Information Design Watch

March 7, 2012, 3:42 pm

The Scientists Sketch

By Henry Woodbury

Data visualization consultant Lee De Cola has assembled a neat cross section of sketches by famous scientists. Here, for example, is a literal back-of-the-envelope sketch by Henri Poincaré:

Henri Poincaré's back-of-the-envelope calculations

Sadly, many of the images are small, or culled of context. Consider them a teaser. Galileo’s sketch of Saturn is a minor doodle compared to the visual storytelling found in this page from his notebook on Jupiter:

Moons of Jupiter, from Galileo's Notebook

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Art, Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Illustration, Information Design, Maps, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation

December 27, 2011, 10:57 am

The Infographic Dump

By Henry Woodbury

I’ve been meaning to write about a spate of bad infographics I’ve been seeing recently in blog posts and social media feeds, but Megan McArdle beat me to it:

If you look at these lovely, lying infographics, you will notice that they tend to have a few things in common:

  1. They are made by random sites without particularly obvious connection to the subject matter. Why is Creditloan.com making an infographic about the hourly workweek?
  2. Those sites, when examined, either have virtually no content at all, or are for things like debt consolidation–industries with low reputation where brand recognition, if it exists at all, is probably mostly negative.
  3. The sources for the data, if they are provided at all, tend to be in very small type at the bottom of the graphic, and instead of easy-to-type names of reports, they provide hard-to-type URLs which basically defeat all but the most determined checkers.
  4. The infographics tend to suggest that SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS HAPPENING IN THE US RIGHT NOW!!! the better to trigger your panic button and get you to spread the bad news BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

The infographics are being used to get unwitting bloggers to drive up their google search rankings. When they get a link from Forbes, or a blogger like Andrew Sullivan–who is like Patient Zero for many of these infographics–Google thinks they must be providing valuable information. Infographics are so good at getting this kind of attention that web marketing people spend a lot of time writing articles about how you can use them to boost your SEO (search engine optimization).

As summarized in point 3 above, McArdle goes into some detail on the misuse of data. But another strange thing about these infographics is that they seem to spring for the same design template. I added this comment to McArdle’s post:

These graphs suffer from more than misappropriated data. They also suffer from low data density and horrible design. The best charts, graphs, and visual explanations inspire insight by providing numbers in context, hopefully in multiple dimensions of data. Derek Thompson’s Graphs of the Year are hardly objective but they at least force some thought in figuring out their flaws.

What we see in many of these charts are isolated numbers accompanied by a cartoonish graphic. The design is boilerplate baroque, apparently created by underemployed battle-of-the-band poster designers. The long vertical is a dead giveaway. I’m starting to see it over and over and I know, almost as soon as I see the aspect ratio, that what I’m seeing is hack work.

Sadly, I think the “success” of this format is generating well-intentioned imitators. Click through for examples. I’m not posting any here.

p.s. My apologies to battle-of-the-band poster designers. There’s nothing wrong with boilerplate baroque in context.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Illustration, Infographics, Marketing, Social Media

December 25, 2011, 8:58 pm

World Map Abstracted

By Henry Woodbury

Based on data gathered from Gallup’s World Poll survey the Charities Aid Foundation creates a World Giving Index. The map below shows countries weighted by rank:

World Giving Index

What I find most interesting about this map is the level of abstraction. While the ordered circles offer the same data relationship of area to value as a system like Worldmapper (though the “area” of CAF’s unitless “giving index” is somewhat mysterious), the presentation is simpler and far more flexible.

It is surprising how well the placement of a circle in rough proximity to its neighbors succeeds in providing orientation. Without the need to show contiguous borders, regions can be easily isolated, or even repositioned. It’s an elegant system, within its own parameters.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Maps

December 14, 2011, 2:06 pm

Lies, Damned Lies, and Charts

By Henry Woodbury

Is Facebook Driving the Greek Debt Crisis

Click through for more.

(via Ann Althouse)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Information Design

December 12, 2011, 10:05 pm

Earthquake Watch

By Henry Woodbury

Earthquakes, too, are measured by a non-linear scale.

Here, the increasing energy of powerful quakes is shown as an animation (the color coding refers to tsunami potential, based on NOAA’s data and key):

Compare the animation to this graph from Matlab Geeks:

Energy Released by Earthquakes by Magnitude each Year from 1900 to 2001

The animation tells a story at the expense of comparison and data density. Even with the zoom out, the animation maps magnitudes to areas, which are notoriously hard for the human mind to compare. Each point on the Richter scale indicates an increase of magnitude of 32 times. Using a screenshot from the animation, I’ve confirmed this ratio:

Richter Scale Ratio

Another visualization that uses areas to show magnitudes is The Hive Group’s interactive Earthquake treemap:

Earthquake Treemap by The Hive Group

This application is a rich data-mining tool, but it doesn’t necessarily negate the animation. The animation tells a story. It is focused on making a dramatic point. The application allows multiple stories to be discovered, in non-dramatic fashion.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

November 21, 2011, 3:08 pm

A Thousand Thousand Thousand Thousand Thousand

By Henry Woodbury

I’m not really sure what to make of Randall Munroe’s chart on Money. There’s an enormous amount of data that is almost impossible to read. It needs to be printed whiteboard-sized.

Like Munroe’s Radiation Dose chart, the attempt to show geometric scale through changing units ultimately fails as a visual device. You can work through the Money chart point by point, but to find an overarching message  – other than “that’s a lot of money” — you have to replace visual intuition with a mental scale.

Scale for Converting Thousands to Millions

Corresponding to the scale problem is a comparison problem. Munroe assembles his square building blocks into all manner of shapes, including time-series charts and maps. The mosaic that results thoroughly fills the page while simultaneously making simple comparisons very difficult. Nothing lines up.

Yet the chart repays the effort it takes to meander about with a wealth of facts, some valiant attempts at creating context and broad connections, and numerous humorous asides.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

September 28, 2011, 9:54 am

A Taxonomy of Pasta

By Lisa Agustin

Leave it to an architect to diagram the pasta family tree. George L. Legendre has profiled 92 different kinds of pasta in his new book, Pasta by Design, classifying them into types using ‘phylogeny’ (the study of relatedness among natural forms). From the publisher’s site:

Each spread is devoted to a single pasta, and explains its geographical origin, its process of manufacture and its etymology – alongside suggestions for minute-perfect preparation.  Next the shape is rendered as an equation and as a diagram that shows every distinctive scrunch, ridge and crimp with loving precision. Finally, a multi-page foldout features a ‘Pasta Family Reunion’ diagram, reassembling all the pasta types and grouping them by their mathematical and geometric properties!

Check out this one for Cavatappi:

Cavatappi

Many of the pasta shapes are diagrammed on the Z-axis (a d/D favorite!), showing the delicate shapes in their full undulating glory (view more pasta diagrams on the NY Times site). I’m hungry already.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Visual Explanation

September 14, 2011, 3:23 pm

How a Bill Becomes a Column

By Henry Woodbury

There are a lot of bills in Congress. IBM Research Labs has created a new way to find them.

IBM Many Bills is a search engine that presents U.S. Congressional legislation in strongly visual format. Each bill is presented in a single vertical column with metadata at the top and sections in descending order. Sections are color coded to delineate their subject. You can show and hide sections of the bills you have found by subject (in a nice accountability feature, a rollover tells you how confident a subject assignment is), save specific bills, and view the actual text.

