Capturing a US Navy Drone Submersible

Last Friday China seized a US Navy submersible drone—like the drones the Air Force uses but for underwater purposes—in international waters off the coast of the Philippines. This graphic from the Washington Post shows how, while in international waters, the seizure occurred not far outside China’s Nine-dash Line, which they claim as territorial waters.

Where we lost our drone (to China)
Where we lost our drone (to China)

Credit for the piece goes to the Washington Post graphics department.

The Electoral College

Well today we elect the president of the United States. Wait! you say, did we not just do that a few weeks ago?

Not really, no.

In the run up to the election, I and others saw the possibility that this election could result in a gap between the national popular vote and the electoral college vote. And people think that unfair. Consequently I decided to start working on a series of graphics to help explain the system. But before I could finish, the Washington Post published this piece that I think does a strong job. So, I am going to point you there instead.

The United States is not a democracy, but a federal, democratic republic. Though that may smack of wordsmithery, it is an important distinction. We are a democratic republic in that we elect people to represent us, we do not directly vote on matters of government. And then that federal bit. The United States was formed by sovereign states, i.e. the colonies and other independent republics like Texas and (sort of) California. Others were territories belong to sovereign states that we acquired through negotiation, e.g. the Louisiana territory and Florida. In short, the United States is not a unitary state ruled by an all-powerful central government. The central government only has the authority granted to it by the states and territories entering the union.

States are intended to be equal, but the democratic republic bit means the people need to have their say. So the federal House of Representatives gets a set number of seats divided proportionally by population (as determined by the US Census) while the Senate represents all states equally with senators. The House is elected by the people every two years and thus is more in tune with national public sentiment. The Senate serves as the more deliberative body tempering perhaps overly reactionary House legislation. It also serves to represent the interests of the state governments. Initially, you did not even vote for senators. Those were chosen by your state governments, often the state legislature. (I will save that topic for another day.)

The electoral college of 538 members comes from each state’s House delegation and its two senators. And because this is a federal, i.e. state-led, republic, each state determines how to divvy up their votes. Most states do winner-take-all. Two, Maine and Nebraska, allocate them based on who wins the House districts and then an additional two (from the number of senators) to the overall state winner.

That very complicated system was designed to ensure that states with smaller populations are not summarily outvoted and overruled by the largest of states. This initially helped the smaller states in the Northeast like Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Delaware, but also the slave states like Georgia. In 2016, this means that the states of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains receive overrepresentation at the expense of the larger states like California, Texas, New York, and even my Pennsylvania.

The graphics from the Washington Post do a great job of showing not just how states today are over- or under-represented, but how that has changed since 1960. That is an important date given the Voting Rights Act that attempted to break down systemic injustices against minorities, particular blacks, in elections.

This small multiple map of the United States shows representation changes over time. Really well done.
This small multiple map of the United States shows representation changes over time. Really well done.

Is the electoral college “fair”? If this was a unitary republic, no. I doubt anyone would or could argue that point. But the United States is not and was not meant to be a unitary republic. We are a collection of sovereign states that grant power to a federal government. So in that sense, the electoral college is a fair, albeit not perfect, system that seeks to reallocate electoral power from high population states to low population states.

Credit for the piece goes to Denise Lu.

Diversity in America

Today’s post is a choropleth map from the Washington Post examining diversity in the United States and how fast or slow diversity is expanding. Normally with two variables one goes instantly to the scatter plot. But here the Post explored the two variables geographically. And it holds up.

The colours are perhaps the only part holding me up on the piece’s design. Are blue and yellow the best two colours to represent level of diversity and growth? I lose some of the gradation in the yellows, especially between the big increases in diversity. Can I offer a better solution? No, and maybe there is not. But I would love the chance to explore different palette options.

Where America is diverse or not, and how much it's changed
Where America is diverse or not, and how much it’s changed

As you well know, I am not a big fan of always plotting things on maps. I call them the silver bullet. However, in this instance, there are clear geographic patterns to the four different scenarios. Of course this soon after the election I would love adding a third variable: how the counties voted in the presidential election. Maybe next time.

Credit for the piece goes to Dan Keating and Laris Karklis.

