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Calling Out GE's Misleading Data Visualizations 123

Posted by Soulskill
from the lies-damned-lies-and-statistics dept.
theodp writes "Stephen Few never did suffer data visualization fools gladly. After seeing an oil exec (mis)use data viz to put a positive spin on Gulf Oil Spill cleanup efforts, Few felt compelled to call out BP. And now it's General Electric that's got Few's dander up: 'The series of interactive data visualizations that have appeared on GE's website over the last two years,' writes Few, 'has provided a growing pool of silly examples. They attempt to give the superficial impression that GE cares about data while in fact providing almost useless content. They look fun, but communicate little. As such, they suggest that GE does not in fact care about the information and has little respect for the intelligence and interests of its audience. This is a shame, because the stories contained in these data sets are important.' Concerned about his strong reactions to poorly designed data visualizations, Few asked his neuropsychologist wife whether he might be overreacting. She, too, agrees that GE's natural gas visualizations are maddening, which one might be tempted to dismiss as predictable, although Eyeo Festival presenter Michal Migurski also declares GE's effort 'one terrible, terrible bit of nonsense.'"
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Calling Out GE's Misleading Data Visualizations

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  • The most useful one (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bob the Super Hamste (1152367) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @08:54AM (#36646192) Homepage
    After looking at the various visualizations the only one that is worth anything is the third one that shows the years of remaining reserves for each of the fossil fuels. Even that one isn't that impressive. Also I don't get the use of the Sierpinski triangle [wikipedia.org], Apollonian gasket [wikipedia.org], and Sierpinski carpet [wikipedia.org] style shapes for representing each fuel source. I haven't looked at much data visualization, but it doesn't seem the use of these doesn't add anything.
    • by Noughmad (1044096) <miha.cancula@gmail.com> on Sunday July 03, 2011 @09:05AM (#36646214) Homepage

      I don't get the use of the Sierpinski triangle [wikipedia.org], Apollonian gasket [wikipedia.org], and Sierpinski carpet [wikipedia.org] style shapes for representing each fuel source. I haven't looked at much data visualization, but it doesn't seem the use of these doesn't add anything.

      I don't know much about visualization either, but this one is really obvious. Empty spaces add perceived volume to the graph, so that it looks bigger (compared to the full square that show how much we use each year). Our brains don't know how to calculate the percentage of empty space into the perceived size.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        This is exactly why I ignore hand wavy comparisons and such. If the final answer is not deduced rigorously then it is worthless. Using valid mathematics to then display the information in a way that we must interpret without precision and without accuracy is a dead giveaway that the data is obscured.

    • by Silvanis (152728)

      I don't think that one is useful, either. You have a slider at the bottom to adjust consumption rates, but there's two different scales (-2 to 5 and -1 to 4) AND a confusing note below that. Since the sliders are at 0%, is that assuming no increase, or should you adjust the slider to match the average increase listed? (which would make all 3 run out at roughly the same time)...who knows? There's no context to work with, just random sizes and shapes that pretend to be data.

      • by craighansen (744648) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @10:20AM (#36646442)

        Adjust the sliders to match the production increases over the last ten years, and you get 38 years left for oil, 42 years left for natural gas, and 44 years left for coal. Which makes the premise that "The World has Huge Natural Gas Reserves" totally false, unless you have no children and only expect to live for 40 years or less.

        How many years of Sunlight Reserves do we have left?

        Over 4,000,000,000 years.

        Do you need a visualization to understand the difference between 40 years and 4,000,000,000 years?

        • Adjust the sliders to match the production increases over the last ten years, and you get 38 years left for oil, 42 years left for natural gas, and 44 years left for coal. Which makes the premise that "The World has Huge Natural Gas Reserves" totally false, unless you have no children and only expect to live for 40 years or less.

          How many years of Sunlight Reserves do we have left?

          Over 4,000,000,000 years.

          Do you need a visualization to understand the difference between 40 years and 4,000,000,000 years?

          A visualization would not help to explain this ratio. People rarely understand numbers with more than a couple of digits, and would probably just classify it emotionally as "something bigger than 10".

          • by Chelloveck (14643)
            In that case, just use a log scale. Then the bar for solar is less than 10 times the bar for natural gas, and back in the realm of the understandable again.
            • by thegarbz (1787294)

              In that case, just use a log scale. ... and back in the realm of the understandable again.

