Infographics and Data Visualization (Week 4)

The assignment for Week 4 is the based on data used in a recent Guardian article on U.S. unemployment. Having used Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for many years at my previous job, I am far more familiar with this topic than I was with the data we used for last week’s assignment. In fact, I have already written several blog posts dealing with general employment statistics so it will be challenging to come up with something fresh.

The Guardian article includes an interactive map that highlights the lower 48 states (Hawaii and Alaska are off screen) and allows the user to select one of eight different employment metrics. A five-color scale defines the range of each metric while clicking on an individual state brings up a bar chart displaying a few data points and some additional text.

One problem I have with this map is that I think the states are too large to tell a detailed story about how unemployment affects different areas of the country. Maps at the county level (like this one from the BLS or this gorgeous D3 example posted on GitHub) show far more interesting regional employment patterns and help create a more compelling story. (Alberto Cairo talks about the importance of enumeration unit size in this week’s reading assignment.)

Another criticism is that the map only uses a fraction of the employment/unemployment information available from the BLS. This data is relatively easy to download and so there’s no real reason not to include a richer dataset in the graphic. Additional data would allow more detailed monthly trends and more meaningful comparisons to the National rate and/or the rates of other states.

Finally, I think the color scheme used on this map is hard to interpret. The color categories are not easily distinguished from one another and they don’t relate to any natural scale that the user could use to detect patterns. Creating more categories might also help with interpretation of the data.

The range and structure of the data suggests that there is a good story to be found looking at unemployment before, during and after Obama’s first term. There were certainly some unusual statistics associated with the 2007-2009 recession (as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research).  It was the worst period of economic performance in the U.S. since the Great Depression and the pace of the recovery is one of the slowest on record.

In fact, until President Obama was re-elected a few weeks ago, no sitting president since World War II had been returned to office with an unemployment rate above 7.2%. This metric was such a sacred cow that conservative pundits accused the BLS of bias when data more favorable to the President was released in the run-up to the election. So, how did Obama earn a second term fighting these headwinds?

My first set of charts presents an overview of unemployment in the U.S. over the past twelve years. I wanted to show both the long-term trend in unemployment as well as a side-by-side comparison of the three most recent presidential terms. I’ve included a shaded area for each of the past two recessions on the first chart to show the effect of the two recessions.

The first thing I noticed by looking at these charts is that, over the past twelve years, the U.S. unemployment rate has never been lower than it was during George W. Bush’s first month in office. The rate got pretty close to that mark in the final months of Bush’s second term but it never quite made it. The second thing I noticed was that the drop in unemployment during the months following the Great Recession was slightly faster than it was during the recovery period following the 2001 recession.

My second chart shows the unemployment rate for each state over the course of Obama’s first term. It also includes a ranking of states by total unemployment and colors each chart using the results of the 2012 election.

2 thoughts on “Infographics and Data Visualization (Week 4)

  1. Doug

    Mike – I know you put these on the web for comment, so I’ll share. I love the side-by-side comparison in the first two charts – very effective. (I think the first chart should have been required viewing for every voter last month. Fortunately, the American public got it any way.) But I just can’t see anything in the 2nd two charts. I tried hard to see something in the state map, but all I see is that more people are unemployed (gross numbers) in big states than in small states. That does little for me.

    You know, I really like the attempt in the final chart to create a gestalt graphic – i.e., You don’t need to know what line is what state, cuz the question is do you see more blue or more red above that average line. I think that’s something to explore: can you convey a message without being specific in the way graphs so typically are? Skip the strict definition. Is there a way to use a graphic in a “step back and what do you see?” kind of way?

    Reply
    1. mkinde Post author

      Thanks, Doug. I like your idea of a “gestalt” but I wonder how often you could use it and have it work. It would take some skill (or luck, in my case) on the part of the designer to get something that works. I do think your observation in that last chart suggests some further lines of investigation … how to make it more clear to the observer?

      Reply

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