Our Future, Together: Immigrants & the American economy

There is a flurry of new projects hitting the airwaves right now. Another interesting work comes from the team at Graphicacy who have been working with the The Center for American Progress to develop a videographic and interactive package to help bring visibility to the issue of the future of immigration in America and it’s impact on the economy. The project is titled ‘Our Future, Together‘.


The work commences with a short video graphic introducing the subject and framing the issue of the workers leaving the economy, those arriving and the influence immigrants and their future off-spring will have on helping to grow the economy.

Then, as you move down through the different sections, you learn more about that demographics of the current and future workforce. I really like this statement:

Just as explorers use a compass and architects a blueprint, demographers use pyramid charts to read the tea leaves: What groups are ageing or booming with youth, and what do these shapes tell us about the changing American workforce?


After the pyramid shapes of the current and future demographics, we have a tree map to compare and contrast the proportions of different ethnic groups.


Finally, we have two different portrayals of the data over time, looking at the emerging and likely trends of different generations of immigrants in the workforce and explore the ebb and flow of legal immigration via a stream graph.


As a side note, and taking a bigger picture view of the field, I wonder if this work and the Selfiecity project are representative of a developing theme of long-form visualisations. We’ve seen the boom of digital storytelling/long-form multimedia journalism (has anyone nailed a classification yet?) projects over the past 18 months (since Snow Fall) and I feel we are now seeing the influence on these multi-faceted, but specifically, visualisation projects. Time will tell I guess.

Anyway, you can learn more about this project here and for those nearby or attending, Jeff Osbourn (Creative Director) and Angeline Vuong (from CAP) will be giving a presentation about the project at the upcoming DC Interactive Documentary Summit.

Defending the ‘Incredible GDP Map’

Yesterday there was a fair bit of twittering about a map that was ‘doing the rounds’. The map shows where 50% of the GDP of the US comes from geographically. I came across it via a tweet from Ian Sefferman. The creator of the map appears to be a user on Reddit named ‘atrubetskoy’ with the source data coming from this horrible report.


Given the discussions that ensued (storified below) I felt a need to offer a contrarian view to the largely critical or indifferent opinions aired.

So, to start with, is it an incredible map? Not really. Slightly dramatic adjectives are not really my bag and I think one can set themselves up for some verbal jabs if the subject does not turn out to be ‘extraordinary’. But then Twitter is often about the Wows, Oh My Gods and Greatest Evers…

If it isn’t incredible, why did I retweet it? Because I think it is interesting. Not really a movie poster caption is it but I simply think the subject is interesting. The map itself is adequate, all it needs to be really, though the use of a year’s supply of cyan makes my eyes grimace.

Why, then, do I think it is interesting? Whilst I know roughly where the major cities of the US are, the size and population-density extremes of the country fascinate me so I find it interesting, particularly as a non-US person.

But the map basically shows where people live and don’t live? Yes and here is the crux of the matter. The point most critics are making is that it isn’t surprising that 50% of the GDP of the world is generated from the large cities of the US.

Alberto Cairo wrote up a quick post about this matter:

“For some reason, they [designers/journalists] think that it’s surprising that large U.S. cities are responsible for generating 50% of the GDP.”

No, I don’t think it is surprising, though I can see that a RT including the word ‘Incredible’ would imply an endorsement for a sense of surprise.

“So what? Is that insightful at all? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 80% of the population lives in urban areas, and it seems that 40% lives in the largest metropolitan regions, so this map is just revealing population density”

Yes, it basically is. It won’t be an exact match as it is a single person’s calculated view of where 50% of the US GDP comes from (if 10 different people did this map again we might see slightly different approaches used to calculate the 50% and therefore slightly different shapes forming).

But, without seeming to be wielding a sword back in Alberto’s face, so what if this is all it is really revealing? I get that GDP is essentially a proxy indicator for where people are living yet I still have a novel interest in learning about the dynamics of the US. I *know* that there is not a uniform distribution of where people live (nowhere on earth has this) but it is still revealing for me to see anything that represents a proxy of this skewed population. I don’t think the map claims to be doing anything different to this so, in that sense, it doesn’t mislead or make false claims.

Several have referred to the xkcd ‘Heatmap’. Whilst I agree with the sentiment and potential relevance of this graphic, I think it is making different points to the core issue here. I use this diagram in my teaching to emphasise that just because you have spatial data doesn’t mean you need to map it. Also, often, you are simply mapping the geographical attributes of the data collection method not the phenomena itself. Besides, I actually think this cartoon inadvertently shows there is value from mapping these three subjects because you learn that basically all your site’s users subscribe to Martha Stewart Living and consume furry porn.

Anyway, I digress. Back to my main argument. One person’s ‘interesting’ is another person’s ‘knew it’.

On “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, Chris Tarrant (the original UK host) used to make the comment to help (admittedly, usually the idiot) contestant that a question is only easy when you know the answer. I think in visualisation, the opposite idea is true: an insight only fails to be surprising or interesting if you already knew it. I think this can blinker some of us (myself included) if we see things we know, “why would anyone else find it interesting, everyone knows that…”.