              You do realise this is supposed to be targeted at the lowest common denominator and not your typical slashdot readership right?

        • by McDrewbie (530348)
          "Over 4,000,000,000 years." You need to divide by 2 to take in account nighttime :) more if you want to account for clouds too :) but since you can't own wind or sun (yet) GE doesn't care
          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            Wind blows across land, sun shines on land, you can own land, and many of our largest corporations own big pieces of it because government handed it to them on a platter in exchange for their contributions. You can't build a solar plant on BLM land but you can drill for oil or mine coal.

    • by mrmeval (662166)

      Anyone who takes such things seriously examining the raw data is a fool. Without the raw data it's as accurate as climate change priests excretions.

      Yet the article whines about white space and shape and even color. The last bit about wikipee, creative commons, and the like appear to have been hacked on last as an after thought.

  • Summary v2 (Score:4, Informative)

    by thePowersGang (1726438) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @09:00AM (#36646204)
    Since the summary is so difficult to understand, the jist of the article is that GE's visualisations (I will not grace them with the title "graph") are completely useless in comparing datasets, and are completely confusing to use. This seems to indicate that GE (like many companies) like to fiddle with the presentation of data to push their agenda. (Shock, Horror!) Sadly, this case is an insult to good design principles and statisticians everywhere.
    • by djlemma (1053860)
      To me it didn't seem like GE was intentionally making bad graphics to push an agenda.. It's more that they said "Hey, it would be nice to make some graphics to demonstrate X and Y" without realizing that a simple bar graph would have done a much better job than that crap they have up there now.

      BP, on the other hand.. that was deliberate misleading..
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Tanktalus (794810)

        Maybe I'm too naive, but I suspect it's not even that malicious. I think it's merely that marketing folk got a hold of some numbers that the company wanted to put a positive spin on, and thought they (the marketing folk) were statisticians. About the only thing I learned from my Engineering Statistics course was that statistics looks obvious, but is far more complicated than it looks (at least, if you want to approach accuracy and such). I highly doubt that your average marketing drone has taken that muc

        • Re:Summary v2 (Score:5, Insightful)

          by GrumblyStuff (870046) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @11:05AM (#36646620)

          Marketing folk are malicious.

        • by AdamHaun (43173)

          Yeah, my experience in the corporate world has been that almost nobody knows anything about data visualization. It's a rare person who even goes beyond the default Excel graphs. Most people don't read books, either, so getting them to read something called "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" is a non-starter.

          The GE guy seems like an artist who thinks graphics have to be exciting instead of informative. The BP guy doesn't seem dishonest at all -- he gives a rough daily average right on his graph

      • by nospam007 (722110) *

        "without realizing that a simple bar graph would have done a much better job than that crap they have up there now."

        You can't use graphs from the eighties nowadays, it's uncool.

      • by thegarbz (1787294)

        BP, on the other hand.. that was deliberate misleading..

        Of course it was. A cleanup per day figure rather than a total volume would look bad not because BP wasn't doing a good job, but because the natural progression of the graph is to follow a downward trend after an initial spike. Big blotches are easy to clean, when you exhaust your low-hanging fruit for the same effort you get lower results when you have to start climbing the tree. No company would present a graph that looks like that when you can trend it up in total oil collected.

        Mind you this graph which

  • but GE is Evil.

    Jeff Immelt is Satan.

  • by lucm (889690) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @09:27AM (#36646288)

    At first I was thinking that this story was about GE trying to push its agenda or doing something evil. But I RTFA and this is actually about this guy complaining that people are using the wrong type of chart and making poor design decisions. The big punch is that his wife agrees with him.

    I am so shaken up by this story, I know I will get all nervous the next time I insert SmartArt charts in Powerpoint - I would be so ashamed to end up publicly flogged on this guy's strongly-worded blog...

    Reminds me of a former coworker who is spending his evenings writing blog entries about companies that dare use Arial instead of Helvetica on their websites.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I am so shaken up by this story, I know I will get all nervous the next time I insert SmartArt charts in Powerpoint - I would be so ashamed to end up publicly flogged on this guy's strongly-worded blog...

      "This guy" is one of the most well known authors of the visualization community.

      Check out his website [perceptualedge.com]. How many people have a wikipedia page of one of their inventions [wikipedia.org]?

    • by methano (519830)
      What's wrong with Arial?

