New Mexico Burns

Editor’s note: I was having some technical issues last week. This was supposed to post last week.

Editor’s note two: This was supposed to go up on Monday. Still didn’t. Third time’s the charm?

Yesterday I wrote about a piece from the New York Times that arrived on my doorstep Saturday morning. Well a few mornings earlier I opened the door and found this front page: a map of the western United States highlighting the state of New Mexico.

That doesn’t exactly look like a climate I’d enjoy.

Unlike the graphic we looked at yesterday, this graphic stretched down the page and below the fold, not by much, but still notably. The maps are good and the green–red spectrum passes the colour blind test. How the designer chose to highlight New Mexico is subtle, but well done. As the temperature and precipitation push towards the extreme, the colours intensify and call attention to those areas.

Also unlike the graphic we looked at yesterday, this piece contained some additional graphics on the inside pages.

Definitely not a place where I want to be.

These are also nicely done. Starting with the line chart at the bottom of the page, we can contrast this to some of the charts we looked at yesterday.

Burn, baby, burn.

Here the designer used axis lines and scales to clearly indicate the scale of New Mexico’s wildfire problem. Not only can you see that the number of fires detected has spiked far above than the number in the previous years back to 2003. And not only is the number greater, the speed at which they’ve occurred is noticeably faster than most years. The designer also chose to highlight the year in question and then add secondary importance to two other bad years, 2011 and 2012.

The other graphics are also maps like on the front page. The first was a locator map that pointed out where the fires in question occurred. Including one isn’t much of a surprise, but what this does really nicely is show the scale of these fires. They are not an insignificant amount of area in the state.

Pointing out where I really don’t want to be in New Mexico.

Finally we have the main graphic of the piece, which is a map of the spread of the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fire, which was two separate fires until they merged into one. The article does a good job explaining how part of the fire was actually intentionally set as part of a controlled burn. It just became a bit uncontrolled shortly thereafter.

Nope. Definitely not a place to be.

This reminded me of a piece I wrote about last autumn when the volcano erupted on La Palma. In that I looked at an article from the BBC covering the spread of the lava as it headed towards the coast. In that case darker colours indicated the earlier time periods. Here the Times reversed that and used the darker reds to indicate more recent fire activity.

Overall the article does a really nice job showing just what kind of problems New Mexico faces not just now from today’s environmental conditions, but also in the future from the effects of climate change.

Credit for the piece goes to Guilbert Gates, Nadja Popovich, and Tim Wallace.

May Jobs Report

Friday the Bureau of Labour Statistics published the data on the jobs facet of the American economy. Saturday morning I woke up and found the latest New York Times visualisation of said jobs report waiting for me at my door. The graphic sat\s above the fold and visually led the morning paper.

Almost out of the hole.

We have a fairly simple piece here, in a good way. Two sections comprise the graphic. The first uses a stacked bar chart to detail the months wherein the US economy lost jobs during the previous two and a half years. We can take a closer look in this second photo that I took.

But the recovery hasn’t been uniformly good for all.

Here we can see the stacked bars pile up with the most recent bars to the right. Some of the larger bars have labels stating the number of jobs either lost (top) or gained (bottom). I’m not normally a fan of stacked bar charts, because they don’t allow a reader to easily discern like-for-like changes. In this instance, the goal is to show how close all the little bits have come towards making up the three negative bars. Where I take issue is that I would prefer the designers used some sort of scale to indicate even a rough sense of how many jobs the various bars represent.

That issue crops up again to a slightly lesser degree with the bottom set of graphics. These compare the growth of hourly earnings and inflation both from February 2020. During the first few months of the pandemic and its recession, you can see earnings for those most directly impacted by shutdowns drop. But there is no negative scale accompanying the positive scale and that makes it difficult to determine just how far earnings fell for those in, say, leisure and hospitality.

The second part of the graphic works overall, however it’s just some of the finer design details that are missing and take away from the graphic’s overall effectiveness.

This all fits part of a larger trend in data visualisation that I’ve been noticing the last few months. Fewer charts seem to be using axes and scales. It’s not a good thing for the field. Maybe some other day I’ll write some things about it.

