The joys and sorrows of concentric circle graphics

There are not many good examples of concentric circle graphics out there. La Nacion produced one last year about subway strikes, and The Guardian produced an interactive graphic on gay rights in the U.S. Both of these intrigued me because, in my day job, I produce endless variations of graphics dealing with 50-state data. And most of the time, when we look at 50-state data, we draw… you guessed it: maps. Or bar graphs showing quantity or line graphs showing changes and trends over time but no matter what we do, it involves data for the 50 states, most often over time. 50 states multiplied by several years is a lot of lines to draw, bars to fill and state maps to create. So I’ve been thinking about ways to tell the story in different formats–going beyond the map, so to speak. Last Wednesday, we created this concentric circle interactive. Here’s how we did it, and the process we took to decide on the format.

Stateline PCS jobs screenshot

One of the most onerous dimensions to 50-state data is the sheer physical size and length of the data. Our website used to allow for a content well of 500 pixels. Try shoving 50 state labels across 500 pixels and you’ll quickly see why it’s a challenge.

But even with all the real estate in the world, long, horizontal displays are also taxing on the user if there is a comparative aspect to the data. There is simply too much bouncing back and forth from the left to the right. Go long and you lose the comparative advantages of a horizontal layout because users with small screens must scroll vertically and can’t see the entire landscape at once. Of course, layering the data into different views as an interactive can solve that. But sometimes you want to show the data all at once. And for that, a static graphic can work well.

Understandably, a map is often the solution. But maps have their limitations too. There’s only so much that you can infer from a map. If your data consist of more than 4-5 gradations it can be tough to create the at-a-glance, concise overview for which a map is best suited.

And if there are no regional patterns discernible in your map, readers wind up staring at a jumble of color with only a legend to tie it all together.

Which brings me to concentric charts. They’re not pie charts (if you look up pie charts on wikipedia, you will see that there is a distant cousin to the pie chart called a “ring chart,” also known as a multi-level pie or a radial tree). These appear to be somewhat visually similar to concentric circle graphs but have a different use–they tend to show hierarchy in data–you might see these when your computer shows you how much disc space you have, for example.

Filelight disk usage graphic

This ring chart shows computer hard drive disk space

A concentric chart, on the other hand, can tell a different story altogether. In a recent post on La Nacion’s subway strike graphic, I mentioned how designer Florencia Abd manages to plot out a time across four nodes (year, month, day and time) as well as another variable–type of incident/strike. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a static graphic. Imagine doing it in other ways and I’m sure you’ll agree.

La Nacion Conflictos Bajo Tierra

Because a circle is, well, round, its shape lends itself quite well to a relationship-based approach. Not so much a pie-chart (where the user sees the parts in their physical relationship to the whole), but rather using the organic form of a circle to help the user more easily compare complex data. And if you add concentric circles, you take advantage of the hierarchy inherent to those circles to create layers–an intuitive way to order your data–perfect for showing levels or ratings where you use the inner and outer rings to denote the endpoints in a scale (e.g., one thing is stronger, larger or more intense on the outside than it is on the inside) or time, as the subway graphic above shows (the outer ring shows 5 a.m. and the inner ring shows 11 p.m.).

So, what does all this have to do with the U.S. map? As I mentioned, the strength of a map is to show geographic relationships in data. For example, southern states vote “red” (or conservative) in the U.S.; whereas a swath northeastern states might vote “blue” (progressive). For this, a map is helpful because regional differences tell the story and are easy to spot.

But the nice thing about concentric charts is that they, too, can show geography, or any groupings, for that matter. As the Guardian’s example shows, each “slice” of the concentric chart belongs to a state and groups of slices are regions. In the Guardian example, each ring (or level) of the chart denotes a particular right afforded to gay couples.

The Guardian gay rights in the US

My team took this in a different direction. We wanted to show states and regions as well. But we also wanted to show change over time, as well as intensity on a scale. So when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its employment figures, we had a few choices. We needed to show how changes in employment have affected each state since the recession (from April, 2007 to April, 2012). Because the recession started in December, 2007, we wanted to show how employment looked in each state before the recession, during the recession and how (and which) states were pulling themselves out of the recession.

We could have created an interactive that showed how the same views above changed over time (presumably you’d see a pre-recession view showing states doing well, a recession view showing most states doing poorly, and post-recession years showing mixed results). The most valuable piece of this would be, of course, geographical patterns in the data, if they existed (how did the Rust Belt fare, or the East Coast, for example). You could overlay this with population or any other demographic data to tell an interesting story.

When we looked at the data, we saw that there were not very strong geographic patterns to show. So we decided to create a concentric chart. Why? Because we didn’t have geographic patterns, but we did have temporal patterns (most states did poorly during a particular period of time, which contrasted well with the mixed results that states showed as they were attempting to pull themselves out of the recession, at least in terms of their employment figures). And the fact that we used a circle meant that we didn’t have to create a very long or wide table or chart, and we could stray from the map approach.

