In the last 18 months of looking at the data behind Covid-19 and the vaccines, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people, maybe even some of you, about the pandemic and the vaccines we’re using to combat it. Unfortunately, I’m just one person. Seth MacFarlane, however, has himself and the crew behind Family Guy to produce an advert for the Ad Council. The advert explains how vaccines work, why you should get them, and does so with some really nice animation. Animation that tops any illustrations I could do.
Last month on another Friday I shared some graphics from a video by CCP Grey that looked at the origin and history of the name Tiffany. It’s a great video and I highly recommend it. But last week he published…an addendum I guess you could call it.
The piece takes a look at a research path he took for the video. It happened to involve some history and genealogy, two things I personally enjoy, and found it to be a fascinating insight into his research process.
The screenshot above hints at the idea that sometimes work is not linear and, especially when I’m doing genealogy work, there are often tangents and dead ends. In other words, to an extent, I can relate.
I’ve been searching to see if I could find a better motion graphic of this, alas not. I saw a post on Instagram from the Washington Post that featured a timelapse video or graphic of the spread of the Caldor Wildfire. The Caldor Wildfire presently rages southwest of Lake Tahoe and has now forced the evacuation of South Lake Tahoe, a city of more than 20,000 people.
The motion graphic just does a nice job of simply capturing the spread, in both direction and speed, of the wildfire. Obviously, the whole area could use the inches of rain that Hurricane Ida is dumping on the eastern half of the country.
Credit for the piece goes to the Washington Post graphics department.
After twenty years out of power, the Taliban in Afghanistan are back in power as the Afghan government collapsed spectacularly this past weekend. In most provinces and districts, government forces surrendered without firing a shot. And if you’re going to beat an army in the field, you generally need to, you know, fight if you expect to beat them.
I held off on posting anything about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan simply because it happened so quick. It was not even two months ago when they began their offensive. But whenever I started to prepare a post, things would be drastically different by the next morning.
And so this timeline graphic from the BBC does a good job of capturing the rapid collapse of the Afghan state. It starts in early July with a mixture of blue, orange, and red—we’ll come back to the colours a bit later. Blue represents the Afghan government, red the Taliban, and orange contested areas.
The graphic includes some controls at the bottom, a play/pause and forward/backward skip buttons. The geographic units are districts, sub-provincial level units that I would imagine are roughly analogous to US counties, but that’s supposition on my part. Additionally the map includes little markers for some of the country’s key cities. Finally in the lower right we have a little scorecard of sorts, showing how many of the nearly 400 districts were in the control of which group.
Skip forward five weeks and the situation could not be more different.
Almost all of Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban. There’s not a whole lot else to say about that fact. The army largely surrendered without firing a shot. Though some special forces and commando units held out under siege, notably in Kandahar where a commando unit held the airport until after the government fell only to be evacuated to the still-US-held Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
My personal thoughts, well you can blame Biden and the US for a rushed US exodus that looks bad optically, but the American withdrawal plan, initiated by Trump let’s not forget, counted on the Afghan army actually fighting the Taliban and the government negotiating some kind of settlement with the Taliban. Neither happened. And so the end came far quicker than anyone thought possible.
But we’re here to talk graphics.
In general I like this. I prefer this district-level map to some of the similar province-level maps I have seen, because this gives a more granular view of the situation on the ground. Ideally I would have included a thicker line weight to denote the provinces, but again if it’s one or the other I’d opt for district-level data.
That said, I’d probably have used white lines instead of black. If you look in the east, especially south and east of Kabul, the geographically small areas begin to clump up into a mass of shapes made dark by the black outlines. That black is, of course, darker than the reds, blues, and yellows. If the designers had opted for white or even a light shade of grey, we would enhance the user’s ability to see the district-level data by dropping the borders to the back of the visual hierarchy.
Finally with colours, I’m not sure I understand the rationale behind the red, blue, yellow here. Let’s compare the BBC’s colour choice to that of the Economist. (Initially I was going to focus on the Economist’s graphics, but last minute change of plans.)
Here we see a similar scheme: red for the Taliban, blue for the government. But notably the designers coloured the contested areas grey, not yellow. We also have more desaturated colours here, not the bright and vibrant reds, blues, and yellows of the BBC maps above.
First the grey vs. yellow. It depends on what the designers wanted to show. The grey moves the contested districts into the background, focusing the reader’s attention on the (dwindling) number of districts under government control. If the goal is to show where the fighting is occurring, i.e. the contest, the yellow works well as it draws the reader’s attention. But if the goal is to show which parts of the country the Taliban control and which parts the government, the grey works better. It’s a subtle difference, I know, but that’s why it would be important to know the designer’s goal.
