Get your point across by flattening it

As an example of the power of effective data visualisation, it’s hard to beat. Here’s a little background on the diagram that’s all over the internet.

The story behind the coronavirus ‘flatten the curve’ chartFast Company
The first instance of Flatten the Curve can be found in a paper called Interim pre-pandemic planning guidance: community strategy for pandemic influenza mitigation in the United States: early, targeted, layered use of nonpharmaceutical interventions, and no, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Published in 2007 by the CDC, the paper was a preview to a pandemic like COVID-19, and it suggested simple interventions like social distancing and keeping kids home from school in order to slow the spread of a disease so that the healthcare system could keep up. […]

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Pearce breathed new life into the CDC graphic. Then Harris added an anchor, a single line, that articulated its significance. But it was Dr. Siouxsie Wiles who took the final step: She demonstrated the possibility that everyday people really could make a meaningful difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19. To do this, she transformed the graphic into two futures, each caused by a mentality: ignore it or take precautions. Wiles transformed the graphic into the perfect response to the polarized nature of COVID-19 across social media, in which people were either in full prep mode or far too skeptical that the pandemic was even real.

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It’s not the first of its kind, though.

This chart of the 1918 Spanish flu shows why social distancing worksQuartz
The extreme measures—now known as social distancing, which is being called for by global health agencies to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus—kept per capita flu-related deaths in St. Louis to less than half of those in Philadelphia, according to a 2007 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Putting Covid-19 into perspective

Here’s another way of visualising the numbers connected with the coronavirus.

Just how contagious is COVID-19? This chart puts it in perspectivePopular Science
One quantity scientists use to measure how a disease spreads through a population is the “basic reproduction number,” otherwise known as R0 (pronounced “R naught,” or, if you hate pirates, “arr not”). This number tells us how many people, on average, each infected person will in turn infect. While it doesn’t tell us how deadly an epidemic is, R0 is a measure of how infectious a new disease is, and helps guide epidemic control strategies implemented by governments and health organizations.

If R0 is less than 1, the disease will typically die out: Each infected person has a low chance of passing the infection along to even one additional individual. An R0 larger than 1 means each sick person infects at least one other person on average, who then could infect others, until the disease spreads through the population. For instance, a typical seasonal flu strain has an R0 of around 1.2, which means for every five infected people, the disease will spread to six new people on average, who pass it along to others.

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Here’s more on that.

What is the coronavirus’s R0 and why does it matter?Life Hacker
R0 is one of the numbers epidemiologists use to describe how an infectious agent spreads through a population. But it’s important to remember that it’s simply a statistic that describes some of the numbers we see. It’s not a rating of how scary a virus is, nor does it dictate how deadly a disease is or how difficult it might be to contain. We need more information for that.

And another way of comparing such things, from 2014.

Visualised: how Ebola compares to other infectious diseasesThe Guardian
Every disease has a basic reproduction number but the numbers are scattered across the literature. We’ve web-crawled and gathered them all here in one graphic, plotting them against the average case fatality rate – the % of infectees who die. This hopefully gives us a data-centric way to understand the most infectious and deadly diseases and contextualise current events.

Mapping the outbreak

Here’s a new tool, updated daily, to help us visualise the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

2019-nCoV-tracker
[H]eadlines can be hard to interpret. How fast is the virus spreading? Are efforts to control the disease working? How does the situation compare with previous epidemics? This site is updated daily based on the number of confirmed cases reported by the WHO. By looking beyond the daily headlines, we hope it is possible to get a deeper understanding of this unfolding epidemic.

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You can overlay the data from previous epidemics, too, as this summary from The Conversation explains.

Coronavirus outbreak: a new mapping tool that lets you scroll through timelineThe Conversation
Comparisons with other recent outbreaks are also revealing. At one end of the spectrum, the 2014 Ebola epidemic can be distinguished by its devastating virulence (killing nearly 40% of the 28,600 people infected) but narrow geographic range (the virus was largely confined to three countries in West Africa). On the other hand, the 2009 swine flu pandemic was far less virulent (with an estimated mortality rate of less than 0.1%), but reached every corner of the globe.

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A very useful resource. This is exactly the kind of context our news needs to be providing.

