It’s not all bad news

I think I might not bother keeping up with current affairs for a while, it’s all too ridiculous. Basically, another prime minister, another deal, another vote.

How much of Johnson’s ‘great new deal’ is actually new?
As MPs prepare to vote on Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal agreement, Guardian analysis shows that less than 5% of the original deal has been renegotiated, despite it being rejected by parliament three times.

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Another lost vote.

‘House of fools’: how the papers covered Johnson’s latest Brexit defeat
Newspapers cast prime minister as either a fighter or a loser, with plenty of anger directed at Parliament, too.

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This current prime minister seems as prime ministerial as that president is presidential, i.e. not much.

Boris Johnson’s three letters to Brussels: what do they mean for Brexit?
Rather than writing one letter to the European Union, Johnson has sent three – almost. The first is less of a letter: rather an unsigned photocopy of a portion of of the Benn Act. Rather than asking for an extension on behalf of Johnson, the text merely points out that the Benn Act requires the government to seek an extension. After this, it adds that “if the parties are able to ratify before this date, the government proposes that the period should be terminated early”. In what seems a fit of pique, and reinforcing his determination simultaneously to write and refuse to write to Brussels, the prime minister declined to actually sign the missive.

Remember all those flow charts trying to explain how we might leave, back in March and April? Back to the drawing board with all those.

Brexit: What happens now?
It’s not clear that the whole process will be completed by 31 October. The government will seek to pass a “programme motion” to limit the length of debates in the House of Commons. MPs could reject that, though, and the bill must also pass through the House of Lords.

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And it’s not just the British press that’s struggling with politics.

Why Australia’s media front pages were blacked out today
Australia’s major media organisations blacked out their newspaper front pages and websites on Monday in a coordinated push for legislative change to protect press freedom and force the government to increase transparency.

According to the organisations – which include SBS, the ABC, Nine, News Corp Australia and The Guardian – a slew of laws introduced over the past 20 years have hindered the media’s capacity to act as the fourth estate and hold the government and other powerful figures to account.

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But what we need to remember is, if we step back from all this, it’s not all bad news. We just need to look in the right places.

Beautiful News
A collection of good news, positive trends, uplifting statistics and facts — all beautifully visualized by Information is Beautiful.

We’ll be releasing a chart every day for a year to move our attention beyond dramatic news headlines to the slow developments and quiet trends that go unseen, uncelebrated.

Amazing things are happening in the world, thanks to human ingenuity, endeavour and collaboration.

It’s the new initiative from David McCandless and his Information is Beautiful team. Here’s an example.

Everyone, everywhere is living longer
One of the greatest achievements of humanity is the increase in life expectancy. In 1960, the average life span was 52.6 years. Today it’s an impressive 72 years. The reasons are simple: improvements in child survival, expanded access to healthcare (including widespread vaccination), and people being lifted out of extreme, grinding poverty.

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And another.

More Afghan girls are being educated
Educating girls is probably the single most impactful thing we can do to make the world a better place. Women who spend longer in school have fewer, healthier and better-fed children, are less likely to die in childbirth, contribute more towards a country’s economy, participate more in politics, and are less likely to marry young or against their will.

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Just two of dozens of uplifting stories. I know which news website I’d rather read.

Update 22/10/2019

I should, of course, have added some links to Hans Rosling’s work after that.

Bill Gates on Factfulness
Bill Gates recently read Hans Rosling’s new book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” In it, Hans offers a new framework for how to think about the world.

And here’s Hans in his own words about the need for fact-based optimism.

Good news at last: the world isn’t as horrific as you think
Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? War, violence, natural disasters, corruption. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and we will soon run out of resources unless something drastic is done. That’s the picture most people in the west see in the media and carry around in their heads.

I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

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.

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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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Not enough

Pixelation to represent endangered species counts
In 2008, the World Wildlife Fund ran a campaign that used pixelation to represent the number of animals left for endangered species. One pixel represents an animal, so an image appears more pixelated when there are fewer animals left. Imgur user JJSmooth44 recently used more recent numbers to show the images for 22 species.

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Nathan Yau at FlowingData also points us towards this piece for The Guardian from Mona Chalabi — another way of visualising how small these populations are.