I’ll also add that the Economist map here shows the provincial capitals and uses a darker, more saturated red dot to indicate if they’d fallen to the Taliban. Contrast that with the BBC’s simple black dots. We had a subtler story than “Taliban overruns country” in Afghanistan where the Taliban largely did hold the rural, lower populated districts outside the major cities, but that the cities like the aforementioned Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif held out a little bit longer, usually behind commando units or local militia. Personally I would have added a darker, more saturated blue dot for cities like Kabul, which at the time of the Economist’s map, was not under threat.
Then we have the saturation element of the red and blue.
Should the reds be brighter, vibrant and attention grabbing or ought they be lighter and restrained, more muted? It’s actually a fairly complex answer and the answer is ultimately “it depends”. I know that’s the cheap way out, but let me explain in the context of these maps.
Choropleth maps like this, i.e. maps where a geographical unit is coloured based on some kind of data point, in this instance political/military control, are, broadly speaking, comprised of large shapes or blocks of colour. In other words, they are not dot plots or line charts where we have small or thin instances of colour.
Now, I’m certain that in the past you’ve seen a wall or a painting or an advert for something where the artist or designer used a large, vast area of a bright colour, so bright that it hurt your eyes to look at the area. I mean imagine if the walls in your room were painted that bright yellow colour of warning signs or taxis.
That same concept also applies to maps, data visualisation, and design. We use bright colours to draw attention, but ideally do so sparingly. Larger areas or fields of colours often warrant more muted colours, leaving any bright uses to highlight particular areas of attention or concern.
Imagine that the designers wanted to highlight a particular district in the maps above. The Economist’s map is better designed to handle that need, a district could have its red turned to 11, so to speak, to visually separate it from the other red districts. But with the BBC map, that option is largely off the table because the colours are already at 11.
Why do we have bright colours? Well over the years I’ve heard a number of reasons. Clients ask for graphics to be “exciting”, “flashy”, “make it sizzle” because colours like the Economist’s are “boring”, “not sexy”.
The point of good data visualisation, however, is not to make things sexy, exciting, or flashy. Rather the goal is clear communication. And a more restrained palette leaves more options for further clarification. The architect Mies van der Rohe famously said “less is more”. Just as there are different styles of architecture we have different styles of design. And personally my style is of the more restrained variety. Using less leaves room for more.
Note how the Economist’s map is able to layer labels and annotations atop the map. The more muted and desaturated reds, blues, and greys also allow for text and other artwork to layer atop the map but, crucially, still be legible. Imagine trying to read the same sorts of labels on the BBC map. It’s difficult to do, and you know that it is because the BBC designers needed to move the city labels off the map itself in order to make them legible.
Both sets of maps are strong in their own right. But the ultimate loser here is going to be the Afghan people. Though it is pretty clear that this was the ultimate result. There just wasn’t enough support in the broader country to prop up a Western style liberal democracy. Or else somebody would have fought for it.
Credit for the BBC piece goes to the BBC graphics department.
Credit for the Economist piece goes to the Economist graphics department.
Happy Friday, all. We made it through another week of Covid, vaccinations, asteroids, and all that pleasant stuff. So let’s end with an upbeat note.
Over on YouTube there’s a channel I have long enjoyed, CCP Grey, who creates videos about, well lots of things, but sometimes really interesting historical, geographical, and political topics.
This week he released a video about Tiffany. As in the name Tiffany.
In addition to some great 80s aesthetics, the video touches on a couple of things that particularly interest me.
You see names are an important part of genealogical research. After all, almost all of us have names. (Some infants died without names.) Now in my family, on both my mother’s and father’s side I have a lot of Johns. In fact, I broke a line of five consecutive John Barrys. But occasionally a family will have a rarer or more uncommon name that allows you to trace that individual and therefore his or her family through time and space/place.
Grey tracks the history of the name Tiffany from its possible origin to some reasons for its popularity in the 1980s. And that includes some great graphics like this chart tracking the number of children with the name.
In the screenshot above you can see one thought he has on why the name took off in the latter half of the 20th century after languishing for centuries.
But he also examined the family history of one Tiffany and how that became important in the cultural zeitgeist. And to do so he used a family tree.
It’s a nine-minute long video and well worth your time.
I think what’s interesting to consider, however, is how this story could be told for many if not most names. There’s a reason they exist and how, by pure happenstance, they survive and get passed down family lines.
Though I have to say I did a quick search in my family tree and I have not a single Tiffany.
