An Information Visualization Exercise

Want to play a game with The Dashboard Spy and Information Visualization expert Stephen Few? In his blog post, The Billion Pound-o-Gram Redesigned, he takes a stab at redesigning a pretty well known chart by David McCandless.

Take a look at the original chart here:

Billion Pound-o-gram

Here is how it appeared in’s Information is Beautiful Friday:

The Billion Pound-o-Gram

289 billion spent on this. 400 billion spent on that. When money reaches this level it literally becomes mind- boggling.

Yet these figures are regularly issued by the government – and the media – as if they are self-evident facts that everyone understands.

Frustrated by this, I created The Billion Pound-O-Gram. It’s a cousin of the Billion Dollar-O-Gram.

In this version, I’ve mixed up of 2008/09 figures from the Treasury and the Guardian. Visualising the numbers like this puts them in visual context, making them easier to relate to.

I was pretty shocked by the size of the UK budget deficit – essentially the country’s overdraft. It’s more than an entire year’s worth of income tax.

So, now for the game. Stephen Few has redesigned the graph. Take a look at his version:

stephen few billion pound graph

Here is what he had to say:

All of these comparisons are incredibly simple to make using the bar graph below. Take a minute to notice how easy it is to see the relationships between these values from largest to smallest and to compare them. Notice especially how easy it is to compare each of the values with the budget deficit, which appears as the vertical black reference line.

In the bar graph, I stuck with the colors that McCandless chose to make it easy to compare his chart with mine, except that I tweaked a few colors a bit to resolve minor problems. In McCandless’ chart, some colors stand out more than others, but they should be equal in salience unless there’s a reason to feature some items over others. Also, for some unknown reason McCandless sometimes altered a single color from rectangle to rectangle, which serves no purposes and creates potential confusion. For example, notice that some of the green rectangles are lighter than others, yet they all represent “Earning.”

I can’t imagine anyone seriously arguing that McCandless’ chart communicates this information as well as the alternative above, but is his chart more engaging? Some folks might find it more engaging purely on the level of entertainment, but not in a way that encourages or supports meaningful consideration of the information, resulting in optimal understanding. Journalism should tell the story truthfully and clearly.

So, which version do you like and why?

Hubert Lee
The Dashboard Spy

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