Visual numeracy for collective survival

In response to an item last week about regional sources of imported oil, @jesperfj wrote:

Not sure what to conclude? Do informed people like Udell really not know that?

I really didn’t. And the reaction to the item, plus my survey of friends and associates, tells me that while some informed people did, many did not.

From this, I know exactly what to conclude. Like all complex systems, our civilization is buggy. We need many eyes to make the bugs shallow, and there all kinds of things that the brains behind those eyes can’t know a priori. But with the right kinds of mental prosthetics, we can learn rapidly and bootstrap ourselves into a position to reason effectively.

Data visualization is a crucially important mental prosthetic. But we’ve yet to evolve it much beyond the graphical equivalent of the wooden leg.

Consider this chart:

It’s a somewhat useful way to visualize the fact — counter-intuitive for many — that the Middle East ranks only third among suppliers of oil to the U.S. But here is a much more useful way to visualize the fact — intuitive for everyone — that the Middle East is where most of the world’s oil reserves exist:

What do you call this kind of projection, where country size is proportional to a variable? It’s the sort of wickedly effective graphical device that we should all want to be able to deploy, at a moment’s notice and with minimal effort, in order to make sense of data and reason about the world.

Like Tim Bray, I’m angry about “the financial professionals who paid themselves millions for driving the economy into a brick wall at high speed, then walked away while we pick up the pieces.” But I’m also angry at myself for visualizing, way too late, along with the rest of us, the magnitude of the giant pool of money and its constituent flows.

We could have seen more, seen better, and seen sooner. In many domains, as we go forward, we will have to.

14 thoughts on “Visual numeracy for collective survival

  1. Tony Hirst

    “What do you call this kind of projection, where country size is proportional to a variable?”

    I think they’re called cartograms, aren’t they?

    eg US 2008 election results, by state, according to various functions:

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/

    I guess you can approximate the effect with a ‘proportional symbol’ map, eg where the size of a circle over each state represents some variable.

    Where the colour or shading is a function of the variable of interest, I think the map is a choropleth map?

    Reply
  2. Mary Wallace

    Leonard Shlain wrote “From the Alphabet to the Goddess” about the evolution of our thinking abilities and we are smack dab in the middle of a ‘visual’ communication period. SO anything visual is better than articles. How potent would this be if we could make it into a 15 second video showing the difference between where our oil comes from and where future reserves are?

    Reply
  3. Andrew Turner

    Yes, these are cartograms ScapeToad is useful for generating these (http://chorogram.choros.ch/)

    But it’s important to know when which visualization is appropriate. The tools for generating visualizations is increasingly prevalent, easy to use, and powerful: ManyEyes, GeoCommons, Swivel, and languages like Processing. However the importance will be, as it always has, on both exploration as well as proper use of these tools.

    However, the right visualizations and analyses, especially when created by experts or amateurs from varied domains, can be incredibly powerful and impacting.

    Reply
  4. Jon Udell Post author

    > But it’s important to know when
    > which visualization is appropriate.

    Yes. Practice makes perfect — or anyway, better. We need more opportunities to practice.

    Reply
  5. Jon Udell Post author

    > How potent would this be if we could make
    > it into a 15 second video showing the
    > difference between where our oil comes
    > from and where future reserves are?

    That’s something I wonder about a lot. Data shapes in motion may be better than data shapes arrayed as small multiples. But maybe not. I did this experiment after the 2004 election:

    http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2004/11/03.html

    See what you think. In retrospect I’m not so sure.

    Reply
  6. Reed

    The thing about cartograms, is that in order to understand them, you have to be quite “fluent” in maps and geography. And have a pretty sophisticated understanding of how maps are made, projections, some geometrical concepts, etc. to know exactly what the cartogram is and what it’s showing.

    On the other hand, you could just write a list of “top 10 countries with oil reserves”. No visual literacy required for that one, just the most basic numeracy.

    Reply
  7. DBirdMan

    >The thing about cartograms, is that in
    >order to understand them, you have to be
    >quite “fluent” in maps and geography. And
    >have a pretty sophisticated understanding
    >of how maps are made, projections, some
    >geometrical concepts, etc. to know exactly
    >what the cartogram is and what it’s
    >showing.

    For those not well versed in maps/geography one of the slickest ways of presenting multivariate data is Chernoff Faces – EVERYONE knows what faces look like. (Google it or take a look at http://mathworld.wolfram.com/ChernoffFace.html)

    Reply
  8. Tim

    The thing that irritates me about the first visualization is that by visualizing some data you imply that the data is important. But visualizations, like statistics can lie.

    In fact, where the US gets its oil is almost completely irrelevant. The oil market is a world market. The transportation costs are startlingly small but–all things being equal–it’s easier to get oil from countries that are near you (and hard to get it from countries you don’t trade with).

    The “dangerous disconnect” between American perception—the US is dependent on Middle Eastern oil—and the reality—we get a lot of our oil from Canada—is actually misunderstanding that is *healthier* than the misunderstanding the chart might lead one to take.

    Reading the chart one might imagine that, if the Middle East were plunged into a giant multi-state war, we’d be basically fine. Of course, unless the United States invaded Canada–and Africa, yay!–and commandeered all the oil for US consumption, we’d be in the grip of massive undersupply and a resulting rise in the price of oil.
    It’s also worth saying that reserve numbers have all sorts of spin on them…

    Reply
  9. Jon Udell Post author

    “The thing that irritates me about the first visualization is that by visualizing some data you imply that the data is important. But visualizations, like statistics can lie.”

    They almost necessarily do lie, albeit often unintentionally.

    An unintentional lie, pointed out by Kevin Wellenius:

    http://blog.jonudell.net/2008/11/09/where-the-oil-comes-from-not-from-where-i-thought/#comment-125970

    I omitted domestic production because the idea was to show imports. So U.S. should have been zero, but Virgin Islands counts as U.S. so its contribution shows up.

    Perhaps the title should be Sources by Region, and the data should include U.S. production? In that case, the breakdown would be more like this:

    North America 3506109 51.79%
    Africa 980231 14.48%
    Middle East 837841 12.38%

    etc.

    The ability to notice and correct these errors is one reason why it’s so important to be able to do the visualization in an observable and interactive environment.

    Another reason is the value of the discussions that can ensue.

    “In fact, where the US gets its oil is almost completely irrelevant.”

    But the fact that many are surprised to learn where it mostly comes from — for now — is not. That misperception should absolutely not be explored in isolation, it should be linked to other relevant data — e.g. reserves vs current imports. Such linkage has emerged from this conversation.

    We’ve evolved the Internet into a medium for collaborative production and consumption of text, images, video, and audio. All I’m saying here is that, for the same reasons, we want to evolve it into a medium for collaborative production and consumption of data and its analysis/visualization.

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Jon Udell nails it | oookblog2

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