[VDS Digest] This Week in Charts | Visual Data Storytelling

Bloomberg, Information is Beautiful, CNN, Le Monde, FT...

A sad week indeed, marked by the Libyan tragedy which caused the death of 11,300.

Such extreme climatic events are doomed to happen more frequently, and they can be an occasion to reflect on how we process visual knowledge about these catastrophes.

Hopefully we’ll look at some images and everything will make sense after that.

Quote of the Week and a Bit on Colors

If you subscribed to this thing, then I highly encourage you to read “Blue, The History of a Color” by historian Michel Pastoureau, because it will interest you.

It’s an erudite book that spans a time period from the paleolithic to the Antiquity to the Middle-Ages, Renaissance and Modern Times. In particular, we learn that for a very long time, blue was almost non-existent as a color, and didn’t really have a word for in Latin (the sky was never blue; the sea neither; and it certainly didn’t appear in rainbows!). But that was until two promotional agents transformed blue popularity forever:

The Virgin Mary and the King of France

And today, it’s the favorite color of half of Europeans.

What a success story, right?

Speaking of colors, but not blue this time: green. An all-monochromatic-green story by Bloomberg this week to talk about: Mexico!

It’s a bold move, but visual proof that you don’t need to run all over the color palette for impactful viz.

The same piece was also the occasion for an exercise I try to do on a regular basis: analyzing the transitions from mobile- to desktop-charts.

What a nerd, right?

The Mobile-Chart of the Week

In this lollipop chart, check for:

  • the scales,

  • the annotations,

  • the legend,

  • maybe something else?

Thoughtful Design!

AI here, AI there, AI everywhere 👀

Have your heard? 2023 is the year of Generative AI. I even have a Midjourney subscription which I use for a range of sometimes creative tasks:

Maybe it’s also the year of AGI, Artificial General Intelligence. Well, really the year of AI, to put it in the nutshell.

Since we’ve already done most of the year, it was about time for two pieces to take a look at this Generative AI.

The first is from the Financial Times with a thorough explanation to a general audience of word2vec, recurrent neural networks and the whole pipeline of transformers:

The representation of vector of words in 2D allows to visualize semantic proximity

The whole process

A small multiples version of slope charts

Unusual charts are never embarrassing when they’re the right choice, like this candlestick chart:

Blue is for sure McKinsey’s favorite color.

US Presidential Elections

Impossible not to know when it’s US election time.

I found interesting to see an actual calendar, which is not usually that considered in the syllabary of data visualizations:

Calendars are visual representations designed for use, not display. As remarked by Johanna Drucker in “Graphesis: Visual Knowledge Production & Representation”, the marks used in a calendar represent some things in a system which is nowhere rendered explicit, but nonetheless operative in the graphical code. This level of abstraction gives to images a particular power in knowledge generation. Yay!

It was also the Republican debate—majestically snobbed by Trump who gave a live-interview all by himself at the same time—which was the opportunity for some circular networks viz (Washington Post):

And some (basic) natural language analysis displayed in a tabular layout:

I very much like tabular layouts. I think they’re very elegant, space-efficient, and when a visual dimension for the intersections also encode data, it has a little je ne sais quoi (area for frequency in ⤴️, saturation for error rate in ⤵️):


Article thumbnails are essentials.

If readers don’t click, it won’t matter how beautifully written be the content of your article. So think of thoughtful thumbnails, like the ones in the Economist:

A small thumbnail

And the full version in the article:

The real-scale chart

But let’s say they don’t click and still want to know a bit more about your content?

That’s why you can start playing a soundless YouTube video—unless actively sounded— while hovering the thumbnail. As a reader, it’s nice to be in control of the flux of information.

The thumbnail in this CNN piece is quite clever because it combines in one smooth animation all the small elements that appear in the article:

Animated thumbnail

In the article, it translates to scrollytelling:

This is what is looks like when you scroll

The Libyan Flood and Babylonian Maps

My current historical interest lies in the first visual representations of data: writing. And it’s a goddamn interesting history if you want my two cents on it, birthed on the shores of Mesopotamia: the Sumerian Empire.

Everything I will say from now is only known thanks to a group of clever people, assyriologists, who deciphered this unknown script in the 19th century

Writing may be the most significant abstraction we ever made as humans, when we abstracted our language primitive sounds with visual signs. This was a long process, which eventually led to one of the most foundational invention of the humankind: the alphabet. If you want to more more about Sumer, check this article by National Geographic (in French).

Johanna Drucker, Inventing the Alphabet (first chapter cover)

Why am I talking about this? Because one of the foundational story of Western civilization, the Flood story from the Bible, is actually an old Babylonian text written on four-millennia old tablets:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

This long poem is the oldest narrative we know (and quite gay-ish if you want my opinion on the whole Gilgamesh / Enkidu relationship).

And it’s a true feat of human intelligence (at least if you’re as weird as me—which I can only wish you to be) that there exist recordings in original Babylonian of this original Flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Of course, the parallel I’m making here is not a joyful one. Libya just knew the most devastating flood in its history with more than 10.000 dead. It’s huge and devastating news…

Oldest known Babylonian “Map of the World”. On the reverse is actually a part of the Flood Story (Tablet XI).

At Babylonian times, even if they also had maps ⤴️, they probably didn’t have the computational means to capture data or model complex meteorological events like we do today ⤵️.

For the Libyan flood as for the Moroccan earthquake, many maps, sometimes on quite technical topics, have been made:

Nor displaying the nefarious consequences of the collapse of two dams:

A very different natural event—the tragic Moroccan earthquake—also heavily relied on maps to understand the phenomenon and the damage:

Isoline Map of the earthquake intensity (Washington Post)


Cocaine retail prince: The Financial Times

I’m sure there’s a lot that can be said about this incredible chart, but I’m not a subscriber of the Bourgeois product which is the Financial Times.

Coups d’État: Le Monde

A visual history of failed and succeeded coups d’Etat (Le Monde):

A sort of mirrored (basic) isotype chart?

Aerial roads: A Folha de São Paulo

Every time I see a Henry Beck inspired map I feel joy, so I couldn’t not share this chart from A Folha de São Paulo:

Domestic airlines with most passengers in Brazil

There is a long lineage from Henry Beck’s London’s underground map, but a recent one I am very fond of is one by the New-York Times during COVID times:

To end on a lighter note, there’s the “Little Picture of Climate Competition 2023”, for which examples are truculently elegant and I just love the idea and would love to try and do something.

Don’t hesitate to participate, it sounds like fun!

À la semaine prochaine,

Mathieu Guglielmino

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