Conveying comparability

Or: do countries collate data differently or the same?

This is the last email to look at the UK TV Daily Covid Briefings. And fear not, I make no political pops, nor allege that governments deliberately present misleading data; rather, this email is solely on how to convey stuff.

Back on 29 April (seems like ages ago...), the UK Briefing showed a graph that compared total deaths to date for each of seven countries over time. Forget the graph though... rather, Figure 1 shows the words that were alongside the graph - they explain how each country collates its figures (I think it strives to be in descending order of deaths to date, albeit France shouldn't have been above Italy...?). And as seen from Figure 1, some countries count deaths with Covid-19, some from it. Some include care home deaths, some don’t. Comparability. It's an issue.

But so too is clarity. From Figure 1, we struggle to quickly see who’s probably ‘understating’ figures relative to others, and who’s ‘overstating’ them… we must read and memorise the words. And my, the words are similar. Almost repetitive. Yet also slightly different. It’s like the puzzles in newspapers where two similar pictures are shown side-by-side: “Can you spot the five differences?” (“Ah… that picture has 12 forks, the other just 11… that’s one difference!!”).

If text has repeating words, try a table (Figure 2). At a glance, readers see that five countries are identical, and two are different (US and Spain). Readers quickly spot that France and US figures are - on a like-for-like basis - understated.... or are they overstated...? Readers must ponder.

So try Figure 3, a two-by-two grid. Readers instantly see that the two ‘different’ countries – US and Spain - are probably understating figures. Spain by a bit. US by… not sure. US understates its figures a bit if it includes care-homes. Or by a fair bit if it excludes them. The two-by-two grid lets us more easily grasp comparability.

And the reason I tell you this? Maybe you wish to explain to clients or bosses that the numbers they see compare apples with oranges. You wish to convey lack of comparability. Clearly. You wish to convince them of it. Completely. And there's a simple equation: the more clearly you convey, the more completely you convince.

That's the serious bit of this email. Briefer than normal. So here are two bad charts.

A picture paints a thousand words: on lock-down, restaurants closed. Bookings fell to zero. To help readers grasp this, Figure 4 appeared in an online article by the UK newspaper The Guardian. It's nuts. Four words replace the entire graph: "Bookings fell to zero". Or try this: "Restaurants closed".

What's the missing risk? Figure 5 shows “what’s at risk – an 18-month view of a post-Covid world” and it appeared in an online article (and thanks to Paul Titcomb for sending me it). It’s dreadful. Figure 6 (below) shows a close-up of the bit that's due West on the chart, and as seen, readers’ necks must do a 180-degree twist to read adjacent items (‘Abrupt technology adoption', then ‘Healthcare becomes too expensive etc'). And similar 180-degree twists occur for adjacent items elsewhere in the chart.

This neck-twisting reminds me of when I attended a three-hour evening class on infographics. I wanted to see if I could find a reason to like them, but came away hating them even more, albeit I realised that infographics can sometimes serve a purpose - my book gives details.

My book doesn't tell you what I did in the class though... you see, I decided to: (1) sit at the front, thereby forcing me to stay to the bitter end; and (2) not be critical, argumentative. Fair enough... and yet I did indulge in one little act of subversion - whenever the presenter showed an infographic and said how clearly it conveyed stuff, I’d quietly - yet conspicuously - twist my neck, shoulders and torso to the left, then to the right, then to the left again. I wanted to send a signal to those sitting behind me that the infographic was clear to read... only if you didn't mind struggling to read it.

On that note.


PS what risk is missing from Figure 5, the chart of Covid-related risks? Answer: bad charts - we've seen loads during lock-down.

PPS in Figure 5, do you think the icons help...?

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