The Demilitarised Zone

Over the weekend, the American and North Korean leaders got into an argument with the North Korean leader calling President Trump old and the American leader calling Kim Jong Un short and fat. High class diplomacy.

So what holds the North Korean army, by numbers likely not quality one of the largest armed forces in the world, back from sweeping down the Korean coastlines and overrunning Seoul? Well, that would be the role of the Demilitarised Zone, or DMZ. And thankfully yesterday, whilst your humble author was out sick, the Washington Post published a piece looking at the DMZ.

The title of the piece
The title of the piece

The piece uses a giant, illustrated in the background to provide context to the words and imagery sitting in the foreground. (That is how I justified covering it in the blog: map.) Overall the experience was smooth and informative about the sheer amount of destructive power waiting just miles north of Seoul.

Credit for the piece goes to Armand Emamdjomeh, Laris Karklis, and Tim Meko.

Flaking Out of the Senate

This has been a busy week. I am working on a small piece on the Red Sox managers in the free agency period—I thought it would be ready yesterday, but not so much—but news continues to happen outside of the baseball world. Some of the biggest, at least in the US, would have to be the speech by Senator Flake of Arizona who announced he would not seek re-election in 2018.

So cue the politically-themed graphics. Today’s piece comes from the Washington Post. The graphic itself is not terribly complex as it is a scatter plot comparing the liberal/conservativeness of senators with how their respective state voted in 2016.

Scrolling through the piece changes the graphic
Scrolling through the piece changes the graphic

But what the piece does really well is weave a narrative through the chart. Scrolling down the page locks the graphic in place while the text changes to provide new context. And then different dots are highlighted or called out.

It proves that not all the best graphics need to be terribly complex.

Credit for the piece goes to Kevin Schaul and Kevin Uhrmacher.

Earthquake Early Warning

Last month, two massive earthquakes devastated Mexico. Now, if you were like me, you were captivated by the photos and videos of the quakes striking and tearing down buildings and infrastructure. But, think about it for a second, how did people know to take out their mobiles and record the tremors for posterity’s sake?

Well, the first thing you should know is that earthquakes consist of a number of different waves of energy. Some move quicker and are less damaging than the slower travelling ones. And it turns out that scientists have been able to use that speed differential to build early warning systems along and around fault lines.

The Washington Post did a really nice job of explaining how earthquake-prone California is developing just such a system to deal with its tremors. I won’t spoil all the details, you should go read the article if earthquakes are of any interest to you.

The Shake Alert system
The Shake Alert system

Credit for the piece goes to

(Lack of) Support for Cassidy-Graham Obamacare Repeal

A wee bit of housekeeping here at the top. Your author will be away for work and then enjoying a well-earned, but all-too-brief holiday over the next week.

At the end of the week, the Senate’s window to pass a budget reconciliation measure, i.e. what they need to do to repeal Obamacare with only 51 votes, will close for a year. As of my writing on Monday evening, Susan Collins has just become the third Republican no vote, effectively dooming the bill should it come to the floor for the vote.

But as the week progresses, I fully expect the bill’s authors to add some bells and whistles to try and sweeten the deal. But the problem has always been, the bells for the hardline conservatives push moderates away and the whistles for those same moderates drive away the same hardline conservatives. For the next year and a half or so, the best bet to pass a fix to healthcare is a bipartisan “repair Obamacare” instead of “repeal Obamacare”. Whether or not the Senate will have the stomach for such a compromise is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, this week we have a tracker from the Washington Post examining the latest positions of senators on the Cassidy-Graham bill.

It does a nice job of breaking up the Republican conference not just along the ideological spectrum, but also on the winners and losers spectrum. After all, the bill as written will transfer large sums of aid from states that accepted the expansion of Medicare to those states that rejected expansion.

Who's saying yes and who's saying no
Who’s saying yes and who’s saying no

Credit for the piece goes to Kim Soffen, Amber Phillips, and Kevin Schaul.

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick is a contentious figure in American football because of the protests he started against the US national anthem. While other protesting players remain on teams and play, Kaepernick remains unsigned despite what some say is a talent above other players. And as the American football season just began, this article from the Washington Post caught my attention.

Some of the arguments I have seen for Kaepernick’s unsigned status allege he just is not very good. But is that so? What does the data show? Well thankfully the Post dived into that and is running what we can best call a Kaepernick tracker comparing him to qualified quarterbacks in the NFL.

Clearly better than a host of other quarterbacks
Clearly better than a host of other quarterbacks

It turns out, he is a middle-of-the-pack quarterback, demonstrably better than half-a-dozen and sitting solidly amongst an almost third-tier or cluster of players. The data clearly shows that poor performance is not the reason for remaining unsigned, otherwise he would have replaced any number of quarterbacks. True, it could come down to his dollar cost, but most likely his remaining unsigned, compared to almost a dozen players underperforming him, is related to his protests.