Seven endangered species that could (almost) fit in a single train carriage
Some species are so close to extinction, that every remaining member can fit on a New York subway carriage (if they squeeze).

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Visualising data on a comfort blanket

Our first child was always a good sleeper, all down to our fantastic parenting skills, or so we thought. Child #2 arrived and we set off with the same routines in mind. She had other ideas, however. She didn’t properly sleep through the night until she was 4. That was a challenge, to say the least. She had her 14th birthday last week: I think we’ve just about caught up with all that missed sleep now.

Here you can see a more normal sleep pattern emerge from the fabric of a baby blanket.

A father transformed data of his son’s first year of sleep into a knitted blanket
As Lee neared completion of the blanket, he shared, “All the disparate pieces felt really fragile but as I seamed it together, wove in loose ends, and removed stitch markers, it felt more and more sturdy. Something that I’d been handling like a delicate bird egg started to just feel like a blanket.”

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Feeling sleepy? Have a nap.

Napping
The practice may be winding down in Spain—60% of Spaniards say they never siesta, perhaps because high unemployment means workers want to show their bosses that they’re pulling long hours. But other countries still participate, including Greece, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nigeria, Italy, and China, where “heads down” time after lunch is considered a constitutional right.

The science of sleep: dreaming, depression, and how REM sleep regulates negative emotions
The more severe the depression, the earlier the first REM begins. Sometimes it starts as early as 45 minutes into sleep. That means these sleepers’ first cycle of NREM sleep amounts to about half the usual length of time. This early REM displaces the initial deep sleep, which is not fully recovered later in the night. This displacement of the first deep sleep is accompanied by an absence of the usual large outflow of growth hormone.

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.

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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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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What makes good governance?

In an attempt to get rid of the sour taste left in our mouths from yesterday’s post about the rise of populist politics, here are some more award-winning data visualisations via David McCandless and the Information is Beautiful people.

The winners of the World Data Visualization Prize
Conducted in partnership with the World Government Summit, the prize focuses on how governments are improving citizens’ lives. We asked entrants to use the power of data-visualization to illuminate data on the innovations and decisions – seen and unseen – that drive progress.

Here’s my favourite, an interactive overview of the different factors that contribute to happy countries (or not).

GOV|DNA — Discover the DNA of a good government
This interactive visualization enables the exploration of the DNA of a good government. You can analyze and compare multiple indicators to investigate their influence on countries and the related behaviour and performance of governments.

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Where is everybody?

Each six months Andy Kirk of Visualising Data highlights some of the significant developments in data visualisation. It’s a great collection, but this one in particular caught my eye.

10 significant visualisation developments: July to December 2018
2. ‘Human Terrain’: A genuinely captivating project from Matt Daniels of ThePudding, ‘Human Terrain’ is a staggeringly detailed, explorable prism map of the world’s population that can trap you into browsing for far longer than you can realistically afford. It evokes memories of a classic graphic from 2006, created by Joe Lertola for Time magazine. There is also a wonderful companion piece, ‘Population Mountains‘, where Matt walks through ‘a story about how to perceive the population of cities’.

When you fly from one part of the world to another, it becomes very quickly apparent just how crowded some places must be, compared to others.

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Human Terrain: visualizing the world’s population, in 3D
Kinshasa is now bigger than Paris. Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen are forming an epic, 40 million-person super city. Over the past 30 years, the scale of population change is hard to grasp. How do you even visualize 10 million people?

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It puts those incredibly dense housing schemes in Hong Kong I mentioned earlier into context, doesn’t it?

Population growth, like charity, starts in the home, so here’s an animated chart on family sizes in the US.

How many kids we have and when we have them
The chart above shows 1,000 timelines, based on data from the National Survey of Family Growth. Each moving dot is a mother. Age is on the horizontal, and with each live birth, the dot moves down a notch. The green bubbles represent the total counts for a given age.

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It’s interesting to watch the chart populate. You’ve got to wonder about the stories behind those outliers though.

Seeing Brexit clearly

Even as we approach the end of the beginning of Brexit, it’s still hard to pin down what it is. On one hand, it’s simple — it’s a mistake. On the other, the complicated tangle of frameworks it’s operating within is hard to grasp.

Here’s a very helpful visual explainer from David McCandless.