For this piece, though, we have an overall solid effort. Some different design decisions could have made the piece clearer and more effective, but it still does the job.

Credit for the piece goes to Ben Casselman, Ella Koeze, and Bill Marsh.

More on Those Million Covid-19 Deaths

Yesterday I focused on the big graphic from the New York Times that crossed the full spread of the front/back page. But the graphic was merely the lead graphic for a larger piece. I linked to the online version of the article, but for this post I’m going to stick with the print edition. The article consists of a full-page open then an entire interior spread, all in limited colour. The remainder of the extensive coverage consists of photo essays and interviews that understandably attempt to humanise the data points, after all, each dot from yesterday represented one individual, solitary, human being. That is an important element of a story like this and other national and international tragedies, but we also need to focus on the data and not let the emotion of the story overwhelm our rational and logical analysis.

Sometimes it’s hard to realise we’re in the third year of this pandemic.

From a data visualisation standpoint the first page begins simply enough with a long timeline of the Covid-19 pandemic charting the number of absolute deaths each day. As we looked at yesterday, the absolute deaths tell part of the story. But if we were to have looked at the number of absolute cases in conjunction with the deaths, we could also see how the virus has thus far evolved to be more transmissible but less lethal. Here the number of daily deaths from Omicron surpassed Delta, but fell short of the winter peak in early 2021. But the number of cases exploded with Omicron, making its mortality rate lower. In other words, far more people were getting sick, but as far fewer were dying.

An interesting note is that if you take a look at the online version, there the designers chose a more stylised approach to presenting the data.

All the dots

Here they kept the dot approach and simply stacked and reordered the dots. However, I presume for aesthetic reasons, they kept the stacking loose dots and dropped all the axis lines because it does make for a nice transition from the map to this chart. But they also dropped all headings and descriptors that tell the reader just what they are looking at. These decisions make the chart far less useful as a tool to tell the data-driven element of the story.

There are three annotations that label the number of deaths in New York, the Northeast, and the rest of the United States. But what does the chart say? When are the endpoints for those annotations? And then you can compare the scale of the y-axis of this chart and compare it to the printed version above. A more dramatic scale leads to a more dramatic narrative.

This sort of visual style of flash and fancy transitions over the clear communication of the data is why I find the print piece more compelling and more trustworthy. I find the online version, still useful, but far more lacking and wanting in terms of information design.

The interior spread is where this article shines.

Just a fantastic spread.

From an editorial design standpoint, the symmetry works very well here. It’s a clear presentation and the white space around the graphic blocks lets that content shine as it should in this type of story. Collectively these pieces do a great job telling the story of the pandemic thus far across the nation. The graphics do not need a lot of colour and make do with sparse flash. Annotations call the reader’s attention to salient points and outliers.

Very nice work here.

From a content standpoint, I would be particularly curious if we have robust data for deaths by education level. Earlier this year I recall reading news about a study that said education best correlated to Covid cases, and I would be curious to see if that held true for deaths. Of course these charts do a great job of showing just how effective the vaccines were and remain. They are the best preventative measure we have available to us.

More really nice graphics

Here I disagree with the design decision of how to break down the states into regions. The Census Bureau breaks down the United States into four regions using the same names as in the graphic above. However, if you look closely at the inset map, you will see that Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia in particular are included as part of the Northeast. (I cannot tell if the District of Columbia is included as part of the Northeast or South.)

Now compare that to the Census Bureau’s definition:

How the government defines US geography

If you ask me to include Delaware and Maryland as part of the Northeast, well, if you’re selling it, I’ll buy it. After all, just because the Census Bureau defines the United States this way does not mean the New York Times has to. Both are connected to the Northeast Corridor via Amtrak and I-95 and are plugged into the Megalopolis economy. Maybe the Potomac should be the demarcation between Northeast and South. But I struggle to understand West Virginia. Before you go and connect it to the Northeast, I would argue that West Virginia has far more in common with the Midwest geographically, economically, and culturally.

More critically, given this issue, it strikes me as a serious problem when the online version of the chart—with the aforementioned issues—does not even include the little inset to highlight this at best unusual regional definition.

