The Great British Baking

Recently the United Kingdom baked in a significant heatwave. With climate change being a real thing, an extreme heat event in the summer is not terribly surprising. Also not surprisingly, the BBC posted an article about the impact of climate change.

The article itself was not about the heatwave, but rather the increasing rate of sea level rise in response to climate change. But about halfway down the article the author included this graphic.

It’s getting hotter…

As graphics go, it is not particularly fancy—a dot plot with ten points labelled. But what this piece does well is using a dot plot instead of the more common bar chart. I most typically see two types of charts when plotting “hottest days” or something similar. The first is usually a simple timeline with a dot or tick indicating when the event occurred. Second, I will sometimes see a bar chart with the hottest days presented all as bars, usually not in the proper time sequence, i.e. clustered bar next to bar next to bar.

My issue with the the latter is always where is the designer placing the bottom of the bar? When we look at the best temperature graphics, we usually refer to box plots wherein the bar is aligned to the day and then top of the bar is the daily high and the bottom of the bar the daily low. It does not make sense to plot temperatures starting at, say 0º.

In this particular case, however, the dates would appear to overlap too closely to allow a proper box plot. Though I suspect—and would be curious to see—if the daily minimum temperatures on each of those ten hottest days have also increased in temperature.

As to the timeline option, this does a better job of showing not just the increasing frequency of the hottest days, but also the rising maximum value. In the early 20th century the hottest day was 36.7ºC, and you can see a definite trend towards the hottest days nearing and finally surpassing 40ºC.

I do wonder if a benchmark line could have been added to the chart, e.g. the summertime average daily high or something similar. Or perhaps a line showing each day’s temperature faintly in the background.

Finally, I want to point out the labelling. Here the designers do a nice job of adding a white stroke or outline to the outside of the text labels. This allows the text to sit atop the y-axis lines and not have the lines interfere with the text’s legibility. That’s always a nice feature to see.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Warming Towards Women Leaders

We are going to start this week off with a nice small multiple graphic that explores the reducing resistance to women in positions of leadership in Arab countries. The graphic comes from a BBC article published last week.

A lot of positive negative movement.

These kinds of graphics allow a reader to quickly compare the trajectory of a thing between a start and an endpoint. The drawback is it can obscure any curious or interesting trends in the midpoints. For example, with Libya, is its flat trajectory always been flat? You could imagine a steep fall off but then rapid climb back up. That would be a story worth telling, but a story obscured by this type of graphic.

I do think the graphic could use a few tweaks to help improve the data clarity. The biggest change? I would work to improve the vertical scale, i.e. stretch each chart taller. Since we care about the drop in opposition to women leaders, let’s emphasise that part of the graphic. There could be space constraints for the graphic, but that said, it looks like some of the spacing between chart header and chart could be reduced. And I think for most of the charts except for the first, the year range could be added as a data definition to the graphic and removed from each chart. Similar to how every row only once uses the vertical axis labels.

Another way this could be done is by reducing the horizontal width of each chart in an attempt to squeeze the nine from three rows down to two. That would mean two additional chart positions per row. Tight fit? Probably, but there is also some extraneous space to the right and left of each chart and a large gap between the charts themselves. This all appears to be due to those aforementioned x-axis labels. An additional benefit to reducing the horizontal dimensions of each chart is it increases the vertical depth of the chart as each line’s slope, its rise over run, sees its horizontal distance shrink.

Overall this is a really smart graphic that works well, but with a few extra tweaks could take it to the next level.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

It’s a Little Steamy Out There

And by out there I mean 1150 light years away. One of the five amazing images out of the first day’s announcement by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) team was not a sexy photo of a nebula or a look back 13.5 billion years in time. Instead it was a plot of the amount of infrared light was blocked as exoplanet WASP-96b, a hot Jupiter, transited in front of its sun. A hot Jupiter is a gas giant roughly the size of Jupiter that orbits its sun so closely—often closer than Mercury does our Sun—its year takes mere days. WASP-96b is about half the mass of Jupiter and a year takes a little over three Earth days. Hot indeed.

The JWST means not just to take those images we saw, but to also capture data about the light passing through planetary atmospheres, just like WASP-96b. And showing the world Tuesday just how that works was a brilliant idea. What they shared was this graphic.

Everyone likes water.