IBM Many Bills, Search for 'Canada', first 4 results

The color-coded sections allow you to view results in “minified” form, or as an extremely condensed “collection”, such as this group of American Housing Bills:

IBM Many Bills: American Housing Bills (42)

Many Bills is compelling on several levels. First is the hope that this kind of presentation can help make the legislative process more transparent to both experts and the general public. Second is the project as a model for content-specific search. By understanding the structure of the data, the Many Bills Team presents it in a way that facilitates findability and understanding. There is some risk that the team’s information architecture and design decisions could reinforce conventional thinking at the expense of the unexpected insight, but the source data is available to anyone who wants to try a different approach.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Color, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Interface Design

August 10, 2011, 11:55 am

The Key to the Masthead

By Henry Woodbury

It may not work for every web site, but it does for Flip Flop Fly Ball. I’m talking about a site masthead with more iconography than a pre-renaissance painting.

Flip Flop Fly Ball Masthead

The key to the masthead is a nice example of information design in itself.

Key to Flip Flop Fly Ball Masthead

Click through to read the labels.

p.s. Flip Flop Fly Ball creator Craig Robinson has a book out. Good stuff. I’ve linked to him before.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Sports, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

August 3, 2011, 1:09 pm

A New Chart for Financial Indicators

By Henry Woodbury

The financial numbers generated by the U.S. and worldwide economic crisis have informed many charts and graphs but most are rudimentary. I have hoped to pull some into this blog, but haven’t seen any worth discussing as visual explanations.

Here is an exception. Bill McBride’s Calculated Risk blog offers a set of charts built on an elegantly different model. For example (click through for others):

Real Gross Domestic Product: Percent of Previous Peak (Calculated Risk)

McBride explains:

The … graphs are all constructed as a percent of the peak in each indicator. This shows when the indicator has bottomed – and when the indicator has returned to the level of the previous peak. If the indicator is at a new peak, the value is 100%.

The key mental construct is to remember that as positive indicators trend upward they define a new value for 100%. That is why periods of growth are represented as a plateau.

At The Atlantic, where I saw these graphs, Derek Thompson explains the graphs by simile:

The outcome reveals each recession in the last 50 years as a kind of hanging icicle.

The bigger the icicle, the bigger the problem.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Visual Explanation

June 22, 2011, 9:29 pm

Crayola Century

By Henry Woodbury

From artist and scientist Stephen Van Morley:

Crayola Color Chart, 1903-2010

Quote:

The number of colors doubles every 28 years!

This is just the setup. For the real fun, see where Morley went next:

Crayola Color Chart Tests

(via Chris Wild’s fabulous How To Be A Retronaut)

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Art, Charts and Graphs, Color, Diagrams, Visual Explanation

May 20, 2011, 5:07 pm

Louisiana Economic Development on YouTube

By Henry Woodbury

Louisiana Economic Development has a YouTube channel. Among its interviews and news clips is an animated presentation we created to explain their Digital Media and Software Development Incentive. Based on an executive PowerPoint deck we created for LED representatives to present in person, the movie is a self-running alternative suitable for trade show or web presentation. Enjoy!

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Information Design, PowerPoint, Visual Explanation

May 10, 2011, 10:31 am

“The Dynamics of Rumor Creation”

By Henry Woodbury

SocialFlow, a Twitter-marketing-optimization company has created a striking visualization on the tweets that broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death:

At SocialFlow we analyzed 14.8 million public Tweets, and bitly links, posted between news about an unplanned presidential address (9:46 p.m. EST) and Obama’s address (11:30 p.m. EST) to see how dynamics of rumor creation played out during those critical hours on Twitter. Out of the dominant information flows observed in the data, we focus on the largest flow, engaging tens of thousands of users, validating speculation around Bin Laden’s death.

Keith Urban Tweet Flow

This jellyfish star chart presents a lot of data, but as best as I can guess, there is no coordinate system. It shows us constellations, not distance nor direction. There is no depth to it.

Still, hubs are interesting. Click through to see zoomed views.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Social Media, Visual Explanation

May 9, 2011, 10:40 pm

Feelings Interactive

By Henry Woodbury

Columbia Journalism Review writes about one of The New York Times recent features:

…a new interactive graph on The New York Times website invites readers to plot their reactions to two questions: How much of a turning point in the war on terror will Bin Laden’s death represent? (significant to insignificant), and What is your emotional response? (positive to negative).

The format is useful for commenters because they can easily click a square and answer two questions at once, and it’s useful for the casual reader, who can measure the feelings of the crowd at a glance. When you first visit the page, you can click on any square to see others’ comments or to plot your own—or, you can just watch for a few minutes, as I did, as random comments slowly float up and fade out from the mosaic.

To me the format is far more interesting than the opinions. The format shapes the aggregate results.

Given quadrants, there is bias toward adhering to a quadrant.

Given edges there is bias toward approaching the edges.

Given existing dots, I strongly suspect there is bias toward clumping.

The Death of a Terrorist: A Turning Point?

Now that I’ve looked at this interactive a few times the other thing that interests me is how it would look as an animation. The Columbia Journalism Review article offers a screen shot taken much earlier than the one above. The patterns are already taking shape.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design, Social Media, Visual Explanation

April 9, 2011, 9:56 am

Show Me the Seiverts

By Henry Woodbury

The Fukushima nuclear reactor remains in crisis. One informational challenges for media and scientists in this disaster has been explaining the relative risks of the radiation levels. The Sievert, a unit that attempts to measure the biological effect of an absorbed dose of radiation, is measured in micro-quantities for such things as a dental x-ray which is about one-millionth of a dose that is deadly. While a mathematician may easily compare very small and very large number as powers of 10, this is hardly intuitive to the rest of us.

Randall Munroe, at xkcd, has created one of the more comprehensive attempts to show radiation risk by charting doses in blocks and associating them with specific examples. Depending on color each unit represents one of four values from 0.05 microSeiverts (blue) to 1 Seivert (yellow). A large set of examples in one color becomes a small unit of comparison in the next:

Radiation Dose Chart Sample

The chart reads in a clockwise circle; better would be a horizontal left-to-right for both data and key. Still, it is a grand effort that repays close reading.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation

March 30, 2011, 10:38 am

Show Me the Zero

By Henry Woodbury

This is not the most complicated chart in the world of information design. But I like it for a very specific reason. I like it because it has a zero. The gray bar is the $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit. The red, blue, and pink bars are proposed spending cuts. I’ve posted a thumbnail next to the full-size chart to allow comparison in one glance.

Budget Impasse, in Perspective (Washington Post) Budget Impasse, in Perspective (Washington Post)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design

March 2, 2011, 5:03 pm

What You Want to Own

By Henry Woodbury

Self-described entrepreneur  and gamer Brad Hargreaves has created a nicely multivariate chart on wealth creation. It is more philosophical than empirical, a way to frame a question rather than a survey. It is also self-explanatory, so I’ve only shown a portion of it below:

Brad Hargreaves Wealth Visualization

I found this at the Sippican Cottage blog, along with Sippican’s typically incisive summation:

1. Make money while you’re awake.
2. Make money while you’re asleep, too.
3. Make money even after you’re dead.

From the information design perspective I’m impressed by the labeling. The examples are well chosen and the repeated two-word “Own” phrases manage to indicate fairly clear distinctions despite their inherent subjectivity. That kind of parallelism is hard to carry off, especially seven times in a row. Why does Brett Favre fall under “Own Entities” instead of “Own Yourself”? I don’t know, but it works well enough to make the point.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation

February 23, 2011, 9:24 am

The Mystery Cupcake

By Henry Woodbury

In my post The Mystery Donut, I demonstrated how the problems of showing linear values with areas compound when the relationship of the values to the areas is visually deceptive.

Here’s a counter example. In this Financial Times visualization, the structural deficit for each country is shown by the area of the circle. The areas are proportional. This is much better than the mystery donut, but still a confection.

While the circles offer an attractive set of elements for the designer to arrange, they also preclude easy comparison. The human mind does not easily interpret differences in relative areas. Nor are the circles on a common axis. A bar chart would do the job just fine. A bar chart would also allow two sets of numbers — the structural deficit and the deficit as a percentage of GDP to be graphed in parallel.