Of course the inside threat are those little bodies of coronavirus causing Covid-19. We cover them a lot here. But there are also threats from little bodies outside, way outside. Like asteroids impacting us. And that was the news yesterday when NASA announced improved data from a mission to the asteroid Bennu allowed it to refine its orbital model.
And we have reason to ever just so very slightly worry. Because there is a very slight chance that Bennu will impact Earth. In 2182. The New York Timesarticle where I read the news included a motion graphic produced by NASA to explain that the determining factor will be a near pass in 2135.
Essentially, the exact course Bennu takes as it passes Earth in 2135 will determine its path in 2182. But just a few slight variations could send it colliding into Earth. Though, to be clear, it’s only a 1-in-1750 chance.
NASA used the metaphor of keyholes to explain the concept. The potential orbits in 2135 function as keyholes and should Bennu pass into the right keyhole, it will setup a collision with Earth in 2182. Hence the use of little keyholes in the motion graphic that accompanied the article.
But who knows, if we’re lucky the United Federation of Planets will still be formed in 2161 and the starship Enterprise will gently nudge Bennu back into a non-threatening orbit.
Yesterday I mentioned how I spent Monday researching some old family properties in Philadelphia. In some cases the homes my family owned still stand. But, in many others the homes have long since been replaced. But that’s the nature of city development.
That got me thinking about an article published earlier this month at Philadelphia YIMBY where the author created an animated .gif detailing the Philadelphia skyline from 1905 through 2020. This screenshot captures the overlay of 2020 atop 1905 from the south of Philadelphia.
But the gem of the piece is the animation. Implicit in the graphic but unmentioned is the text, which is understandably centred on the architectural designs of the skyline, is the history of Philadelphia.
In the old days, well before 1905, the city was concentrated along the Delaware River because it was—and still is—a port city. But as those shipping businesses were replaced by banks and financial companies which were replaced by other offices and manufacturing headquarters that were themselves replaced by corporate highrises and so on and so forth, we can see the centre of gravity shift westward.
The mass of buildings by 1905 has shifted away from the Delaware River and is concentrated to the east of City Hall, the tallest building until the 1980s. But you can see the highest and largest buildings moving more to the left in every frame. Though in the latest you can see some new largely residential highrises built along the Delaware waterfront.
As many of my readers know, I prefer my weather cooler and summer is probably my least favourite season—weather wise at least. Appropriately, my vaccination will be kicking in just in time for a small, early season heatwave. Felt like an appropriate time to share this piece from Brian Brettschenider.
It’s just an animated map showing where in the United States and Canada the daily average high temperature is 70ºF for each day of the year. Here’s where you can expect a daily high of 70ºF for the date of 20 May. Not Philadelphia.
Make sure to click through to watch the video on the Twitter.
Credit for the piece goes to Brian Brettschneider.
Most of my readers know that I am a designer who works in all formats. But, I really love working in print. Colours, textures, and the physicality of it all. Give me a foil stamp or metallic ink any day.
Any American designer who’s ever worked for an overseas client or overseas designer who’s ever worked for an American client knows all about the US Letter vs A4 debate.
For those that don’t, the US (along with Canada, Mexico, and a very few other countries) use what we call letter size paper. The rest of the world uses A4, part of the ISO 216 international standard. A4 has some special properties that make it the superior choice in my opinion.
But this is a Friday, so we’re here for the lighter take. And for that we have a video by CCP Grey, who explains some of the properties of A4 and then provides a fascinating perspective on it all. It’s about nine minutes long for what it’s worth.
For those of my readers who live in a city where the subway or underground is a great means of getting around the city, you know you really miss that late Saturday night/early Sunday morning bouquet in the air. Though as this New York Times piece explains, sure it smells bad, but that air is probably safer than you dining indoors at a restaurant or even a child attending class in person.
The piece focuses on New York City subway cars, but they are very similar to the rest of the stock used in the United States. It uses a scrolling reveal to show how the air circulation and filtration systems work. Then it concludes with a model of how a person sneezing appears, both with and without a mask. (Spoiler, wear a mask.)
It’s a really nicely done and informative piece. It compares the rate of air recycled in a subway car to that of several other locations, and the results were a bit surprising to me. Of course, early on in the pandemic before we began to fully understand it, the threat was thought to be from contaminated surfaces—and let’s be honest, there are a lot of contaminated surfaces in a New York City subway car—but we now know the real risk is particles breathed/coughed/sneezed out from one’s mouth and nose. And we can now see just how efficient subways are at cycling and filtering that air.
Credit for the piece goes to Mika Gröndahl, Christina Goldbaum, and Jeremy White.