There are virtues to an illegible chart
It all started with an extreme pie chart
A few weeks back, there’s been a chart on aid who’s made the rounds of the internet:
What this chart shows is that US aid is concentrated in a few countries. The article explains that this is a result of the 3D doctrine, which ties development with diplomacy and defense. This is why US gives so much to strategic countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Sudan, but relatively little to India – highlighted in the chart, which has “a huge chunk of the world’s poor”.
When I saw that chart I was planning to create a chart or a data visualization on the same subject for my work. The original chart was being heavily criticized for its form, because half of it is not legible. Chart purists don’t like pie charts for that very reason – they are difficult to read, especially if you add more items. But I found the chart interesting. It states in a very striking way that more than a hundred countries in the world get next to nothing from the USA.
An apology of extreme charts
There are virtues to an illegible chart. In fact, I don’t believe that a chart should give equal prominence to each and every of its datapoints. In most cases, it’s here to support a story, so all it should do is bear a message. Tufte popularized the notion of data-ink ratio, which states that a chart designer should use the largest share of ink to represent data, not everything else. I feel this is taken too literally by many.
There is a tradition of extreme charts which purposely break presentation rules because of the very nature of the subject they are plotting. A famous example is Al Gore on his lift – if CO2 emissions hadn’t increased so much, he wouldn’t need that lift to show his chart.
Another one – from the NY Times, one of the charts that Matthew Ericson showed in his Infovis 2007 keynote speech:
Again, if the number of US soldiers killed per month had not been so high in WWII, the 2nd group of bars wouldn’t overwrite the text above and sky-rocket to the top of the page. The logical thing to do would have been to scale the chart so that the maximum values would fit in a well-delimited space, and maybe use a logarithmic scale so that the values for other wars would remain legible. That’s how we would have done it if we had to plot that kind of series in an OECD book. The fact that the NYT designers chose, on the contrary, to let the data rise all the way to the top of the page expresses in a very powerful way the extreme nature of the WWII casualties.
“A conventional chart couldn’t hold all that horror”, the chart seems to say. Likewise, if CO2 emissions had grown more steadily over the past couple of centuries, Al Gore wouldn’t have needed a lift. By the same token, if aid values to about 100 countries were more than negligible, they could be seen on that chart. So granted, there could be more academic ways to show that, like a giant bar chart with values too small to see for all but a handful of states. But all in all I think the original pie chart does a good job in communicating that in a nutshell, ad absurdum if you will.
My take on the chart
I wanted to work on a specific subset of aid data, that which goes to fragile states, which are, simply put, the 43 countries in the greatest need of aid. Now official aid from developed countries, like US aid, is very concentrated, meaning that only 10 of these countries got more than $1b in 2008. Only 10 countries got more than $100 per capita in that year.
Another interesting aspect of the data is that for many of these countries, aid only mostly from one or two donors, so they are vulnerable to a policy change in that country. That’s what I wanted to show in the representation.