The original post explains the science behind it, but in short we see telltale signs of water vapor in the atmosphere. Remember that the planet is far too hit for liquid water to exist. But because the peaks and troughs were not as pronounced as expected, scientists can conclude that there are clouds and haze in the atmosphere. It did not detect any significant signs of oxygen, carbon dioxide, or methane, all of which would be noticeable if present as we expect in future exoplanets to be studied.

But later that day, the BBC published an article summarising the releases, but included a different version of the above graphic. Though the other four photos were unchanged. The BBC presented us with this.

Also steamy.

The most notable difference is the background. What was a giant illustration of a planet and then a semi-transparent chart background atop that on which the graphic sat is here replaced by a simple white background. Off the bat this chart is easier to read.

But then here we also lose some data clarity. Note on the original how we have axis markers for the wavelengths of light and the parts per million of light blocked. All are absent here. Instead the BBC opted to only put “Shorter” and “Longer” on the wavelength axis. I would submit that there was no real need to remove those labels, but that they could have been added to with these new ones. The new labels certainly explain the numbers to an audience that may not be as scientifically literate as perhaps the JWST’s audience was or was thought to be. There is certainly a value to simplifying and distilling things to a level at which your audience can understand. But there’s also a value in presenting more complex data, issues, and ideas in an attempt to educate and elevate your audience. In other words, instead of always trying to play to the lowest common denominator, it sometimes is worth it to lose a few in the audience if you ultimately increase the level of said denominator overall.

The other notable difference is that the data is presented without what I assume to be plots of the range of observations with their respective medians. You can see this in the original by how every wavelength has a line and a dot sitting in the middle of that line. In other words, over the 6+ hours the planet was observed, at each wavelength a certain amount of light was blocked. The average middle point over that whole time period is the dot. Then a line of best fit “connects” the dots to show the composition of the light streaming though that steamy atmosphere.

Again, I can understand the desire to remove the ranges and keep the median, but I also think that there is little harm in showing both. Though, the first graphic could like have used an explanation of what was shown, as I’m only assuming what we have and I could be way off. You can show more things and raise the level of the denominator, but you can only do so if you explain what your audience is looking at.

Overall both graphics are nice and capture not just the particular makeup of this one exoplanet’s atmosphere, but more broadly the potential power of the JWST and its impact on astronomy.

Credit for the original goes to the NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI graphics teams.

Credit for the BBC version goes to the BBC graphics department.

Those Quirky Quarks

Last week scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland announced the discovery of new sub-atomic particles: a pentaquark and tetraquarks. This BBC article does a really good job of explaining the role of quarks in the composition of our universe, so I encourage you to read the article.

But they also included a graphic to show how quarks relate to atoms. It’s a simple illustration, but it does a great job.

There’s only one Quark though.

Sometimes great and informative graphics can be simple. They needn’t be flashy or over-designed. I could quibble about the depiction of the electron cloud around the nucleus, but it’s not terrible.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Turn Down the Heat

First, as we all should know, climate change is real. Now that does not mean that the temperature will always be warmer, it just means more extreme. So in winter we could have more severe cold temperatures and in hurricane season more powerful storms. But it does mean that in the summer we could have more frequent and hotter heat waves.

Enter the United States, or more specifically the North American continent. In this article from the BBC we see photographs of the way the current heatwave is playing out across the continent. But it opens up with a nice map. Well, nice as in nicely done, not as in this is actually nice weather.

Yeah, no thanks.

The only complaint most of my American readers might have is that the numbers make no sense. That’s because it’s all in Celsius. Unfortunately for Americans most of the rest of the world uses Celsius and not Fahrenheit. Suffice it to say you don’t want to be in the dark reds. 44C equals 111F. 10C, the greenish-yellow side of the spectrum, is a quite pleasant 50F.

And that can relate to a small housekeeping note. I’m back after a long weekend up in the Berkshires. I took a short holiday to go visit the area near that north–south band of yellow over the eastern portion of the United States. It was very cool and windy and overall a welcome respite from the heat that will be building back in here across the eastern United States later this week.

At least yesterday was the summer solstice. The days start getting shorter. And in about five weeks or so we will reach the daily average peak temperature here in Philadelphia. At that point the temperatures begin cooling towards their eventual mid-January nadir.

I can’t wait.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Into the Memory Hole

I noticed an interesting thing this morning. Over the holiday weekend I bookmarked a BBC News article about new airlines because it included a small graphic showing the number of airlines started during the pandemic (32) and the number of new airlines lost during the pandemic (55). The graphic used a stock three-dimensional illustration of a passenger airlines with a blank white body. From the top of the body rose two white bars, next to the left was the shorter of the two with a 32. The right was taller and had a 55. Above each was a header saying something to the effect of “Airlines started in 2020” and “Airlines lost in 2020”, respectively. Funny thing this morning that when I returned to the bookmark with this post in mind, the article’s graphic had disappeared.

