World's water resources by type of water, via The Atlantic data from the USGS
World's water resources by type of water, via The Atlantic data from the USGS

Is Minnesota like Saudi Arabia?

Minnesota is the land of 10.000 lakes and thus holds far more than its representative share of precious fresh water. Is this synonymous with the naturally granted wealth of oil in countries like Saudi Arabia? Maybe. But does that mean Minnesota is going to become a state with a similar level of political economic power? No…not so much. It is silly to compare nation states like Saudi Arabia to states in a federation like Minnesota; it is silly to think that a state with an existing economy relatively unreliant on water is going to suddenly transform itself into an economy with a single primary commodity; it is silly to think that a democratic governance system will respond like a dictatorship did to a valuable commodity. As an aside, Tim Mitchell’s latest book, Carbon Democracy makes a historically grounded argument about the relationship between the material qualities of oil and coal and the technics of the political economy that developed in concert with carbon-based wealth.

How are information graphics like propaganda?

This infographic is more than half graphic (and less than half ‘info’). Normally, that’s not the best balance for displaying social science data. Usually, social science data is multi-faceted, requires a contextual framework for adequate understanding, and the sheer amount of information necessary to tell the story makes it harder to include graphic elements that do not represent information. However, this is not social science data. Technically, it is geological data, but I think it would be more accurate to describe it as data that is being mobilized for political reasons. Hence, the title of this post makes a blatant comparison between water (blue gold) and oil (black gold) to emphasize the implicit political valence of the message in this graphic.

In short, information graphics are being mobilized for what are essentially purposes quite similar to propaganda. This particular graphic is not the best example. It is the example I happened to see yesterday, and it does a good job of demonstrating what is at stake in the current infoscape with respect to information graphics. These graphics are generally considered to be intellectual and political lightweights compared to communication that is based on the production of critical texts. Overlooking the work that these graphics do is both dangerous and foolish. For one, many critical voices from within the academy *have* critical messages they have trouble communicating with broader audiences because many audiences are unlikely to read academic writing, even if that writing is posted to blogs. If these academics can create their own graphics, they add another tool for communicating clearly just what their perspective is. Yet pretending that information graphics are either merely ‘pretty’ or that they are straightforward representations of empirical data avoids engaging with the way that political messaging is built into graphic design.

One reason this blog exists is to help people start to sharpen their critical visual analysis tools. As educators, we spend a lot of time in the classroom teaching students how to write and how to stop believing everything they read by becoming aware of rhetorical moves, selective mobilization of facts, and reliance on carefully chosen narratives that initiate particular kinds of human perceptual biases and emotional responses. Art historians teach the same kinds of critical skills for interrogating paintings and photographs. Media studies folks teach the same kinds of skills for interrogating popular culture products like television shows, films, and magazines. Social scientists would serve the discipline well if they begin to teach students how to critically consume information presented in infographics.


Thinking Big Series. (2012) The World’s Water Supply. The Atlantic. This series is sponsored by Fidelity Investments, LLC.

Mitchell, Tim. (2009) Carbon Democracy: Political power in the age of oil. Verso.

Network Map of Largest Global Capitalists | New Scientist
Network Map of Largest Global Capitalists | Vitali, Glattfelder, and Battiston

Note: The 1318 transnational corporations that form the core of the economy. Superconnected companies are red, very connected companies are yellow. The size of the dot represents revenue (Image: PLoS One).

The top 50 of the 147 superconnected companies

1. Barclays plc
2. Capital Group Companies Inc
3. FMR Corporation
4. AXA
5. State Street Corporation
6. JP Morgan Chase & Co
7. Legal & General Group plc
8. Vanguard Group Inc
10. Merrill Lynch & Co Inc
11. Wellington Management Co LLP
12. Deutsche Bank AG
13. Franklin Resources Inc
14. Credit Suisse Group
15. Walton Enterprises LLC
16. Bank of New York Mellon Corp
17. Natixis
18. Goldman Sachs Group Inc
19. T Rowe Price Group Inc
20. Legg Mason Inc
21. Morgan Stanley
22. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc
23. Northern Trust Corporation
24. Société Générale
25. Bank of America Corporation
26. Lloyds TSB Group plc
27. Invesco plc
28. Allianz SE 29. TIAA
30. Old Mutual Public Limited Company
31. Aviva plc
32. Schroders plc
33. Dodge & Cox
34. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc*
35. Sun Life Financial Inc
36. Standard Life plc
37. CNCE
38. Nomura Holdings Inc
39. The Depository Trust Company
40. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance
41. ING Groep NV
42. Brandes Investment Partners LP
43. Unicredito Italiano SPA
44. Deposit Insurance Corporation of Japan
45. Vereniging Aegon
46. BNP Paribas
47. Affiliated Managers Group Inc
48. Resona Holdings Inc
49. Capital Group International Inc
50. China Petrochemical Group Company
* Lehman still existed in the 2007 dataset used