I have one more criticism — this one about the copywriting. The line chart at the bottom shows the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio accelerating off the charts. It is not spiraling.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design

February 13, 2011, 6:03 pm

The Mystery Donut

By Henry Woodbury

The donut below shows that 53% agree and 47% disagree.

It is lucky that we have the numbers because visually we have an enigma. Red dominates the shape in which red is the smaller number. How do we interpret this? Let me count the ways.

  1. We could compare the area of the donut (the blue ring) to the area of the hole (the red circle).
  2. We could compare the area of the donut and the hole to the area of the hole.
  3. We could compare the diameters of both cases above.
  4. We could compare the radii.

In every case, we still have to answer the question: What is the whole?

As it turns out, the visually-most-counterintuitive answer is the answer.

The red circle has a radius of 35 pixels. The blue donut is 5 pixels wide, extending the radius to 40 pixels.

Mystery Donut Annotated

Each radius is a bar on an implicit chart (now we see the whole):

Mystery Donut Charted

The donut is meaningless. All we really have are two linear values:

Mystery Donut Bar Chart

Hell, let’s make it a circle again. I’ll turn the donut into a pie:

Mystery Donut Pie

You can find the source for this exercise on The New York Times. This is only the worst of its problems.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design

January 6, 2011, 10:43 am

Social Media for Designers

By Henry Woodbury

Combine social media with design and you might end up with a site like Dribbble (that’s with three b’s). Just make sure you also come up with an elegant user interface design and use an oddball basketball metaphor for the site vocabulary.

Excerpt from Dribbble home page, 6-Jan-2010

Like many successful social media sites, the underlying concept is simple. Where Twitter limits word count, Dribbble limits image size — to 300 x 400 pixels, max. Common social media elements like tags, comments, and fans enrich the experience. Fans and views drive a popularity index and an inexplicable “playoffs” page.

One of Dribbble’s innovations is the “rebound”, a graphical reply to another posted design. This is technically similar to sharing in Facebook or trackbacks in blogging, but Dribbble does a markedly superior job in presenting the cross-communication. Which is good, because cross-communication inspires better design.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Design, Diagrams, Information Design, Social Media, Technology, Web Interface Design

December 30, 2010, 3:08 pm

A Lesson in Venn Diagrams

By Henry Woodbury

I’m not going to reproduce the “Who Gets Paid to Touch Your Junk” Venn diagram. It’s already doing the rounds. This summary of what does and does not constitute a Venn Diagram is more entertaining than the original joke (which leads the discussion anyway).

Selected commenters push back against the critique. Most tersely, Commenter Michael writes, “The original is an accurate Venn diagram. The labels within overlapping areas are simple not exhaustive.” Commenter Jose_X elaborates:

Yup, as explained in a different comment, the original is essentially correct.

To see what I mean, replace “Doctors” with “Characteristics of Doctors” and repeat the replacement pattern for the other sets as well.

The most interesting comment is not about definitions, but about usage. Commenter Marcus Carab observes:

There’s quite a lot of “incorrect” Venn diagrams like the original out there – to the point that it has basically become an accepted format for a joke.

I’m not sure if any other type of chart or diagram has achieved this status. Pie and bar charts invite mockery for their clumsy misuse. Venn diagrams offer a platform for fun. For example.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design

December 20, 2010, 3:04 pm

Flip Book Presentation

By Henry Woodbury

Presentation software does flip book animations. There’s nothing complicated about it. It’s just the way presentations work, if you let them. From 2010, here’s a Google Docs example:

This is beautifully done and encourages the typical trash-talking of Microsoft PowerPoint. And I have to believe that Google Docs’ layout and drawing tools are easier to use than PowerPoint’s truly awful toolkit. But the kernel of this presentation is not in the drawing, but in its 450 slides. With enough slides you can animate anything.

From 2008, here’s a Flash version of an animation we created in PowerPoint for Textron.

In contrast to the Google Docs example, we did our drawing in Adobe Illustrator and imported each frame into PowerPoint from the external application. But as I said before, drawing isn’t the issue. What we really lack is a soundtrack.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Creativity, Information Design, PowerPoint, Visual Explanation

December 15, 2010, 9:47 am

Map Meme Goes Manhattan

By Henry Woodbury

Back in September I posted on Bill Rankin’s beautiful maps of census data.

Now the New York Times has turned the idea into a powerful data-driven Flash application. As a Flash application it lacks the resolution and elegance of Rankin’s maps, but it makes up for that in coverage and interactivity. Paradoxically, the lack of resolution is most apparent in the suburbs and rural areas that the application makes available for analysis.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

November 22, 2010, 5:06 pm

Nightingale’s Serendipity

By Henry Woodbury

In the BBC News Magazine, mathematician and author Marcus du Sautoy extols the power of diagrams. The cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words misses the point, he explains. A scientific diagram has the power to transcend language, to “create a whole new visual language to navigate a scientific idea” or even show the impossible. “Words” is the wrong unit of measure.

Among other scientists and thinkers, du Sautoy draws examples from Copernicus, Newton, and Florence Nightingale. In that last case, he links to our recreation of Nightingale’s Rose, the circular set of charts that Nightingale created to show relative causes of death of soldiers during the Crimean war.

du Sautoy’s television series, The Beauty of Diagrams, is offered on BBC Four.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Design, Visual Explanation

November 3, 2010, 8:44 am

A Good Year for Maps

By Henry Woodbury

The 2010 U.S. election generated the usual maps (for example, here at CNN and here at the Wall Street Journal), but the New York Times superb multimedia team offers some extras (as well as their own version of the same). In an animated set of maps titled A Historic Shift, they show shifts in voting patterns from 2010, 2008, and 2006. Here are screen shots which capture all of the actual data provided by the animations and allow easier comparison than The Times’ slideshow format:

Almost all congressional districts voted more Republican in this election than in 2008.

The shift reversed the Obama-driven wave of 2008...

... and reversed the movement towards Democrats in 2006 when the Iraq war was a top issue.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

October 14, 2010, 12:36 pm

Why it Doesn’t Feel Like a Recovery

By Lisa Agustin

The recession technically ended during the summer of 2009.  So why doesn’t it feel like it?  The Washington Post offers an interactive graphic illustrating why the economic recovery doesn’t feel like one. In a nutshell, it comes down to an “output gap, the divide between the amount the United States can produce and what it is actually producing,”  which is currently $900 billion.  The graphic does a good job of explaining step-by-step what this gap looks like under different economic conditions, and possible scenarios for reducing its size in the future.

(via FlowingData)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs

October 6, 2010, 12:19 pm

Timeline of the History of Systematic Data and the Development of Computable Knowledge

By Lisa Agustin

Presented at last month’s Wolfram Data Summit in Washington, DC: a timeline of organization through the ages.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design

September 26, 2010, 7:51 pm

Boundaries Without Boundaries

By Henry Woodbury

Almost by definition, map-based data draws a picture. Rarely is the picture so stark as Bill Rankin’s mapping of U.S. Census data on race and ethnicity to Chicago’s neighborhood boundaries.

Racial / ethnic self-identification in Chicago in the year 2000, by Bill Rankin

Rankin draws attention not to the neighborhoods where his map confirms historical racial and ethnic boundaries, but to those whose gradient would otherwise go unnoticed:

My alternative is to use dot mapping to show three kinds of urban transitions. First, there are indeed areas where changes take place at very precise boundaries — such as between Lawndale and the Little Village, or Austin and Oak Park — and Chicago has more of these stark borders than most cities in the world. But transitions also take place through gradients and gaps as well, especially in the northwest and southeast. Using graphic conventions which allow these other possibilities to appear takes much more data, and requires more nuance in the way we talk about urban geography, but a cartography without boundaries can also make simplistic policy or urban design more difficult — in a good way.