This weekend I happened to start re-reading 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel about a man named Winston Smith. He works in the Records Department and is tasked with “rectifying” misstatements. I had just finished reading the section where Orwell describes Smith’s work wherein he takes previously published newspaper articles about statistics and figures and then edits them to include new numbers aligned with the actual outputs. This way should anyone read the old article for evidence of a previous past, they find the output forecasts have always been correct. He then destroys the written record of the old past by dumping it into a memory hole, a pneumatic tube that delivers it straight to a furnace where the old past is incinerated and thus replaced with Smith’s new version.

When I read the article again, because the graphic was gone, I read a paragraph that had figures for 2021. I cannot recall those numbers being present earlier this weekend. But they are roughly where I remember the old graphic being. Yet the article includes no note about any edits to a previous version let alone what those edits may have been. And so now I am left wondering if I really saw what I think I remember that I saw. How very Orwellian.

But let’s assume I did see what I thought I saw, the graphic was actually unnecessary. It presented two figures, 32 and 55. The bar chart itself had no axis labels and that made it a bit difficult to believe the numbers themselves. It did not help that the white bars blended almost seamlessly into the white body of the airliner. Moreover, the graphic was large and fit the full width of the text column. For two figures.

My initial goal was to show this graphic I made to show just how little space truly needs to be used to show an effective graphic. I also changed the direction of the bars. Instead of making one bar about the positive change and the other the negative change, I made both bars about the change. Therefore the one bar moved upwards with the positive (32) and the other downwards with the negative (55). I then plotted a dot to show the net change between the two. Yes, 32 airlines were created in 2020. But that still made for a net loss of 23 that year.

But because the graphic was missing and there was some new text for 2021 figures, I decided to incorporate them as well to show how the trend basically continued year over year.

Finally, a graphic

I left the white space to the right to illustrate how you really do not need a full-width graphic to display only six data points, itself a three-fold increase on the original graphic’s data content. The original graphic contained more illustrated plane than it did data content.

Graphics should be about the data, not about the splashy, flashy, whizbang background content that ultimately distracts our attention away from what should be the focal point of the piece: the data. The article still contains photos of planes with the livery of the new airlines, of empty terminals to represent the pandemic losses, and portraits of executives. This graphic did not need an illustrated plane taking over the graphic. It needed to only show those two numbers.

I would even contend that the article could have made do with a simple factette, two big numbers. Airlines closed in 2020 and the airlines opened. It need not be fancy, but it quickly delivers the big numbers with which the reader should be concerned. You don’t need to see an aircraft or a terminal. You could add some colour to the numbers or even a minus sign as there is a significant difference between a 55 and a -55. But all in all, the graphic need not be full width like it was originally.

But I think we should all keep in mind the value of transparency. The graphic did exist, of that I am certain. But future readers or even my sanity cannot be sure that it did. And in an era where “fake news” and fact-checking are important, I wonder if we need to be including corrections notes in more of our news articles. Because if we lose faith in our news, we have little left to lean upon in our societal discourse about the events of our time.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Exposing More of China’s Crimes in Xinjiang

For those who don’t know, China currently engages in ethnocide, or cultural genocide in its western province of Xinjiang, a province with a majority of its population being Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people. Ethnocide is a term I prefer over genocide as genocide more commonly refers to practices like those in Nazi Germany or 1990s Rwanda and Bosnia wherein people are systematically executed and murdered. Ethnocide leaves a people alive but aims to destroy and extinguish their culture ultimately replacing it with that of another. In this case, Beijing’s policy is to strip the Uighurs of their Muslim culture and identity and replace it with loyalty to China and the Chinese Communist Party.

The BBC have just published what they call the Xinjiang Police Files, files and data hacked off of Chinese government servers and then handed over to a US-based expert on Xinjiang and the atrocities there. That person then handed copies to the BBC, which has verified much of the content.

There is not much by way of data visualisation or information design, but the story is worth mentioning because maybe over one million people are being forcibly detained and “re-educated” by Beijing. One of the articles about the files, however, does have a small graphic of one of the “re-education camps”, i.e. prison, and details its design and the facilities therein.

