Badly Presented Data


One of my pet peeves is badly visualized or explained data. I’ve read evaluation reports where it literally felt like the person just randomly pushed graph command buttons over Excel data tables and where the explanatory text was totally unyoked from the data display.  I’ve furrowed my brow and wasted time trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to get into the mind of report writers to understand what it was they were trying to convey to me. There is a wild Dadaesque art to making people know less than they did before.

7% could comprehend? Wish we could.

Graphs and charts need to be able to tell the story of the data. They should be able to stand on their own, summarizing the key point without forcing the reader to dig through the text or data table to understand the message. This one fails in this regard.

I’m not going to expand much on my views about what makes a good visualization of data – that’s been done too well by others, most notably Edward Tufte. I just thought it would be fun to share with you every now and then an incomprehensible visualization or explanation of data. I run across them in many places. I clipped this one from the leading national newspaper in Uganda last week.

I welcome any submissions you wish to make.

Update Sept 5. I’ve already received a few good…er, bad graphs from readers. I’ll collect the worst of these together in a few weeks and make another post. Maybe a new blog is the works here: we could call it “Graphic Failure”, “The Quant Nerd Fail Blog”, “Dada Data” or simply “Could Not”.

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Categories: Whimsy

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2 Comments on “Badly Presented Data”

  1. September 4, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    Aaron, you make such an important point, here. In my work revolving around maternity care issues–and the science behind practice guidelines–I find this problem, as well. Sometimes, it’s even in the data charts that supposedly explain the findings of a given study. If research projects are meant to inform (and change) the way we care for each other–how can they exact any change at all, if they can’t be understood?

  2. Frank Cookingham
    October 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    Aaron, without having the text that goes with the graph, my guess is a more accurate title is

    Percent P3 Pupils that pass a test for ability to comprehend age-relevant text. The pie chart with the photo of kids in a classroom does get your attention. Comments welcome. Frank

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