Where would you place West Virginia?

And so while I have reservations about the data—how would the data have looked if the states were realigned?—the design of the line charts overall is good.

Again, I am talking about the print version, not that online graphic. I would argue that the above screenshot is barely even a chart and more “data art” or an illustration of data. Consider here, for example, that for the South we have that muted slate blue for the dots, but the spacing and density of the dots leads to areas of lighter slate and darker slate. But a lighter slate means more space between stacked dots and darker slate means a more compact design. A lighter colour therefore pushes the “edge” of the line further up the y-axis and artificially inflates its value, not that we can understand what that value is as the “chart” lacks any sort of y-axis.

Finally the print piece has a set of small multiples breaking down deaths by income in the three largest American cities: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. These are just great little charts showing the correlation between income and death from Covid, organised by Zip code.

But this also serves as a stark reminder of just how much better the print piece is over the online version. Because if we take a look at a screenshot from the online article, we have a graphic that addresses all the issues I pointed out earlier.

Why couldn’t the online article kept to this style?

I am left to wonder why the reader of the online version does not have access to this clearer and more accurate representation of the data throughout the piece?

To me this article is a great example of when the print piece far exceeds that of the online version. Content-wise this is a great story that needed to be told this weekend, but design wise we see a significant gap in quality from print to online. Suffice it to say that on Sunday I was very glad I received the print version.

Credit for the piece goes to Sarah Almukhtar, Amy Harmon, Danielle Ivory, Lauren Leatherby, Albert Sun, and Jeremy White.

One Million Covid-19 Deaths

This past weekend the United States surpassed one million deaths due to Covid-19. To put that in other terms, imagine the entire city of San Jose, California simply dead. Or just a little bit more than the entire city of Austin, Texas. Estimates place the number of those infected at about 80 million. Back of the envelope maths puts that fatality rate at 1.25%. That’s certainly lower than earlier versions of the virus, which has evolved to be more transmissible, but thankfully less lethal than its original form.

Sunday morning I opened the door to my flat and found the Sunday edition of the New York Times waiting for me with a sobering graphic not just above the fold, nor across the front page. No, the graphic—a map where each dot represents one Covid-19 death—wrapped around the entire paper.

Above the fold
Full page
Full spread

You don’t need to do much more here. Black and white colour sets the tone simply enough. Of course, a bit more critically, these maps mask one of the big issues with the geographic spread of not just this virus but many other things: relatively few people live west of the Mississippi River.

Enormous swathes of the plains and Rocky Mountains have but few farmers and ranchers living there. Most of the nation’s populous cities are along the coast, particularly the East Coast, or along rivers or somewhat arbitrary transport hubs. You can see those because this map does not actually plot the locations of individual deaths, but rather fills county borders with dots to represent the deaths that occurred within those limits. That’s why, particularly west of the Mississippi, you see square-shaped concentrations of deaths.

A choropleth map that explores deaths per capita, that is after adjusting for population, shows a different story. (This screenshot comes from the New York Times‘ data centre for Covid-19.

A somewhat different story

The story here is literally less black and white as here we see colours in yellows to deep burnt crimsons. Whilst the big map yesterday morning concentrated deaths in the Northeast, West Coast, and around Chicago we see here that, relative to the counties’ populations, those same areas fared much better than counties in the plains, Midwest, and Deep South.

A quick scan of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states shows that only one county, Juniata in Pennsylvania, fell into the two worst deaths per capita bins—the deeper reds. Juniata County sits squarely in the middle of Pennsyltucky or Trumpsylvania, where Covid countermeasures were not terribly popular. No other county in the region shares that deep red.

Look to the southeast and south, however, and you see lots of deep and burnt crimsons dotting the landscape. This doesn’t mean people didn’t die in the Northeast, because of course they did. Rather, a greater percentage of the population died elsewhere when, as the policies enacted by the Northeast and West Coast show, they didn’t need to.

After all, injecting bleach was never a good idea.

Credit for the piece goes to Jeremy White.

Covid Vaccination and Political Polarisation

I will try to get to my weekly Covid-19 post tomorrow, but today I want to take a brief look at a graphic from the New York Times that sat above the fold outside my door yesterday morning. And those who have been following the blog know that I love print graphics above the fold.