What works

This graphic has been running all over the internet so I will point you to the New Scientist to get the back story. I will focus on the graphic itself.

Network graphics are difficult to produce. They are inherently challenging to graph because network space is Euclidean, not Cartesian. What I mean by that is that the distance between any two nodes in a network cannot be measured in miles or any other linear sort of distance. The distance between two nodes in a network is measured by how many other nodes you would have to go through in order to get from one node to the next. If the two nodes are connected they have a distance of one. If we would have to take a path that hits four other nodes before we can connect our node A to our desired node B, we have a distance of four. That distance does not relate to actual space. The distance between two people in a dorm social network is not the distance between their rooms, it depends on how many friends and friends of friends you would have to talk to if you wanted to get from one person in a dorm to some other randomly chosen person in a dorm.

Representing these paths that are not related to physical distance is hard. Network diagrams are often quite difficult to produce – how do you plot the 1318 nodes in this network of capitalists? Usually people do not create network diagrams by hand, they write code (or use someone else’s code) to make these visualizations. In this case the authors, Stefania Vitali, James Glattfelder, and Stefano Battiston, used the Cuttlefish program developed in their research group and the services of someone acknowledged as D. Garcia.

This graphic is done relatively well. It is easy to see that there is some kind of red cluster though the red cluster is not located in the middle. I think it is better off to the side – if it were in the middle it would be harder to identify it as a cluster because it would just look like the red nodes in the middle. The point of this diagram is to communicate that clustering within these 1318 powerful, globally dominant companies is inherently dangerous because the impact of a copy-cat phenomenon is greater when all the most powerful companies are well-positioned to copy one another. It’s hard for them to get new information when all of their information is coming from within the same highly clustered group of companies.

What would a more stable arrangement look like? In theory, it would look like a network with, oh, say about 4-6 clusters spread around the larger network of these 1318 companies. Rather than one big cluster of the most powerful, there would have been smaller clusters composed of both really big, powerful companies and smaller, less powerful companies. Companies that are not yet at the peak of their power (or trying to get to a new peak of capital under management) are going to look for different kinds of information and thus have different information to share and different management/development strategies in place than the larger, more well-capitalized companies. These two groups might do well to share their information with one another, even if – and maybe especially because – they will not act on it in the same way. The entire capitalist system would be more stable if there were more strategies being tested and rejected simultaneously.

I’m not sure the graphic actually communicates that point on its own, but it certainly makes the case in the text stronger by visually displaying the concentration of capital. It also makes this research more accessible to a broader audience who would not be able to understand the meaning of a clustering coefficient.

What needs work

I like the white background version better than the black background version because it is much easier to see the edges.

1318 biggest capitalists in the world | Glattfelder
1318 biggest capitalists in the world | Glattfelder

Seeing the edges is nice – without being able to see all the little edges scattered around it is possible to think that all edges lead to that central cluster and that there are hardly any connections between nodes that are not in the center.


Vitalia, Stefania; Glattfelder, James; and Battiston, Stefano. (2011) “The network of global corporate control” working paper from Systems Design, Zurich ETH.

Coghlan, Andy and MacKenzie, Debora. (24 October 2011) Revealed – the capitalist network that runs the world The New Scientist.

The internet crosses the ocean
The internet crosses the ocean

What works

I like the colors in the graphic above, however, the version I found does not come with a key but if you click through you can see one. The internet does not always deliver material the way it was originally designed or in the way that we would prefer it.

So I went looking for the original, the one that would probably have had a key attached to it, and found this map of the same information instead.

The internet's undersea world | The Guardian
The internet's undersea world | The Guardian

I realize it is hard to see the tiny thumbnail of a graphic so you can either click through to the full version at the Guardian or look through the images I’ve distilled from the original below.