Now from the design standpoint, I also wanted to call attention to this article because of the way it handles definitions. The article uses the statistic adjusted net yards per attempt to assess performance. But what does that actually mean? Well, in the digital margins of the piece, the designers include an explanation of that statistic. I thought this was a really well-done part of the article, not interrupting the main narrative flow for a definition that a portion of the audience probably knows. But the more casual followers or people more interested in the political nature of the story would have no idea, and this does a great job of explaining it to us laymen.

What does it all mean?
What does it all mean?

Credit for the piece goes to Reuben Fischer-Baum, Neil Greenberg, and Mike Hume.

How Big Was Irma?

Like many Americans I followed the story of Hurricane Irma over the weekend. One of my favourite pieces of reporting was this article from the Washington Post. It did a really nice job of visually comparing Irma to some recent and more historic storms, such as 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

It can be difficult to truly compare hurricanes, sometimes they are small and compact, other times more dispersed. Irma was just big with lots of potentially destructive power spread out across a wide area, almost the width of the Floridian peninsula. The article uses several graphics—I am also quite partial to the satellite image comparison so check out the article—but this one is perhaps my favourite.

A look at four big storms
A look at four big storms

It uses a colour palette that deepens in redness nearer the storm’s centre. This allows the user to compare the geographic area or footprint of the storms destructive winds.

I wonder, however, what would happen if the designers had superimposed each graphic atop the other. It might have allowed for an even better comparison of size instead of having to have the user mentally transpose each hurricane.

Still, a really nice graphic and visual article.

Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz, Laris Karklis, Reuben Fischer-Baum, and Chiqui Esteban.

Tampa Bay and Hurricanes Do Not Mix

About a year ago Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune published a piece that documented the calamity of a hurricane striking and flooding the city of Houston. It proved rather prescient a week or so ago.

So a little over a month ago the Washington Post published an article about the catastrophe that could await Tampa Bay if a major hurricane were to strike the area. I read it, enjoyed it, and found it informative, but opted not to share it with all of you.

Well now we have Hurricane Irma barrelling towards Florida after it struck the Leeward Islands this morning. So today felt like a decent day to share the story.

Not looking so great
Not looking so great

Credit for the piece goes to Darryl Fears, Zoeann Murphy, Kolin Pope, Denise Lu, and Danielle Rindler.

Harvey’s Rainfall Totals

Hurricane Harvey landed north of Corpus Christi, Texas late Friday night. By Monday morning, Houston has been flooded as nearly two feet of water have fallen upon the city, built on and around wetlands long ago paved over with concrete. Naturally the news has covered this story in depth all weekend. Even leading up to it, when I was still posting eclipse things, various outlets had projections and why we should care graphics. But as the storm begins to move back into the Gulf—only to move back inland tomorrow—I wanted to compare some of the graphics I have been seeing.

Of course, not all graphics are the same, let alone cover the same things. So this morning we are looking at just the rainfall total maps of a few different outlets.

From the Washington Post, we have the following graphic.

The Post's rainfall graphic
The Post’s rainfall graphic

The palette chosen performs well at quickly scaling up to the record level of rainfall, i.e. the 20+ inches realm, but quickly shifting from the green–blue palette into dark purples.

Then we have the Wall Street Journal’s graphic.

The Journal's graphic
The Journal’s graphic

Here we have a more familiar blue–red diverging spectrum. The point of divergence set to 20 inches.

Lastly, we have the New York Times graphic. Though in this case, it’s not an exact like-for-like comparison. I could not find a graphic mapping total rainfall, instead this is for projected rainfall totals. But the design is for the same type of map, i.e. how much rain falls in a location.

The Times' graphic
The Times’ graphic

The Post takes the closest approach to the true continuous spectrum palette, where the shift from dry to drenched is gradual. It makes for a smoother, more blended looking map. Somewhere around that 20 inch point, however, the palette shifts from the green to blue range to purple. It emphasises the record-hitting point, but otherwise the totals are presented as more fluid. Perhaps correctly since rain does not neatly fall evenly into pixels.

By comparison, the Journal segments the rainfall totals into bins of blues. The scale is not even, the lighter blues incorporate two inches, the darkers upwards of five. And then again, like the Post, separate 20+ as a different colour, here switching to reds.

Lastly the Times keeps to a simple segmented bin palette of all blues. 20+ inches is rendered is just a dark blue.

Each map has pluses, each has minuses. The Times map, for example, is simple and quick to understand. Southeastern Texas will be wet by the middle of next week. If your goal is only to communicate that point, well this map has done its job. It is worth noting, again, that this is a map of projections. Because the other thing missing from this map is the storm’s path. So if the goal were to showcase the rainfall along the storm’s path, well this graphic does not accomplish that nearly as well as the other two.

