Lies, damned lies, statistics… and graphs

Insatiable, 2011, by artist Chris Jordan

This post is inspired by a professor at the University of Toronto who pointed me to the 19th century saying that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. While it’s true that statistics can be used for deceptive purposes, so can data visualizations.

In a July 6, 2011 article for the Torontoist entitled Our Toronto’s Graphics Skew City Budget Information, journalist Stephen Michalowicz argues that poorly designed pie charts and bar graphs make it difficult for citizens to understand the 2011 municipal budget. He writes: “[…] all of the charts and graphs depicted in the newsletter are technically correct – they just don’t provide a full, balanced picture of the City’s finances.”

Having been consulted for the article, I found that examining the City’s charts was a fascinating, if unusual, way to spend a Friday night. The charts were confusing at best, and, as Michalowicz points out, misleading.

In today’s multimedia information environment, there is more to communicating statistics than showing mere numbers, or even ratios and percentages. Artist Chris Jordan, one of many artists and graphic designers who use data visualization for story telling, has created several fascinating art pieces, one of which depicts 48,000 plastic spoons, or the number of gallons of oil consumed around the world every second.

If bad data visualizations can obscure data and mislead the public, good ones make abstract numbers much more tangible and concrete. That’s the point of graphs, charts, or what is often called ‘visual aids’. When looking at the innumerable examples of data visualization around me, I wonder: do they reveal or obscure data? What am I not seeing in this image, and why am I not seeing it?