The internet undersea world | Thumbnail from the Guardian
The internet undersea world | Thumbnail from the Guardian

Besides the map above, which shows where all of the cables are laid out and is very similar to the colored version at the top of this post, the Guardian cartographers/infographic designers included useful contextual graphics. Often, there is much more to maps than just the map, and to fully understand why and how the geography matters, it is critical to understand characteristics of the relationship that are not available through the map alone. For instance, in the case of undersea internet cables, the paths and linkages indicate that connections between, say, New York and London are probably quicker than connections between Minneapolis and Leeds. But it is also useful to know how fat the cables are because this is a good proxy for their bandwidth. If the traffic between two points in this network approaches the carrying capacity of the cable, connections might slow down, there would be reasons to build more cables, and so forth.

Undersea internet cable width | The Guardian
Undersea internet cable width | The Guardian

The Guardian carried on with this sort of critical analysis by showing how submarine operations sell capacity to other carriers, who mostly buy it as back-up. On the busy trans-Atlantic route, 80% of the capacity is purchased but only 29% of it is being used. This kind of arrangement is in place for times when communication bandwidth needs spike far, far higher than normal and when cables are cut.

World cable capacity, inset | The Guardian
World cable capacity, inset | The Guardian


I was turned on to ferreting out these maps by a book I’m reading by Michael Likosky called “Obama’s Bank: Financing a Durable New Deal.” In the book, Likosky points out that one strand of the global internet infrastructure was privately financed, though still heavily reliant on governmental cooperation.

He writes:

In 1995, the US West finalized an agreement fo the construction of the Fiber Optic Link Around the Globe (FLAG). This $1.5 billion project would run a fiber-optic cable from the United Kingdom to Japan. In the process, it would link up twenty-five political jurisdictions. It contributed to a series of interlacing global information infrastructure project. Although underwater telegraphic cables had been laid at the close of the previous century, this project represented the first ever privately initiated and financed transnational communications link of this size and scale. FLAG was only as strong as the public guarantees of the twenty-five licensing authorities involved in legitimizing the project. In other words, it was a transnational public-private partnership.”

I was left wondering who financed the other strands of this aquatic internet infrastructure, realizing that it was probably more reliant on the public sector than the private sector, which is why FLAG is so unique. One of the reasons this matters is that global communications connectivity makes the current trans-national spoke and hub pattern of US business development possible. Without high speed communications connectivity, it would not be feasible for multi-national corporations to situate call centers and other communications-heavy activities far from the hub of commercial activities they are supporting.

If the US Federal government was indeed responsible for some of the early undersea internet bandwidth, I wonder if they had an inkling of how that might impact the development of off-shoring. It has been argued, though maybe not recently, that off-shoring is a good thing because it puts environmentally and socially negative jobs outside of America. Then we can reap all the rewards of growth up the management chain by locating the better jobs here. Clearly, it is irresponsible to locate environmentally detrimental projects in places were regulations are lax for the sake of increasing profits here. The same argument holds with respect to social ills like poor safety standards for workers, child labor, inhumane hours, and other negative working conditions. Increasing the ability to communicate instantly with far flung places makes the spoke-and-hub pattern more possible.

What needs work

Neither of the maps show who paid for the cables or who generates what kind of revenue from their use. I really want to know. I was hoping the color-coded one might do that, but without the key it’s impossible to tell.


Likosky, Michael. (2010) Obama’s Bank: Financing a durable New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, Bobbie. (2008, 1 February) How one clumsy ship cut off the web for 75 million people. The Guardian, Technology Section. Map graphic by

How happy are parents vs. non-parents? | Graph
How happy are parents vs. non-parents? | Graphic by Norén based on Margolis and Myrskyla

Kids and happiness

Thanks to my twitter feed I landed on Philip Cohen’s blog post “Children beget happiness, eventually” on his blog Family Inequality. In the post, Cohen discusses A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility which appeared in Population and Development Review last March.

Margolis and Myrskyla used the World Values Survey from 1981 – 2005 for a total of 201,988 responses across 86 countries to perform their inquiry into the relationship between having kids and being happy. They measured happiness by asking people “taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy, or not at all happy?”. They controlled for all sorts of things that probably matter like socioeconomic status, country level effects, and state welfare regimes. This is global evidence, folks, not US-only.

