Consumer Payment Methods During the Corona Times

Okay, so we’re going to post some more of my work today, but it’s not about cases and deaths. Instead, I took some data produced by my colleagues and thought that it could do for a small transformation from a table into a chart. The original table can be found in their report on consumer payment options during the Covid-19 pandemic.

After setting the kettle on for some tea this morning we started on their Table 1. Thirty minutes later and a cup of Irish Breakfast consumed, I had transformed it into this:

Obviously I changed the language/title a little bit. But the original was too long and didn’t fit. Also this is my blog, so my rules. The visualisation improves upon the table in a number of ways, but tables do have their place. Tables are great for organising information. Find a column header and a row header and you can get any specific data point. But, if you want to make a comparison between two data points or several of them, a chart is the way to go. Now, you may lose some precision. For example, do I know to the decimal point or to the tenths even what one of those dots represents? Nope. But at a glance, can I see which dots are below the overall respondents? Yep. It’s abundantly clear that those earning less than $40,000 per year have a greater availability of debit cards than the other groups shown.

And after all, I couldn’t have made this graphic without that table.

Full disclosure, as alluded to above, I work at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. But I had nothing to do with the data, report, or presentation thereof.

Credit for the graphic is mine. The data to the folks over at the Consumer Finance Institute.

The Entire United States

Last month Politico published an article called the Democrats’ Dilemma. It looked at what will likely be the crux of their debate for their 2020 candidates. Go moderate or hard left? The super simple version of the argument is that do you win by persuading independents and moderate Republicans to vote Democratic? Or do you win by ginning up the fervour of your liberal base and drive out the vote?

The article contrasts those approaches by looking at two neighbouring congressional districts. The first was won by Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American woman who has been at the centre of several causes célèbres in recent months. The second was won by a moderate, wealthy white man who has not really attracted any attention whatsoever.

But I don’t want to talk about the merits of either representative nor the fascinating split the article discusses. Instead, I want to look at a little piece of the graphics used in the article. It uses some simple stacked bar charts to compare and contrast the demographics of the representatives’ districts. Notably, they are different. But it goes on to compare and contrast them to the overall United States.

But what about New Zealand?
But what about New Zealand?

The first thing, I probably would have angled Mr. Phillips’ head so his head is straight, but that is a minor detail. The other thing I immediately noticed is a big pet peeve of mine. For the “Entire United States”, we have a map of the United States. Or do we?

What is missing? The entire states of Alaska and Hawaii, that’s what. I can understand not including Puerto Rico or other insular territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands because they are either not states or so small they would not appear visible at such a scale. However, Alaska and Hawaii are both integral parts of the United States. They are not marginal, like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ infamous quip about Hawaii being “some island in the Pacific”.

Perhaps at the above scale, Hawaii would be too small to appear—though I doubt it. But what about Alaska? It is the largest state. And Texas isn’t even a close second. So why is Alaska not included? Unfortunately—though fortunately for Politico, whose work I generally like—this is not a problem specific to Politico.

Even my own employer, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, gets it wrong. One of their interactive data visualisation pieces, which for the record my team had nothing to do with, also completely omits Alaska and Hawaii in their map of the United States. And it’s a far larger map with ample space.

Still no New Zealand…
Still no New Zealand…

Including Alaska and Hawaii should not be afterthoughts. They are not second-class states. They are full constituent parts of the union. And if it is not easy to include them because they are not contiguous nor sharing the same continent, that should not obviate designers from including them in the United States.

Credit for the piece goes to the Politico’s design department and the Philadelphia Fed’s design department.

Phillip’s Curves are Flatlining

I’ve worked on a few scatter plots of late and so this piece from the Economist grabbed my attention. It examines the correlation between unemployment rates and inflation rates. Broadly speaking, the theory has been that low unemployment rates lead to high inflation rates. But the United States has had low unemployment rates now for a few years, but inflation is around that ideal 2% realm. This theory is called the Phillips Curve.

Straightening out the curve…
Straightening out the curve…

The graphic does a nice job of showing three data series all in one plot. Normally, I would argue for splitting the chart into three smaller plots, a la the small multiples. But here, the data aligns just well enough that the overlapping is minimal. And smart colour choices mean that each data range appears clearly separate from the rest. A nice thoughtful addition is the annotations to the time period are set in the same colour as the dots themselves.

My only two quibbles: One, I would probably increase the height of the chart to better show the trend line. I find that for scatter plots, a more squarish profile works better than the long rectangle. Overall, though, a really well done chart. Second, I would consider adding a zero line to the x-axis to show 0% cyclical unemployment. But that might also not be terribly useful, because you can see how the curve should move regardless of that natural line.

Full disclosure: the Economist article cites a paper from the Philadelphia Fed Research Department, which employs me.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist Data Team.