I have seen this play out in my training session where I have witnessed different reactions to a subject matter similar to this. Showing Derek Watkins ‘Posted’ project – the animation of the expansion of post offices in the US between 1700 and 1900, once again a proxy of population expansion itself – to a group in the US tends to be met with slight indifference. Not that they don’t ‘like’ the visual design but they are already familiar with the story it portrays, the dominance of the east of the country and then the rise of the west coast as events like the gold rush lure populations west. When I shown this to groups in all the other regions I’ve visited – the UK, across Europe, India, South Africa, Australia – there is far more engagement and intrigue.

My closing point is that the objective of visualisation is not just to surprise, enlighten and reveal new things to all. If you can, wow, oh my god and the rest. But sometimes it just reinforces, maybe showing something we know but from a different angle. That’s ok. It is still legitimate to serve ‘just’ that objective.

Welcome to ‘Selfiecity’

Selfiecity is a newly launched project, co-ordinated by Lev Manovich and creatively directed by Moritz Stefaner alongside an ultra-talented team, investigating the style of 3200 ‘selfies’ (photgraphed self-portraits) across five cities across the world. The project was previewed at Visualized conference but has now been let loose in the wild.


The project takes on the investigation of this contemporary phenomena by exploring a variety of attributes of the subjects, the poses and the expressions.

Up first, you can explore and view the images themselves via the ImagePlots panel, filtering by city and picking different cropping/positioning techniques. Alongside this we some demographic findings from the analysis of each and every photograph.


To gather data about the characteristics of age and gender for each person in each photograph (in supplement to ‘rudimentary automatic face analysis with human judgment’) the photos were inspected by Mechanical Turk workers. You can read more about the thorough data gathering and preparation process, including the process of refining an initial 120,000 photos down to the final 3,200 used in the study.

Next up, we have the Selfiexploratory, a separate interface where you can perform custom dives into the photos based on your own filters and parameters. For those of a certain age it feels like a digital take on classic ‘Guess Who‘ board game…


Finally, we have the summary findings, providing insights such as the proportion of selfies out of the original Instagram image bank, the gender analysis by city, perceived smiliness (cheer up Moscow!) and the index of head-tiltiness (careful with those necks, Sao Paolo).


There are many things to praise in this project, which takes what would appear on the surface to be a relatively thin and superficial subject matter and successfully rummages and dissects its potential insights to the maximum.

I love the little green call-outs. The simple act of placing a revealable insight at different points throughout the site is a super device. The project is driven by curiosity (“Is it just me, or do Sao Paulo women actually tilt their heads more? Do New Yorkers or Berliners look older?”), not just opportunity (“We’ve got all these images, what shall we do with them”). It is also not just an explore-and-find project: it also incorporates explain-and-show. The creators have taken the responsibility to unearth and share their findings taking the experiment even to the realm of theory and reflection.

‘Weather Radials’: New project from Raureif

It is not just the British or Seattle-ites (I understand) who have a keen interest in the Weather. Weather Radials is the latest weather-based data visualisation project from Timm Kekeritz and the team at Raureif – one of my absolute favourite agencies and creators of the excellent Partly Cloudy app.


The poster is based on a small multiples layout showing the story of four seasons of weather during 2013 across 35 cities around the globe. Each city is presented as a unique radial visualisation illustrating the weather readings and climatical characteristics across the year.

Each radial consists of 365 temperature lines with January 1 in the 12 o’clock position and the days sequencing clockwise. The closer a temperature line is positioned to the centre of a circle, the colder the minimum temperature of the day. The further out, the warmer the daily maximum temperature. The colour represents the daily mean temperature. Rainfall or snowfall is shown as a blue circle, centred on the day’s temperature line and sized according to the amount of precipitation.


The project combines quantitative data with qualitative insights: to highlight the stories behind the raw weather data, the team hand-picked nearly a hundred weather events: extreme weather conditions, temperature records, and other meteorological anecdotes of 2013. As Timm points out these include, for example, the unusually wet spring in Berlin, the prolonged heat wave in Washington, the record temperatures in Sydney and the monsoon season in Mumbai.

The data used for the visualization was collected from the Open Weather Map project, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and Weather Underground.


Beautiful A1-posters of Weather Radials are available to order through the website. Mr Stay Puft not included.

New edition of ‘Atlas of Design’: Call for submissions

In 2012 I briefly profiled a book titled the ‘Atlas of Design‘, dedicated to “showing off some of the world’s most beautiful and intriguing cartographic design”.

The Atlas aims to inspire readers both within the field of cartography and without toward new understandings of design, and of the power that a well-crafted map can have. In an age when more and more mapping tasks are being turned over to computers, the Atlas provides one more answer to the question: What do cartographers do?

Back in 2012 the plan was to commence a 2-yearly cycle of new editions of the Atlas, providing a fresh collection of maps that show-off the best of modern cartography. If you get your calculators out and type in 2012 + 2 you will see that 2014 happens to be the year of the second volume.