Cohen included the graph below and discussed the author’s findings which, in summary, are as follows:

1. Having kids does not lead to happiness when parents are actively involved in raising said children.
2. Older parents consistently report being happier than their childless counterparts. [My editorial comment: It is reasonable to believe that, for the most part, the children are no longer living with their parents by the time their parents start to report increases in happiness. At the very least, the kids are at least spending more time out of the home by the time mom and dad are between ages 40 and 49. The majority of kids are almost surely out of the house by the time their parents are 50+ which is the ‘happiest’ time to be a parent. Perhaps it’s because parents are proud of their kids’ accomplishments, perhaps it’s because the parents are no longer anxiously worrying about their kids well-being on a day-to-day basis. Who can say.]
3. Results in the 15 – 19 age cohort have fewer data points and are thus somewhat less representative. It’s hard to have three or four kids while in that age cohort.

Happiness and number of children by age of parent | Margolis and Myrskyla
Happiness and number of children by age of parent | Margolis and Myrskyla

An experiment

I used the exact same evidence to create the graph at the top of the blog because I wasn’t satisfied that the results were being clearly communicated by the graph above. Instead of plotting the happiness of age cohorts, I flipped it around and looked at happiness by number of children. Since I used the exact same information – pulling it directly from the graph because I couldn’t find a corresponding table in the paper – I do not have distinctly different findings to report. Duh. However, this is an excellent example of why visualizations are meaningful. It’s the same information, plotted in two different ways.

In my version, it is clearer to see that having 1 – 3 children represents extremely similar patterns of happiness across the life course. I discount the results at the very low age range because we know that the data at that end is less-than-representative. If we just look from the 20-29 cohort through to the 50+ cohort, we see that having more kids eventually represents more happiness for parents but that they are about equally unhappy during the most active years of child-rearing.

Having four or more kids breaks the pattern. This is evident in both graphic representations. In my opinion, it is more evident in the first version of the graph than the second version, as they appear in this post. I used a similar sensibility for the colors of 1, 2, and 3 children trends and a different kind of color for the 4+ kids scenario.

The graphs do not explain why having four (or more) kids would be so different than having, say, three kids. More study is needed.

My #1 take-away: do not have four or more children if you value your happiness.
My #2 take-away: Think twice about having any children at all if you would prefer to be happy for the twenty or so years it’s going to take those kids to move out.
My #3 take-away: Thanks, mom and dad. I hope you’re happy now.


Cohen, Philip. (14 May 2011) Children beget happiness, eventually [blog post] on Family Inequality.

Conley, Dalton. (2005) The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Are, New York: Vintage.

Margolis, Rachel and Mikko Myrskyla. (9 March 2011) A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility in Population and Development Review, Vol.37(1): 29-56.

Percentage of US citizens holding passports, by state
Percentage of US citizens holding passports, by state | Andrew Sullivan

Passport background

In 2008 as part of the war against terror, US citizens were required to have a passport to travel to countries like Canada and Mexico that had previously allowed passport-free travel. US citizens could drive or walk into Canada and Mexico with a driver’s license and be allowed to drive or walk right back in. In 2011, we see from this map that even now, not all US citizens have passports, not even close. Getting a passport is time consuming, costly, and generally requires some evidence that the person applying for the passport intends to travel outside the US. That last requirement is kind of a no-brainer, why would anyone want to go through the effort to obtain a passport if they never planned to leave the US?

What works

Always skeptical about mapping data that could appear in a table or chart, I have decided that I’m neutral on this particular use of mapping as a presentation device. If the map had included Canada and Mexico rather than just making the US appear to float in space, I would probably have been more convinced that the map was the way to proceed with this information. If I had created a chart or a table, I would have divided the US states into two groups: those that border foreign countries and those that do not. Have a glance at the map again and you will see that the states bordering foreign countries have higher percentages of passport holders, on average, than those states that do not border foreign countries. Florida and Illinois do not border foreign countries and yet they both have high percentages of passport holders. In the Florida case, I would say it’s almost as if Florida borders foreign countries since so many of its near neighbors are island nations – Haiti, the British Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, and so forth.