On my proverbial stoop this morning.

Of the six-column layout, you can see that this graphic gets three, in other words half-a-page width, and the accompany column of text for the article brings this to nearly 2/3 the front page.

When we look more closely at the graphic, you can see it consists of two separate parts, a scatter plot and a line chart. And that’s where it begins to fall apart for me.

Pennsylvania is thankfully on the more vaccinated side of things

The scatter plot uses colour to indicate the vote share that went to Trump. My issue with this is that the colour isn’t necessary. If you look at the top for the x-axis labelling, you will see that the axis represents that same data. If, however, the designer chose to use colour to show the range of the state vote, well that’s what the axis labelling should be for…except there is none.

If the scatter plot used proper x-axis labels, you could easily read the range on either side of the political spectrum, and colour would no longer be necessary. I don’t entirely understand the lack of labelling here, because on the y-axis the scatter plot does use labelling.

On a side note, I would probably have added a US unvaccination rate for a benchmark, to see which states are above and below the US average.

Now if we look at the second part of the graphic, the line chart, we do see labelling for the axis here. But what I’m not fond of here is that the line for counties with large Trump shares, the line significantly exceeds the the maximum range of the chart. And then for the 0.5 deaths per 100,000 line, the dots mysteriously end short of the end of the chart. It’s not as if the line would have overlapped with the data series. And even if it did, that’s the point of an axis line, so the user can know when the data has exceeded an interval.

I really wanted to like this piece, because it is a graphic above the fold. But the more I looked at it in detail, the more issues I found with the graphic. A couple of tweaks, however, would quickly bring it up to speed.

Credit for the piece goes to Ashley Wu.

I’ve Got the Seeing the Reds and Greens as One Blues

Today I want to highlight a print article from the New York Times I received about two weeks ago. It’s been sitting in a pile of print pieces I want to sit down, photograph, and then write up. But as we begin to return to normal, I need my second dining room chair back because at some point I’ll have guests over.

The article in question examined the rates of Covid-19 vaccination across the United States. And on the front page, above the fold no less, we can compare the vaccination rates for Covid-19 to those of the 2019–2020 flu and if you unfold it to its full-length glory we can add in the 2009–2010 H1N1 swine flu outbreak.

Front page graphics

First thing I want to address is the obvious. Look at those colours. Who loves a green-to-red scale on a choropleth? Not this guy. They are a pretty bad choice because of green-to-red colour blindness. (There’s two different types as well as other types of colour blindness, but I’m simplifying here.) But here’s what happen when I pull the photo into Photoshop and test for it. (This is a screenshot, because I’m not aware of a means of exporting a proof image.)

Reds and greens become yellows and greys.

You can still see the difference between the reds and greens. That’s good. And it’s because colour is complicated. In red-green colour blindness, the issue is sensitivity to picking up reds and greens. (Again, oversimplifying for the sake of a blog post.) Between those two colours in the spectrum we have yellow. To the other side of green we have blue.

So if a designer needs to use a red-green colour scheme—and any designer who has worked in data visualisation will have undoubtedly have had a client asking for the map/chart/whatever to be in red and green—there’s a trick to making it work.

I don’t know if this is true, but growing up, I learned that green was the one colour the human eye evolved to distinguish the most. Now for a print piece like this, you are working in what we call CMYK space (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). Red is a mixture of magenta and yellow. Green a mixture of cyan and yellow. If you remember your school days, it’s similar to—but not the same as—mixing your primary colours. So if you need to make red and green work, what can you do? First, you can subtract a bit of yellow from your green, because that exists between red and green. But then, and this is why CMYK is different from your primary school primary colours, we can adjust the amount of magenta. Magenta is not a “pure” red, instead it’s kind of purplish and that means has some blue in it. Adding a little bit of magenta, while it does add “red” into the green, it’s also adding more blue to the blue present in the cyan. Now you can spend quite a bit of time tweaking these colours, but very quickly I can get these two options.

Reds and greens.