We decided to make this a light interactive–by rolling your cursor over each state’s cell you can see a small bar graph showing change in employment over time. This worked for us because our goal wasn’t to show specific numbers (how much employment rose and fell in a particular state), but rather intensity and patterns over time.

The debate continues (check out the comments on Nathan Yau’s post on the Guardian graphic) on whether or not these concentric graphs are merely eye candy when a simple bar or line chart would do just as well. I would opine that, if used correctly, they work well. Let me know if you agree. Here’s a screenshot of our interactive, and you can view the live version here.

Stateline PCS jobs interactive

 

Quick help for Tableau

What I learned at Alan Smithee’s Tableau blog? Alan Smithee is not Alan Smithee. The name is a pseudonym that Hollywood directors use when they don’t wish to use their real names in production credits for a (usually terrible) movie.

I also learned a few helpful tips for getting around Tableau, the open source dataviz software that many bloggers use. “Alan” catalogs and discusses a fairly robust array of dataviz formats, presenting helpful insights on working out the less well-known ways of presenting information. There are also a few very good sections on geocoding and Tableau hacks. Love it.

Icing on the cake for newbies? A tabbed data viz presentation (in Tableau of course) of all the charts that Tableau can produce. Oh Alan, I love you.

The commenters on the blog are engaged, responding to both  newbies and math geeks. It’s a good blog.

Alan Smithee's Tableau blog

Staying fit through data visualizations

Better living through data visualizations? A new web app called “Spark” claims to improve your body through data viz. And art. And a gizmo called a fitbit. Whatever you call it, it’s both interesting and scary. If you have the time to spare (and, presumably, the calories), you can purchase the fitbit gizmo to track your every physical movement to help you get a very, very detailed sense of your physical activity throughout the seconds and minutes of your life. Really. People do this.

Okay, enough of that. What’s interesting is the use of data visualization to emotionally inspire people to keep moving, walking, jogging, or whatever people do who don’t have enough sense to ride a bike.

Upload your fitbit data (remember that’s the gizmo you have to purchase and presumably wetwire into the back of your skull) to your computer or tablet, log into “Spark” and you’ll be rewarded with piles of visualizations reflecting your activity level. In real time (using the fitbit API, Raphael and HTML5 Canvas). Please ignore the fact that Spark is hosted on a website with a url that begins with “QuantifiedSelf.com.” Apparently data vis is headed for greener pastures.

Sarcasm aside, Spark provides an interesting example of how data visualization can extend into nontraditional paths. More power to ‘em, I say.

Spark

 

Bolivia’s global information and communications technology rankings: 2012

I’m beginning to realize that, for developing countries like Bolivia, technology (by that I mean information and communications technologies ranging from cellphones and internet access, usage and affordability to the use of social media) is a chicken-and-egg dynamic. For Bolivia, both the egg and the chicken seem out of reach, though there are signs that some things might be improving.

The World Economic Forum and INSEAD recently released the 2012 Global Information Technology Report which scores 142 world economies on their use of information and communications technologies. Below is an infographic that I designed detailing how poorly and how well (mostly the former) Bolivia is using technology to improve the lives of its citizens and to become modestly globally competitive in, as the report puts it, “a hyper connected world.”

Don’t get too depressed, there are some bright spots. If you’re interested, read more about how a newspaper in Argentina is using open data to circumvent its government’s lack of open data transparency. And if you’re really interested, e-mail me.

The good (rankings out of 12 countries in South America):

  • Bolivia’s political and regulatory environment (as it relates to technology) ranks 7th in South America.
  • Although Bolivia ranks last in business and innovation, it does show a relatively high (3rd) availability of venture capital.
  • Overall, the quality of Bolivia’s math and science education, its educational system overall, and its adult literacy rate all rank 7, 7 and 8, respectively.
  • And, though Bolivia’s individual usage of technologies ranked last (12th), its citizen participation measure ranks a promising 6.
  • Additionally, Bolivia’s capacity for innovation rank (5) is highly encouraging, despite another last place ranking for business usage of information and communications technologies overall.

The bad:

  • One of the most clear challenges for Bolivia is to increase the affordability, availability and reliability of its Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to its citizens and the businesses that operate within its borders.
  • Bolivia ranks last, or close to last, along almost every index. The country’s overall Network Readiness rank is 12.


