, the Supreme Court is polarised. Truly surprising considering how unpolarised—or would it be depolarised—the remaining two branches of government are these days. Sarcasm aside, the staff at the Times put together a diagram to explain the polarity.

Where all the clerks go
Where all the clerks go

My only real concern, however, is the potential for an audience disconnect. While you and I may know who John Marshall and William Brennan are, would the rest of the infographic’s readers? Does that mean not to include the justices? Personally, I always believe that design should lift and educate people and that designers should always avoid ‘dumbing things down’ for their audiences. Maybe not having the information in the diagram helps, and it will spur casual readers to do their own research. Or perhaps the targeted audience are those who have a grasp of the history of the Supreme Court.

It’s Hard to be a Saint in Hell

Perhaps the 21st century version of the Pentagon papers, the ‘War Logs’, as they are being called, consist of some 90,000 classified documents centring on the Afghanistan War. While they do not paint a necessarily different picture from what is known publicly, the War Logs do provide interesting glimpses into the war, a war that, like any other, is a messy and ugly business despite the polish of design, propaganda, and the media.  To put it differently and perhaps in another sense, the War Logs offer depth down to the ground-level, unpleasant details of warzone combat. But the documents lack an overall, strategic-level—I daresay antiseptic—breadth of understanding. The War Logs suffer from a lack of the broader context—but they do provide useful and interesting stories, vignettes, and anecdotes that flesh out the story we all broadly know.

The Guardian is one of three main newspapers that received the leaks in advance; the others were the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel. And one of the things the Guardian did was create an interactive piece exploring improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and where and when they occurred in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.

While I understand the use of Google maps, I always see the map as a distraction. For example, why in a story about Afghanistan do I need to see a map that includes the small cities of India. To some degree, the same can be said about the bordering countries like Iran and Pakistan—but as those countries are along the border and are to varying degrees involved in the action, their inclusion can be understood on a case-by-case basis.

Guardian Piece on IEDs
Guardian Piece on IEDs

Choice of map aside, the piece  highlights the detonation of IEDs as circles whose area reflects the number of casualties. The colour of each circle represents which ‘group’ of people had the most casualties: civilians, Coalition soldiers, or Afghan soldiers. However, by reducing the data to a single circle of a single colour, we lose the potential added depth of breaking down the event into the deaths of soldiers and civilians alike. Do I have an instant solution on hand? No. But I do note that if one clicks on the specific event, a window appears that breaks down the event into said figures.

One of the more interesting things about this whole story is that at least the Guardian is putting out the data as a spreadsheet. Perhaps in the near to intermediate future those with the time and inclination will take that information and make something truly interesting for the public’s consumption.