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The Measure of a Nation

About

The Measure of a Nation, Interactive Visualization web application

This page was made for CS 424 Visualization and Visual Analytics class at UIC, it provides a detailed description and critique of a recent interactive visualization solution.
The web application can be accessed at:
The Measure of a Nation

Introduction

The idea

The idea of this visualization application by Fathom comes from a very entertaining scene from the american TV show The Newsroom which can be seen below here in which McAvoy arguments on why the United States is not the greatest country in the world like numerous stereotypes suggest.



Further "proof" of this, or better numerical indices which give an idea of how the US stands up againts other competitor countries, are provided by the statistician, data scientist and economist Howard Friedman in his book The Measure of a Nation. Friedman, in his book, compares the United States to 13 similar industrial countries using a variety of data to indicate national well-being and finds that among these other countries, the United States doesn’t do very well. In fact the US have the highest homicide rates, highest incarceration rates, lowest voter turnout, and greatest income inequality. They lead in only a few areas, including military and healthcare spending (though they have the worst return on investment when healthcare spending is compared to life expectancy).

The Data

Using the 14 countries from Friedman’s book, they collected data on 23 indicators of national well-being in Friedman’s five categories: health, safety, education, equality, and democracy.

The source of the data is nowhere to be found from the web page describing the project: Project webpage.

The countries chosen by Friedman had to be somewhat comparable to the US (which is difficult given the size and a lot of other factors). Friedman selected countries that were relatively wealthy, with per-capita GDPs greater than $20,000, and relatively large, with populations of at least 10 million. This eliminates outlier like small city-states (Luxembourg, Singapore..).

The Purpose

The purpose of this application is that of spreading awareness, the target is mainly the United States where people are convinced that everything is great and it is the best country in the world while they don't really know that they still have to come a long way before they can be compared to some North European nations.

Finding data in this application

Users of this application would like to understand how the US compares to other similar countries in the world, they would also like to see what is wrong and needs improvement. It is very easy and straightforward to find those kind of data. By clicking on United States on the left panel which contains a list of the considered countries, the application shows a line for each category present in the different major areas. The user immediately receives an initial visual impact on where their country stands for every category, and where it is below average, when it's the worst or the best. If they are interested in a particular category they just need to hover or click on the corresponding wedge to find more information such as the entire ranked list with values and a little description of the current index for the selected country as well as optional additional information by clicking on the i icon.
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Critique

Conceptual errors on Data and Rankings

If anybody plays long enough with the application, they would easily understand that maybe something is wrong with the data, and in order to make a fair ranking regarding a specific parameter more in depth understanding and data transformation should be performed.

A clear example is the United States itself in the health and safety macro-areas. The United States lead the ranking in the health and military expenditure, but are last (14th position) in all the other ranking of features belonging to health and safety. It's not difficult to understand the reason of why the US lead in expenditure, and this is only because prices and anything related to money is over-exaggerated in the US compared to the other countries. If the GDP per capita, the average salary, the cost of living are much higher in the US, easily all the other prices will follow this behavior.

In order for the ranking to be fair, values of many parameters (like for instance the money-related ones) should be normalized. Interestingly, the US only leads the ranking in 3 specific categories: health expenditure, military expenditure and institutional spending. Can you spot what they all have in common?
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Visually imprecisions

By looking at a single wedge which represents the ranking of all the nations with respect to the considered parameter, one may be prone to assume that the length of the bar representing a country (in color variations ranging from red to green) is of a consistent proportion with the relative index number when compared to other countries bar lengths. It is clear that it's not the case by looking at the prison population wedge. The US have approximately 14 times the imprisonments by 100k population that the Japan has. But the bar length that one could use to visually compare the two countries is only approximately twice the size for the Japan (Whereas Japan is much more than just twice as good in this parameter).
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Unclarities

The application states that 5 major ares are present: health, safety, equality, education and democracy. Yet 6 words close to the cart are present when the application is opened. The weird word is "average", after quite a bit of time I understood that it's probably referring to the internal circle.
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Color choice

The colors from green to red are good, but they don't show how bad or how good with respect to the others by comparing different countries' colors. This is because the implementation choice was to use only 3 colors (green, orange, red), with the green color assigned to the first 3, red to the last 3 and orange in between. While this colors choice is used in a good way, it could have been a continous gradation of hue, in which the color difference is proportionally equal to the distance between the numbers, or at least, use 14 different fixed gradation colors, one for each position. One example that clearly shows how bad this problem is, is again the prison population due to the high variance in the values. Australia and Spain with 144 inprisonment for 100k people are colored in red, suggesting a very bad situation. The same color is used for the US that has almost 5 times that number. Also, The Netherlands don't even have half the number of incarcerated people with respect to Australia and Spain, but the color used for it is Green!
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Areas distinction

I like how at first, users are given an overview, with the 5 macro-areas labels, and how the wedges belonging to the same area are grouped together and separated from the others with space. An improvement that I would suggest is to use images (icons) instead of labels for the areas. The human mind processes and remembers images much better than words. Words have to be read every time to understand what is the current category we are looking at. With an icon instead, it would be much easier to associate the icon to the area and remember it throughout the use, improving the user experience a lot. Something else that maybe can be improved is to transform the area label in the specific subarea label when hovering over one, while instead, now, the area label just disappears on hover over a wedge.

Area and total rank

Something that I think is missing and that could be helpful, is to give countries a rank in the whole category and a rank over all categories. How I would achieve this is by creating 5 colored circular bars in the center that span over all the areas when a country is selected, and a colored complete circle even more inside in the center that represents the overall ranking of the country.

Average value

Something that is well done is to put a black circle representing the average of each feature and adjusting all the wedges so that the corresponding piece of the circle is actually the real average for that feature. This is really helpful when a country is selected to see how many features are above or under the average and so understand how that nation is doing overall.

Additional Information for each feature

Additional information and definitions are always important for users that do not understant what something is or want to know more. This is provided by clicking on the i icon present in the right panel of the application.
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Usage instructions

A "How to read the chart" is present on the bottom right of the application, this can be really useful to people that get overwhelmed from this kind of unusual chart".
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Pros

  • Visually appealing
  • Spreading awareness
  • Highly interactive
  • Fast and smooth
  • Simple and not overwhelming

Cons

  • At first it could be unintuitive
  • Colors could be used better
  • More icons needed
  • Overall or area ranking missing



Videos and images taken from the application and web page of the project