The Post and the Journal both show the track of the storm. The Journal takes it one step further and plots its projected course through Thursday. This helps us really see if not understand the east side problem of hurricanes. That is, the eastern quadrants of hurricanes typically experience the heaviest amounts of rain. And as the darker portions of the map all fall to the north and east of those lines, it reaffirms this for us.

So what really differentiates the two? The colour palette and its application. The Post’s palette is more natural as, again, rain does not fall neatly into bins and instead makes for blurred and messy totals across a map. Separating the heaviest rains into the purples, however, makes a lot of sense as that amount of rainfall, as we are seeing this morning, makes for a mess in Houston.

But the point of a graphic is to translate nature and the observed into a digestible and pointed statement of the observed. What should I learn? Why should I care? The Journal, like the Post, does a fantastic job of splitting out the 20+ inch totals by using a divergent palette. But instead of blending into that colour, the distinction is sharp. And then below that threshold, we get rainfall totals segmented into just a few bins. These help the reader see, also more starkly because of the selection of the specific blues, just where the bands of heavy rain will fall.

I do want to point out, however, that all of these maps occur in articles with lots of other fantastic graphics that visually explore lots of details about the story. And in particular, I want to highlight that the normal bit where I state the credits includes a lot of people. Creating a whole host of graphics to support a story takes a lot of work.

Credit for the Washington Post piece goes to Darla Cameron, Samuel Granados, Chris Alcantara, and Gabriel Florit.

Credit for the Wall Street Journal piece goes to Bradley Olson, Arian Campo-Flores, Miguel Bustillo, Dan Frosch, Erin Ailworth, Christopher M. Matthews, and Russell Gold.

Credit for the New York Times piece goes to Gregor Aisch, Sarah Almukhtar, Jeremy Ashkenas, Matthew Bloch, Joe Burgess, Audrey Carlsen, Ford Fessenden, Troy Griggs, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Jasmine C. Lee, Jugal K. Patel, Adam Pearce, Bedel Saget, Anjali Singhvi, Joe Ward, and Josh Williams.

The NFL Draft Comes to Philadelphia

The joke I have been telling everyone in person this past week: I changed jobs and moved 750 miles from Chicago to Philadelphia, but I still cannot escape the NFL Draft. The two previous drafts occurred across the street from my last job and this year they are three blocks away from my new flat. Traffic is a bloody nightmare. So while there is a lot of news to cover through data visualisation and design, the local story is the NFL Draft that begins tonight next to the Rocky statue and in front of the Art Museum. We will return to trade wars with Canada, tax cuts for the rich, North Korea, climate change, and other things over the next few weeks.

Today’s piece comes from the Washington Post and looks at NFL Draft success across the NFL. Unfortunately for all of you, I know almost nothing about the NFL except Free Tom Brady. (I have to transfer my Red Sox allegiance somewhere, right?) But this set of small multiples looks fantastic and generally tells me that the Colts and Packers—the latter likely to the chagrin of my Chicago-born followers—have historically done well.

While I fail to understand the references/anecdotes, the grid looks nice…
While I fail to understand the references/anecdotes, the grid looks nice…

Aesthetically, I am not sure about the handwriting typeface. I wonder: could the content have been handled better by a more traditional face?

Credit for the piece goes to Reuben Fischer-Baum.

US Foreign Aid

One of the big news stories yesterday centred on the Trump administration’s budget outline that would expand US defence spending by 9%, or $54 billion. That is quite a lot of money. More worrying, however, was the draft’s directive that it be accompanied by equal spending cuts in neither security nor entitlement programmes like Social Security and Medicare. Nor, obviously, the trillions allocated for mandatory spending, e.g. debt repayment.

White House officials—worth noting of the Trump-despised anonymous type that I suppose that only matters if reporting unflattering news—declined to get into specifics, but pointed out foreign aid as an area likely to receive massive cuts.

Problem is, foreign aid is one of the smallest segments of the federal budget. How small? Well, let’s segue into today’s post—see how smooth that was—from the Washington Post. The article dates from October, but was just brought to my attention to one of my mates.

Foreign aid spending is a small fraction of the budget
Foreign aid spending is a small fraction of the budget

Beyond this graphic that leads the piece, the Post presents numerous cartograms and other graphics that detail spending patterns. Hint, there is a pattern. But those patterns could also make it difficult to slash said spending.

The reason foreign aid spending is important is that it ties nicely into that concept of soft power. No surprise that over 120 retired generals and admirals told Congress that spending on diplomacy and foreign aid is “critical to keeping America safe”.

But for now this remains a budget outline sent to federal agencies to review. The actual budget fight is yet to come. So I’m sure this won’t be the last time we look at this topic here on Coffeespoons.

Credit for the piece goes to Max Bearak and Lazaro Gamio.