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.

Erasing Culture One Tomb at a Time

As many of my readers know, I have a keen interest in genealogy. And for me that has often met spending hours—far too many hours—wandering around cemeteries attempting to find memorials to ancestors, links to my history, a context to that soil from a different time.

But if you live in Xinjiang or more broadly western China, and you’re not Han Chinese, you probably don’t have that luxury. The Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people native to that part of Asia, have long been oppressed by the Chinese central government. Most recently they have been in the news after scholars and leading figures have “disappeared”, after news of re-education and concentration camps (though thankfully I have read nothing of industrialised death camps).

Instead, now Chinese authorities are destroying mosques (not news), but also now cemeteries, as this article in the Washington Post explains.

That's a lot of empty space. Well done, Beijing.
That’s a lot of empty space. Well done, Beijing.

The piece just uses some simple before and after photography to visualise its point. Sadly it does it to great effect.

I forget who originally said it, but someone once said that we all die, each of us, two deaths. The first time is when we die and our buried in the ground. The second and final time is when the last person who remembers us forgets us.

And we are now watching thousands of Uighurs in western China die for the second and final time.

Credit for the piece goes to Bahram Sintash.

Leaf Peeping

Autumn arrived this week in Philadelphia. And with the cooler weather came blustery winds blowing yellowing leaves from city trees. The yellows and reds of trees beneath blue skies makes for some great photography. But what is really going on? Thankfully, the Washington Post published an article exploring where and why the leaves change colour (or don’t).

The star of the piece is the large map of the United States that shows the dominant colours of forests.

All the colours
All the colours

Little illustrations and annotations dot the map showing how particular trees (whose leaf shapes are shown) turn particular colours. The text in the piece elaborates on that and explains what is going on with pigments in the leaves. It adds to that how weather can impact the colour change.

Later on in the piece, a select set of photos for specific locations show at a more micro-level, how and where leaf colours change.

Overall, a solid piece for those of you who enjoy leaf peeping to read before this weekend.

Credit for the piece goes to Lauren Tierney and Joe Fox.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

The UN climate summit begins in New York today. So let’s take a look at another data visualisation piece exploring climate change data. This one comes from a Washington Post article that, while largely driven by a textual narrative, does make use of some nice maps.


There is nothing too crazy going on with the actual map itself. I like the subtle use here of a stepped gradient for the legend. This allows for a clearer differentiation between adjacent regions and just how, well, bad things have become.

But where the piece shines is about halfway through. It takes this same map and essentially filters it. It starts with those regions with temperature changes over 2ºC. Then it progressively adds slightly less hotter regions to the map.

I mean at least it could be worse?
I mean at least it could be worse?

It’s a nice use of scrolling and filtering to highlight the areas worst impacted and then move down the horrible impact scale. And because this happens in the middle of the piece, giving it the full column width (online) allows the reader to really focus on the impacts.

Credit for the piece goes to Chris Mooney and John Muyskens.

Hog Wild

So admittedly this post should have been up last week, but I liked the lunar cycle one too  much. But today is Friday and who cares. We made it to the end of the week.

In the wake of the shootings last week, someone on Twitter posed the question:

Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?

And with that the Internet was off. Memes exploded across the social media verse. Thankfully the Washington Post took it seriously and found data on the expanding footprint of hogs in the United States.

Pig problems
Pig problems

The article also points out, however, that the firearm that prompted the discussion, the now infamous AR-15, would also be a poor choice against feral hogs as its too small a calibre to effectively deal with the animals.

Credit for the piece goes to the US Department of Agriculture.

Hotter Muggier Faster

Last week we looked at a few posts that showed the future impact of climate change at both a global and US-level scale. In the midst of last week and those articles, the Washington Post looked backwards at the past century or so to identify how quickly the US has changed. Spoiler: some places are already significantly warmer than they have been. Spoiler two: the Northeast is one such place.

The piece is a larger and more narrative article using examples and anecdotes to make its point. But it does contain several key graphics. The first is a big map that shows how temperature has changed since 1895.

The Southeast is an anomaly, but its warming has accelerated since the 1960s
The Southeast is an anomaly, but its warming has accelerated since the 1960s

The map does what it has to and is nothing particularly fancy or groundbreaking—see what I did there?—in design. But it is clear and communicates effectively the dramatic shifts in particular regions.