Cases Deaths Countries affected Case fatality rate
2003 SARS 8,096 774 26 9.56%
2009 H1N1 (swine flu) 60,800,000 18,499 214 0.1%
2014 Ebola 28,646 11,323 10 39.53%
2019 nCoV:
12 Feb
45,171 1,115 26 2.5%
2019 nCoV:
2 Mar
88,913 3,043 62 3.4%
2019 nCoV:
13 Mar
125,048 4,613 118 3.7%

Update 13/02/2020

Thanks to China’s fast response, are we about to turn the corner?

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A ray of hope in the coronavirus curveThe Economist
Trying to forecast the trajectory of a new virus is complex, with scant initial information about how infectious it is. Several scientists made valiant attempts based on early data from China. Some warned that it might not peak until May, but that was before China implemented strict containment measures. The more pessimistic ones now look too gloomy. Cheng-Chih Hsu, a chemist at National Taiwan University, plugged different scenarios into a simple model for estimating the spread of epidemics (the incidence of daily infections typically resemble bell curves, with slightly fatter tails as transmissions peter out). The tally of confirmed cases so far closely fits a seemingly optimistic forecast by Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese respiratory expert, who said on January 28th that transmissions would peak within two weeks.

The end can’t come soon enough.

The coronavirus is the first true social-media “infodemic”MIT Technology Review
On February 2, the World Health Organization dubbed the new coronavirus “a massive ‘infodemic,’” referring to “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” It’s a distinction that sets the coronavirus apart from previous viral outbreaks. While SARS, MERS, and Zika all caused global panic, fears around the coronavirus have been especially amplified by social media. It has allowed disinformation to spread and flourish at unprecedented speeds, creating an environment of heightened uncertainty that has fueled anxiety and racism in person and online.

Update 02/03/2020

I’ve updated the figures in the table above, using data from the tracker. Whilst the numbers of new cases in China is slowing down, they’re increasing everywhere else. And so too is the fatality rate, worryingly.

Update 13/03/2020

And still climbing.

Stylish maps of bureaucracy

Finding where you fit in a large organisation isn’t easy sometimes. It can be difficult to see the whole picture. These very stylish organisation charts might be just the ticket.

Organograms | UK GovernmentPeter Cook
Organograms (also known as org charts) show the structure of organisations – in our case UK Government departments. The gallery presents an overview of a number of government departments (from May 2014). Click a department to explore it in more detail.

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I love the moiré effects when you zoom in on some of them. (via FlowingData)

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I couldn’t help but think of Sam Lowry’s labyrinthine struggles with Brazil’s Ministry of Information, when I saw these sprawling government department charts. So it was nice to read, this morning, about Jonathan Pryce’s Oscar nomination—best newcomer, indeed.

A new political matrix?

Everyone’s election campaigns are underway now, with the various parties keen to target those voters they think best placed to swing it in their favour. But who are these people these days?

The centre folds – What happened to Britain’s median voter?
Since Brexit sliced through traditional political alliances, politics has become less of a simple matter of left versus right. Parties hammering out manifestos and preparing leaflets for swing seats are thus grappling with “Schrödinger’s median voter”, argues Marcus Roberts, a pollster at YouGov: they are unsure whether this mythical figure is alive or dead.

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If Brexit dominates the coming election, the median voter will be no more. When it comes to leaving the European Union, voters have polarised. There is little sign of compromise between the Remain and Leave camps. Fishing in the gap between these two pools of votes will land few votes, points out Chris Prosser of the University of Manchester. When elections are fought on economic issues, between left and right, political parties can pick a point in the middle and not go far wrong. By contrast, “identity politics do not have give and take,” says Geoffrey Evans of Oxford University. It is relatively easy to compromise on, say, the level of tax. It is harder to do so on notions such as sovereignty.

Here’s my simplistic take on this: we need the parties to pick a quadrant.

This is how it used to be; the left, the right, the centre.

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Brexit isn’t a left or right thing, it’s in or out.

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But because we have another general election, rather than another referendum, we have to think of the latter in terms of the former.

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So where does that leave those of us who sit in the bottom-left quadrant?

Meanwhile.

Tom Watson quits as Labour deputy leader and stands down as MP to ‘start a different kind of life’
The two men clashed repeatedly at the top of the party, with Mr Watson becoming a focus for the ‘moderate’ opposite in the party to Mr Corbyn. He criticised the leadership’s attempts to tackle anti-Semitism in the party and led moves to push it into supporting a second referendum on the EU, despite the entrenched resistance of the leader. Most recently, he defied Mr Corbyn by calling for the party to back a new public vote before the country went to the polls in a general election.

