Feverishly Working

Red is an incredibly stressful color. Just looking at Apple iCal's annual calendar view makes me feel stressed. Man, it would be nice to have those 2012 days back once in a while. Or better yet, a summer vacation!

Out of Office

Since March, I've been spending a lot of my free time preparing to do this:

I'm about midway through the Washington Alpine Club's Basic Climbing Class. Alpine climbing is all about making decisions on limited data (weather, avalanche conditions, your rope team's ability). 

Mapping Public Transit Accessibility

A few months ago, I moved almost exactly one mile up Capitol Hill, from an area nearly adjacent to downtown to a more residential and quiet area. My old apartment was kitty-corner to a dance club and Occupy Seattle and had experienced a break-in where the only thing stolen was my old bike. It was a crazy and fun place to live for nearly two years.

My new neighborhood is beautiful and peaceful, but the move has added considerably more travel time to any public transit travel outside of the downtown core of Seattle. Andrew Hardin at the University of Colorado recently created an interactive visualization that demonstrates exactly how the move affected my transit times.

Trips to the neighborhoods and cities of Fremont (north), Magnolia (west), West Seattle (southwest), Georgetown (south), Kirkland (east), and Issaquah (east) are now 50 minute long hauls—all of these places were previously within 40 minutes. (Ballard remains a long haul from Capitol Hill.)

Seattle is investing in express buses, streetcars, and rapid transit that should increase my transit range, but I still feel public transit in the city has a long way to go. These maps don't reflect the frequent bus delays that can make transfers difficult to time—one of the major advantages of rapid transit.

The King County transit system can boast, however, of being one of few systems that allows for bus-to-hike. You can see some of these options off the 520 in Issaquah (southeast). In less than two hours, I can take a series of buses to Mt. Si and hike 3,500 feet to a snow-covered peak. Now that's a different kind of accessibility!

30 Years of Mac - Viz Critique

Apple and the Mac introduced the graphical user interface (GUI) to the world with the original Macintosh. The graphical icons and other visual indicators of the Mac GUI were "information graphics" in the purest sense of the word, and can be considered some of the most important ever created.

I have been a Mac user since the early 90s, when my dad started to bring home the classroom Macs on weekends from the middle school where he taught. I'm part of the generation that grew up with computers, and the user-friendly Mac quickly drew me in. I spent many happy afternoons in Kid Pix, Oregon Trail, and Sim City.

Icons from Mac OS 1.0

Icons from Mac OS 1.0

With the 30th anniversary of the Mac, Apple has posted a tribute walking through the Macs of each of the past 30 years and profiling some of the pioneering users of the Mac. This group includes the famous infographic and "quantified self" guru Nicolas Felton

The site incorporates a survey asking you to report your first Mac, where you were, and how you used it. To help you identify it, the survey includes a delightful selection of icons for every Mac produced in the past three decades. The site then details the most common first Macs among respondents and generates a scrollable, interactive visualization showing change in uses over time.

For every Mac, there is also a chart detailing "what people did with it." It's not a very useful visualization. In fact, it's misleading. This chart wins my 2014 nomination for visualization worst practices.

The caption to this graphic suggests it depicts time spent on each of the uses. However, it only depicts most frequent uses and includes no annotation or scale, inhibiting comparisons.

The caption to this graphic suggests it depicts time spent on each of the uses. However, it only depicts most frequent uses and includes no annotation or scale, inhibiting comparisons.

What's wrong with this visualization?