Digital cartographer Eric Fischer takes Rankin’s approach and maps cities across the United States. Everywhere, ethnic and racial divisions present themselves, but there are dramatic differences in degree.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

September 9, 2010, 2:38 pm

How to Make a Lot of Data Look Like a Lot of Data

By Henry Woodbury

Stockmapper made Time Magazine’s list of the top 50 web sites for 2010. Stockmapper has a lot of data, but is it useful? I can’t tell. Which answers the question, at least for me.

Compare the Stockmapper heat map with Smartmoney’s Map of the Market. Stockmapper is the larger one underneath. You’re not missing much.

Comparison of Stockmapper and Map of the Market

The Stockmapper heat map, whether organized by ticker symbol, percent change, volume, or market cap, tells no high level story. You might as well use a spreadsheet with sortable columns. You can sort and filter, but not compare. Click on a filter such as market sector or country and Stockmapper rewards you with some neatly rendered bar charts, but the heat map is a failure.

In contrast, the Map of the Market offers a comprehensible high-level view of market trends. You can compare the activity of each sector of the market and see which are gaining or losing value. Market capitalization is shown by area which provides another way to compare sectors and individual stocks.

Martin Wattenberg created the Map of the Market well over a decade ago. The best of 1998 is better than the best of 2010.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation

August 25, 2010, 3:10 pm

Data is the New Soil

By Lisa Agustin

TED offers up a talk by journalist/designer David McCandless, who we’ve written about before.  McCandless sees himself as a “data detective,” creating beautiful diagrams (“flowers of information”) that expose new insights in the process.  Check it out for a fun walkthrough some of his creations.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

August 16, 2010, 1:46 pm

Hello E. Coli, You’re Looking Large

By Henry Woodbury

E. Coli Bacterium

Start with a coffee bean and zoom down to a carbon atom. That’s a journey in scale from millimeters to picometers.

To experience that journey, try out the interactive Cell Size and Scale application created by the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center. It is a tool of elegant simplicity. Move the single slider to the right and sets of increasingly tinier biological objects come into view. At micron scale, you’ll encounter the E. Coli bacterium with its friends lysosome and mitochondria. A gang of viruses make their appearance. And you’re only halfway to the atom.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Illustration, Visual Explanation

July 28, 2010, 9:01 am

No Explanation Needed

By Henry Woodbury

Charlatan, Martyr, Hustler by Joey Roth

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Charts and Graphs, Illustration, Information Design

July 22, 2010, 9:01 am

Fastball, Cutter, Slider

By Henry Woodbury

In an appreciation of New York Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera, the New York Times has put together an impressive animation that shows how he pitches. Even if you are not a baseball fan, this is worth a look for its artistry and integrity. By modeling and animating a season’s worth of data the visualization connects process — how Rivera throws the ball — with outcomes — a scatter plot of where his pitches cross the plate.

One highlight of the visualization is the comparison of three pitches — fastball, cutter, slider. Each is distinguished by a different spin, created by a different grip and release.

Still from Mariano Rivera Animation

Credit for the visualization goes to Graham Roberts, Shan Carter, and Joe Ward.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Charts and Graphs, Sports, Visual Explanation

July 10, 2010, 10:27 am

Boomtown

By Henry Woodbury

At FlowingData, Nathan Yau’s popular visualization on the growth of Walmart recently got an update — “now with 100% more Sam’s Club” he titles it, tongue in cheek. The growth map shows the number of new store openings for Walmart — and Sam’s Club — from 1962 through 2010. The data is just for the United States. The animation reveals both a pattern and rate of growth as Walmart starts at a single location, becomes a regional chain, then expands to the U.S.’s Northeastern and Western population corridors. Zoom out (the plus/minus in the bottom left corner are zoom controls) and you will see the firm’s entry into Puerto Rico in the early ’70s and to Alaska and Hawaii in the late ’90s.

The data does not include store closings, a point that comes out in the comments of the first link. Designer-statisticians can only work with the data they have.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

June 3, 2010, 11:08 am

Visual Bias at Work

By Henry Woodbury

Last week I blogged about a Harvard Business Review article on the inherent biases in visualization. Visual information makes people overconfident of outcomes.

Today the New York Times offers a perfect example. In the debate around U.S. health care overhaul, the president’s budget director Peter Orszag argued that savings could be found by reforming the current system:

Mr Orszag displayed maps produced by Dartmouth researchers that appeared to show where the waste in the system could be found. Beige meant hospitals and regions that offered good, efficient care; chocolate meant bad and inefficient.

The maps made reform seem relatively easy to many in Congress, some of whom demanded the administration simply trim the money Medicare pays to hospitals and doctors in the brown zones. The administration promised to seriously consider doing just that. [my emphasis]

Unfortunately, the maps don’t show what they seem to show. While they show cost of care (a very specific kind of care it should be noted), they don’t show quality of care. Nor do the maps show anything about the demographics of the patients being cared for.

The Times compares the Dartmouth map (on the left) to Medicare’s own analysis of hospital quality (on the right) to show the disconnect. However, the Medicare map raises questions of its own. To start with, it shows a suspicious correspondence to U.S. population density.

Health Care Cost vs.  Quality (New York Times)

Perhaps quality of care relates to the proposition that higher population density creates demand for more specialists which leads to better diagnoses. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this. Before anyone draws another map, let’s work on better analysis.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation

April 29, 2010, 8:08 pm

Blame the Messenger

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times runs a slam on PowerPoint in the guise of a critique of military effectiveness, featuring the diagram below as an example of PowerPoint gone wild:

Afghan Stability / COIN Dynamics

Clearly something is lost in translation here. This is a high-resolution diagram that should be examined in print. First spotlighted in the media by NBC’s Richard Engel, the diagram actually has its fans as an attempt to visualize “how all things in war – from media bias to ethnic/tribal rivalries – are interconnected and must be taken into consideration.” It contains a lot of information and bears close inspection. Apparently it has made its way into PowerPoint but the real problem, according to Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, lies in the opposite direction:

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic … but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

And yet, the litany of complaints about too much PowerPoint parallels the demand, by leadership, for more information. The job of a staff officer is information. We aren’t talking about a PowerPoint problem. We’re talking about an information overload problem. The spaghetti diagram serves notice.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Infographics, PowerPoint

April 28, 2010, 11:21 am

The Examined Life, by the Numbers

By Lisa Agustin

Gary Wolf offers an in-depth look at how number-crunching is no longer confined to the workplace or the realm of geeky habits, but has become mainstream, thanks to technology (think automated sensors and video) and online tools created specifically for the personal tracking of just about everything, including health, mood, productivity, and location.  Why all the self-interest?  According to Wolf, for some it’s a matter of answering a question, measuring changes, or reaching a goal (that last ten pounds!), but it may also be about reclaiming some piece of ourselves from the “cloud”–that vague, global network to which we entrust what is personal (photos, addresses, random thoughts, etc.):

One of the reasons that self-tracking is spreading widely beyond the technical culture that gave birth to it is that we all have at least an inkling of what’s going on out there in the cloud. Our search history, friend networks and status updates allow us to be analyzed by machines in ways we can’t always anticipate or control. It’s natural that we would want to reclaim some of this power: to look outward to the cloud, as well as inward toward the psyche, in our quest to figure ourselves out.

Read the full story to see links to notable tracking projects– or feel free to start your own.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Technology

April 16, 2010, 1:48 pm

Planes or Volcano?

By Lisa Agustin

Looks like another day of closed airports in Europe, due to the all-encompassing ash cloud from the volcano in Iceland.  In the meantime, author David McCandless ponders the question: What’s emitting the most CO2 per day? (If you’re curious about the data sources, you can check them yourself via Google docs).