The National Debt

One of the things discussed during the election season—though very minorly compared to other things—is the national debt. Debt itself is not scary. Look at student loans, home loans, auto loans, &c. Look at the credit cards in your wallet. But running a country is far more difficult and complex than a household budget. That said, our national debt is high, though of late it has been trending in a positive direction, i.e. flattening out its growth curve.

So what would electing either Clinton or Trump do to the debt? Well, nothing great. According to this piece from the Washington Post, we would be talking about increasing the debt because of plans that are not fully funded or revenue cuts that fail to match spending cuts. But as the graphic shows with a really nice piece of layout between text and image, one option is far worse than the other for the issue of the national debt.

The graphic is clear, and emphasised by the layout of the text
The graphic is clear, and emphasised by the layout of the text

The opening graphic above draws the reader into the overall piece, but the remainder of the piece breaks down policies and implications with additional graphics. If you want to understand the differences between the candidates and the impact of those differences, this is a good read.

Credit for the piece goes to Kevin Uhrmacher and Jim Tankersley.

Tracking Polls One Week Out

Well the election is next Tuesday, and last Friday and this past weekend was…interesting. So one(ish) week to go, and we are going to turn to a few posts that use data visualisation and graphics to explore topics related to the election.

Today we start with the latest tracking polls, released on Friday. The piece comes from the Washington Post and highlights the closing gap between Clinton and Trump with a sudden spike in Republican candidate support. But what I really like about the piece is the plot below. It displays the 0 axis vertically and plots time with the most recent date at the top. And then support for the various demographics can be filtered by selectable controls above the overall plot.

Saturday's polling numbers
Saturday’s polling numbers

Of course the really interesting bit is going to be how much this changes in the next seven days. And then what that means for the results when we all wake up on Wednesday morning.

Credit for the piece goes to Chris Alcantara, Kevin Uhrmacher, and Emily Guskin.

Baselines Are Important

Last week the Washington Post published a fascinating article on the data visualisation work of the Donald Trump media campaign. In my last job I frequently harped on the importance of displaying the baseline and/or setting the baseline to zero. When you fail to do so you distort the data. But maybe that is the point of this, for lack of a better term, political data visualisation.

Baselines are important
Baselines are important

My favourite author is George Orwell of 1984 and Animal Farm fame. But Orwell also penned numerous essays, one of which has struck me as particularly relevant in this election cycle: Politics and the English Language. In concluding the essay Orwell wrote:

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And so political data visualisation? Well I believe it exists to serve the same purpose. The article goes into detail about how the designers behind the graphics fudged the numbers. Now did the campaign intend to mislead people with the data visualisation graphics? It is hard to say, because some of their graphics actually diminish leads that Trump has among certain demographics. Could it be the designer behind the graphics simply does not understand what he or she is doing? Perhaps. We clearly cannot know for certain.

Either way, it points to a need for more understanding of the importance and value of data visualisation in the political discourse. And then the natural follow-up of how to best design and create said visualisations to best inform the public.

But I highly recommend going to the Post and reading the entirety of the article.

Credit for the original work goes to the Trump campaign graphics department, the criticism to John Muyskens of the Washington Post.

Gerrymandered Districts

Well last night was the debate and it was a doozy. But while I was looking for some graphics capturing the debate itself, I came upon an article over on the Washington Post about gerrymandering. For those that do not know, gerrymandering is when state-level politicians draw the maps for congressional districts to preserve or diminish support for various representatives. And Pennsylvania is one of those states with a lot of oddly shaped districts.

Comparing a gerrymandered Pennsylvania to a not-so-much option
Comparing a gerrymandered Pennsylvania to a not-so-much option

Credit for the piece goes to the Washington Post graphics department.

Hillary Clinton’s E-mail Problem

Today Donald Trump should take the stage at the Republican National Convention as he accepts the party’s nomination to run for president. I suspect he will mention Crooked Hillary and quite possibly her e-mails. Thankfully, we have this Washington Post piece from earlier this month that examines the severity of her lapses in security.

Fractions of fractions of e-mails
Fractions of fractions of e-mails

Credit for the piece goes to Lazaro Gamio.