Brexit explained
Everything you need to understand about Brexit in one graphic. Written, designed and narrated by David McCandless

Sometimes, an outside view can best illuminate the absurdities we’re too close to. Here’s an article from the Washington Post.

The collective madness behind Britain’s latest Brexit plan
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May demanded that her party reject her own Brexit plan so she could go back to negotiations with the European Union and dismantle an agreement that her government reached with the continent, on an impossibly fast timeline, during talks that have already been ruled out. On every level, it is an insane way to behave. The British government is actively sabotaging the work it has spent the past two years completing and then doing a victory dance.

Bringing back postcards

Postcards are such simple things, really – just small rectangular pieces of thin card. No technology required. Perhaps that’s why they don’t seem as popular these days? But thanks to the Postcrossing project, I’ve been sending and receiving more and more — and from all over the world.

Postcrossing history
The Postcrossing project was created in 2005 by Paulo Magalhães as a side project when he was a student in Portugal. Paulo loves to receive mail and postcards in particular; from friends, family — or from anyone in the world. Finding a postcard in the mailbox always makes his day!

He knew more people shared the same interest, but there was no good way yet to connect everyone. And that’s how he got the initial idea of creating the online platform for this which he called Postcrossing. Its goal: to connect people across the world through postcards, independently of their country, age, gender, race or beliefs.

Here are some more postcard-related links.

Wish you were here? Postcards from the art world
“It’s possible to form a significant collection of extremely good and important works of art without being wealthy,” he says. “Anyone could decide to form a collection very close to mine with most of the same things – and I like that. It’s anti-exclusive.”

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A postcard writing Rube Goldberg machine in a suitcase
As the sun regrettably sets on the art of letter writing, the inventive folks at design studio HEYHEYHEY have pieced together a clever contraption that promises to keep the art of travel postcards a thing of the present. Kind of. Melvin the Traveling Mini Machine is an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that fits in a pair of suitcases that executes the simple task of “writing” and stamping a postcard of your choice, that is, if the absurdly elaborate sequence of steps goes off without a hitch.

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Two women leading parallel lives are getting to know each other through data
Giorgia Lupi, who lives in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, who lives in London, are engaged in a long-distance, postcard-based data exchange in order to get to know each other better: “Dear Data.” They’ve only met in person twice, and they’re both interested in data, so they’re sending each other postcard drawings of data about their day-to-day lives.

Four Corners Books announces its next publication
Four Corners Books has just announced the next book in its Irregulars series titled, Leeds Postcards, a celebration of the independent postcard press. For the past four decades, independent postcard press Leeds Postcards has been making oppositional, inspiring images; activism by design. The cards are not of Leeds; the name represents a defiant rejection of the hegemony of London. The images cover a fascinating range of domestic and international politics, causes and campaigns, creating, in their own unique and graphically inventive way a record of the struggles as well as the progressive political triumphs from 1979 to the present day.

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!)

Charting Van Gogh’s shifting colours

Taking a break from their AI coverage, Artnome take us on an interesting journey through Van Gogh’s shifting colour schemes, busting a couple of myths as they go.

New data shows why Van Gogh changed his color palette
We were not convinced by the medical reasoning behind the shift in Van Gogh’s color palette and we could not think of any French Impressionists that painted with colors nearly as bold as Van Gogh, so we decided to take a look at some other possibilities.

Van Gogh was a restless soul and moved around quite a bit. He also spent a lot of time painting outdoors, especially in his later years. As someone who famously struggled with mood swings, we thought location, and more importantly, weather patterns may have impacted his use of color.

To test this, we created composite images averaging every painting Van Gogh created from each of the major locations he worked from and compared them to weather patterns from those regions. We think the results are quite remarkable.

Using data and technology like this is a fascinating way to learn more about works of art and the hidden narratives behind them.

The best data visualisation work of 2018

Another end of year roundup, this time looking at data visualisation design.

Information is Beautiful Awards 2018: The Winners
Let’s raise a glass to dataviz that pushes boundaries, illuminates truth, and celebrates beauty. Thank you to everyone who joined us on the Information is Beautiful Awards journey this year – now see which entries took home trophies at tonight’s spectacular ceremony.

There is so much to pour over, here. Two that stood out particularly for me was this visual representation of a Beethoven string quartet and this unusual view of our lively planet.

