Makeover Monday: The Next to Die

Posted on Posted in Makeover Monday, Viz Review

Andy and Andy have been posting a series of relatively morbid Makeover Monday topics recently, perhaps none as somber as The Next to Die – an exploration of death penalty executions across the United States since 1976.

It’s possible that this topic is on my mind because we’re currently in an incredible political season in America, but I’ve found myself thinking more and more lately about the concept of communicating facts and their importance when making a persuasive argument. “The Next to Die” repeatedly makes claims to its own impartiality, reflecting upon the lack of opinion it portrays about the morality or efficacy of the death penalty. However it is clearly a politically-driven document, and its motivations are transparent the second you read it. Any critique of the visualizations presented within “The Next to Die” must consider the intended argument and the language used in addition to the visual design of the pictures portrayed within.

  1. The Map

NTD - Map

This map is still difficult for me to understand. While i appreciate the effort to normalize the size of states to avoid the intrinsic bias in over-representing larger geographic areas, I find the use of color confusing. The brightness of the red coloring indicates that a particularly state has seem fewer years go by since its last execution. This results in kind of a KPI effect, especially because the color red is used to indicate severity, perhaps even “bloodiness.” The implicit suggestion here is that more red equals more murder.

Now, I happen to agree politically with what I believe “The Next to Die” is passively arguing. But I have a bit of a problem with the communication of facts in a way that implies an inherent truth, at least to the communicator of the facts. I believe it corrupts your argument to appear like you’re “selling” a certain point and the essence of being an excellent persuader is to communicate facts in a way that lets your audience decide for themselves that you are right. It’s a fine line that I think “The Next to Die” overtreads.

2. Stacked Bar Chart

NTD - Bars

I really like this viz. I like the way the color legend is contained in the paragraph explaining the viz. I like the way there are buttons contained in the text which force the audience to read the summary and interact with the viz at the same time. And I like how the description of the viz lays out a simple finding while allowing the user to explore the graphic visually and understand the larger story.

This is a powerful story.

3. Line Chart and Crosstab

NTD - line

This third viz seems a little confused. The author seems to be trying to tell a few stories: 1) the vast number of executions in Texas, 2) the growth in per capita executions in Missouri, and 3) the top 10 states to execute citizens. Maybe it is an issue of trying to communicate too much information: I don’t quickly get any of the information the text tries to communicate from the visualization. One big reason is the logarithmic axis, which makes it look like Texas exceeds the number of executions in other states by only a small margin. If this is your story, why wouldn’t you make it clear? Using a log axis makes the immediate perception seemingly counter to the central point.

I wrote about logarithmic axes on this blog a few months ago and my main finding was that for a log-based axis to be appropriate, two important things were necessary:

  • The absolute measures being portrayed should be less important than the relative differences.
  • You shouldn’t have to constantly refer to the axis labels to understand the viz.

Unfortunately, neither of these things are true here.

My Take:

The challenge I gave myself with this viz was to try and communicate facts clearly and effectively without leaning too hard into a political argument. As someone who works in sales it’s especially important to my to be able to communicate information fairly and with integrity. For a topic as morally divisive as the death penalty, letting the facts speak for themselves is especially striking.

Here’s what I came up with (click to access live viz):

Upon reading “The Next to Die,” I was struck by three unique stories about executions in America:

  1. Texas executes a fuck-ton of people.
  2. Blacks are killed about as often as whites, but represent a much smaller portion of the total population.
  3. Lethal Injection has become the predominant method of execution.

You could argue that these stories are unrelated. I think the point of “The Next to Die,” instead of communicating a continuous story, is to educate its audience to a series of related points. This is how I chose to focus my analysis.

One of the things I wish “The Next to Die” did was give options for users to interact with data. There is some attempt to allow a user to select what he or she wants to see through the button-parameterization of the stacked bar chart. However I constantly found myself wanting to click on a mark and see more detail. Maybe this is just self-imposed bias from being a Tableau employee.

A subtle way to apply interactivity is through action filters. They don’t change the design of your static viz but still allow people to drive to more information. In my viz I only allowed interactivity on the line chart – clicking a line (each of which represents a state) filters the rest of the dashboard. This creates a guided drill-down which allows my audience to see the story I want them to see.

Another piece of interactivity that Tableau authors don’t always think about is the tooltip. It’s a great way to add interactivity without accidentally implementing an action that could hurt the look and feel of your view. You should always consider the tooltips on an interactive view – even if you choose to eliminate them altogether.

Anyway, I hope you like it!


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