Words on the Orlando Shootings

Yesterday I looked at the coverage of the Orlando shooting. Today I want to look at a really nice piece from the Washington Post on the political reaction to the shooting. The Post collected the reactions and official statements of Congress, over 500 representatives and senators. They performed some analysis of the words and then parsed out sentences into groups. In the screenshot below, the phrases are colour-coded by party affiliation and then link to the copy of the statement. The end of the article features tiles for every statement, with relevant phrases colour-coded to those groups, e.g. phrases using something about thoughts and prayers. One of the most pronounced splits is on gun rights vs. gun controls. But overall, the whole piece is worth a read.

Selecting a single line from a statement
Selecting a single line from a statement

Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz, Weiyi Cai, Denise Lu, and Lazaro Gamio.

Coverage of the Orlando Shootings

Last Monday I stated that I would attempt a longer piece on the graphics explaining the shootings in Orlando. Since I do not have access to the print versions, I am examining only the digital versions here. Go grab a cup of tea, because this is certainly one of my longer pieces.

One of the most common ways sites covered the story was through maps of the club, Pulse. It makes a lot of sense—if we want to understand what happened inside the building we need to be able to place ourselves inside the building. So how to do that?

The first thought would be photography. But, the site is a crime scene likely riddled with bullets and stained with blood. Probably not the best thing for publications to use. So we are left with illustrations of the interior. But what level of detail do readers need to understand the story?

At the one end of the spectrum we have the stripped-down and simplified graphic from the BBC.

The BBC's layout
The BBC’s layout

In many respects this could offer the clearest explanation. Unlike the next versions, we have no graphical elements with which to confuse and clutter the drawing. Walls are omitted for a far more architectural layout. Doors are clearly marked, but that is it. We have no indication of where other key places are located. Where are the restrooms into which the attacker fled with hostages? Where are the dance floors? Where is the patio through which people escaped? We get some indication through the timeline annotations, but a lot of the detail needed to provide context is missing.

The New York Times takes a more detailed approach.

The New York Times layout
The New York Times layout

First you can see that the graphics, while smaller, are interspersed within a text-driven timeline of events. Key areas at that point in the timeline are highlighted on the graphic. For the graphic itself, the Times opts for a high-angle view with walls extending from the floor plan and the three key areas are annotated within the graphic. Colour is kept to a minimum with only whites and greys used in addition to the highlight. However, the high grey walls overlap with each other and the unidentified white boxes. What are the white boxes? Are they important? Do the walls need to be grey? Do they need to be so high that they interfere with the graphic?

We can see some different answers to those questions from the Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal's layout
The Wall Street Journal’s layout

Here the graphic is lighter in overall tone, with white and very faint greys replacing the darker tones in the New York Times’ piece. They Journal opts for the same graphics within timeline treatment. They also highlight the areas of the club relevant to the story at that moment in time. But here we first find a larger graphic. The Times could have had space limitations on their online site or they could have had to reuse graphics from their print edition for their online edition. While the Times could have very real reasons for the smaller images, the Journal’s larger graphic gives the content the space it needs to be read and understood comfortably. Also note how the use of grey vs. white for emphasis is reversed. Whereas the Times used white for unmarked boxes and grey for walls and floors, the Journal uses white for the floors and the walls. Grey is used to callout important parts of the club that are then crucially labelled, e.g. where the bars are located. Another really nice touch missing from my screenshot is how the Journal only labels the elements in the first graphic in the timeline. The second graphic only calls out the newly important elements.

The Washington Post takes a similar approach to that of the Journal.

The Washington Post's layout
The Washington Post’s layout

We see above the timeline a large graphic identifying the key areas of the club. The use of the small multiples in the timeline then allows the graphics to be smaller and thus accompanied by more text. But in the graphics, the Post diverges from the Journal’s direction in the graphic’s design. We find the layout depicted at a lower angle. And instead of a restrained palette, we find warm beiges and ochres depicting the floors and key elements like the bars. The shadows here begin call more attention to themselves than in the previous designs. We also find high levels of detail with the inclusion of bar stools and seat cushions. On the large graphic, the colour and detail, while distracting, still work because of the space. But in the small multiples for the timeline, a simplified version without stools and seats and a toned-down palette could make the graphic easier to understand.

