Data visualisation at its best in a chart about taxes

In my recent ‘Ask Andy Anything’ webinar Andy Cotgreave and I were faced with a particularly challenging pair of questions, one about sharing ‘success stories’ and the other inviting us to offer an elevator pitch for the value of data visualisation. I think this project by the excellent Alvin Chang of Vox is a perfect exhibit of the role of data visualisation. It visualises ‘100 years of tax brackets, in one chart’. Technically, it doesn’t just do this in one chart because it builds up the narrative through a series of carefully introduced sequenced snippets before the big reveal of the full 100 year chart.


What it shows is the incredibly complex brackets that were in place for so many years – but arguably reflecting a more equal society – and then the hugely reduced and simplified model of the latter years of Reagan’s term, down to just two bands – with middle earners facing the same taxes as the wealthy.

This is data visualisation at its best as a device for facilitating understanding in a way no other form could achieve. You can see the data. You can learn something about the subject if you are new to it, you can confirm what you suspected about the subject if you are not. When next I find myself in an awkward elevator situation being asked about the value of data visualisation, I’m going to have a laminated print-out of this example ready to whip out.

(As a sidenote, take a look at how the responsive design modifies the appearance of the President labels as you widen/narrow the screen)

Quick redesigns of BBC sport graphics

Yesterday I tweeted about a confusing graphic from a BBC article dispelling myths about last season’s Premier League. Its a good article with some really interesting content but some of the accompanying graphics hindered rather than enlightened the points being made.

A couple of people asked what I would do instead. Time rarely allows it but one should always be willing to offer an alternative, even if it is just quickly expressing some ideas verbally. Criticism without suggestion is empty and it is something I fall into all too often. So I thought I would quickly offer a reworking of the two main graphics that I felt caused unnecessary inaccessibility. I assumed the same constraints around space, (similar) typeface and colours as well as the inclusion of the logo and hashtag.

The first concerns the use of a radar chart to demonstrate how Stoke City have evolved from a long-ball team under Tony Pulis, into a more progressive team under Mark Hughes. With Radar Charts, there are almost always better solutions, especially when you are attempting to compare two series of values in the same chart. Radars really only make sense if and when there is some compelling logic for the radial arrangement of values (usually temporal, spatial or, occasionally, intuitive groups).


The redesign uses a connected dot plot to draw out the differences in rankings between the different measures. The measures themselves are re-ordered to try and group related ones together.


The second relates to the main graphic I mentioned on Twitter, which looks at dispelling the idea that teams with the most possession have the most success. The donut chart was reasonably fine until the dots landed. Due to their placement within the arcs there is an implication of meaning, especially when we see the two adjacent dots for the call out aggregating the loss and drawn match percentages. Unnecessarily confusing when all we need to learn about is 4 numbers.


The redesign is very simply a stacked bar-chart. To be honest it still doesn’t add loads of value as a visual, you are essentially getting most of your understanding from the value captions but the stacked bar better aids showing the ‘did not win’ aggregate. I’ve switched the colours to perhaps better suggest bad, medium, good.


Comparing the before/after versions I suspect that the labelling size and prominence of colour of my redesigns would need fine-tuning. It is interesting to see how faded they look when you shrink the final png file down. In the native Illustrator version they look far more vivid to the naked eye. That’s a good lesson in testing out your prototype designs in the size and setting in which they are likely to exist, to see for yourself how they look. Anyway, I’ve not got time to undertake endless iterations but you get the idea.

Graphic embellishments that add value

A very quick post just to share this graphic from the WSJ that was published a couple of days ago. I adore it.

I’m profiling it on here because I think this is a perfect example of an infographic that includes worthwhile and justifiable visual embellishments: useful chartjunk, if we want to go there.


The use of the KitKat sticks to represent the bars does not distort the data but adds an extra layer of subject immediacy and attraction. The bitten off chunks are presented where the lengths/values should be (at least they look like they are). The backdrop of the carefully unfolded silver foil wrapper, the inclusion of the fragments of crumbs: we don’t NEED these devices but they are inoffensive, non-gratuitous and ramp up the aesthetic appeal.


Some might term it gimmickry but for me it entirely transforms the appeal of this analysis that would have otherwise formed around largely utilitarian charts packaged up in a quite non-affecting style. There’s nothing wrong with that of course but, personally, I wouldn’t have taken a second glance at it. By contrast, I still want to eat this chart, and in my thinking that is a measure of success.

Bloomberg visualisation tracks America’s big issues

Really like this piece of visual journalism by Alex Tribou and Keith Collins of the Bloomberg Visual Team who have looked at ‘How Fast America Changes Its Mind‘ over some of the biggest social issues. Given the imminent possibility that the Supreme Court will consider arguments for an extension of the right for same-sex couples to marry nationwide, what is the history of pace of change across other significant issues: interracial marriage, prohibition, women’s suffrage, abortion, same-sex marriage, and recreational marijuana.