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Visual Explanation

April 14, 2010, 8:38 am

“Just because it’s graphical, it doesn’t mean it’s useful”

By Henry Woodbury

Phyl Gyford graphs the “infographics” that give infographics a bad name. For example:

Map from Phyl Gyford's 'Infographic'

Click through to see the whole thing.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

March 25, 2010, 9:58 am

The Long Shot

By Henry Woodbury

This beautiful diagram, created by Bryan Christie Design for an IEEE Spectrum special report on Mars packs a lot of data into a small space, down to the specifics of the name of each mission.

Yet, with all the data, the overarching story comes through clearly: Up until this decade, most Mars missions failed. Because of the Soviet Union’s dreary record, it is easy, at first to misread orange for failure and blue for success. But a quick check at the labels makes it easy to reorient. Don’t draw the short straw.

Mission(s) to Mars

(via i09)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

March 17, 2010, 12:06 pm

Your Data is my Distraction

By Henry Woodbury

I recently ran across a still-fresh 2009 Nieman Journalism Lab post on “ambient visual data” — a good term for the practice of graphically incorporating metadata into a content-delivery interface. The most common idea seems to be adding subtle bar charts beneath or around links to illustrate various kinds of popularity.

To explain the importance of the concept, author Haley Sweetland Edwards turns to designer Eliazar Parra Cardenas, creator of Backbars, “a GreaseMonkey script to turn the headlines and comments of social link-sites into ambient bar charts (of votes/diggs/views/users…).” Cardenas explains:

“The whole point is to make textual information easier to absorb… [A well-designed site] should maximize the information that a user can understand — that you can just glance at, or take note of -– without actively thinking….

“We’ve already tried the obvious in print: putting as much text as possible in one glance (hence broadsheets), mixing in images, headlines, columns. I think the next step will be digital developments like backbars, favicons, sparklines, word coloring, spacings.”

Count me as extremely skeptical. The sites that Edwards and Cardenas hold up as examples seem both cluttered and shallow — a vote-stuffing contest for “news of the weird.”

I’m old school that way. What drives traffic are the editorial and authorial inputs that Cardenas overlooks in his list of the obvious. Not headlines, but well-written headlines. Not images, but compelling images. Not backbars, favicons, sparklines, word coloring, and spacings, but good ledes.

The New York Times isn’t making money online. But they aren’t lacking for traffic.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Technology, Usability, User Experience, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

March 16, 2010, 10:08 am

Tufte Crosses the Delaware

By Henry Woodbury

Information design guru Edward Tufte has been called to serve on the Recovery Independent Advisory Board, an advisory panel to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. No news yet if the Advisory Board gets a board.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board was created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to track stimulus funding and help prevent fraud, waste, and mismanagement.

Tufte writes:

I’m doing this because I like accountability and transparency, and I believe in public service. And it is the complete opposite of everything else I do. Maybe I’ll learn something.

I blogged about problems with data presentation at USASpending.gov, one of the Recovery Board’s web sites back in September. The data handling problems identified then by Seth Grimes appear to be fixed, but the 3D pie chart is still in use. Hopefully its days are numbered.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events

February 20, 2010, 10:42 am

Visualizing More Affordable Care

By Henry Woodbury

The February 2010 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology features work by Dynamic Diagrams for an article titled Alternatives to a Routine Follow-Up Visit for Early Medical Abortion. The article describes a protocol for assessing a woman’s health after an abortion without routine use of ultrasonography. To quote from the abstract:

We constructed five model algorithms for evaluating women’s postabortion status, each using a different assortment of data. Four of the algorithms (algorithms 1–4) rely on data collected by the woman and on the results of the low-sensitivity pregnancy test. Algorithm 5 relies on the woman’s assessment, the results of the pregnancy test, and follow-up physician assessment (sometimes including bimanual or speculum examination).

A sponsor of the study, Gynuity Health Products, asked Dynamic Diagrams to visualize the data. Our explanation shows the results for the current standard of care and five algorithms tested by the researchers. For each approach we show the total number of cases, the number of women returning to a clinic for a follow-up visit, and the number of women receiving a follow-up ultrasound. In contrasting colors we show specific additional treatment cases in two columns; those identified by the protocol on the left vs. those not necessarily identified by the protocol on the right. In large type we provided the percentage of the number of follow-up ultrasounds to the total number of cases. This combination of rich data points and a key percentage makes it easy to compare the effectiveness of each algorithm. A sample of this visual language (without labels) is shown below:

Alternatives to a Routine Follow-Up Visit for Early Medical Abortion, Figure 2

While we cannot reprint the full text of article, we can provide the visual explanation used as Figure 2: Algorithms identifying women who received additional care after medical abortion (PDF, 409K).

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Charts and Graphs, Dynamic Diagrams News, Infographics, Information Design, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation

February 2, 2010, 9:43 am

Rendered in Neat Circles

By Henry Woodbury

Popular Science links to another interesting information graphic on space exploration. This one, designed by Michael Paukner, illustrates the number of human-created objects orbiting Earth — and assigns responsibility:

Space Debris Circles

You can view larger versions on Paukner’s Flickr page.

The title of my post comes from the Popular Science URL: see-space-debris-cloud-surrounding-earth-rendered-neat-circles. Ironically, this summarizes the problem with the visualization. Despite the attractiveness of the graphic, the neat circles show linear values by area, making precise comparisons completely impossible.

The donut shapes created by the overlapping circles also confuse comparison. Take a quick look at the darkest circles– that for space debris — around the United States and Russia. The United States is bigger, but by what order of magnitude? We see a lot more black — a thicker torus– but the actual ratio is just 1.2 to 1.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation

December 22, 2009, 11:18 am

Mashing Up Suggestions

By Henry Woodbury

In The New York Times, IBM scientists Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg have some fun with search engine auto-suggestions. Type in even a single word and you receive “a list of suggested, presumably popular completions.” (In courtroom dramas, this is called leading the witness.)

The fun is seeing how different investigations overlap. Here’s one example:

Popular completions for 'are diets' and 'is chocolate'

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Language, Technology

December 14, 2009, 10:59 am

The Periodic Box of Chocolates

By Henry Woodbury

People seem to forget that the periodic table is a table because it reads in two dimensions.  Read it left to right and atomic weight increases. Read it top to bottom and you find elements with similar properties — for example, the alkali metals in group 1 or the noble gases in group 18. The gaps in periods 1, 2, and 3 represent physical realities about the electron configuration of those lighter elements (see this Periodic Table by Chemicool).

Most attempts to fit other data sets to the periodic table result in strange confections.

This Periodic Table of Visualization Methods is a prime example. A simple categorized list is puddled into the matrix of Dmitri Mendeleev’s table and shoved around to fit. There are exactly six “compound visualizations.” How serendipitous. The really interesting data — the examples of the methods — are hidden under reductive two-letter acronyms, making comparison impossible even when you do find something interesting.

If the categories are meaningful and not just quantified to fit the table, the next step is to abandon the presentation method that doesn’t work and come up with one that does.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation

November 17, 2009, 5:16 pm

The Sweet Spot Between Information and Design

By Kim Looney

Trying to explain what information design is to our families and friends, and yes, potential clients, has been an ongoing challenge for us here at Dynamic Diagrams. Verbally, I usually resort to something about creating visual explanations for complex sets of data. But that doesn’t really satisfy anyone.

What Makes Good Information Design?