Bolivia's Technology Rankings 2012

Data Journalism Awards – whodunits in Spain, business in Brazil and bus subsidies in Argentina

Three solid entries from Spain, Brazil and Argentina are among the 58 nominees featured in the first-ever international competition for data journalism, the Data Journalism awards. The awards, announced by the Global Editors Network, will be announced on May 31. In the meantime, keep your eye on these three nominees:

La trama de la SGAE,” from El Mundo’s Spanish designer David Alameda, covers last year’s “Operation Saga,” an undercover investigation of fraudulent financial activities conducted by the president and other members of Spain’s influential Society of Authors and Editors (SGAE). This piece boils down the complex network of who gave money to whom, how much and when into one of the best examples of interactive flowcharts that I’ve seen. As with the best data visualizations, this interactive avoids the many common mis-steps that could have occurred through the overuse of photos, text, talking heads, etc. Instead, Alameda keeps his focus–and ours–on a tightly scripted interactive that guides the user quickly and efficiently through the web of financial whodunits.

La trama de la SGAE interactive

2011 Brazil State-Level Business Environment Ranking ranks the country’s business environment along eight categories (ranging from the political climate to innovation) and a series of indicators specific to each category. The interface is clean and simple to understand. Navigation, categories and indicators are well-prioritized and intuitive. One of my favorite features is the linked rollover behaviour between all four elements on the screen: a regional map, a deeper state-specific map, a regional bar graph and an overall scoring graph. A lot of information packed into a clean, well-designed interactive.

Brazil State-level business environment ranking

Lastly, Argentina’s La Nación is doing great stuff with open data. By my calculations, given that the country ranks sixth of 12 South American countries (and 92nd out of 142 economies globally, according to the recent Global Information and Technology Report’s Networked Readiness Index), this is a telling example of how Argentina’s relatively advanced use of information and communication technologies seem to be paying off, even if its government doesn’t always play along.

La Nación’s Subsidies for the Bus Transportation System is not so much a data visualization as a series of efforts to use open data to report on how bus subsidies in Argentina are being conducted. Dig a little and you’ll find a few good infographicsinvestigative pieces that detail a government’s efforts to be less than transparent about dollar figures, and an encouraging collaboration between the newspaper and Junar’s open data platform to create a Tableau dashboard that is beginning to circumvent Argentina’s lack of open data infrastructure. Interestingly, the newspaper compares its early efforts to the U.S.’s Freedom of Information Act laws and the American government’s data.gov platform. The dashboard presents a snapshot of indicators key to Argentina  (ranging from crime and accident rates to political indicators and legislative data). It’s a promising approach that may help other countries (like Bolivia) with similar challenges (see related article on Bolivia’s recent technology rankings).

La Nación open data dashboard

 

 

Etymologically speaking: a world interactive map

This interactive world map, created by Spanish data journalist and developer Chiqui Esteban, is fun, beautiful and informative even if etymology is not your bent. I’m going to spend way, way too much time on this map. Roll your cursor over the map to see a customizable, magnified view of each country’s name, and it’s English translation, ranging from Equalizer, to Chief Smith, to Land of the Enjoyers of Beautiful Things. I’ll let you figure out which those are, and ponder the sad irony of good intentions gone wrong, in many instances.

The World in Plain English - Interactive Map

 

The popes and football, visualized in Portugal

If I get hit by a bus, I’d like to come back reincarnated as a lab rat in the Universidad Porto’s Laboratorio de Infografía (Portugal). I’m pretty sure I know how the Catholic Church feels about reincarnation. But I wonder how they would feel about this interactive that covers 15 popes from 1900 to 2001. I suspect this is pretty old (it’s Flash) but it’s fun and not very complex. The interface is somewhat clunky–the transitions over the word clouds (of which I am not a fan, but for entertainment, they work) could be much smoother. Nonetheless, if you must use these lazy gems (and I have) this is an interesting use of word clouds and rollovers.

Universidad Porto Papas Flash Interactive

While you’re at it, check out this football transfers data visualization, also from Universidad Porto. It ranks the amounts spent on player transfers in European football clubs (as well as the biggest spenders and how Portuguese clubs fare). The first tab shows the European market (roll over the club names to find total spent (shown as millions of Euros) and where (inside the circle). Unfortunately the donut chart format that is meant to compliment the numeric totals is pretty useless. Totals run along the bottom. Second and third tabs show the four largest Portuguese clubs (incoming and outgoing transfers) and the most expensive players, respectively. Don’t forget to click on the second tab’s player origin/destination link (“ver origem e destine dos jug adores”).

Universidad Porto European transfers

 

A Public Service Announcement on rhetoric and logic

Aside

David McCandless has published a brilliant infographic on how we/you/I manipulate rhetoric and logical thinking. Whether you appeal to authority, flattery, probability or tradition, this infographic is for you. Faulty deduction or garbled cause and effect? There’s a place for all of us in this chart. As a smart consumer of visual information, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this infographic.

David McCandless Rhetoric and Logical Thinking Infographic