The first piece of analysis is a short animated display that maps the number of states that had removed a ban (or, for Prohibition, enacted the ban) since 1781 for each of the 6 big issues. You can see the very different rates of progress between, for example, the rights regarding interracial and same-sex marriage. In 3 (and possibly 4) of the 6 issues there seems to be a tipping point when around two-thirds of states are accepting of positive social change.


Below this you have an individual breakdown for each of the 6 issues tracking in more detail the individual stories state by state.


Finally, there is an alternative view which considers the speed of federal action following a major trigger point brought an issue to what I imagine was a mainstream, nationwide consciousness.


This work follows (in some part) a similar analytical narrative approach to a piece of work I previously profiled, namely the Peyton Manning touchdown pass record published by The Upshot. That begins with a similar overview across history showing cumulative change over time for the subject categories (in that case Quarterbacks). It then explores the individual stories for significant ‘categories’ (previous record holders) before finally considering an alternative perspective based on setting everyone’s starting point at the same zero to compare the rate of change (in their touchdown passing totals).

Stereotropes explores gender and ‘tropes’

Stereotropes is an interactive experiment, developed by the Data Visualisation team at Bocoup, which examines the use of a range of common tropes in TV and movies and how they reflect, shape or counter against gender stereotypes in society.


As the description on the site explains, it is a really fascinating exploration in to the use of language and connotation, asking the ‘chicken or egg’ question about how tv and film reflects society:

Some of the greatest reflections on society take place in film, through complex characters, often falling into familiar patterns called “Tropes”. Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can rely on as being present in the audience’s minds.


The tropes are authored by the community on and have been selected and categorised based on when they are always associated with males (such as ‘Jerk Jock’ above) or females (such as ‘The Chick’ below).


There are 4 different entry points into the project: tropes, films, adjectives, and gender.

The first part on the site let’s you explore individual tropes, initially providing a short description of their representation and a timeline history of their use in TV and film. It then delves in to more detail, based on the full description from, about the use of language, specifically the adjectives, used to describe this trope and whether those are strongly associated with this particular trope or more generic. You can also view other tropes that share the same adjectives in their descriptions. Note that the triangles are essentially an arrow between the text label and the marker on the axis, apart from their colour, they don’t encode any data through their shape, size or direction.


Next up, the films give you a way to interrogate the tropes used in over a hundred years of individual movies.


A chord diagram offers a way to view the quantities and connections between all the adjectives used in the trope descriptions and an overview of all the male and female tropes that use that term.


Finally, there is another slice of analysis that considers usage of adjectives and the strength of association with the male of female gender, based on dominance of reference.


There is an excellent detailed overview of the workings that went on behind the scenes for this project on the about page.

As a movie fan I’m instantly on board with this project through subject alone but I really love the focused slice of analysis the team have applied to this large topic, providing an excellent tool to investigate the way gender and character is portrayed on screen.

MapWheel: Visualise your treasured locations

MapWheel is a new product from Waypoint Ventures, a Sydney based start-up founded by Russell Bolden and Jesse Little, which offers the means to create a customised ‘toposcope‘ plaque showing the exact direction and distance to treasured locations around the world relative to your specified ‘home’ location.


As Russell explains, the online MapWheel generator enables you create “a tangible connection to special people and places in your world. MapWheels are intended to be personal, sentimental and fun.”

The process involves you assigning a ‘home’ location and then building up a series of uniquely personal locations around the world. The online generator offers you the chance to customise the material used for the final product, the font, messages and pattern design. As you build it, it gives you a preview of the final rendering.

Prices begin at $AUD 88 and they deliver from their Sydney base to many international destinations. Give it a go!

Dear Data: Pen pals in a data age

A quick profile of Dear Data, a lovely ‘artisan visualisation’ concept from the brains and pens of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. It has had plenty of coverage on other sites and on social media this week but I wanted to briefly mention it for anybody else out there yet to come across it.


The essence of Dear Data is “how two girls who switched continents get to know each other through a collection of handmade postcards: small data-driven self-portraits they draw and send across the pond each week”.


Each week they pick a new theme about their lives, small events or interactions, record the data over the coming week and then find uniquely individual ways to represent this data. Using postcards as their canvas, they hand draw their visual stories and then exchange them via post. It is an entirely contemporary form of being pen pals.


They are currently working through week 28, with week 8 the latest delivery shared on their site portraying ‘phone addiction’. Such a super idea that so beautifully emphasises the personal, unique perspectives we all bring to data and to visualisation.

New visual package for Chicago planning agency

There’s a smart new project from the team at Clever Franke who have created a digital package of visual content around the topics of ‘Mobility, Economy and Livability’ for CMAP, the regional planning agency for metropolitan Chicago.


The overall aim was to develop innovative approaches to data visualisation and information content. The project comprises a series of micro-sites discussing the past, present and future of Chicago’s plans around roads, transit, freight and how all this will move forward.

The micro-sites serve the primary purpose to educate and influence various stakeholders ranging from political decision makers, news media and business leaders. Of equal importance is the general publics’ need to access engaging content that relates to their everyday lives without requiring them to be professional planners. The micro-sites are an integral aspect of the agency’s commitment to transparency and to engaging the public.

