Same Data, Different Stories

In today’s world of fake news I thought I might write a post about how easy it is to tell different versions of the truth simply by manipulating the same data and/or visualizing it differently. Each of my examples will be truthful, but can tell profoundly different stories.

Let’s start with the data.

Data table of US Median Earnings

For my example I chose to use the estimated US Median Earnings in dollars from the US Census website. I also chose to color code the data using blue for boys and pink for girls since these are the traditional colors associated with gender in the US.

There are a few things of note about the data:

  • First, the earnings values are the median earnings per year. It’s important to understand that median is not necessarily equal to average. Median is literally the middle, meaning that half of the population will earn more than the median and half the population will earn less.
  • Second, the % Diff is the percentage of difference between the Male and Female median salaries for the year. For example, males earned 23.3% more than females in 2005.

Let’s take a look at visualizing the data.

Looking at this chart, we would immediately think the difference between gender salaries has decreased dramatically in the last 11 years. And despite the title, it’s not clear which is the higher salary and which is the lower salary. We’re assuming our audience will know.

Now, look again at the same chart with a simple change.

As you can see, when we adjust the scale (vertical axis) to the full 100%, there’s been very little change. One of my favorite quotes is from Leon Trotsky, “Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.” Although I usually shorten it to just “everything is relative.” In this example, because most person’s understanding of percentages are relative to a scale of 0 – 100, the first chart’s scale can be misleading. Persons absorb charts visually so the position and movement of the line on the chart is what they are going to pay attention to first and it’s going to be relative to their perception of a percentage scale. Having a truncated vertical axis is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows us to see more detail, but it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t promote misconceptions of the data. This a more truthful chart but it still has the problem of clearly identifying which gender’s salary is higher and which is lower.

Let’s look at a chart which visualizes the median salaries.

This chart’s primary story is the growth of earnings for males and females from 2005 – 2016. Although it does show the male earnings as higher it’s not going to be the primary focus of the viewer despite the chart title. There’s a reason for that. Because it’s a line chart, there’s a perception of movement (hence line charts being so effective for a time series). So our primary perception is the increase of earnings across time and the gap between the two genders is secondary.

By highlighting the gap between the two lines (and adding data labels) the story now becomes more about the % of differences between male and female earnings as stated in the title. The visualization is perceived as one item but the focus is on the gap instead of the lines.

This chart’s story is two simple truths:

  • the gap between male and female earnings has decreased 3.6% in the last 11 years and
  • earnings have increased at a steady rate for both genders since 2005.

By manipulating the data we can create completely different stories.

This chart gives the impression of a widening gap between the earnings of male and female even though the data labels clearly show the percentage as less. That’s because the data is cumulative. Each year’s earnings is added to all the previous year’s earnings (known as a running total) to end with the total earnings for all 11 years. This is a potentially misleading chart since viewers may not take time to absorb the details required to understand it.

In this chart it appears that female’s earnings are better than male’s. That’s because it’s charting the percentage of growth in earnings and is using a truncated vertical axis. So while it’s true that female’s earnings have increased slightly more than male’s, the difference in the growth is nowhere near bringing parity to the earnings between the genders. This is also a potentially misleading chart.

Like I said at the beginning of this article, every one of these charts are “truthful” but, as you can see, there can be lots of versions of the truth. How you decide to correlate, transform, aggregate, and visualize data has a great impact on how someone perceives the story. And while it might be tempting to have your data shown in such a way that it supports your beliefs, isn’t it better (and more ethical) to show the data in as clear and unbiased way as possible?

So how can you tell your data’s story?

  1. First, consider what your data is about. My example was pretty straightforward, the difference between male and female’s median salary for the last 11 years.
  2. Next, decide how you manipulate the data in relation to your intended audience. In my examples, while calculating the percentage of difference between the genders was useful, transforming the data to running totals and percentage of growth was potentially misleading. I’m a huge fan of the KISS principle. It means Keep It Simple, Stupid.
  3. Finally, consider your visualizations carefully. Start with your main title, then imagine your visual without any other text. Your audience is going to expect the “picture” of the chart to tell the story of your title. Strive for simple truths.

I hope you found this article helpful for creating your own data stories. The samples, plus more, are available for download in an excel spreadsheet on my Visualology onedrive.

The Little Black (and Blue or White and Gold) Dress

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On February 26, 2015 a simple picture of a dress sparked a viral debate with millions of people arguing over whether the dress is black and blue or gold and white. Even in my own household both my daughters saw the dress as gold and white, while I saw only black and blue. The phenomenon of the dress goes to the heart of this site, it’s all about visual perception.