      I think I now use Arial because most computers come with a zillion fonts and Arial is at the top and Helvetica is lost somewhere in the middle.
      • I never understood the difference, either...until I got into publishing (on a small scale). I had a brief but torrid affair with Verdana as a body text (always use serif fonts for body text, shows you how much I knew at the time).

        I will never forget the moment that it dawned on me that Arial is just a cheap whore compared to Verdana's classy lady. I understood. OMFG.

        Why did Microsoft "innovate" Arial? Because they didn't want to pay license fees. What, like Micro$oft doesn't have enough folding cas

        • by Pharmboy (216950)

          Arial is radically different than Verdana in the horizontal space it consumes. And since they have shipped both fonts since forever (but not Helvetica), I think you have something confused.

      • Arial is a knockoff of Helvetica. Design people hate this, even more than they hate Helvetica. It's one of the things that can be used to distinguish someone who knows a little bit about the subject from someone who doesn't, and as such is really just a bit of snobbery.
        • by dkf (304284)

          The problem is, the font snobs don't design fonts to handle Unicode (or hide the ones that they've done that on behind paywalls). Those of us who work with things other than western european languages (e.g., russian, japanese, even math!) like to use Arial as it has much better coverage of the glyph-space. As a bonus, it's widely deployed too. Such practical considerations trump the font snobs regard in my eyes, and in those of many other people too.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is a lot more than "fonts", and a bit closer to deception than you're making it out to be. Visualizations are supposed to convey information quickly. When they don't it just becomes a series of pretty pictures people look at that give the reader the impression that they've learned something. That's a form of deception. It's not outright lying, but it's also certainly not aesthetics like font type.

      It's too bad you expected the wrong thing going into the article. But it sounds like you're letting yo

  • by DaveGod (703167) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @09:33AM (#36646304)

    ...then perhaps we'd better not even get started on the quality of the underlying data.

    The sole purpose of corporations providing information is to convince the public of something that will benefit the company. From inception to design through data collection, analysis and reporting there is a defined marketing objective and it never involved "let's find out". Yet we treat with less scepticism than reports from an independent academic that at least in theory has survived a thorough peer review - though even that tends to assumes the technical parameters operated were correct. How often do you see reference to, say, questionnaires in the methodology which then goes on to even let you see a copy of the questionnaire?

    • by elgol (1257936)

      While you are right about the marketing end, you are incorrect in extending the marketing objective's influence into the inception, design, and data collection phase. Sure, they display simplified graphs to the general public in order to sway opinion. Why do they do it? Because the underlying data suggests that there is money to be made. You can bet that there is a lot of underlying data, which was obtained, analyzed, and reported internally at no small cost. GE needs to convince itself first before it trie

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I love how the submitter tries to validate his submission with a paper that has "social justice" in the first paragraph. What a load of crap.

    Off to slam Comic Sans, laters.

    • ..

      ok actually andrew carnegie used this phrase, and so did some other industrialists in the early 1900s, when they did things like Henry Ford raising the wages of all of his workers something like five fold.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    They just described 95% of the internet and 99% of what people do with computers these days. There used to be a time when computers where made by serious people to be used by serious people to solve serious problems. Now we don't. You're the ones who wanted that, deal with it, geeks.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    .. I reach for my revolver, because it means that they want to impose their view on me and consider themselves justified in doing so.

    Justice equals law equals the desire to use force. Otherwise they would talk about 'social suggestions' instead.

  • by goodmanj (234846) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @11:12AM (#36646640)

    I think we should make a distinction between GE, the company hosting the site, and Stephen McCandless, the rather famous data visualization specialist who created the figures. (Here's his website: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/ [informatio...utiful.net] )

    The problem is not that the data presented are not useful, or that they're deliberately intended to deceive, which we could fault GE for. As I see it, the problem is that the graphs themselves are crap. They hide useful information, and they use shape and color in ways that seem to provide information but don't, and in general they focus on the aesthetic appeal of the charts at the expense of the data.

    When I first encountered McCandless's site a few years ago, I really loved it, but as time goes on it's begun to piss me off. For example, his chart on relative radiation risks:
          http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/radiation-dosage-chart/ [informatio...utiful.net]
    Logarithmic charts are always difficult to explain to the public, but the triangular shape of his graph makes it even worse, suggesting a linear increase in dose. He compares it to XKCD's chart [xkcd.com], but his version is inferior in every way. XKCD uses color and shape to provide information; in McCandless's version color and shape have negative information content.