Great, you can still see them as both red and green. Your client is probably happy and probably accepts this greenish-blue as green, because we have that ability to distinguish so many types of green. But what about those with red-green colour blindness? Again, I can’t quite do a straight export, so the best is a screenshot, but we can compare those two options like so.

I can see the differences significantly more clearly here.

You can probably still tweak the green, but by going for that simple tweak, you can make the client happy—even though it’s still just better to avoid the red and green altogether—and still make the graphic work.

There’s a bit more to say about the rest of the article, which has some additional graphics inside. But that’ll have to wait for another day. As will clearing down the pile of print pieces to share, because that keeps on growing.

Credit for the piece goes to Lazaro Gamio and Amy Schoenfield Walker.

The Times Wore It Better

Two weeks ago I posted about the death toll in the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas. As it happened, later that morning when I opened the door, there was this graphic sitting above the fold on the front page of the New York Times.

They added a map.

The piece sits prominently on the front page, but tones down the colour and detail on the map to let the graphical elements, the coloured boxes, shine and take their prominent position.

Here’s a detail photo I took in case the above is too small.

Maps make everything cooler.

Ultimately, the piece isn’t too complex and isn’t more than what I made. However, the map adds some important geographical context, showing just where the deaths were occurring.

The piece also highlights the deaths in the West Bank and those in Israel from civil unrest. That was data I didn’t have at the time.

redit for the piece goes to the New York Times graphics department..

I’ve Got the Subtlest of Blues

As I prepared to reconnect and rejoin the world, I spent most of the weekend prior to full vaccination cleaning and clearing out my flat of things from the past 14 months. One thing I meant to do more with was printed pieces I saw in the New York Times. Interesting pages, front pages in particular, have been piling up and before recycling them all, I took some photos of the backlog. I’ll try to publish more of them in the coming weeks and months.

You may recall this time last month I wrote about a piece from the New York Times that examined the politicisation of vaccinations. I meant to get around to the print version, but didn’t, so let’s do it now.

Now in print…

I noted last time the use of ellipses for the title and the lack of value scales on the x-axis. Those did not change from the online version. But look at the y-axis.

For the print piece I noted how the labels were placed inside the chart. I wondered at the time—but didn’t write about—how perhaps that could have been a technical limitation for the web. But here we can see the labels still inside. It was a deliberate design decision.

Keeping with the labelling, I also pointed out Wyoming being outside the plot and it is here too, but I finally noted the lack of a label for zero on the first chart. Here the zero does appear, as I would have placed it. That does make me wonder if the lack of zero online was a technical/development issue.

Finally, something very subtle. At first, I didn’t catch this and it wasn’t until I opened the image above in Photoshop. The web version I noted the use of tints, or lighter shades, for two different blues and two different reds. When I looked at the print, I saw only one red and one blue. But they were in fact different, and it wasn’t until I had zoomed in on the photo I took when I could see the difference.

I’ve got the blues…

The dots do have two different blues. But it’s very subtle. Same with the red.

So all in all the piece is very similar to what we looked at last month, but there were a few interesting differences. I wonder if the designers had an opportunity to test the blues/reds prior to printing. And I wonder if the zero label was an issue for developers.

Credit for the piece goes to Lauren Leatherby and Guilbert Gates.

2020 Census Apportionment

Every ten years the United States conducts a census of the entire population living within the United States. My genealogy self uses the federal census as the backbone of my research. But that’s not what it’s really there for. No, it exists to count the people to apportion representation at the federal level (among other reasons).

The founding fathers did not intend for the United States to be a true democracy. They feared the tyranny of mob rule as majority populations are capable of doing and so each level of the government served as a check on the other. The census-counted people elected their representatives for the House, but their senators were chosen by their respective state legislatures. But I digress, because this post is about a piece in the New York Times examining the new census apportionment results.

I received my copy of the Times two Tuesdays ago, so these are photos of the print piece instead of the digital, online editions. The paper landed at my front door with a nice cartogram above the fold.

A cartogram exploded.

