Guest blog: Popcorn infographics

November 8, 2012
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(This article was originally published at Junk Charts, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Note: This post is by Aleksey Nozdryn-Plotnicki, who blogs at ThinkDataVis.

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On my way to Crete recently, I was flipping through the in-flight magazine when I stumbled upon this treat. This full-page piece was about Claire Cock-Starkey’s upcoming (at the time) book, Seeing the Bigger Picture.

Thinkdatavis1

The book sells itself as “Global Infographics” and the article says it is “swapping dry words for colourful illustrated visuals”. The baby and the iPhone are pure decoration, but there are also some information graphics here at the top and the bottom which bear a closer look.

Thinkdatavis2

Above we have what at first looks innovative, but is actually a disguised bar chart. That’s fine, but:

  • Bars have been arched, challenging our ability to compare them
  • Outer bars actually have further to go as the radius and therefore circumference increases. So while Japan has the lowest percentage, its bar appears to be equally as long as that of Norway, the largest. In fact, since the values are sorted, for the most part all bars are the same length and size.
  • The legend is far larger than the chart itself, and is what really delivers the information at all. Using that space for a larger chart and labelling the bars directly (like in a usual bar chart) might be better.
  • There is no axis with any ticks or labels
  • The chart has too many categorical colours, so knowing what any colour represents requires looking it up in the legend where the raw data is anyway.
  • Why this circular shape? I suspect it was a clock-face for time, but the decoration, presumably informing our sense of “leisure activity” has removed the clock hands, so the metaphor is weak.
  • Why does the Norway bar go only 90 degrees around? This seems equivalent to not properly scaling the Y-axis on a bar chart and leaving copious empty space above. Maybe this is meant to indicate that even the most leisurely Norwegians only have time for gardening, being a kite, and drinking at a table.
  • Consolation points, however, for taking the time to clearly state what leisure time was defined as in this data.

Thinkdatavis3b

At first this looks more like a traditional bar chart, until you realise that:

  • Larger data is at the top and smaller at the bottom, so the data is tied to the blue lines on the left, rather than the visually-weighty bars on the right. Or maybe the height of the pyramid is meant to be tied to age at marriage?
  • Bars are artificially grouped and forced to be the same length, i.e. Sweden 34.3 and Germany 33.7. This leads to a “lie factor”.
  • In any event the data is so loosely encoded that it can hardly be considered encoded at all. The lines and the data are both sorted.
  • It has a non-zero baseline at roughly 20 or so, a “sin” in bar charts, though you could argue for a non-zero baseline of around 18 for marriage since you would never expect to see values below that

Ultimately, what I think we have here belongs in a genre of its own, perhaps “popcorn infographics”.  At the time of writing the one review on amazon.co.uk reads “Bought this for my 14 yr old - absolutely loves it and showed friends who were also suitably impressed. Thank you” which says a lot,  and not all negative. Perhaps there is room for popcorn infographics in this world or perhaps it’s just junk.

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Aleksey Nozdryn-Plotnicki an analyst/consultant and data visualisation blogger at ThinkDataVis.com. He is @alekseynp on Twitter.

 



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