Illinois is home to Chicago, a destination for immigrants and immigrants often leave family in other countries whom they would like to visit. Thus, they will need passports. The same is true for most big cities – New York and California (home to New York City and Los Angeles) also have large immigrant populations and large numbers of passport holders. On the other hand, Saskia Sassen might point out that what’s going on in Chicago, LA, and New York is that all of these cities are global cities, hubs of activity in Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE industries). These FIRE industries are global industries and require their workers to travel internationally at higher rates than the same kinds of workers in other industries.

It would be interesting to compare the rates of passport holders to both the rates of first generation immigrants and the proportion of workers in the FIRE industries in all these states.

What needs work

As I mentioned, presenting this information as a map begs to have Canada and Mexico included. In order to visualize the story here, it would be helpful to see what is happening at the borders, to remind ourselves that the US does not simply float in space. It is geographically specific and it matters that some states have international borders and others do not. Sometimes these borders ARE the story and I think when we’re talking about passport holders, the borders are important.

If this information were to be presented as a set of bar graphs, we would risk some information overload since there would be 50 bars. But that might be alright if it became instantly visually clear that the border states have higher rates of passport holdership than the interior and non-bordering states. Plus, with a bar graph, the numbers could have been layered on each bar (and really, they could have been layered on each state in the map) so that we would be able to get a more precise calculation. Simply knowing that we are working with some number in a 10% range is kind of sloppy for my tastes. That’s just me. And sometimes with information like this it’s silly to try to get granular because the data collection method could have a fairly wide margin of error. Though I should hope that the feds know who is holding passports. I suppose people could apply for them in one state and then move to another state. The feds may not know about moves following passport application and that could introduce some fuzziness.

Note: I tried to go to the original source of the map several times but the page timed out repeatedly. Therefore, I ended up citing Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic since that is where I encountered the map and it is a website that I believe you can visit whereas is not visit-able. If I had been able to visit I might have been able to figure out where the passport data came from in the first place – presumably some federal department.


Sullivan, Andrew. (8 March 2011) Map of the Day: How many Americans have a passport, by state in The Daily Dish at The Atlantic online. [Graphic by]

Sassen, Saskia. (2001 [1991]) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, 2nd ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Hans Rosling | MSNBC
Hans Rosling | MSNBC

What Works

Hans Rosling argues that by raising the living standards of the globe’s poor people we can avert a population growth disaster. He uses statistics and on-stage demonstrations to do it. Worth watching. Over at TEDtalks. Happy to see a kindred spirit having his day with TED.

TED logo | TED
I approve of the rockstar version of Hans Rosling’s portrait so I cribbed it from MSNBC. Thanks graphic designer out there somewhere, working to make statisticians more visually stimulating.


Rosling, Hans. (July 2010) Global Population Growth TED talks.

Gap Minder is Hans Rosling’s website. It features many more animations than just the one about population growth as well as tools to build your own animations. The emphasis is on country-level data.

LifeMap life timeline | Ritwik Dey
LifeMap life timeline | Ritwik Dey

What works

This is a great timeline. If all CVs were displayed like this I think employers would have a much better idea who they’re hiring.

Here’s why I like it:


  • shows simultaneity – layering colored strips
  • shows relative weights – some stripes are fatter than others
  • shows the split between two classes of life – academic and personal by simply sticking the axis between them and then emphasizing this split with a different color scheme for each class
  • mixes words seamlessly with the graphic elements – each of the activities on the map is listed only once, even if the band it occupies shifts noticeably. Re-listing each element would add clutter and the colors are easy for the eye to follow across the graph even where there are discontinuities.
  • displays location at the top without making location seem like the primary element. It’s hard to get the thing that appears at the top NOT to seem like the most important. Clearly, in the course of a life, moving from Mumbai to New York is a big deal, so this is a critical component, but it doesn’t dominate the graphic. We are able to see the elements that make the leap from one place to the next but we aren’t quite sure if it was the shift from one place to the next or from one level of schooling to the next…and maybe even Mr. Dey doesn’t know. How can anyone untangle the causality of an individual trajectory?

It’s clear to me that many of the design elements here will be useful for future portrayals of social science data. In this case, I’d say we are looking at an enhanced CV, brave enough to indicate the passing of a parent and even a mother’s new relationship (which preceded the passing of the father). Spare visual narrative, intriguing in what is left out, remarkably rich nevertheless.

What needs work

The font relative to the graphic is too small. I know that this was probably intended as a poster and displayed at such a scale that the font wasn’t a problem. I apologize that you have to click through to see all of the categories.

