Jon Schwabish on polarisation and good graphs

A few days ago I have found, on the Metrotrends blog*, this article by Jon Schwabish, which I deemed interesting and worth sharing for two reasons.

Firstly, it refers to an article at the Financial Times (needs subscription) and a report of the High Pay Centre on inequality in the UK. The graph at page 5 of the report compares, for several European countries, average household income with household incomes of top and bottom 20% (data OECD). It is well known how UK is the most polarised country in Europe, followed by Italy and Portugal (but not all Eastern European countries are considered on OECD data). The way the High Pay Centre sums up the results in the title is of special interest: “how inequality means that UK is poorer than we think” (the same can be said for each and ever polarised country). In common discourse, in political mainstreams, richness and distribution are considered as different variables: there are rich and poor countries and there are countries where richness is more or less polarised. Yet, in a richer and polarised country, there may well exists more poverty than in a poorer but less polarised country: there may well exist and in several cases there exists. Putting together the two variables – i.e. abandoning GDP/per capita as main index of richness – would be a way to assess richness and poverty in a much more “evidence-based” way.

Secondly, the Metrotrends article, rather than focussing on results of the report themselves, is dedicated to how the aforementioned chart can be made more effective in terms of communication. The simple re-design given to the chart is able to highlight with much more evidence the point of the graph (that UK is an extremely polarised country). One should recognise that it is quite common to find extremely interesting works, which could be made much more effective with some attention to graphic design. Unluckily, there exist also a lot of poor works inflated with good design.

And this is a further reason for producing knowledge, and effectively communicating it.

*Metrotrends is an outreach instrument of the Urban Institute, an independent research institute which analysis “the problems facing America’s cities and their residents”. The blog shares data about American cities and metropolises, with special attention to “nationwide impacts of: recession and recovery; critical differences among metropolitan regions; persistent or emerging disparities among population groups”.

(Simone Tulumello)

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