It’s rarely black and white

Taking statistics out of context to push a particular agenda is nothing new. But it’s nice to see a pushback.

Fixing the ‘impeach this’ map with a transition to a cartogram
As discussed previously, the “impeach this” map has some issues. Mainly, it equates land area to votes, which makes for a lot of visual attention to counties that are big even though not many people live in them. So, Karim Douïeb used a clever transition to change the bivariate map to a cartogram. Now you can have a dual view.

its-rarely-black-and-white-1

We just need more of this kind of thing over here. For instance:

Show this chart to anyone who says Brexit is the ‘will of the British people’
This chart is not an entirely convincing argument against Leave or Remain, but it does illustrate that ‘the 52 per cent’ and ‘the 48 per cent’ actually constitute much smaller proportions of the UK population than the figure might imply.

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The tree rings of US immigration

Here’s an unusual way of representing population growth. Pedro M Cruz, from Northeastern University in Boston, takes two centuries of US census data and shows the increasing population as rings of a tree, one for each decade.

For a radical new perspective on immigration, picture the US as an ancient tree
According to Cruz, the tree metaphor ‘carries the idea that these marks in the past are immutable’ and it ‘embodies the concept that all cells contributed to the organism’s growth’. As with so many renderings of US history, indigenous populations are conspicuously absent from the tableau. Still, Cruz’s skilfully deployed data doubles as a resonant work of cultural commentary, offering a rich and often surprising look at the ever-evolving makeup of the country.

There’s more information on the video’s Vimeo page.

Simulated dendrochronology of U.S. immigration (1830-2015)
Trees in their natural setting have annual growth rings that reflect varying environmental conditions; the rings’ forms are neither perfect circles nor ellipses. The algorithm is inspired by this variation and accordingly deposits immigrant cells in specific directions depending on the geographic origin of the immigrant. Rings that are more skewed toward the country’s East, for example, show more immigration from Europe, while rings skewed South show more immigration from Latin America. With this, it is possible to observe the quantity of immigration through the thickness of the rings. The color of the cells corresponds to specific cultural-geographical regions.

Charting frustration

An interview with US artist, Christine Sun Kim.

An artist who channels her anger into pie charts
A series of her large-format charcoal drawings, which explore navigating the hearing world as a deaf person, are now on view at the 79th Whitney Biennial in New York. The six works pair depictions of varying mathematical angles with correlative, rage-inducing encounters that are both broadly applicable — “being given a Braille menu at a restaurant” or “offered a wheelchair at an airport” — and painfully specific to her experience — “curators who think it’s fair to split my fee with interpreters.”

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Channeling her experiences into images of geometric angles, musical notes and meme-like pie charts, Kim playfully combines different sign systems to create what she calls a “common language that all people can connect to.”

The crowded race to the top

Nominations officially open today for Theresa May’s replacement. The sprint is expected to reach the finish line towards the end of next month, and the press are frothing all over it.

But consider this look at the US presidential marathon race, with a year and a half still to go.

crowded-race-to-the-top

More candidates and earlier
We’re 536 days out and 23 Democrats are in. In contrast, there were 8 around this time in 2008.

Ta ra, Theresa

The press are keen to analyse her political legacy (blah blah blah blah), but I’d rather look at Prime Minister May’s time at Number 1O via two of my favourite things – photos and charts.

The political life of Theresa May – in pictures
A look back over May’s political career, from being elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997 to Brexit, the snap election that backfired and her onstage dancing at the 2018 Tory conference.

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Theresa May: Premiership in six charts
1. She hasn’t been in office long
Mrs May has developed a reputation for surviving in almost impossible circumstances, but she is still among the UK prime ministers with the shortest time in office.

ta-ra-theresa

Remember buying music?

Here’s a simple but very effective chart showing the rise and fall of various music formats. This brings back memories.

Visualizing 40 years of music industry sales
For people of a certain age group, early memories of acquiring new music are inexorably linked to piracy. Going to the store and purchasing a $20 disc wasn’t even a part of the thought process. Napster, the first widely used P2P service, figuratively skipped the needle off the record and ended years of impressive profitability in the recording industry.