Certainly not like any school I have ever attended…

Political liberalism and pluralism are messy. Often it means we hear and listen to things with which we disagree, sometimes vehemently. Freedom of speech, expression, and religion can make us feel uncomfortable, hurt our feelings, and even sick to our stomachs. But that is also the price of our liberty to speak, express, and pray ourselves. Because we only need to look to China to see what happens when a society or a government decides what is or isn’t acceptable speech (peaceful protests against the government), expression (growing out a beard), or religion (praying in a mosque). An authoritarian regime, an anti-liberal regime, will attempt to stifle, silence, and ultimately imprison those who go against the (Chinese Communist) party line.

1984 rings a little more true each year.

Credit for the piece goes to John Sudworth and the BBC’s Visual Journalism Team.

Black Holes and Revelations: Remastered

Two years ago I posted about how the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration managed to take the first photograph of a black hole, in particular a supermassive black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy, one of those galaxies far, far away that we see at a long time ago.

This morning, the same group of scientists released the first photograph of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our very own Milky Way Galaxy. The BBC article I read this morning included the photo of the black hole, which you should definitely check out because of its importance in the history of astronomy. But, for our purposes here on Coffeespoons, I wanted to look at the diagram the designers at the BBC made to explain the photograph.

So cool.

The designer used some simple white lines with a thicker stroke for the axis and defining features and a thinner line to point to elements of the photo. In particular I like the dotted line for the black hole, because there is no real way to photograph the hole itself since it consumes all the light we would need to image it. Instead, we photograph the “black hole” at the centre of the accretion disk, all the super heated gas and matter slowly swirling around and collapsing into the singularity. We also get two axes to show the size of the ring and that of the black hole itself. The ring measures a diameter of about 63 million kilometres. The distance from the Sun to Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun, is 58 million kilometres.

Supermassive indeed.

Well done, science. Well done.

Credit for the piece goes to the graphics team at the BBC.

Colours for Maps

Today we have an interesting little post, a choropleth map in a BBC article examining the changes occurring in the voting systems throughout the United States. Broadly speaking, we see two trends in the American political system when it comes to voting: make it easier because democracy; make it more restrictive because voter fraud/illegitimacy. The underlying issue, however, is that we have not seen any evidence of widespread or concerted efforts of voter fraud or problems with elections.

Think mail-in ballots are problematic? They’ve been used for decades without issues in many states. That doesn’t mean a new state could screw up the implementation of mail-in voting, but it’s a proven safe and valid system for elections.

Think that were issues of fraudulent voters? We had something like sixty cases brought before the courts and I believe in only one or two instances were the issues even remotely proven. The article cites some Associated Press (AP) reporting that identified only 500 cases of fraudulent votes. Out of over 14 million votes cast.

500 out of 14,000,000.

Anyway, the map in the article colours states by whether they have passed expansive or restrictive changes to voting. Naturally there are categories for no changes as well as when some expansive changes and some restrictive changes were both passed.

Normally I would expect to see a third colour for the overlap. Imagine we had red and blue, a blend of those colours like purple would often be a designer’s choice. Here, however, we have a hatched pattern with alternating stripes of orange and blue. You don’t see this done very often, and so I just wanted to highlight it.

I don’t know if this marks a new stylistic design direction by the BBC graphics department. Here I don’t necessarily love the pattern itself, the colours make it difficult to read the text—though the designers outlined said text, so points for that.

But I’ll be curious to see if I, well, see more of this in coming weeks and months.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Regal Birthplaces

Earlier this week marked the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne of the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth realms. There are many graphics about the length of her reign and the numerous prime ministers and presidents she has met over the years. But I actually enjoyed this article from the BBC as it dovetails nicely with my interest in genealogy, which frequently looks at the same sort of materials.

In genealogy we often want to find photos, illustrations, or really any kind of documentation that ties an ancestor to a particular place at a particular time. What I never realised is that the birthplace of Her Majesty, the Queen, no longer exists.

It kind of makes sense, however, when you consider that as the daughter of the younger son she was never expected to take the throne. When her uncle abdicated, however, her father took the throne and then she became next in line and we all know the rest. But because of that lack of expectation her birthplace was just another London townhome. The article details how development changed the location, not the Blitz as is often thought.

You can see from the screenshot above how the article uses a slider device to compare the neighbourhood in London today vs. what it was in 1895, about 30 years before the Queen’s birth.

At this point we’re all familiar with sliders, but they do work really well when it comes to this kind of before-after comparison.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.