And then somewhere between the approaches of the Journal and the Post we have the Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles Times' layout
The Los Angeles Times’ layout

We return to a restrained palette with colour used sparingly to emphasise key parts of the narrative. Detail is limited to the key elements, without any illustrative adornments like furniture. Typographic distinctions, bold vs. italic, delineate the important areas of the club from the remainder of the context. Elements like service alleys, fences, and the patio gate are clearly marked and provide that context of the possible escape routes for patrons attempting to flee the attacker. The graphic then repeats through the timeline, but the subsequent graphics reflect a missed opportunity. Each remains as labelled as this first, and the labels begin to distract from understanding the narrative.

Then we have the Orlando Sentinel’s timeline graphics.

The Orlando Sentinel's layout
The Orlando Sentinel’s layout

Note any similarities in this graphic to the preceding one? The Tribune Publishing Company, to be rebranded as tronc, owns both the Los Angeles Times and the Orlando Sentinel. So my guess would be the graphics departments collaborated or one of them created a shared asset to be used across the Tribune Publishing Company’s—sorry, tronc’s—media platforms. The Sentinel’s version lacks the finer design details of the LA Times’s, for example note how the typographic treatment here lacks the clearer hierarchy present in the LA Times’ version. I doubt the small type size increase would be noticed by the audience, though I could be wrong. But in terms of providing a timeline of events, the Sentinel’s version, which incorporates the above graphic as well as other media, is the most detailed and complete.

Then similar to some extents to the preceding graphics, we have a piece from the Orange County Register.

The Orange County Register's layout
The Orange County Register’s layout

As you can likely tell from the screenshot, this is a graphic where the entire piece is designed as a large graphic file instead of components on the page. It could be because the piece was designed primarily for print and not digital consumption. The layout of the club draws heavily on the BBC’s architectural drawing concept, but here is executed far more awkwardly. Instead of including hallways in the schematic, they are indicated by coloured rectangles. And we also know from the other graphics that almost the entirety of the wall at the graphic’s top supported the club’s main bathrooms. The graphic itself is sourced from The Villages Daily Sun, but the OC Register would have been better served by sourcing a more accurate and more clearly designed graphic for the layout. I should also point out the photograph at the top of the graphic appears to have come directly from the New York Times.

Lastly we have the National Post, which is at the other end of the spectrum.

The National Post's layout
The National Post’s layout

Per the style of the National Post, this graphic is more illustrative in its quality than the others. Like the Orange County Register, the National Post designed an entire graphic instead of smaller components on a webpage. The timeline occupies the left column and numbers correspond to locations in the club. However, I think the graphic could have been made more clear if the roof illustration were removed and a higher angle taken to make the back of the club easier to see.

Different publications included different amounts and types of supplemental context. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, for example, included additional graphics on mass shootings. Others, like the New York Times, provided links to pieces that examined the context separate from the timeline of events.

Is there a best design among these? Well, design exists to solve problems, and those problems could vary from publication to publication. How soon did the graphics needed to be published? How many people worked on the design? How much information was available when producing the work? Were print considerations necessary?

For me, the Orlando Sentinel’s work, in toto, most clearly presented the narrative. While I quibble with particular elements of the design, again, I would have removed most of the text labels after their first appearance, it provides a balanced amount of detail and broad overviews in a clear fashion. Colour is used to emphasise elements in that moment. The illustration itself does not distract and allows the reader to focus on the story itself.

Credit for the pieces goes to a lot of people.

BBC: BBC graphics department

New York Times: Gregor Aisch, Larry Buchanan, Joe Burgess, Ford Fessenden, Josh Keller, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Iaryna Mykhyalyshyn, Haeyoun Park, Adam Pearce, Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, Sergio Peçanha, Anjali Singhvi, Derek Watkins, and Karen Yourish.

Wall Street Journal: Wall Street Journal graphics department

Washington Post: Weiyi Cai, Emily Chow, Chiqui Esteban, Lazaro Gamio, Chris Ingraham, Laris Karklis, Denise Lu, and Tim Meko.

Los Angeles Times: Eben McCue and Angelica Quintero.

Orlando Sentinel: Gal Tziperman Lotan, Charles Minshew, Mike Lafferty and Andrew Gibson.

Ocean County Register: Ocean County Register graphics staff

National Post: Mike Faille and Dean Tweed.