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This image says data visualization for, then an icon of a paint brush and palette, versus, then an icon of a head with gears for a brain.

Data Visualization for Art vs. Understanding

Every once in a while, a very small group gets overtaken by a big controversy. A couple of weeks ago, that very small group was data visualization professionals and enthusiasts, and the controversy was this:

This is a screenshot of a Tweet by Zach Freed, @FreedZach, dated January 6, 2022, at 11:47 AM. The Tweet received 3,617 retweets, 3,189 quote tweets, and 79,100 likes. The Tweet says literally no reason to make this graph into a spiral. There is an image from the New York Times, dated January 6, 2022. It is a pink spiral radial graph showing 7-day average new COVID cases in the United States between January 2020 and January 2022. It looks like a coiled, lumpy worm.

(The full New York Times article is available here.)

A number of big names in the field weighed in, including Nathan Yau, Jon Schwabish, Stephanie Evergreen, Alberto Cairo, Ann Emery, and Steve Wexler.

Supporters of the NYT Spiral generally said things along the lines of “It’s interesting/different/attention-grabbing/debate-inspiring!” They also argued that it was irrelevant if dataviz geeks hated the graphic because the graphic wasn’t meant for them; it was meant for “the general public.”*

I asked members of the “general public” (n = 2) what they thought of the NYT Spiral:

  1. My husband, an engineer and fellow NYT subscriber, said that he’d seen the graphic a few days earlier, hadn’t understood it, and moved on.
  2. One of my sisters, a middle school math teacher, was seeing the graph for the first time. Her immediate reaction was, verbatim, “Honestly, this just looks like my bowels.” We talked through it a little more…interpretation, audience, purpose. Her concluding comment: “Why is this swirly? This is terrible.”

So, why the disconnect? Why did so many dataviz experts like (or at least, not have a major problem with) a graphic that my sample didn’t like or understand?

  • As a responsible social scientist, I have to acknowledge that my sample of two family members may not be an accurate reflection of the masses.
  • Some dataviz experts may have experienced “the curse of knowledge,” where they didn’t have an accurate perception of what non-experts were thinking.
  • Some experts might not have distinguished between two really different purposes for data visualization: art vs. understanding. Let’s drill down on this.

In my dataviz workshops, I talk about the distinction between art and graphic design.

Art is about exploration and self-expression for the artist and about getting an emotional reaction from the audience. It doesn’t matter if different audience members have different understandings of, or reactions to, a piece of art…in fact, that tension and debate is often a good thing. (Note that dataviz can be art.)

Does the New York Times publish art? Sure, in bits. Each article is typically accompanied by photos or illustrations.

Is the NYT Spiral good art? Maybe, in the sense that it’s experimental and provokes some discussion. But, as my sister eloquently expressed, it’s not really something you’d want to frame and hang on your office wall, and I’m not sure that it got much attention or reaction outside of the dataviz community.**

Graphic design, on the other hand, must achieve some sort of functional purpose…getting people to buy a product, attend an event, wash their hands, something like that. It’s bad news if you don’t understand whether an ad is for a sports bar or Keno,*** or if you can’t tell what time a concert starts, or if you’re not sure whether to wash your hands for 3 seconds or 30.

What is the New York Times’s purpose? Per their mission statement, the New York Times Company strives to “help people understand the world.”

Does the NYT Spiral forward the New York Times’s purpose of promoting understanding? Not particularly well. I can see that cases were really low in early 2020 and in June 2021, and that cases are on the uptick. But, that’s a small amount of vague information for how much real estate this chart takes up.

I tried redoing the graph as a radial to increase precision, allow for year-to-year comparisons, and tone down the “intestinal” feel:

This is a radial graph, running from January to December. There are lines for 2020, 2021, and the beginning of 2022.

Eh, still not great. This still takes a lot of mental gymnastics to understand and interpret.

I like a horizontal line graph much better:

This is a line graph. The vertical y axis shows the 7 day moving average for U S COVID 19 case count, running from 0 to eight hundred thousand. The horizontal x axis shows dates, running from January first through December thirty-first. There are three lines, for the years 2020, 2021, and 2022. The 2020 line is lowest, running between zero and about two hundred thousand, with peaks in July and December. The 2021 is a little higher, running between zero and around four hundred thousand, with peaks in September and the end of December. The 2022 is very high, showing January numbers most recent January cases at nearly seven hundred thousand. The data source is: Data Table for Daily Case Trends - The United States Date generated: Sun Jan 09 2022 12:23:48 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time).

This graph is definitely too run-of-the-mill to be considered artistic but, when it comes to fostering understanding, I think it beats the original.

What do you think about the NYT Spiral? Comment below!

*For the purpose of this post, let’s suspend disbelief about NYT subscribers being a representative cross-section of the general public.

**There are also way prettier spirals out there. The NYT spiral has inspired some funny art, though.

***This is an actual example from our house. This Keno ad runs during Wheel of Fortune and, at least twice now, my six-year old has asked which restaurant the commercial is for.

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