The more interesting part, along with what we looked at last week, is the ability to choose a particular county and see how it has trended since 1895 and compare that to the baseline, US-level average. Naturally, some counties have been warming faster, others slower. Philadelphia County, the entirety of the city, has warmed more than the US average, but thankfully less than the Northeast average as the article points out.

This ain't so good
This ain’t so good

But, not to leave out Chicago as I did last week, Cook County, Illinois is right on line with the US average.

Nor is this, but it's average
Nor is this, but it’s average

But the big cities on the West Coast look very unattractive.

Tinseltown is out of the question
Tinseltown is out of the question

The interactive piece does a nice job clearly focusing the user’s attention on the long run average through the coloured lines instead of focusing attention on the yearly deviations, which can vary significantly from year to year.

And for those Americans who are not familiar with Celsius, one degree Celsius equals approximately 1.8º Fahrenheit.

Overall this is a solid piece that continues to show just what future generations are going to have to fix.

Credit for the piece goes to Steven Mufson, Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin, John Muyskens, and Salwan Georges.

How Mass Shootings Have Changed

A few weeks ago here in the United States, we had the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. The Washington Post put together a piece looking at how mass shootings have changed since 1966. And unfortunately one of the key takeaways is that since 1999 they are far too common.

The biggest graphic from the article is its timeline.

Getting worse over time
Getting worse over time

It captures the total number of people killed per event. But, it also breaks down the shootings by admittedly arbitrary time periods. Here it looks at three distinct ones. The first begins at the beginning of the dataset: 1966. The second begins with Columbine High School in 1999, when two high school teenagers killed 13 fellow students. Then the third begins with the killing of 9 worshippers in a African Episcopal Methodist church in Charlestown, South Carolina.

Within each time period, the peaks become more extreme, and they occur more frequently. The beige boxes do a good job of calling out just how frequently they occur. And then the annotations call out the unfortunate historic events where record numbers of people were killed.

The above is a screenshot of a digital presentation. However, I hope the print piece did a full-page printing of the timeline and showed the entire timeline in sequence. Here, the timeline is chopped up into two separate lines. I like how the thin grey rule breaks the second from the third segment. But the reader loses the vertical comparison of the bars in the first segment to those in the second and third.

Later on in the graphic, the article uses a dot plot to examine the age of the mass shooters. There it could have perhaps used smaller dots that did not feature as much overlap. Or a histogram could have been useful as infrequently used type of chart.

Lastly it uses small multiples of line charts to show the change in frequency of particular types of locations.

Overall it’s a solid piece. But the timeline is its jewel. Unfortunately, I will end up talking about similar graphics about mass shootings far too soon in the future.

Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz, Adrian Blanco, Brittany Renee Mayes, Klara Auerbach, and Danielle Rindler.

Water, Water Everywhere Nor Any Drop to Drink Part II

Yesterday we looked at the New York Times coverage of some water stress climate data and how some US cities fit within the context of the world’s largest cities. Well today we look at how the Washington Post covered the same data set. This time, however, they took a more domestic-centred approach and focused on the US, but at the state level.

Still no reason to move to the Southwest
Still no reason to move to the Southwest

Both pieces start with a map to anchor the piece. However, whereas the Times began with a world map, the Post uses a map of the United States. And instead of highlighting particular cities, it labels states mentioned in the following article.

Interestingly, whereas the Times piece showed areas of No Data, including sections of the desert southwest, here the Post appears to be labelling those areas as “arid area”. We also see two different approaches to handling the data display and the bin ranges. Whereas the Times used a continuous gradient the Post opts for a discrete gradient, with sharply defined edges from one bin to the next. Of course, a close examination of the Times map shows how they used a continuous gradient in the legend, but a discrete application. The discrete application makes it far easier to compare areas directly. Gradients are, by definition, harder to distinguish between relatively close areas.

The next biggest distinguishing characteristic is that the Post’s approach is not interactive. Instead, we have only static graphics. But more importantly, the Post opts for a state-level approach. The second graphic looks at the water stress level, but then plots it against daily per capita water use.

California is pretty outlying
California is pretty outlying

My question is from the data side. Whence does the water use data come? It is not exactly specified. Nor does the graphic provide any axis limits for either the x- or the y-axis. What this graphic did make me curious about, however, was the cause of the high water consumption. How much consumption is due to water-intensive agricultural purposes? That might be a better use of the colour dimension of the graphic than tying it to the water stress levels.