Daniel Huffman, Co-Editor of the Atlas and Director of Operations for NACIS – a not-for-profit organisation of cartographers – has been in touch to share details of the plans for the new 2014 edition and specifically to help spread the word for a call for submissions from mapmakers across the globe.

Our goal is to draw attention to the role of art and beauty in mapmaking, and to produce a book that will inspire future mapmakers.

If you are interested in putting forward your own work and potentially helping to fulfil this role of inspiration, here are the key details you need to know:

Visualising Data HQ on the move

After a happy two years living amongst the rolling hills and picturesque scenery of Hebden Bridge, this week, my wife and I are weighing anchor and moving back to the metropolis of Leeds.


This means that Visualising Data HQ is on the move also. Below is a snapshot of the scene as the office is gradually being turned inside out and upside down. I will be keeping things ticking over for another 36 hours then I will pull the plugs, pack the remaining things and begin the move on Friday. There will then be a few days of radio silence until I get broadband access reinstated in the new abode. As ever, the rule is nobody is allowed to publish anything interesting during this period, at least not until I’m back online. It’s only fair.


Coincidentally, tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of this site’s launch so it is an ideal opportunity to publicly thank everyone for their continued – and amazing – support. I feel incredibly fortunate to still have folks coming along to the site to consume my musings, journey through my lists and read about the latest developments. It is fair to say you complete me.

When I began blogging in 2010 I was simply looking for a convenient platform to share my thoughts on data visualisation, continuing my earnest learning of the subject through writing about it. I never expected the fantastic opportunities I have experienced since then.

However, whilst I have grown professionally, the look, feel and function of the site has remained relatively unchanged. This is set to change. In the next month or two I will be launching a brand new site with a fresh visual identity and a more refined experienced. More news on this when the time is right…

The success of ‘participative’ visualisations

On December 21st 2013 the New York Times published a project titled ‘How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk’, developed by Wilson Andrews and Josh Katz. The project is based on Josh’s own research exploring ‘Regional Dialect Variation in the Continental US‘ building on questions and data from the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder.


By responding to the 25 different questions about the language you most likely use in different situations the project builds a picture of your dialect. Once you have completed the quiz a final heat map provides an indication of the “probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did”. In other words, where in the US would you most likely find somebody who uses a similar dialect to you.


Taken in isolation, it is a terrific project, but its success in the context of visitor levels is quite staggering.

As the year closed out, analysis was conducted on the most visited pages across the entire New York Times’ website throughout the year and this project was ranked the number 1 most visited content of 2013.


In only 11 days – a period that includes the distractions of Christmas and New Year holidays – it had achieved more attention than the NYT’s articles covering subjects such as the Boston bombings, the appointment of a new Pope, and a highly-publicised Op-Ed by Vladimir Putin. We clearly don’t know from this metric what level of engagement was achieved – how long people stayed on the site, how many went through the full quiz, for example – but this is clearly an extraordinary and landmark achievement.

So, what does this tell us?

I think the main takeaway from this is how people love to participate: we are enthusiastic about anything that will result in a new understanding of where our views or attributes fit in the world. Recent projects from the BBC Graphics Team – including the global pay scale, global fat scale, 7 billionth birth, class calculator (developed in partnership with Applied Works) – have similarly shown how successful and popular participation based projects can be.

Other popular examples such as the NYT’s 512 paths or the Guardian’s ‘Balloons‘ projects are also participatory but in a different way. Rather than directly feed them with specific data you are invited to simulate the outcome of the key swing states in the lead up to the 2012 US elections.

These examples go beyond ‘just’ interactivity in the sense of exploring different views or diving into details of our data. Instead, we are directly involved in arriving at some outcome, some final ‘answer’ that let’s us understand a subject from our perspective.

This isn’t an attempt to express a paradigm shift in thinking across the field but it feels an important juncture to acknowledge ‘participative’ visualisation as an important sub-set of the interactive visualisation landscape.

British Library’s ‘Beautiful Science’ season

The British Library will soon to be launching an exciting new season titled ‘Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight’. Running from 20th Feb to 26th May the season incorporates many events dedicated to the art and science of communicating data.

Turning numbers into pictures that tell important stories and reveal the meaning held within is an essential part of what it means to be a scientist. This is as true in today’s era of genome sequencing and climate models as it was in the 19th century. Beautiful Science explores how our understanding of ourselves and our planet has evolved alongside our ability to represent, graph and map the mass data of the time.


I’m delighted to be playing a small role in the season, running two special workshops for the Library in February (sold out) and April (nearly sold out) but elsewhere there are some great exhibitions and events lined up. If you are in or around London during this season, I strongly urge you to get along. Here are some highlights:

Mon 10 Mar 2014: Festival of the Spoken Nerd: I Chart The Library


Fri 21 Mar 2014: Knowledge is Beautiful with David McCandless


Mon 24 Mar 2014: Access to Understanding


Mon 28 Apr 2014: Seeing is Believing: Picturing the Nation’s Health