Dynamic Planet Interactive Scientific Poster
The Interactive Scientific Poster „Dynamic Planet” was designed and developed for the exhibition „Focus Earth” of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. One of the main advantages of a digital poster is that it can display dynamic content. This is at the same time the essential statement of the scientific poster “Dynamic Planet”: our earth never stands still, is permanently shaken by earthquakes. These tensions are measured by three measuring points of the GFZ and their data is visualized in real-time in an interactive poster in the exhibition context. The viewer is given a direct impression, he can be a “witness” to current measurement and research.

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This video demonstrates how people can interact with the poster, to navigate the large amount of data presented in an intuitive, visual manner.

Dynamic Planet – Scientific Poster
The challenge for the interface design was to ensure a clear overview, despite of the massively many events. The solution consists in an interactive graphical representation of the events by filtering the earthquakes by eg. magnitude and depth. A special visual feature of the scientific poster “Dynamic Planet” is the representation of the earthquakes depth in a transparent, rotating globe.

Introducing children to data visualisation

The economist and dataviz blogger Jonathan Schwabish took on an unusual challenge, to introduce his son’s primary school classmates to data visualisation.

I wouldn’t know where to start — I’m still not sure of the difference between a histogram and a bar chart — but cleverly, Jonathan begins with examples of diagrams everyone is familiar with. Maps.

Teaching data visualization to kids
I then introduced the term “choropleth” and showed them this map of graveyards in the US and this map of McDonald’s (a couple of kids actually tied the two together!). I also showed them a clip of Aron Koblins’ Flight Patterns project (my son loves this one)—the simple and intuitive animation, and black and white color scheme make it easy to follow. I also showed them a video of Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas’ Wind Map, again, something I think they could all relate to.

He then asks the children to draw their own maps, of their homes rather than the whole world, and to add in any data they liked.

I then passed out tracing paper and, bringing up the graphs I showed them earlier in which color, dots, lines, and bubbles were placed on top of the map, I asked them to plot any data they liked. … Could they add differently-sized bubbles to their favorite rooms? Could they draw lines showing their paths through the house? What about smiley faces for the most fun room?

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What a fantastic idea. I hope others are similarly encouraged to spread the word in this way. As he says in his conclusion, helping children to understand graphs is a good thing for many reasons.

I’d love to see a way to make data visualization education a broader part of the curriculum, both on its own and linked with their math and other classes. Imagine adding different shapes to maps in their Social Studies classes to encode data or using waterfall charts in their math classes to visually demonstrate a simple mathematical equation or developing simple network diagrams in science class. The combination of the scientific approach to data visualization and the creativity it sparks could serve as a great way to help students learn.

(Via FlowingData.)

Looking up

There’s a bloody lunar eclipse this evening, although the thunderclouds that are accompanying our unusually warm summer may get in the way. But whilst we’re on the subject:

Figures in the stars: How cultures across the world have seen their myths and legends in the stars
Let’s compare 28 different “sky cultures” to see differences and similarities in the shapes they’ve seen in the night sky. Ranging from the so-called “Modern” or Western constellations, to Chinese, Maori and even a few shapes from historical cultures such as the Aztecs.

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And as we can see here, attempts to map and explain our place in the universe go back a long way.

Cosmography manuscript (12th Century)
This wonderful series of medieval cosmographic diagrams and schemas are sourced from a late 12th-century manuscript created in England. Coming to only nine folios, the manuscript is essentially a scientific textbook for monks, bringing together cosmographical knowledge from a range of early Christian writers such as Bede and Isodere, who themselves based their ideas on such classical sources as Pliny the Elder, though adapting them for their new Christian context.

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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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Your favourite passwords

As well as the obvious “12345678”, “password” and “qwerty” (I can’t believe people really use those?), it seems people’s names beginning with J are especially common.

Top 500 most common passwords visualized
Most common passwords. Is yours here? Also, after some deep analysis, we’ve discovered that passwords fit into 11 categories. See what they are.

If any of your passwords feature on that chart, please read this and change them. Right now.

The usability of passwords
Using more than one simple word as your password increases you security substantially (from 3 minutes to 2 months). But, by simply using 3 words instead of two, you suddenly got an extremely secure password. It is 10 times more secure to use “this is fun” as your password, than “J4fS<2”.