The third graphic looks at the international dimension of the dataset, which is where the Times started.

China and India are really big
China and India are really big

Here we have an interesting use of area to size population. In the second graphic, each state is sized by population. Here, we have countries sized by population as well. Except, the note at the bottom of the graphic notes that neither China nor India are sized to scale. And that make sense since both countries have over a billion people. But, if the graphic is trying to use size in the one dimension, it should be consistent and make China and India enormous. If anything, it would show the scale of the problem of being high stress countries with enormous populations.

I also like how in this graphic, while it is static in nature, breaks each country into a regional classification based upon the continent where the country is located.

Overall this, like the Times piece, is a solid graphic with a few little flaws. But the fascinating bit is how the same dataset can create two stories with two different foci. One with an international flavour like that of the Times, and one of a domestic flavour like this of the Post.

Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz and Adrian Blanco.

Quantifying Part of the Opioid Crisis

Two weeks ago the Washington Post published a fascinating article detailing the prescription painkiller market in the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration made the database available to the public and the Post created graphics to explore the top-line data. But the Post then went further and provided a tool allowing users to explore the data for their own home counties.

The top line data visualisation is what you would expect: choropleth maps showing the prescription and death rates. This article is a great example of when maps tell stories. Here you can clearly see that the heaviest hit areas of the crisis were Appalachia. Though that is not to say other states were not ravaged by the crisis.

There are some clear geographic patterns to see here
There are some clear geographic patterns to see here

For me, however, the true gem in this piece is the tool allowing you the user to find information on your county. Because the data is granular down to county-level information on things like pill shipments from manufacturer to distributor, we can see which pharmacies were receiving the most pills. And, crucially, which manufacturers were flooding the markets. For this screenshot I looked at Philadelphia, though I only moved here in 2016, well after the date range for this data set.

It could be worse
It could be worse

You can clearly see, however, the designers chose simple bar charts to show the top-five. I don’t know if the exact numbers are helpful next to the bars. Visually, it becomes a quick mess of greys, blacks, and burgundies. A quieter approach may have allowed the bars to really shine while leaving the numbers, seemingly down to the tens, for tables. I also cannot figure out why, typographically, the pharmacies are listed in all capitals.

But the because I lived in Chicago for most of the crisis, here is the screenshot for Cook County. Of course, for those not from Chicago, it should be pointed out that Chicago is only a portion of Cook County, there are other small towns there. And some of Chicago is within DuPage County. But, still, this is pretty close.

Better numbers than Philly
Better numbers than Philly

In an unrelated note, the bar charts here do a nice job of showing the market concentration or market power of particular companies. Compare the dominance of Walgreens as a distributor in Cook County compared to McKesson in Philadelphia. Though that same chart also shows how corporate structures can obscure information. I was never far from a big Walgreens sign in Chicago, but I have never seen a McKesson Corporation logo flying outside a pharmacy here in Philadelphia.

Lastly, the neat thing about this tool is that the user can opt to download an image of the top-five chart. I am not sure how useful that bit is. But as a designer, I do like having that functionality available. This is for Pennsylvania as a whole.

For Pennsylvania, state-wide
For Pennsylvania, state-wide

Credit for the piece goes to Armand Emamdjomeh, Kevin Schaul, Jake Crump and Chris Alcantara.

The Sartorial Trump

Happy Friday, all. We made it to the end of the week. Though if you are like me, i.e. living on the East Coast, welcome to Hell. As in so hot and humid.

So last month President Trump visited the United Kingdom on a state visit. He drew attention to himself not just because of his rhetoric, but also for his fashion choices. Consequently, the Washington Post published a piece about those fashion choices from the perspective of a professional tailor.

Look at those shoulders…
Look at those shoulders…

The overall piece is well worth a read if you find presidential fashion fascinating. But how does it qualify for Coffeespoons? A .gif that shows how Trump would look in a properly tailored suit.

Since this is a screenshot, you miss the full impact. The piece is an animation of an existing photo and how that then morphs into this for comparison’s sake.

I really enjoy the animated .gif when it works for data visualisation and story-telling.

Credit for the piece goes to Ezra Paul.