  1. The caption is misleading. The caption "how people say they used it the most" implies the chart depicts time spent on these uses. However, the visualization depicts frequency, not proportion. The survey only had single multiple-response question about usage with no ranking or proportions, making each response equally weighted. So the visualization does not account for a photographer or scientist who mostly uses their computer for their work and disproportionately depicts the most frequent uses. 
  2. No scale or annotation. What are we looking at? What are the percentages? The graphic does not even tell us if we should be comparing area or height. If it's area, then education/teaching is ~twice as frequent as internet & email. If it's height, it's much closer.
  3. Area comparisons are hard. I guessed the education/teaching bubble is about twice as big the internet & email bubble, but I have no idea. 
  4. Self-selected sample. As with Twitter samples, it is very likely that the sample of users taking the survey are not representative of the population in question. There are millions of Mac users who didn't take the survey—how might they differ from those that took it? Doesn't this sample exclude folks who don't use their Macs for internet & email?
  5. Data fetish. If this graphic is not useful, then why include it? The charts were included for stylistic or aesthetic reasons. In my opinion, if visualizations cannot be used for learning, then the author is guilty of data fetish.

Macs are amazing creative tools. Someone probably wanted to show that in this graphic. Unfortunately, the flaws in the survey and visualization undermine the message that Macs are more than a Facebook portal or email machine. 

Interactive Storytelling

The New York Times has put together a superb archive of interactive infographics, visualizations, and photo/video journalism that they are calling 2013: The Year of Interactive Storytelling. This is, in fact, a misuse of the term—wikipedia defines interactive storytelling as "a form of digital entertainment in which users create or influence a dramatic storyline through actions." But it is nonetheless a term that seems to encompass the experimental and innovative formats the Times has begun incorporating into their reporting.

My favorite piece was How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk, a combination of a survey and map depicting linguistic similarity to the user (within the US). I think it's fair to say this was the most talked about visualization of the year—and among my friends, probably the most discussed visualization ever. It popped up in social media, in my email inbox, and in conversations over beers.

Addendum: It turns out the piece was the most read article of the year on NYTimes.com, despite coming online on December 21st. Remarkable.

My map: born and raised in Berkeley, CA, college in Minnesota and Southern California, current resident of Seattle, WA. One of my biggest work clients is located in Michigan—how many milliseconds does it take them to realize I'm an out-of-towner?

My map: born and raised in Berkeley, CA, college in Minnesota and Southern California, current resident of Seattle, WA. One of my biggest work clients is located in Michigan—how many milliseconds does it take them to realize I'm an out-of-towner?

I think this visualization succeeds because it reminds us, in a highly personal way, of the communities and cultures we come from, years after we have physically left them. My dad's map reflects the decade he spent growing up in Washington D.C., despite the 40 years he's spent in Cailfornia.

The results are memorable because they challenge some our conventional notions of place divisions. In the West, the urban/rural divisions seen in voting patterns are not discernible (Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington D.C. are easily spotted, however). State lines seem to matter to some extent but the trends bleed across the borders.

I do wish there was additional annotation and explanation. The visualization presents you with the words most definitive of the three most and three least similar cities. But I have no idea what pronunciations or vocabulary I share with South Carolina and Maine.

In a high school linguistic class, I remember being told the US has a remarkably low number of dialects given its size, which is of course a product of the country's young history. This visualization does not refute that, but does show a surprising amount of linguistic diversity in light of a dominant national media and high rates of mobility between states and regions. 

In conclusion, it's a hella savage visualization.

Scientific Integrity

Scientific integrity ... corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Important words from Richard Feynman's 1974 Caltech Commencement Address.

Cited in Arthur Lupia's great plenary talk at Evaluation 2013.

Welcome to Skopia!

Lighthouse in Stanley Park, Vancouver

Lighthouse in Stanley Park, Vancouver


Skopia is a visual communication and data visualization blog. The word skopia (σκοπιά) is Ancient Greek for lookout-place, watchtower, or peak

On Skopia you will find:

  • Links to great visualizations, infographics, and graphic design around the web
  • My own visualizations and infographics
  • Some how-to's and visualization best practices

I have a loose definition of visual communication—what I'm really passionate about is creative ways of telling stories. Photography falls under visual communication for me, and I've included a small gallery of my favorite shots, which you can find up top.

Thanks for stopping by!

- Nate