The series of interactive data visualizations that have appeared on GE’s website over the last two years has provided a growing pool of silly examples. They attempt to give the superficial impression that GE cares about data while in fact providing almost useless content. They look fun, but communicate little. As such, they suggest that GE does not in fact care about the information and has little respect for the intelligence and interests of its audience. This is a shame, because the stories contained in these data sets are important.
Most of the visualizations were developed by Ben Fry (including the colorful pie that Homer is drooling over above); someone who is able to design effective data visualizations, but shows no signs of this in the work that he’s done for GE. The latest visualization was designed by David McCandless, who has to my knowledge never produced an effective data visualization. In other words, GE has gone from bad to worse.
My friend and colleague Stacey Barr, a leading expert in performance measurement, recently sent me a link to GE’s new natural gas visualization, designed by McCandless, along with these words:
I get these emails from Information is Beautiful, and while yes they are beautiful, I often struggle to interpret them. Have you seen them? Would you agree (or do I need remedial training in how to read graphs and diagrams)?
Take a look for yourself to see if you share Stacey’s perspective.
The only things you can’t see here that are available in the original visualization on GE’s website are the names of the countries (one per square) that appear only as you hover over them. What we see here looks like an oddly designed version of a treemap, with only one dimension of data (the relative sizes of the squares, which in this case represent the amounts of natural gas left per country) rather than two dimensions (using varying color intensities as well to display a second set of values). Unlike a true treemap, however, the squares do not fill the space, which raises the question: “What do the white spaces mean?”
If you’re like me, you turned to the legend in the upper left corner to learn the meaning of the white spaces. I interpreted the legend to mean that the blue squares represent amount of natural gas and the white spaces represent years of natural gas left. What followed, of course, was complete confusion. Only after clicking on everything in sight did I eventually discover that what I assumed was a legend is in fact a unique control for switching between quantity and years. The blue and white colors of the control, though they match the colors of the chart, mean nothing. The white spaces in the visualization are also meaningless.
Unless you enjoy hovering over individual squares one at a time and trying to compare their sizes to one another—something the human brain can’t do well—this entire display reveals only a single fact: The world currently uses 2.6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas a year and we only have 187.9 trillion left. Words and numbers tell this story; the graphic is little more than decoration.
McCandless’ design also provides access to other related views. Here’s the next:
Now, rather than squares with rounded corners and mysterious spaces in between, we have seven rectangles with straight corners, without white space, except for the odd section in the lower right corner. It’s looks as if McCandless’ calculations didn’t work to fill the space, leaving a bit left over.
Why not use a graph that actually makes it possible to interpret and compare the values without reading the text? The same values appear in the bar graph below, which I quickly constructed in Excel, but now we don’t need to read the text to determine or compare the values.
Are McCandless’ big blue rectangles, which vary in overall area (width times height) more beautiful than the smaller blue rectangles in the bar graph that vary in length alone? Actually, they’re not, but even if they were, would the additional beauty justify our reduced ability to read the graphic? Certainly not for anyone who cares about natural gas reserves.
The final view reveals the following:
Before anything else, notice where your eyes are primarily drawn. Most likely to the blue graphics. Unfortunately, these graphics, despite their visual complexity, are almost entirely without meaning and can only be compared in the roughest of ways. The fact that oil, natural gas, and coal have been displayed in different ways (a circle, square, and a triangle) makes comparisons especially difficult.
This visualization includes some interactivity, letting us increase or decrease each source of energy’s annual amount of production to see how it alters the number of years that resource will remain. Here, I’ve increased the production of oil, which decreased the size of the blue circle.
Unfortunately, because the graphics can’t be meaningfully deciphered or compared, the only useful piece of information that we can get from this is the number of years left, which is presented as text.
How would you respond to Stacey’s questions? Are these visualizations of natural gas and other sources of energy easy to interpret? Do they do a good job of telling the story of depleting resources? Do they suggest that GE or David McCandless actually care about this information? Do GE or McCandless respect our intelligence?
I’ll leave the answers to you. You already know what I think.
P.S. Why such passion?
Some of my colleagues in the field of data visualization, especially those who work predominantly in academia, don’t fully share my strong reactions to poorly designed data visualizations. I’ve spent some time wondering why I feel more strongly about this than they do, despite the fact that we base our work on the same evidence-based principles. One could argue that I’m by nature more reactive, more apt to raise the banner of battle in the face of harmful practices. There might be some truth in this. Despite my penchant for speaking out against perceived wrong, upon reflection, I’ve come to think that my strong opposition to harmful data visualization practices compared to the greater tolerance of my academic colleagues stems from the different worlds in which we live and work.
Most of my time is spent working with people who use data visualization to support decision making in their organizations. They don’t live in the realm of theory but in a daily struggle to squeeze real value from their data. In many cases, their professional success or failure is measured by the degree to which they are able to find, understand, and then tell the important stories that live in their data. I watch them labor to exhaustion with poor data visualization tools or delight in tools that extend their reach. I applaud their deep desire to solve real problems in the world through the use of data. I empathize when they report the frustration that they feel as they struggle to show their organizations a better way, hindered by horrible examples of data visualization that have captured the imagination and set the expectations of those in charge (for example, a CEO who loves his pie charts and dashboard gauges). In this world, the quality of data visualization—the culture that supports or thwarts it, the skills that extend or limit it, and the tools that support or undermine it—really matters.
Because this is the reality that I see almost everyday, dispassion would be heartless. This isn’t just a job for me; it’s a mission. There are certainly more important matters in the world, but this is one that I can do something about.
P.S.S. A second opinion
My wife, Jayne, is a neuropsychologist. She diagnoses and treats brain disorders and injuries. Other than a shared interest in aspects of the brain, our professional lives don’t overlap. I asked Jayne to read this blog post to see how someone outside the field of data visualization would respond to GE’s natural gas visualizations and my critique of their merits.
As Jayne began to read my review, she soon reached the place where I wrote that I’ve never seen an effective data visualization by McCandless and sighed. Her thoughts were, “Here he goes again,” fearing that my words might set off another firestorm of angry responses. Then she continued reading, and her attitude changed. Here’s what she said about the natural gas visualizations after finishing:
They make no sense whatsoever. I actually found myself getting angry as I reviewed them—primarily because it seems like a deliberate attempt on GE’s part to deceive—to make us think they care about an issue by posting pretty visualizations that, in reality, say nothing. GE and David McCandless should be ashamed! After reviewing these visualizations, it seems clear that GE doesn’t really care about the issue, they just want us to think that they do.
You might be tempted to interpret Jayne’s comments merely as a wife supporting her husband. If you knew her, however, you wouldn’t make this mistake. She would have made no bones about disagreeing with me. You might not share her opinion, but you shouldn’t dismiss it.
She asked me: “How can people defend these visualizations? Why would they do so?” These are questions that I can’t answer. I’m just as puzzled as she is.