Each state consists of squares, each representing one congressional district. This is the first place where I have an issue with the graphic, admittedly a minor one. First we need to look at the graphic’s header, “States That Will Gain or Los Seats in the Next Congress” and then look at the graphic. It’s unclear to me if the squares therefore represent the states today with their numbers of districts, or if we are looking at a reapportioned map. Up in Montana, I know that we are moving from one at-large seat to two seat, and so I can resolve that this is the new apportionment. But I am left wondering if a quick phrase or sentence that declares these represent the 2022 election apportionment and not those of this past decade would be clearer?

Or if you want a graphic treatment, you could have kept all the states grey, but used an unfilled square in those states, like Pennsylvania and Illinois, losing seats, and then a filled square in the states adding seats.

Inside the paper, the article continued and we had a few more graphics. The above graphic served as the foundation for a second graphic that charted the changing number of seats since 1910, when the number of seats was fixed.

Timeline of gains and losses

I really like this graphic. My issue here is more with my mobile that took the picture. Some of these states appear quite light, and they are on the printed page. However, they are not quite as light as these photos make them out to be. That said, could they be darker? Probably. Even in print, the dark grey “no change” instances jump out instead of perhaps falling to the background.

The remaining few graphics are far more straightforward, one isn’t even a graphic technically.

First we have two maps.

Good old primary colours.

Nothing particularly remarkable here. The colours make a lot of sense, with red representing Republicans and blue Democrats. Yellow represents independent commissions and grey is only one state, Pennsylvania, where the legislature is controlled by Republicans and the governorship by Democrats.

Finally we have a table with the raw numbers.

Tables are great for organising information. Do you have a state you’re most curious about, Illinois for example? If so, you can quickly scan down the state column to find the row and then over to the column of interest. What tables don’t allow you to do is quickly identify any visual patterns. Here the designers chose to shade the cells based on positive/negative changes, but that’s not highlighting a pattern.

Overall, this was a really strong piece from the Times. With just a few language tweaks on the front page, this would be superb.

Credit for the piece goes to Weyi Cai and the New York Times graphics department.

The May Jobs Report

Last Friday, the government released the labour statistics from April and they showed a weaker rebound in employment than many had forecasted. When I opened the door Saturday morning, I got to see the numbers above the fold on the front page of the New York Times.

Welcome to the weekend

What I enjoyed about this layout, was that the graphic occupied half the above the fold space. But, because the designers laid the page out using a six-column grid, we can see just how they did it. Because this graphic is itself laid out in the column widths of the page itself. That allows the leftmost column of the page to run an unrelated story whilst the jobs numbers occupy 5/6 of the page’s columns.

If we look at the graphic in more detail, the designers made a few interesting decisions here.

Jobs in detail

First, last week I discussed a piece from the Times wherein they did not use axis labels to ground the dataset for the reader. Here we have axis labels back, and the reader can judge where intervening data points fall between the two. For attention to detail, note that under Retail, Education and health, and Business and professional services, the “illion” in -2 Million was removed so as not to interfere with legibility of the graphic, because of bars being otherwise in the way.

My issue with the axis labels? I have mentioned in the past that I don’t think a designer always needs to put the maximum axis line in place, especially when the data point darts just above or below the line. We see this often here, for example Construction and Manufacturing both handle it this way for their minimums. This works for me.

But for the column above Construction, i.e. State and local government and Education and health, we enter the space where I think the graphic needs those axis lines. For Education and health, it’s pretty simple, the red losses column looks much closer to a -3 million value than a -2 million value. But how close? We cannot tell with an axis line.

And then under State and local government we have the trickier issue. But I think that’s also precisely why this could use some axis lines. First, almost all the columns fall below the -1 million line. This isn’t the case of just one or two columns, it’s all but two of them. Second, these columns are all fairly well down below the -1 million axis line. These aren’t just a bit over, most are somewhere between half to two-thirds beyond. But they are also not quite nearly as far to -2 million as the ones we had in the Education and health growth were near to -3 million.

So why would I opt to have an axis line for State and local governments? The designers chose this group to add the legend “Gain in April”. That could neatly tuck into the space between the columns and the axis line.

Overall it’s a solid piece, but it needs a few tweaks to improve its legibility and take it over the line.

Credit for the piece goes to Ella Koeze and Bill Marsh.