Napster was shut down in 2002, but the genie was already out of the bottle. Piracy’s effect on the industry was immediate and stark. Music industry sales, which had been experiencing impressive year-over-year growth, began a decline that would continue for 15 years.

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(Via Cool Infographics)

A typical day, comically speaking

Via FlowingData, here’s a witty visualisation of how we spend our days, on average. It’s just a stacked bar chart, but turning it into a comic “can allow the audience to identify with the story, sparking self-reflection: “Is this how I live my life? How am I different?””

A day in the life of Americans: a data comic
There are three settings in this comic (a bedroom, an office, and a bar), each serving as a metonym for an activity (sleep, work, and leisure). I have also included colors and positions as redundant, but clarifying, codes of classification. Such scenes allow for a novel method of highlighting data; a setting inside a panel is “lit up” by a light source if the activity for which it stands occupied those two hours of Americans the most.

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Process unclear

Another day, another flowchart trying to explain the remaining Brexit options, at the end of this article from the BBC on Jeremy Hunt’s take on recent events.

Brexit: Jeremy Hunt says ‘absolute priority’ to avoid European polls
The foreign secretary said the public would find it “hugely disappointing” to be asked to send MEPs to Brussels. Asked if it could be a disaster for the Tories, he told the BBC “in terms of polling it certainly looks that way”.

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Want more?

Brexit: What happens now?
The UK was originally due to leave on 29 March. The first extension shifted that date to 12 April. But now the UK now has just over six months to decide what it wants to do.

Government ministers are continuing talks with Labour leaders to try to find a compromise deal. If they can agree, MPs will be given a chance to vote on the deal. If not, a range of alternative options will be put to them instead.

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Self-improvement

The Economist’s charts are usually very clear and helpful, but that’s not to say they can’t be improved – as they themselves show.

Mistakes, we’ve drawn a few
At The Economist, we take data visualisation seriously. Every week we publish around 40 charts across print, the website and our apps. With every single one, we try our best to visualise the numbers accurately and in a way that best supports the story. But sometimes we get it wrong. We can do better in future if we learn from our mistakes — and other people may be able to learn from them, too. …

Misleading charts
Let’s start with the worst of crimes in data visualisation: presenting data in a misleading way. We never do this on purpose! But it does happen every now and then. Let’s look at the three examples from our archive.

Mistake: Truncating the scale

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Explaining the Brexit endgame

Another Brexit vote, another significant defeat. Here are a couple of useful charts outlining what might happen next.

The Brexit state of play: a guide to this week’s crucial votes

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Here’s a version from Quartz, set on a calendar. An interesting note on 18 April…

Every possible remaining Brexit outcome

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It’s enough to drive you mad.

Brexit has become a mental health issue
Hamira Riaz, a clinical psychologist based in the UK, says it’s not surprising that the uncertainty over Brexit is weighing on mental health. If “you suddenly find that decisions that are made on a national level are impacting your material security, that is definitely going to be a significant negative life event,” she explains. “And we know that people facing significant negative life events can tip over into mental health issues—such as depression and anxiety.” …

The UK’s National Health Service could find itself less able to address mental health issues in the near future. An NHS briefing (pdf) last year said Brexit’s impact on mental health services would be “far reaching,” in part because of the risks it poses to the supply of workers. About 165,000 NHS employees are EU nationals, and while those that are already in the UK can apply to stay, domestic recruitment alone won’t be able to meet future staffing needs.

And how about this for a summary of the key issues here?

🇬🇧🔥 Brexit, Briefly: REVISITED! 🔥🇪🇺

Size matters

How long is the perfect book?
British novelist E.M. Forster once complained that long books “are usually overpraised” because “the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.” To test his theory we collected reader ratings for 737 books tagged as “classic literature” on Goodreads.com, a review aggregator with 80m members. The bias towards chunky tomes was substantial. Slim volumes of 100 to 200 pages scored only 3.87 out of 5, whereas those over 1,000 pages scored 4.19. Longer is better, say the readers.

The phenomenon that Forster describes, akin to literary “Stockholm syndrome”, is only one possible explanation, as the article goes on to explain.

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I like that phrase, ‘literary Stockholm syndrome’. I wonder, though, if the age of the reader is relevant — I certainly feel less patient with these longer books as I grow older. (And less patient generally, if my family is to be believed!)

