Letting it all hang out

Sometimes, when you look at a graphic, you can sense the frustration of the artist. There is, after all, rarely one best way to plot a set of multidimensional data, and sometimes the artist gives up and tries to show everything. The result is invariably a mess. Consider the graphic below, from the New York Times, in an article comparing economic growth and progress in health in various global regions. The main thesis is that there is a disconnect between the two: improvements in health may occur in the absence of significant economic progress. But the artist has chosen to present the data as a giant smörgåsbord of options, in a table in which four columns show life expectancy and GDP in four different ways. First there is a little graph showing growth in life expectancy over a decade, then the total gain is shown as number, then (for some inexplicable reason) the growth in GDP is shown by two disks, and finally, the total GDP growth is shown as percentage. As always, I ask the central question: “What jumps out at you?” Here, sadly, the answer is: nothing.

Consider instead the graph below. Here we have made some hard choices. We have dispensed with the first and third columns, and plotted the gain in life expectancy against the percentage gain in GDP. We show the final GDP by the area of the points. This graph makes the essential point quickly and efficiently: there is no obvious correlation between GDP and gains in life expectancy. The outliers, regions with big gains in life expectancy but little growth in GDP, such as Latin America and the Middle East, jump out from the pack, as do regions with enormous economic growth, but little change in life expectancy.

The lesson here is: make the hard choices; less is more. Show only the data you need to make your point.


New York Times, “Hopeful Message About the World’s Poorest” By DAVID LEONHARDT

Published: March 22, 2011

Permalink: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/business/economy/23leonhardt.html


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