Information is Beautiful recently took on the same question on their blog. Their visual approach tries to show–with a Venn diagram-in-progress–what information is; what design is; and what happens when these overlap. Not every product of the two entities is a win: some are useless, some are ugly, and some are boring. But, there is a sweet spot where interestingness + function + form + integrity = successful information design.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Design, Diagrams, Information Design

November 6, 2009, 4:04 pm

Making Your Data Intuitive

By Lisa Agustin

How can we make data intuitive–that is, so it “hits home”?  We’ve posted previously on the technique of making large numbers meaningful by using a clever or shocking image.  But this method has its limitations.  A big number explained with a visual analogy may get people to say “Hey, you’re right, that IS a big number.”  But in order to get the audience to act (rather than just react), it takes extra effort to translate that statistic into something they can relate to on a personal level.

Consider the funding coming through the U.S. government’s Recovery Act: $787 billion. Sure, that sounds like a lot of money.  But is it too much?  Too little?  It depends.  Authors Dan Heath and Chip Heath explain it this way:

How can you relate to this monstrous figure in the daily-life zone?  Well, there are roughly 112 million households in the United States, with a median household income of about $50,000. So an $800 billion stimulus works out to be the rough equivalent of seven weeks’ income for an American household. Is that worth it? By way of comparison, we already work three or four months a year just to pay our federal, state, and local taxes. So maybe this seems like a no-brainer to you: seven weeks’ worth of work to stave off a potential depression. Or maybe you’re appalled. Regardless, we can finally have a real argument, because we have a better idea of what we’re arguing about.

Well said.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Visual Explanation

October 30, 2009, 3:39 pm

Hey Jude, Don’t Get Confused

By Henry Woodbury

Hey Jude, the Flowchart

Created by love all this (via Sippican Cottage).

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation

October 16, 2009, 10:10 am

Infographics for Web Workers

By Lisa Agustin

xkcd-map-of-online-communities

Web Design Ledger offers a collection of infographics of special interest to web workers, including process flows, data driven visualizations, and musings (like xkcd.com’s Map of Online Communities, above).  Enjoy.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Charts and Graphs, Maps, Technology, Visual Explanation

October 15, 2009, 9:22 am

What Are the Odds?

By Lisa Agustin

death-odds1

Just out this week, the Book of Odds claims to be “the world’s first reference on daily life.”   Normally, I’m not too interested in finding out my odds of surviving a plane crash or ever having eaten pizza for breakfast, but with its broad collection of statistics, articles (“Behind the Numbers: the Sharks and the Vending Machines”), and a personalized feature for creating your own book of odds, the site makes for a fun diversion.  Browse statistics by area of interest (Accidents & Death, Daily Life & Activities, Health & Illness, and Relationships & Society), or use the Visual Browse tool to view odds on a keyword of your choice.  But don’t let the title fool you:  while the site is about numbers, it doesn’t offer gambling or predict the future (too bad).

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Visual Explanation

September 25, 2009, 3:32 pm

Data in the Round

By Henry Woodbury

An interesting, but flawed chart at O&G Next Generation shows how much oil the United States imports from other countries:

Oil Imports to the United States

There are several big problems with this chart. First, U.S. oil imports per day by country is linear data. When one-dimensional values are presented as two-dimensional areas, proportional differences between values are rarely perceived correctly. This problem is compounded by the placement of the data blobs on the global map. It is good to attach each blob to a country, but not good to scatter them both vertically and horizontally. With a little design attention the values could be presented as bars and aligned along a single x-axis in the tropics.

Another problem is that several important data points aren’t shown. Most importantly we need a figure for the United State’s domestic production. This is vital for context. Upon investigation, we find that the bar chart on the bottom left is either not accurate or not tracking the same petroleum product as the map. If you subtract Total Imports from U.S. Consumption for 2008 you get a ballpark figure of around 6,000 thousand barrels per day. This is far off the mark. The real number for 2008 is 4,921 thousand barrels per day, a little bit less than total U.S. crude produced since a small amount of U.S. crude is exported. In June 2009, domestically produced minus exported crude is 5,126 thousand barrels per day.

Another missing figure is the total of oil imports from all countries after the top 10. Once we can look up the June 2009 total for all countries — 9,172 thousand barrels per day — we can easily calculate the sum of all countries after the top 10. The long tail total turns out to be 1,613 thousand barrels per day which is greater than all but Canada. The 9,172 total and various subtotals also allow us to validate the 82% percentage on the far right and update the 2007 ratio of 60% to the actual June 2009 ratio of 64%.

If we add circles to show the oil consumed by the United States from its own production and the “Rest of World” total identified above, the chart looks something like this:

Oil Imports to the United States Compared to Domestic Production

It is even more difficult to read. But that’s not a problem with the data. The data needs to be shown. The problem is with the presentation. The chart still shows linear values with areas, it still doesn’t show totals, it still uses an out-of-date figure from 2007 on the far right, it still has questionable, out-of-date data on the bottom left, and it still has a jumble of factoids on the bottom right that don’t relate the data above. Alas, I am out of time.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

September 8, 2009, 1:02 pm

The Max Baucus Health Care Lobbyist Complex

By Lisa Agustin

The current health care reform debate has presented plenty of opportunities for visual thinkers (and aspiring ones) to clarify the issues and explain possible solutions.  My current favorites have been Dan Roam’s “back of the napkin” series on fixing health care and the flow chart prepared by the office of Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) showing the Democrats’ health care proposal. (Should we assume that the awfulness is on purpose?).

But subtler visualizations grab my attention more for what they imply.  Consider “The Max Baucus Health Care Lobbyist Complex,” which was developed by the Sunlight Foundation, a group whose goal is to “use the power of the Internet to shine a light on the interplay of money, lobbying, influence and government in Washington in ways never before possible.”  The Max Baucus visualization is named for Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who heads the Senate Finance Committee, which has been singled out by advocates and news organizations as the toughest obstacle for the President’s health care priorities.  The visualization shows the connections from Baucus to five of his staffers-turned-lobbyists to their health care sector clients, which, in some cases, overlap.  Most of the organizations are directly involved in the health care or insurance industries.

baucus-viz-large1

According to the Foundation:

In his many years on the committee, Baucus has amassed a wealth of connections to the health care and insurance industries, often through his ties to former staffers turned lobbyists.  These connections expose how close the many organizations seeking influence on health care reform are to one of the most powerful players in Washington.

Data for the visualization was provided by OpenSecrets.org.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

September 4, 2009, 1:12 pm

The Times Goes Google on Us

By Henry Woodbury

I just discovered the New York Times Developer Network.

This resource provides data from The Times to third party developers through content-related APIs:

Our APIs (application programming interfaces) allow you to programmatically access New York Times data for use in your own applications. Our goal is to facilitate a wide range of uses, from custom link lists to complex visualizations. Why just read the news when you can hack it?

Most or all of the APIs respond to a query by returning data in XML or JSON format. Some developers have built custom search engines and topic-specific mashups around this functionality. Others are more interested in the sheer excess of the data — and how it can be visualized.

Artist Jer Thorp is one of the latter. Thorp accesses the Times Article Search API to create visualizations that compare the frequency of key words over time. The image below, for example, compares ’sex’ and ’scandal’ from 1981 – 2008:

NYTimes: Sex & Scandal since 1981

When you zoom in, the visualization reveals branching segments called “org facets”. Thorp writes:

[These are] organizations which were associated with the stories that were found in the keyword search. This is one of the nicest things about the NYTimes API – you can ask for and process all kinds of interesting information past the standard “how many articles?” queries.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Technology, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

September 2, 2009, 2:20 pm

What’s Wrong with this Chart?

By Henry Woodbury

Federal Spending FY 2009 YTD

The chart, of Federal Spending FY 2009 YTD, is from USAspending.gov, a web site mandated by law to provide the public free, searchable information about U.S. Federal expenditures.

Seth Grimes at Intelligent Enterprise figures out the problem and its cause:

USAspending.gov produces its charts dynamically using the Google Chart API…[but] passes values to Google that are out of range. Google truncates them, just as [its] documentation explains.