In a Buzz Feed news article, Cedar Riener, associate professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College says “We are always making decisions about the quantity of light that comes into our retina. This light, called luminance, is always a combination of how much light is shining on an object and how much it reflects off of the object’s surface. In the case of the dress, some people are deciding that there is a fair amount of illumination on a blue and black (or less reflective) dress. Other people are deciding that it is less illumination on a white/gold dress (it is in shadow, but more reflective).”

In the same article, the dress phenomenon, according to neuroscientist Dale Purves of Duke University, “shows how strongly people are wedded to the idea that colors are properties of objects, when they are in fact made up by the brain.”

As presentation designers, this event showcases the importance of ensuring there is no ambiguity in our visuals if we want to guarantee clarity of our message. On the other hand, look at the “buzz” this photo has generated, including it’s own Wiki page. With a judiciously placed ambiguous image you could leave your audience with a lot to talk about. Artist Rob Gonsalves has some amazing optical illusion photos that would be perfect for this purpose.

Can You See What I ‘m Hearing?

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The more I learn about visual perception, the more I believe we don’t see at all, we perceive.

In the picture at left, Project Runway’s Season 12 Designer Justin LeBlanc is helping his model into a beautiful faux fur gown, right? Wrong. The gown is actually made from thousands of test tubes. But our brain translates this particular texture as soft fur because that is what we’ve experienced though both our touch as well as sight. Justin engaged our sense of touch (through familiarity) and fooled our eye.

In truth, while our eyes see, our brain’s perceive with all our senses, not just our eyes. And sometimes that means when other senses come into play, it can drastically change what we think we’re seeing.

For example, by simply adding a small sound you can completely change what your audience perceives. You can download the PowerPoint presentation to see what I mean from here: http://sdrv.ms/1eksk6r (and it must be downloaded since Web Apps will not support a looping slideshow). It has only one slide. This particular example was inspired by an episode of Brain Games, which I mentioned in a previous post. If you watch the slide with your sound muted, the two balls will appear to cross over each other. But if you watch it with sound on, the balls will appear to bounce off one another. Try watching it with sound and without sound and you’ll see how dramatic the difference is. Just by adding elements that engage our other senses, you can change (and enhance) what your audience sees.

Ironically, the designer Justin LeBlanc is deaf and this particular dress represents his adjustment to having a cochlear implant. I’d say he did an amazing job with that inspiration. And taught us all a little lesson in perception.

A TV Series for Presenters and Presentation Designers

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You might not believe it, but National Geographic’s Season 2 of Brain Games is a near perfect resource for presenters and presentation designers. While not perfectly scientifically accurate, the series contains a wealth of information about how our brain processes information and it’s delivered in an entertaining format. This is invaluable information if you are a presenter or presentation designer.

The official Brain Games web site has video clips, articles and the schedule for all 12 episodes. Amazon provides the series in both DVD and streaming format. Episodes are also available through NatGeo’s YouTube Channel for $1.99 per episode.

In addition to the series episodes, National Geographic’s Education web site has more resources on how your brain works and, finally, if you’re curious to see how your own brain stacks up, discover your own brain profile at the Interactive Brain Games web site. I highly recommend you watch the episodes first though or you might find you’re not as clever as you thought you were.

1 Picture – 1,000 Words, 1 Photo Mosaic – Priceless

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I’ve always loved collages and mosaics.  There’s so many aspects to appreciate.  From a distance you see the entire picture, but close up there’s all these wonderful details.

Previously I blogged about the Gestalt Principles of Perception and it’s these very principles that allow us to see these pictures, created with small tiles, holistically.  They are illusions become art.

I first saw a photography mosaic on a popular decorating show and was immediately captivated.  How wonderful to take a collection of images and create your memories as art.  After watching the show I knew I just had to find the software that would allow me to create my own mosaics.

Whoever said you can’t get something for nothing never encountered Andrea.  This wonderfully quirky person has created a tiny, well-behaved app that easily lets you create your own photo mosaics.  The application is, appropriately enough, called Andrea Mosaic. A version is available for virtually every operating system and professional versions are also available for a very small fee of $35.  You can even capture images from video and use them to create your mosaics. 

There has been some criticism because the interface isn’t elegant and the grammar is atrocious but who the hell cares? Anyone who figures out the algorithms to create these lovely little works of art and gives it away for free deserves a little leeway.  Andrea does accept donations and if you use his software I encourage you to contribute at least a small donation.

If you need more professional features consider Mosaic Creator for $99. In addition to photo mosaics you can create tile mosaics, video mosaics, text mosaics and ASCII art.

So the next time you’re looking for a creative gift, a unique banner or sign for an event or an interesting element to add to a presentation, consider a mosaic.  It’s sure to engage your audience’s attention and stimulate their minds.