Data Visualization & Graphs

April 03, 2017
For my annual April Fool’s Day post, we revisit some of the past year’s most useless and inane numbers presentations. This year we celebrate an infographic about marijuana use in the U.S. in the recent past. This graph is this year’s winner because it is not only shockingly incompetent, but appeared on the website of a news outlet – CBS News – that really should know better.

February 22, 2017
Hans Rosling, age 68, died earlier this month. He contributed more than almost anyone to helping people truly understand the world as it is. In an era when we have gone overboard for the glitziest data visualization techniques – frequently at the expense of comprehensibility or of any meaning whatsoever – Rosling’s presentations are informative but still imaginative and entertaining. His work demonstrates the potential that data visualization can have, but all too often doesn’t – we’ll see one of his best examples here.

February 08, 2017
My last blog looked at how U.S. federal government outlays were distributed in 2015 – one of the few situations I’ve found where a pie chart actually works! But taking a deeper look at the issue, and especially considering federal spending trends over time, we’ll see that pie charts are severely limited. We need a better presentation approach, and in the process we’ll come face-to-face with the limitations of data visualization.

January 30, 2017
You know how much I hate pie charts – in my book, "Painting with Numbers," using a pie chart is Deadly Sin #10. But occasionally – very occasionally – a pie chart tells an important story. Current federal government spending is such an example – let’s learn something about federal spending AND get some insight into the ugly, the bad, and the good of data visualization.

January 18, 2017
I don’t usually make policy statements in this blog, but sometimes a simple and clear presentation of data says everything that needs to be said. The trend in U.S. manufacturing jobs over the last 70+ years is a great example.

January 09, 2017
For New Year’s reading I commend “What Kind of ‘Jobs President’ Has Obama Been – In 8 Charts,” from the NPR website. The eight graphs referred to are straightforward and easy to understand. They show critical data in a journalistically ethical way – a characteristic in very short supply these days. With one exception that’s all too common in data visualization today…

November 09, 2016
A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of blogs about using data visualization to appreciate the fickleness of the U.S. electorate. A group of tables and graphs examined the ups & downs in the numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives since 1952, compared to the political party of the incumbent president. Well, I’ve updated the graph for the 2016 election, and extended the analysis back to 1920. Read on and enjoy!

October 31, 2016
I know it’s not April Fool’s Day, when I usually write about inept data presentation, but Halloween is a reasonable second choice for this sort of thing. A graph appeared today in a Seeking Alpha blog about Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD) that wins my black pumpkin award! HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

June 06, 2016
A fascinating article on L.A. Dodgers pitching ace Clayton Kershaw’s pursuit of an obscure but astonishing baseball record, illustrates just how powerful ratios – or key indicators, KIs, KPIs, or whatever else you want to call these metrics – can be in sports, business, personal finance, and many other walks of life. It also shows how such metrics should NOT be used.

December 21, 2015
It’s ironic that two of the most popular forms of data visualization are named after delicious but fattening and unhealthy foods: the pie chart and its developmentally challenged sibling, the doughnut chart. To illustrate my point, let’s look at how we might present the distribution of scoring on the NBA’s current top team, the Golden State Warriors. We first see a pretty but non-nutritious doughnut chart, then consider some much better ways to look at that data.

December 07, 2015
A really good example of data visualization used properly is looking at the performance of the U.S. stock market over a very long period of time. Moreover, it’s an important subject that’s critical to almost everyone’s financial security. In this post, we look at an example of data visualization that can make an intimidating subject less terrifying.

September 29, 2015
Last week, we looked at a simple, handwritten graph that’s a great example of what graphs and data visualization are really for – to help people get a sense of trends, patterns, and what behavioral consequences might be. Now let’s use that same approach to understand a typical management-by-objective (MBO) bonus plan for line managers and key employees, and improve a poorly-designed system.

September 22, 2015
Well-designed incentive compensation plans – especially sales commission plans – are an incredibly powerful way to motivate great performance. But designing a great plan is both an art and a science, and prone to design mistakes that are expensive and end up not motivating the desired performance. The commonest and most serious error plan designers make is to lay out the rules before deciding just what it is the enterprise is trying to accomplish. You can avoid that mistake with a simple, straightforward graph that I’ve drawn hundreds of times in my career.

June 06, 2015
We look at the fun subject of marital infidelity, and how it’s affected by the husband’s and the wife’s relative income. How a recent study was reported illustrates how numbers – and especially graphs – can be presented to reflect a certain point of view or agenda, often in subtle ways.

April 01, 2015
In celebration of April Fool’s Day, let’s take a look at some of the most messed-up, incomprehensible recent examples of quantation. Not surprisingly, all are graphs. But some come from sources that definitely should know better.

February 03, 2015
One of the most “boneheaded” incentive scheme design choices is excessive binary-ness. This is a problem in the Affordable Care Act, but it’s also a problem that frequently rears its head in compensation plans. In this post, we look at an example and discuss how to fix it.

December 03, 2014
We’re back, and I’m hoping you all enjoyed the holiday. As I suggested in the last post, let’s try using a table instead of a graph to see how House of Representatives election results correlate with the incumbent president’s party!