Here is Grimes’ corrected chart:

Federal Spending FY 2009 YTD, corrected

Unfortunately, data misrepresentation isn’t the only problem he finds.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Technology, Usability, Web Interface Design

August 24, 2009, 8:52 pm

The Pint Slide Rule

By Henry Woodbury

The "Piaget" Beer GaugeThis is a not a post about a beer gauge. It is a post about cognitive bias. To quote from the item itself: “[Jean] Piaget studied the tendency to focus attention on only one characteristic. In our case: beer height not volume!”

The gauge is the invention of engineer and physicist Chris Holloway. The Wall Street Journal Numbers Guy, Carl Bialik, explains:

Holloway has noticed that the typical pour in a pint glass is less than a pint. And since the widest part of the glass is at the top — nearly twice as wide as the bottom — leaving just the top half-inch of the glass unfilled costs the customer nearly 15% of the pint he’s paying for. So what may look trivial to bartenders and to drinkers, thanks to our tendency to focus on height rather than width when taking the measure of liquids, is a serious tavern injustice.

Readers of Edward R. Tufte will remember that one grave mistake in visualizing data is to show one-dimensional data with two-dimensional graphics:

There are considerable ambiguities in how people perceive a two-dimensional surface and then convert that perception into a one-dimensional number. Changes in physical area on the surface of a graphic do not reliably produce appropriately proportional changes in in perceived areas. The problem is all the worse when the areas are tricked up into three dimensions. (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2001, p. 71.)

Holloway had the reverse challenge — the problem people have perceiving differences in volume. The gauge turns three-dimensional data into a one-dimensional series. It is a portable liquid measure.

I will add that despite the elegance of the Holloway’s concept, the gauge as is could use some design improvement. Holloway has elected to emphasis even numbers of ounces. I’m not sure this helps readability. There’s also no reason to have the 6 oz. label offset from the 6 oz. line. Just make the card a quarter inch longer or so. Nor is there reason for the key or the “Glass edge” and “Beer surface” labels. Instead, replace all of this extra text with a 16 oz. line aligned to the top of the glass that incorporates some minimal description. For example:

16 oz beer / 0% missing
15 oz / 7%
14 oz / 13%

etc.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias

August 19, 2009, 9:50 am

You Are…

By Matt DeMeis

MIT Phd student Aaron Zinman has created an interesting data driven visualization experiment called “Personas”. Simply enter your name and a Flash app scours the web for bits and pieces of information about you. As it does so, its progress is displayed in visual form (albeit at warp speed, so it’s more for “ooh ahh” factor than usefulness). You are then characterized as a colored strip of categories ranging from books, sports, management and aggression to education, legal and illegal (activities?). It’s an interesting experiment. I think it would be great to have a bit more control over the categories and info about the user. Just to help weed out the cruft. As is, it’s probably pretty inaccurate for someone with the name Bob Smith or Michael Jackson. I am curious what our resident Flash maven Piotr would add to it. Go try it out over at the MIT site.

http://personas.media.mit.edu/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

June 30, 2009, 1:00 pm

How Tall is the Green Monster?

By Henry Woodbury

Flip Flop Fly Ball is Craig Robinson’s collection of “baseball infographics”:

Essentially, this site is what I’d have been doing when I was 12 years old had the Internet and Photoshop been available to me in the eighties.

What stands out for me from this collection is Robinson’s ability to ask good questions — intriguing or amusing or both.

In some of the work, the question is more the point than the answer. What if baseball players literally stole bases? For more complex questions Robinson often produces just a well-drawn pie or bar chart. But occasionally, Robinson combines question, data, and visual idea into a smart visual explanation that goes beyond that.

For example, the left field wall in Fenway Park is 37 feet and two inches tall. And how tall is that?

Thumbnail: Green Monster

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Sports, Visual Explanation

April 22, 2009, 8:27 am

Broken on Purpose

By Henry Woodbury

Seth Godin at Gel 2006 explains how This is broken. What is broken? Almost everything.

Including Napoleon’s March to Moscow.

Starting at 17:53, Godin buries Edward Tufte in order to praise him. Note that Godin doesn’t really bother with the graph itself, but rather Tufte’s promotion of it as “the best graph ever made.” Godin responds:

I think he’s completely out of his gourd and totally wrong!

If you need to spend 15 minutes studying a graph you might as well read the text underneath. Godin then backs off. Tufte’s promotion of Napoleon’s March, he says, is an example of something “broken on purpose”:

For the kind of person you want to reach — they want to read a complicated difficult to understand graph and get the satisfaction of figuring it out, because then they get it…. Sometimes the best thing to do is break it for the people you don’t care about and just make it work for the people you do.

Agree?

Watch the rest of the talk as well. It’s a very funny, pointed critique of bad information and product design.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Information Design, Language, Marketing, Visual Explanation

March 19, 2009, 1:25 pm

An Introduction to Information Design: A Manual for Advocacy Groups

By Maia Garau

Tactical Tech and John Emerson of Backspace have published a useful information design manual for NGOs looking to strengthen the impact of their campaigns:

Information design uses pictures, symbols, colors, and words to communicate ideas, illustrate information or express relationships visually… It is not the same as graphic design, nor is it only about making something aesthetically pleasing. It’s not about branding, style, making a glossy product or something that looks “corporate.”

They add that information design is not about making something aesthetically pleasing, but about making your data clear, compelling and convincing (to which I would add memorable).

The authors make a convincing case for using information design to effect social change at many levels. Information design is a powerful tool not only for storytelling but also for the earlier stages of discovery (finding patterns) and decision-making (making comparisons and weighing options).

Download the pamphlet here or or request a copy.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation

March 11, 2009, 8:18 am

Visualization a la Dilbert

By Lisa Agustin

Proof that even Dilbert understands the power of visualization.

dilbert-strip

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Comics

February 3, 2009, 3:55 pm

How We Read Graphs

By Lisa Agustin

reading_graphs1

Cognitive Daily offers up some recent research into how we read graphs, including some results gleaned from using an eye-tracking device, a tool more commonly used in evaluating web sites.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Visual Explanation

January 12, 2009, 10:24 am

Ahead of Our Time?

By Matt DeMeis

I came across this video recently titled “Did You Know” that was created by Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod and XPLANE. It reminded me of a project dD created almost 8 years prior called “Global Village”. I dug around in our archive and after some careful cross converting and video capturing (the first generation ActionScript didn’t want to play nice), I was able to resurrect the presentation. Some of the sound effects were lost due to the age of the file but it’s enough to show the similarities between the two. It’s not as fancy as the 2007 “Did You Know” but the way the visual statistics are represented has much more of an impact. Have a look…

“Global Village” 1999-2000

“Did You Know” 2007

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Technology, Visual Explanation

December 29, 2008, 9:17 pm

Visualization Takes Its Toll

By Lisa Agustin

Sometimes too much visualization is not a good thing. Just ask xkcd.com.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Comics

December 3, 2008, 9:45 am

I Heart Coffee

By Henry Woodbury

I heart coffee

Christoph Niemann brews up a brilliant illustrated essay on one man’s history with coffee. Don’t miss the chart on coffee-bias-over-time about halfway through (oh sure, it could be improved, Tuftelike, but that’s not the point).

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Art, Charts and Graphs, Illustration, Visual Explanation

November 20, 2008, 11:34 am

Worldwide recession? Time to make a zombie movie.

By Lisa Agustin

Social unrest and zombie movie production chart

From science fiction site io9: a chart that correlates periods of war and social unrest with the production of zombie movies.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs

November 3, 2008, 3:48 pm

Microsoft Chart Advisor — Consider the Source

By Mac McBurney

The prototype Chart Advisor for Excel 2007 from Office Labs sounds like a step in the right direction:

This add-in uses an advanced rules engine to scan your data and, based on predefined rules, displays charts according to score. Top scoring charts are available for you to preview, tweak, and insert into your Excel worksheet.