    Another example: a graph of time travel plots in film and TV (minus Dr. Who):
            http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/timelines/ [informatio...utiful.net]
    The curvy lines look nice, but all anyone can make out of this is a confusing snarl of lines too tangled to parse. Once again, shape has negative information content in this image.

    But the king of the bad visualizations is probably another graph McCandless did for GE:
              http://visualization.geblogs.com/visualization/co2/#/flights_London_Tokyo [geblogs.com]
    Here, there's no way to intercompare various quantities, and figure out which of two choices is bigger. Shape, color and position are once again meaningless or misleading (things are shown the same size even when they're 8x different), quantities are in incompatible units, and worst of all some of the numbers are flat-out wrong (for instance, fuel usage of aircraft).

    But the one thing these all have in common is McCandless, not GE. So let's not fault megacorporations who're trying to communicate a message: let's fault information presentation gurus who care more about appearances than on information presentation.

    • by anthroboy (663415)

      I think we should make a distinction between GE, the company hosting the site, and Stephen McCandless, the rather famous data visualization specialist who created the figures.

      Yes, the latter was hired to produce the misleading figures, and the former selected, hired and paid for that work. Why exactly does this exonerate GE of responsibility for the images it commissioned and hosts on its site?

      • by stdarg (456557)

        Sounds like modern art syndrome to me. I'm sure if you go to a GE office building, you will find ugly pieces of modern art. It does not mean GE is trying to subvert the human ideals of beauty or that they are the cause of bad art, it means they bought into the same crap so many others do. Buy it because it's famous and respected, not because you like it yourself.

        GE didn't hire the guy to produce misleading figures, they hired him because he's a well-respected data visualization expert (even in many comments

    • Informative post, except for this:

      But the one thing these all have in common is McCandless, not GE. So let's not fault megacorporations who're trying to communicate a message: let's fault information presentation gurus who care more about appearances than on information presentation.

      Megacorporations are presenting a message alright, but it's not one of information. Rather it's delivering messages that make them either look good or confuse the issue, or both. Ever read How to Lie with Statistics? Megacorporations are not filled with dumb marketing people, they are almost certainly acquainted with such techniques. Are they lying to themselves as well as us? I don't know and I don't care. Fry's visualizations, and now McCandless's artsy ones, were chosen

    • by gilgongo (57446)

      When I first encountered McCandless's site a few years ago, I really loved it

      Can you explain why? I would have thought that anyone who has ever considered data and the visualization of it would see his site and pretty much instantly realise it was pile of useless drek.

      • by goodmanj (234846)

        Because he actually gave a damn. Information presentation has recently come into vogue, but a couple years ago, it was tough to find people who recognized the value of a good chart. Also, many of the things he links to which are done by other people (example 1 [informatio...utiful.net] example 2 [informatio...utiful.net]) are quite good.

  • by theodp (442580) on Sunday July 03, 2011 @11:24AM (#36646698)

    Didn't stop them from losing tens of billions of dollars [forbes.com] in the financial meltdown, but GE is a big fan of Forced Ranking [rightattitudes.com]: "Jack Welch, General Electric's former CEO, is often associated with a 20-70-10 distribution: the top 20 percent is rewarded for best performance, the middle 70 percent is rated 'average' and the bottom 10 percent is coached for improvement. The 'rank-and-yank' system, also associated with Jack Welch, automatically terminates employees in the bottom category, allowing organizations to purge the worst performers."

  • Pac-Man meets Tic-Tac-Toe [uottawa.ca]: "Though the GE/McKinsey Matrix is more sophisticated than the BCG matrix and can provide higher value information for the executive management, it has several flaws and limitations..."

  • by Anonymous Coward

    , Few asked his neuropsychologist wife whether he might be overreacting. She, too, agrees

    Few then asked his mom about GE's data visualization who replied "Yes it's just horrible. Not as good as my pretty little boy could do."

  • Seriously, corporate data is always compromised and is the worst sort of misleading propaganda. It doesn't matter if it's a drug company, a software company,. a hardware company, an oil company, an airline, whatever. The corporate citizen has no character, integrity, principles, or purpose other than advancing the goals of the corporation...and whatever data it puts out reflects that. The only corporate data that is ever even remotely honest is the financial data and that's only because it is audited by

  • The real story is summed up by the text of the first graphic: "The world has huge natural gas reserves" "63 years left". A frighteningly short time.

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