Another comment while we’re on the topic of fonts and words relative to graphics: Mr. Dey was able to describe all of his interests with one or two words. It looks great. He expanded his accomplishments a bit beyond the two word limit, but they are still quite brief. I like the idea of choosing the one, two or three most precise words and making sure the graphic itself can carry the rest of the message. It’s a good test to see if your design is helping – when it can speak almost on its own things are looking good.

The limited number of words makes the whole thing not only visually and verbally poetic but also increases its functional value. One of my functionality measuring sticks is the number of words a person would have to translate if they were trying to read this graphic in a foreign language. The fewer words, the easier it is for non-English speakers. The more specific the words are, the more likely they are to translate appropriately. Therefore, ‘swimming’ and ‘3D modeling’ probably translate without difficulty. I have no idea if there is any kind of meaningful translation of “scouts” or “scouting” in any language other than English, but that is not a problem any graphic designer is going to be able to solve.

I wonder, though, if no-more-than-two-words rule led to the choice of the word “derive”. I know what that means in the context of calculus. I have no idea what that means in the context of a LifeMap, but it remains salient for years so I wish I did know what it meant. Sometimes the word restriction rule leaves out the phrase that would best describe whatever it is you might be trying to describe. Or maybe Mr. Dey does a lot of theoretical derivations.


Dey, Ritwik. (2005) LifeMap Project for Information Design course with Dmitry Krasny at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

What facebook has to say about the World Cup
What facebook has to say about the World Cup | New York Times interactive graphic

What works

This is really fun to play with and technically sophisticated. Move the slider around the the image of the players grow and shrink relative to their mentions on facebook that day. Hold the mouse over a player and it will tell you their name, what country they play for, and the percentage of facebook wall posts in which they were mentioned that day.

Try it. You’ll like it.

What needs work

Of course, I lament the fact that so much time and effort is devoted to sport when it could be devoted to making similarly complex graphics about social science topics. On the other hand, I am somewhat glad that social scientists aren’t using facebook wall posts as evidence. Sure, they are useful within the realm of facebook, but even this example amply demonstrates that facebook is not holding a mirror up to the “real world”. (I believe facebook to be part of the real world, not a mirror of the real world. As such, it cannot be taken to contain some kind of 1:1 relationship with the rest of our experience, if only we can use bigger processors and more sophisticated techniques to analyze the steady flow of new data.)

I wonder how the mentions of individual players matches up with viewership information. While we’re wondering about that, I’d also add the wonder that the World Cup has inspired collective watching like nothing I can think of besides the Super Bowl and the World Series. Bars in Manhattan can barely contain all the people who want to watch. And people are watching on their computers (thanks univision!) at work. How does Nielsen deal with that? Will we ever have more or less accurate information about how many people watched the 2010 World Cup? Besides advertisers, does anyone care about how many of us watched this? (Personally, I’m curious to see the demographic breakdown of who watched – seems to skew quite young as far as sporting events go.)

Important note

Viva España!
But I won’t be posting to facebook about their match tomorrow because I’ll be too busy watching it. And then celebrating their win.


SHAN CARTER, BEN KOSKI and KEVIN QUEALY. (2 July 2010) Top World Cup Players on Facebook, Day by Day. New York Times interactive graphic.

"Who is coming to America?" GOOD magazine Transparency by Thomas Porostocky
Who is coming to America? GOOD magazine Transparency by Thomas Porostocky

What works

This is another graphic excerpt from GOOD magazine’s Transparency infographic collection. Note that I cropped out country-by-country break downs detailing how many people arrive as refugees and how many arrive as relatives of US citizens. Most immigrants to the US come as relatives of US citizens. That’s just how immigration law is set up, much to the disappointment of Bill Gates and other tech sector employers who used to frequently haul themselves to Washington to lobby for adding more visas for talented workers.

This graphic is clever, far more clever than many similar depictions of the same kind of data. I’ve seen pie charts where each piece of the pie represents a country. Bar graphs. Maps with a bunch of numbers and arrows. The concept here is both clean/easy to grasp at first glance and well executed. It would have taken me a minute to think of moving from a 2D flag to a 3D flag so that words and numbers could wrap the edges of the bars but I do think that helps present a cleaner image. Fewer characters on each bar.

