Information for a Visual Age

Animated graphs, part II

In Infographics on November 20, 2008 at 1:50 pm

This is a continuation of Animated graphs, part I

Last week I began an analysis of the images Hans Rosling uses in his presentation on the relationship between the global “haves” and “have nots.” In particular, his focus is on how people’s conceptions of the global North and global South (different terminology for the same concept of haves/have nots) may have been an accurate reflection of reality at one point in history, but may not be accurate today.

To make his case, he relies on a few sets of time-series data which he presents to great effect in some animated graphics. One thing that I like about Rosling’s work is that he start simple to get his audience to understand what he is talking about. Then he builds in data to make the presentation more accurate and nuanced.

For example, he presents a graph here that compares child survival rates with per capita income. Circles toward the top show better chances for survival, while circles toward the right show wealthier countries. Rosling adds a very helpful label (“good” and “bad” for health) to explain the “survival” scale, which some readers may find cryptic:

Each circle represents a collection of counties in one region of the world. The upper-right turquoise circle represents the rich and healthy OECD countries (the “developed” world). The size of each circle is proportional to the population of each region. So already we have a lot of information packed into a simple graph.

He then introduces some complexity and nuance to the picture. He breaks the red, sub-Saharan circle into its constituent countries (in the video, there is a nice little animation of the “explosion”). He highlights the two extremes. Mauritius is relatively well-off and healthy, while Sierra Leone is truly awful at the very bottom:

This is an excellent technique: first he shows the overall picture, then he adds complexity. This also fits his thesis perfectly — when we think of Africa, we think of poor countries with little access to health. But this isn’t necessarily the case everywhere. Mauritius is doing pretty well, as is the South Africa (the unlabeled, larger dot directly below Mauritius). In the case of sending aid to Africa, then, organizations and individuals must have a nuanced view of the situation to effect the most good.

Here is the complete graph for all 200 countries, showing an immense amount of information. But it is very readable, in part because Rosling has built it up slowly.

Conclusions

  • To show complex and nuanced data (and no data of use is ever simple), use elements that allow the audience to grasp the overarching narrative first. Rosling has the advantage of using video and animation to build up; but a static image should still strive (perhaps using different techniques) to guide the reader from simple to complex.
  • When explaining data that may have confusing terms or unfamiliar measurement scales, do not be afraid to clearly label the implications.

Join me next week for: Animated graphs, part III

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