From blogger Matthew Yglesias:
There’s nothing special about Yglesias’s graph. In fact, the reason I’m singling it out as “graph of the year” is because it’s not special.
It’s a display of three numbers, with no subtlety or artistry in its presentation. True, it has some good features:
- Clear title
- Clearly labeled axes
- Vertical axis goes to zero
- The cities are in a sensible order (not, for example, alphabetical)
- The graphs is readable; none of that 3-D “data visualization” crap that looks cool but distances the reader from the numbers being displayed.
What’s impressive about the above graph, what makes it a landmark to me, is that it was made at all. As noted in the text immediately below the image, it’s a display of exactly three numbers which can with little effort be completely presented and explained in three sentences. Personally, I’d prefer a horizontally-aligned dotplot, which can display the information more compactly and readably. And I’d prefer population per acre rather than per square mile. I find it very hard to visualize 60,000 or even 10,000 people in a square mile. In contrast, 15 people per acre is something I can understand immediately. (One could also compute gimmicks such as the average distance to the closest person, if all the people were laid out in city, evenly spaced. I think that sort of calculation can aid intuition, but in this case I think it’s a bit trickier than necessary for the points that Yglesias is making.)
Bill James (and others) have pointed out that true racial equality in baseball came, not when superstars such as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays started joining major league rosters, but when there was room for ordinary black players to join their equally unexceptional white colleagues on the bench.
Similarly, graphical methods have truly arrived when journalists use graphs to make ordinary, unexceptional points in a clearer way. When making a graph, and including it in an article, is easy enough that it’s done as a matter of course.
P.S. The success of this graph also demolishes naive notions of efficiency of data display. An entire graph is being used to display only three numbers, but there’s nothing chartjunky about it.