Weeks, years, aeons

I have a birthday coming up in a few days and I was going back over this post that links to a Wait But Why article on how to see all the weeks in your life in one go.

Your life in weeks
Sometimes life seems really short, and other times it seems impossibly long. But this chart helps to emphasize that it’s most certainly finite. Those are your weeks and they’re all you’ve got.

I’ve found it very useful to go back to my own version of this, to remind myself of where I’ve been and how fleeting situations are sometimes. But I hadn’t realised there was another article there that gives you a much broader—but still very relatable—perspective on time.

Putting time in perspective
Humans are good at a lot of things, but putting time in perspective is not one of them. It’s not our fault—the spans of time in human history, and even more so in natural history, are so vast compared to the span of our life and recent history that it’s almost impossible to get a handle on it. […]

To try to grasp some perspective, I mapped out the history of time as a series of growing timelines—each timeline contains all the previous timelines.

You move quickly through the last day, week and year, through timelines of a 30 year old and a 90 year old, all the way back to when humans diverged from apes, and the ages of the Earth and Sun.

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History is much closer than you think.

Drawing data

With perhaps the funniest headline I’ve seen in a while, the ever-reliable It’s Nice That website has this interview with the remarkable Mona Chalabi, as part of its International Women’s Day series:

“If it’s about farts, draw a butt for god’s sakes”: Mona Chalabi tells us how to illustrate data
By day, Mona is a data editor at the US version of the Guardian where she uses self-taught illustration methods to bring data to life. Covering everything from body hair removal to the popularity of nose jobs in the US to the number of decapitated animals found in New York parks, Mona’s tongue-in-cheek approach to information communication has won her column inches and an immovable place in our hearts.

There are many more of her illustrations on her website, as well as links to her journalism and videos.

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All the graphs you can eat

What’s better than data and loads of graphs? Data and loads of graphs about food and drink, of course!

Britain’s diet in data
The British diet has undergone a transformation in the last half-century. Traditional staples such as eggs, potatoes and butter have gradually given way to more exotic or convenient foods such as aubergines, olive oil and stir-fry packs. Explore the changes across four decades and hundreds of food and drink categories in this interactive visualisation, featuring data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Whilst I’m not surprised to see the fall of lard and the rise of olive oil over the last 40 years, why is nobody buying marmalade anymore? Goodness me.

Visualising data; the good, the bad and the quirky

The data’s everywhere, but can we make sense of it? Here are some data visualisation approaches and examples – how to do it, and how definitely not to.

This article suggests the young folks are demanding better presentations of statistical data because of Google or Wikipedia or something. Sounds fishy. Surely us old folks appreciate good design too?

Data visualization drives the era of information activism
Having grown up with the web, millennials are used to having access to all the information they want with just a simple finger tap on a screen. As millennials enter the workforce, they are bringing these expectations into the office, behaving less as data consumers and much more as information activists.

But how far should we go in leading the horses to the water?

Narration and exploration in visualization
What should we emphasize when designing a visualization? Should we explain the data, perhaps through a narration, or should we let readers explore the data at will?

Here’s an example of how an interactive presentation not only helps with a story but can spur you into looking for your own.

What happens when a newspaper editor and a data-viz whiz team up to tell stories
With two wins behind them, Rob and Daniel are already discussing future collaborations—perhaps something with sports or crime data. The idea is to tell compelling data stories that have a longer shelf life. (“If you put time into creating something like this, you want people to see it over a certain scale of time,” says Daniel.)

I do like these images, though. Not sure how replicable this approach is, but it works well here.

These playful, funny 3D printed infographics can liven up any data
Instead of flicking hastily to the next page, your gaze can’t help but linger on the adventures of the miniature figures scaling, swinging from or exploring the plastic pieces.

But here are the real gems. Bar pies? Caramel latte football fields?

BestWorstViz contest result
As with last month’s graphiti contest, picking a winner was ever so hard with lots of wonderfully bad work heading my way. The submissions generally fell into two different camps: (1) the most blatant, inelegant in-your-face explosions of design awfulness, and (2) the more subtly deceptive “wolf in sheep’s clothing” designs. My judgments were based on the degree of violation against each of my three key principles: Trustworthy, accessible and elegant.