Symbolically, it reminds us that America is constituted almost wholly by immigrants – this being the current numerical distribution of the countries of origin.

Though you cannot see it from the way I’ve cropped it, the text explains that these are LEGAL immigrants to the US. So, yes, Mexico sends the most legal immigrants to the US. That’s key. Americans tend to assume all immigrants from Mexico are illegal and that’s far from true.

Also, kudos for skipping flag textures on the bars. I’ve seen far too many similar graphics riddled with flags and that seems like a good idea but doesn’t work well because Americans just don’t know what the flags of other countries look like. Flags do not equal national icons, at least not in the eyes of Americans. Plus, if these bars had been wrapped in national flags it would have been symbolically interesting – America is made of all these different countries – but visually gross.

What needs work

I can’t tell from this graphic what the deal is with the “unknown” country category. I would have appreciated a little asterisk to clear that up (I know I cropped out a majority of the graphic so you can either take my word that there was no asterisk or you can click through to the full graphic above and check it out for yourself).

To emphasize the importance of Mexico as a sending country, I probably would have put it up in the shorter stripe area. Ditto for China. It looks like Mexico would have taken up two full short stripes and China would have taken a full shorty plus a little more.

I also would have found a way to group regions together. So El Salvador and Guatemala could have been close to Mexico and the Koreas and Russia could have been close to China.


Porostocky, Thomas. (2009, May 5) “Who is coming to America?” GOOD Magazine Transparency Infographic.

Migration Information Source clearinghouse for all sorts of information about US migration patterns, policies, and studies.

Water Resources and Withdrawals by Continent
Water Resources and Withdrawals by Continent

These graphics accompanied a great article about water shortages in episode of The Economist which arrived last week. The article was well written and comprehensive, handily summing up the way water resources are related to the growth of urban centers, climate change, the rising affluence of the world’s poorest people (and their conversion from vegetarianism to omnivorousness) and the question of whether or not fresh water is a global or a local problem. I highly recommend reading it. Unfortunately, I think you would do almost as well reading it without the accompanying graphics as with them.

The first one is so confusing I still don’t know what I am seeing here. Table data usually has the attribute that the longer you look at it, the more you get, with an occasionally painfully long initialization period in which you can’t make out any pattern whatsoever. I spent a good bit of time on this one and I still don’t know how to make sense of it. The article rightly points out that fresh water is unevenly distributed across the globe–some places have a lot, some places hardly have any. No big surprise. Also not surprising: some continents use more fresh water than others based on overall population size and agricultural production practices. So when I looked at this graphic, I was kind of hoping to get a sense of both how efficient each continent was with their resources and how dire their straits were. The graphic sort of does that. Sort of. We’ve got a measure of total renewable water resources but it doesn’t take into account total land area. It does take into account population, sort of, and maybe population is more relevant than total land area in this case.

Ratio of Water Use to GDP
Ratio of Water Use to GDP

The second graphic does not stand well on it’s own. I can see here that it appears that these selected countries seem to have been becoming more efficient with their water use. Since 1995, all of these countries have lowered the number of cubic metres of water used per dollar (or dollar equivalent) of GDP. This graphic does nothing on its own to help me understand why that might be true. Have these countries moved out of water intensive agricultural production? Have they made their agricultural production more efficient? If so, is it technological change leading to increased efficiency or did they just shift to more efficient crops? Or maybe the change is in the GDP variable, not the water variable. The graphic really just doesn’t clear any of these things up.

What Works

Water Used to Grow the Same Crop in Different Countries
Water Used to Grow the Same Crop in Different Countries

I like the third graphic. It’s clear and adds to the text in the article. This isn’t the first time I have read about water shortages and one of the biggest and possibly easiest changes we could make to prevent the water shortage from becoming any more of a problem than it already is, would be to introduce drip irrigation in places that do not already have it. Yes, it costs some money. But it is far more cost effective than many of the other strategies introduced to combat climate change. Drip irrigation technology is not overly complex nor does it require extensive training or equipment to install. Tubing perforated along its length with small holes, buried under the surface of the earth, delivers water directly to plant roots. Much less water is lost to evaporation or seepage into non-crop areas. Control over water resources is better – during rains cisterns collect and store water for later distribution through the drip tubing during dry periods.

Relevant Resources

The Economist. (2009, 8 April) Water shortages go global: Sin aqua non. Istanbul.