As with many other long form/multi-faceted digital projects of recent years this work demonstrates a really rich blend of textual content, embedded movies, photo-imagery and interactive work structured around these 4 key chapters.


I really like the approach they have taken to visualise a number of selectable mapping layers in relation to ‘The Access to Transit’ index, which offers echoes of Moritz Stefaner’s Stadtbuilder and Zeit Online’s ‘A Nation Divided‘ as well as generally rocking a Roy Lichtenstein vibe (incidentally, check out the wonderfully gratuitous CF team profiles!).


Each chapter has the same structure with a short intro, followed by a central interactive piece, a text-narrated video and then a final simple chart displaying the relevant statistical indicator.


Aside from the neat visualisation work, I think this project highlights the increasing importance of good photo and video imagery: obtaining high-quality and permission-granted images can not always be taken for granted. Furthermore, the way such media are deployed and integrated into a digital work involves some fairly critical design choices. As technology continues to blur the boundaries between visualisation, infographics and digital content I feel there will be more need for us to understand the best practices around communication ‘beyond the chart’.


There is a great process description with loads more screenshots about Clever Franke’s design work here.

Columbia University Library’s collection visualised

Might be a little late to this but I have been exploring the absorbing ‘The Library Project’, a collaboration between the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, led by Laura Kurgan, and visualisation design/developers Annelie Berner, Jen Lowe and Derek Watkins. The motivation for the project is framed around a desire to create a way of ‘comprehending the immensity, character and value of the collection’. As more data about the library’s collection becomes digitised, these tools enable a novel means of exploring the shape, dynamics and relationships that exist amongst the vast collection.

The project, split into two displays, visualises the Columbia Libraries collection in one interactive interface and then explore connections between the books based on subject connections in the other.

Catalog, ‘a visualization of the Columbia Library’s holdings, circulation and activity’, is the first of these displays, presenting a radial tree structure of the taxonomy of book subjects. On the inside are the major categories, moving towards the outside gets into more specific topics. The size of the circles indicate one of three quantitative metrics: total books held, total circulation and then a relative ratio of the two for context.


Crossing Disciplines, ‘a digital library tool for multidisciplinary exploration’, is the second display, offering a tool to explore the “books in the Columbia University Libraries that are at the intersection of two or more disciplines”.


This has a bit more interactivity going on with the ability to select two or more subjects around the ring of the top 25 most interdisciplinary subjects in the library and then use the mouse wheel to zoom in or out of the display.

There are a couple of really nice design features here. One is the way the display gives you a short preview of the connections that exist but without cluttering the entire display.


Secondly, there is a guiding tutorial to take you through the intricacies of the interactive one feature at a time. Really useful to ensure users get the most out of interrogating it.


Visualisation shoots from all angles

Earlier this week I published my slides from a talk I gave last week in San Francisco. One of the key things I discussed was the importance of carefully considering your editorial focus and I equated some of the ideas to the world of photojournalism. This is not a unique concept – it was brilliantly articulated by Moritz Stefaner in his article ‘Worlds, not stories‘ – but it is an approach to thinking about the subjectivity, the filtering, the focus, the sequence and the angles involved in selecting the slices of your analysis you will pursue. Yesterday the Washington Post published a graphic ‘The Wizards’ Shooting Stars‘ by Todd Lindeman and Lazaro Gamio that I think nicely demonstrates these ideas in practice.


The graphic explored some of the efficiencies and inefficiencies of the Washington Wizards’ shooting (by the way, we’re talking about basketball, should have said earlier) and how a few improvements could really help them realise their potential.

Firstly, we are greeted with the big picture of the main focus of the story: a general overview of point scoring based on the distance from where shots are taken. We can’t read the individual lines, we just get a gist of the patterns at this stage to form an introductory understanding. This begins the sequence of the storyboard, from the general overview initially towards a more deep understanding of the fine details.

Next up we get an interactive panel of small multiples allowing us to interrogate the data from the different filtered angles of each player. Even as a non-basketball aficionado you can see the patterns of players who score closer the hoop and those who are aiming to score from further away (ie. to get the precious 3 pointers).


Having selected an individual player we can then explore in greater depth and detail their point scoring attributes. As well as the side-on view showing the distance and arcs of their points scored we now get a helicopter view to show the spatial pattern around the court as well as an array of more detailed statistics.


At the bottom we then have a more aggregated perspective of their scoring-distance patterns, moving away from the figurative nature of the individual shooting arcs towards a more statistical visual treatment.


This is a great piece of work. It has focus based on a clear initial trigger point of curiosity about the Wizards’ shooting performance. It has an array of different angles to allow us to look at the data from the most relevant different angles. It filters: not showing everything, but just what is need to support this slice of analysis. It has sequence, a starting point to frame the article followed by a journey into the more statistical depths of the subject. A really nice demonstration of the importance of editorial focus.