November 26, 2014
The composition of the U.S. House of Representatives provides great material for data visualization. We’ve already produced a graph (click here for the original post, here for the improved version) that, like the Minard graphic of Napoleon’s march to Moscow popularized by Edward Tufte, presents seven types of data in a single two-dimensional space. It paints a rather complete picture. But does it really feed the bulldog?

November 19, 2014
We shift gears from recent posts to address a critical – and extremely timely – decision: choosing a health insurance plan, which you must do by 12/15 if you want a new plan in place by 1/1/15. If you’re a finance professional, you will be doing your coworkers and your friends a huge favor if you can help them through this important and expensive decision. And data visualization plays a big part in this task.

November 17, 2014
I’m including this post in the series because of the extremely insightful suggestions offered by my new friend, Hicham Bou Habib, on LinkedIn’s Certified Corporate FP&A Professionals group discussion thread.

November 10, 2014
At last week’s terrific Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) national conference, there was much discussion of “data visualization,” a major information-presentation buzzword these days. Last week’s U.S. elections seem to provoke the same urges to barrage us with graphics. But do all these beautiful pictures really get us anywhere?

June 18, 2014
A fascinating piece in a recent Washington Post draws a striking comparison between income inequality and political polarization. It suggests a high correlation between greater inequality and more polarization. That’s all well and good, but it’s all meaningless if you don’t hypothesize a causal relationship between the two.

March 16, 2014
Yes, we’re still looking at Constant Contact’s (Nasdaq: CTCT) investor presentation, and the topic is still how tiny changes in the way we present numbers can have a significant impact on how our integrity and our ethics may be perceived.

March 14, 2014
Today – March 14, or 3.14 – is Pi Day, a day celebrated by mathematics aficionados the world over. I shudder to think of the partying that will break loose in two years, when the date is 3.14.16. Hide the women and children!

March 09, 2014
In recent posts we’ve seen how tiny changes in the way we present numbers can have a huge impact on how well the information is understood. In this post, we look instead at how those little things can affect how your integrity or your ethics might be perceived.

March 04, 2014
We’ve recently run posts about bad quantation in the media, about Olympic medal counts and Oscar betting odds. This time we discuss good quantation – the Food & Drug Administration’s proposed changes to the “Nutrition Facts” label. This is a great example of how small changes in the way we present numbers can have a significant impact.

February 24, 2014
It’s important to present numbers that your audience actually cares about. We sometimes lose sight of that in an effort to turn out a beautiful table or graph. I have Ira Apfel of the Association for Financial Professionals and the editor of AFP’s Exchange, to thank for a great example of this point. Here’s a snip from the “Medal Tracker” page of the ESPN website.

January 06, 2014
Happy New Year! If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll know that if there’s one thing I dislike as much as deliberately misleading quantation, it’s pie charts. So in honor of the New Year, I want to present the most unarguably accurate and readable pie chart I’ve ever seen, sent to me courtesy of my pal Hal Ettinger.

December 07, 2013
“Chartjunk” is a term coined by Edward Tufte to describe elements in graphs or approaches to graphing that detract from the meaning of the graph or even skew the depiction of the graph to the point where it will get misinterpreted. For the interested observer, the media efforts to present information on Obamacare and its rollout have created a veritable goldmine of chartjunk.

November 19, 2013
When done properly, numbers provide a profound glimpse into the future. Here are two graphs from a Washington Post story about the possible implications of China’s recent changes to their “one-child” policy.

November 15, 2013
The Washington Post recently ran a front-page story headlined “106,000 have signed up for health coverage,” with a sub-heading of “Enrollment less than predicted.”

May 27, 2012
The law firm of Fenwick & West publishes an excellent quarterly report on venture capital financing activity. Their most recent report provides an opportunity to ponder how even modest changes in how information is presented graphically can make a big difference in how meaningful the information is to the audience.

April 10, 2012
As I said I would do last week, I now offer the first of a few posts that I hope will provide insight into the U.S. federal government’s fiscal situation, from the perspective of clear quantation. Consider the following graph (in which I break my own rule and use a pie chart) showing the distribution of federal government outlays projected for fiscal 2012 (the 12 months ending 9/30/12).

April 28, 2011
Kudos goes to Mark Whitehouse for his April 9 “Number of the Week” piece in the online Wall Street Journal. The topic is an important one – how much we spend on healthcare – and he presents some very important numbers in a clear and concise way. Here’s the chart he included in his post.

April 14, 2011
If you can understand the federal budget from what you see and hear from newscasters and soundbites from our legislators, you’re more astute than I. So take matters into your own hands: go straight to the source, and you’ll be amazed by what you can learn.

December 31, 2010
NOTE: This piece was originally posted on the 121 Silicon Valley, Inc. Website on December 31, 2010 In my last post, we introduced the idea of a “value calculator” as a powerful sales tool. To refresh your memory: The XYZ Software Company sells an add-in solution for an enterprise’s ERP system, to address situations when a single order has to be fulfilled in multiple shipments. When that happens, the enterprise’s own end customers question the invoice, causing the enterprise to have to devote man-hours to documenting and supporting a perfectly valid receivable, and delaying collections...

December 09, 2010
We all understand how critical your finance team can be in helping you negotiate and close your deals, but they can often be a huge help even earlier – in the sales process itself, by helping you make the best possible presentation of your products’ value proposition.

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