An early post by Program Manager Scott Ruble describes the Excel team’s motivations, which at first glance seem admirable. On second thought, Ruble’s understated description of the group’s noble “intent” and responsiveness to strong feedback reminded me not to get my hopes up. (Emphasis and sarcastic comments added by me):

When Office 2007 was released [and not before then?], one of the strong pieces of feedback was Excel needs to do a better job guiding users in the proper selection of charts to effectively communicate their data. Though it wasn’t our intent [I feel so much better now], some of the new [and the old] formatting options [and defaults] such as glow and legacy 3D charts can [only] be used inappropriately, which obscure[sic] the meaning of a chart. Some people [silly, silly people] felt that these features contributed to creating more “chart junk.” In an effort to improve this situation, we have created a prototype called the Chart Advisor.

Mr. Ruble is being too modest. The new features and default settings — like the old features and default settings — guarantee more chart junk. This team wasn’t born on the day Office 2007 was released — quite the opposite. Saying that inappropriate use and obscuring the meaning of a chart was not the team’s intent seems, frankly, laughable.

I expect an upgrade from Microsoft to include new features — new things that users could do. Giving good advice about what a user should do is more difficult and risky, and it would ultimately be much more valuable. This is ambitious, and let’s hope it signals a greater focus on improving the real-world capabilities of Excel users, not just increasing the capabilities of the Excel software.

So far, Chart Advisor is in no danger of becoming an artificial Edward Tufte inside Excel. The add-in still serves a side order of chartjunk with your data.

Tim Mays reported that Chart Advisor ignored a whole column of source data and then (not surprisingly) recommended the wrong chart type. At first, Excel guru Jon Peltier didn’t even get that far.

Hey, that “advanced rules engine” is just a prototype. (More on the rules engine). If the wizards at Microsoft succeed in upgrading Excel’s brain, here’s hoping they have the courage to give it a heart and good taste as well.

Chart Advisor intro video

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Technology

August 28, 2008, 10:57 am

Infoviz Art on Slate

By Lisa Agustin

Slate offers its take on “infoviz art” via this slide show of visualizations. It includes the usual candidates, like Martin Wattenberg’s famous Name Voyager, as well as lesser-known works like Golan Levin’s The Dumpster, a visualization of blog-documented teenage breakups from 2005, which was co-commissioned by The Whitney Museum’s ArtPort and Tate Online.

The Dumpster

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

August 1, 2008, 10:38 am

The Pop Charts

By Henry Woodbury

Recently we came across two sites generating comic pop-culture charts — GraphJam and Song Chart Meme on Flickr. Song Chart Meme is all about pop songs. GraphJam charts pop songs, movies, and the occasional bad joke. Here’s a sample from each.

From GraphJam:

World events according to Vizzini

From Song Chart Meme:

Countries that should cry for me

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Visual Explanation

April 23, 2008, 9:49 am

Charts, Unjunked

By Henry Woodbury

For 100% applied Tufte you can’t do better than the Junk Charts blog. The author, Kaiser, takes charts that appear in mass media venues, analyzes how they go wrong, and redraws them for accuracy and easier interpretation (similar to what we did with Nightingale’s Rose).

Most interesting are the possibilities that arise when a chart has sufficient data to benefit from a variety of approaches. An active comments section provides sophisticated feedback to Kaiser’s posts.

In one recent post, for example, Kaiser redraws a chart of tertiary education by country that originally appeared in Atlantic. The original is shown below on the left, with the first of Kaiser’s redrawn versions on the right:

Tertiary Education Chart, Original (Atlantic Monthly) Tertiary Education Chart, Kaiser Version 1

In the comments, zuil serip links to another set of redrawings, including this one:

Tertiary Education Chart, zuil serip version

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation

February 27, 2008, 1:06 pm

The Movie Money Landscape

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times has a very nice interactive chart on The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 – 2007, partially captured below:

The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 - 2007

This visual explanation does many some things well. It uses both sides of the horizontal axis to double the amount of data displayed in a vertical slice of time. It avoids unnecessary gridlines and tick marks. It uses color to clarify the area plot for “total domestic gross” allowing easier comparison between movies with short and long runs (compare Shrek to Hannibal, for example). A “Find Movie” feature helps locate any release in the time frame and highlight it among its contemporaries.

All that is missing is a single view of the entire chart. Even a static thumbnail image would help illustrate seasonal and macro trends. Here’s a sample view of 1986 – 1990.

The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 - 1990, Macro View

Update: Thanks to commenter “tomp” I’ve made a few edits. My original “double the amount of data” statement was off base. By using both sides of the horizontal axis, the chart may increase the number of peaks, but since the data is stacked (not overlapping as I originally assumed), this technique does not increase data density. The macro view would, in fact, be much easier to analyze if all the data was stacked in the same direction (upwards). I also replaced a reference to The Animal with Hannibal so that my point about total domestic gross would actually make sense.

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Comments (4) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

January 9, 2008, 4:06 pm

Nightingale’s Rose

By Henry Woodbury

Two ways of reading the word area — its general vs. its mathematical meaning — leads to confusion in this otherwise superb article on Charts in the Economist. The chart in question is Florence Nightingale’s “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East.” The data is plotted by month in 30-degree wedges. In each month, red represents deaths by injury, blue death by disease, and black death by other causes:

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East

The Economist explains how to interpret the diagram:

As with today’s pie charts, the area of each wedge is proportional to the figure it stands for, but it is the radius of each slice (the distance from the common centre to the outer edge) rather than the angle that is altered to achieve this.

Herein lies the confusion. In fact, the areas of the wedges are not proportional. The data actually maps to the radius of each wedge. It appears that in her annotation, Nightingale used the word area in the generic sense of section or range. The great sweep of blue around the center of each chart is an artifact of the unusual radial plot. Perhaps unintentionally, Nightingale overdramatized the facts that made her case.

Our Creative Director, Piotr Kaczmarek, recalibrated Nightingale’s chart to correct this error. The diagram below uses all the elements of the original, but makes the data proportional to area:

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Adjusted

Nightingale’s diagram, often referred to as Nightingale’s Rose or Nightingale’s Coxcomb, represents one of the inherent risks in visual explanation. An image may be so visually interesting — so iconic (a rose, a coxcomb) — that we assume its conclusions without examining its data.

This is better: a stacked bar chart that introduces a scale (!), more readable labels, and a single chart for the entire 1854-1856 period. These changes provide context and continuity, and make clear the two campaigns of the war:

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Stacked Bar Chart

UPDATE (January 14, 2008): In the comments, hstern recommends separating the three data types to allow better comparison. As it happens, Piotr created that chart as one of his alternatives to the radial plot. I’ve uploaded it below.

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East, Bar Chart

UPDATE (November 22, 2010): In a BBC News Magazine article titled “Diagrams that changed the world” Marcus du Sautoy includes a link to this post. Welcome BBC readers!

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Comments (17) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation

May 23, 2007, 2:09 pm

Worry Indicator

By Henry Woodbury

For all our focus on diagrams, sometimes illustration is the best explanation.

http://www.bearskinrug.co.uk/_articles/2007/05/17/the_worry_constant/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Illustration, Visual Explanation

April 16, 2007, 8:28 pm

If Tufte made a music video…

By Mac McBurney

Since I’m on a Tufte jag…

First, frequent commenter EB pointed us to discussion of a vaguely Tufte-esque video. This week our own Matt DeMeis sees and raises with a link to Le Grand Content. What’s next, a Best Parody of Information Design category at the Video Music Awards?

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation