Monday, February 27, 2012

nice visuals in Bill Gates annual letter

I just finished perusing the 2012 Annual Letter From Bill Gates (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), after receiving a tip on the good visuals it contains from a friend.

This is a great example of data viz done well. The visuals are straightforward, clean, and easy to interpret. They reinforce the words around them and vice versa. Each strives to tell a story. Here's one example:

Here's what I like about the above visual:
  • It has an action title, so you know before you even get to the data what to be looking for.
  • The key takeaway is stated in words, and the red font ties it visually to the relevant points - today, developing countries have a much higher proportion of workforce in agriculture than the US.
  • Font size and colors help to create a visual hierarchy of information, so it's clear what is most important and what is less important.
  • Everything is labeled (overall title, axis titles, sources).
There are a couple things that bother me a little, but they are relatively minor: I find the diagonal lines in the US area unnecessary and a little distracting; I also prefer sans serif font (without the little squiggly lines) to serif, while here they've used a mix of the two.

There is one other visual in the report that I'll spend a moment on. I like it visually, but I have some problems with it as well. Here it is:

Can you identify what about the above visual comparison makes me uncomfortable? 

I also urge you to check out the other graphs in the report and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Thanks, Lauren, for the great tip!

Monday, February 20, 2012

no more excuses for bad simple charts: here's a template

If you're using Excel to try to tell a story with data, plotting the data in this application should be the first step in your data visualization process, not your last. It takes time, iterations, and sometimes some brute force to get from the graphing application's defaults to a visual that you're proud to present.

I've often given others the advice to create a template in Excel that has some of the obvious things done and use that as a starting point instead of starting from scratch each time. But to be honest, I've never followed this advice myself. Even though I think I probably should. There are those little things that I do every single time I use Excel: change the colors, remove the gridlines, move around and de-emphasize the axis labels, and so forth. None of these steps alone take much time, but when you put them all together and figure that I do them for every graph I make...this all sums up to a big time save to start from a place that is different than Excel's defaults.

So, to try to finally follow my own advice, I've put together a long overdue template with some sample graphs that you can find here (screenshot below if you want to get a sneak peak prior to downloading). Perhaps in addition to eliminating some of my personal Excel time-suck, this will help alleviate some pain for you as well? (Note: I created this in Excel for Mac 2011, but am hopeful the formatting will come across on a PC as well.) Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Monday, February 13, 2012

this chart says...Zurich is expensive

The following was featured as the daily chart in the (full article here):

What other stories can you tell with this chart? What do you like? What would you change?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

grables and taphs

graph + table = grable?

It seems to roll off the tongue better than taphs

The question is this: can you combine the visual power of a graph with the detail of a table? I think the answer is yes. Let's look at an example.

As I prepare for an upcoming webinar with the European Foundation Centre (EFC), I've been scouring the websites of European philanthropic organizations to understand how they are visualizing data currently. One item I came across was the following table, which is from the City Bridge Trust:

I know the text is small and hard to read. But then, that's part of the point - that you have to read it. That's one drawback of tables - because you have to read them to start to tease out information, you don't get the immediate ah ha! moment that can be so powerful with graphs. But it's sometimes hard to show as much detail in graphs as you can get cleanly with a table. For example, the table above would be a mess of uninterpretable data if you tried to put it all into a single graph. 

I'll go back to my original question: what if we can pair the immediate visual information you get with a graph with the detail of the table? Introducing the grable:

I think I like it... You get some immediate information in the shape of the bars. There's more info there to read to get all the detail. Perhaps this visual is giving us the best of both worlds? Or perhaps it's utterly confusing (what are bars doing in my table???)? What do you think? Can you imagine yourself using a grable? Be brutally honest. Leave me a comment with your thoughts.

If you're interested in how I made this happen from a tactical standpoint, you can check out my Excel file here.