I was flipping through my copy of William Cleveland’s The Elements of Graphing Data the other day; it’s a book worth revisiting. I’ve always liked Cleveland’s approach to visualization as statistical analysis. His quest to ground visualization principles in the context of human visual cognition (he called it “graphical perception”) generated useful advice for designing effective graphics .
I confess I don’t always follow his advice. Sometimes it’s because I don’t agree with him, but also it’s because I use ggplot for visualization, and I’m lazy. I like ggplot because it excels at layering multiple graphics into a single plot and because it looks good; but deviating from the default presentation is often a bit of work. How much am I losing out on by this? I decided to do the work and find out.
Details of specific plots aside, the key points of Cleveland’s philosophy are:
- A graphic should display as much information as it can, with the lowest possible cognitive strain to the viewer.
- Visualization is an iterative process. Graph the data, learn what you can, and then regraph the data to answer the questions that arise from your previous graphic.
Of course, when you are your own viewer, part of the cognitive strain in visualization comes from difficulty generating the desired graphic. So we’ll start by making the easiest possible ggplot graph, and working our way from there — Cleveland style.
The important criterion for a graph is not simply how fast we can see a result; rather it is whether through the use of the graph we can see something that would have been harder to see otherwise or that could not have been seen at all.
– William Cleveland, The Elements of Graphing Data, Chapter 2
In this article, I will discuss some graphs that I find extremely useful in my day-to-day work as a data scientist. While all of them are helpful (to me) for statistical visualization during the analysis process, not all of them will necessarily be useful for presentation of final results, especially to non-technical audiences.
I tend to follow Cleveland’s philosophy, quoted above; these graphs show me — and hopefully you — aspects of data and models that I might not otherwise see. Some of them, however, are non-standard, and tend to require explanation. My purpose here is to share with our readers some ideas for graphical analysis that are either useful to you directly, or will give you some ideas of your own.
What makes a good graph? When faced with a slew of numeric data, graphical visualization can be a more efficient way of getting a feel for the data than going through the rows of a spreadsheet. But do we know if we are getting an accurate or useful picture? How do we pick an effective visualization that neither obscures important details, or drowns us in confusing clutter? In 1968, William Cleveland published a text called The Elements of Graphing Data, inspired by Strunk and White’s classic writing handbook The Elements of Style . The Elements of Graphing Data puts forward Cleveland’s philosophy about how to produce good, clear graphs — not only for presenting one’s experimental results to peers, but also for the purposes of data analysis and exploration. Cleveland’s approach is based on a theory of graphical perception: how well the human perceptual system accomplishes certain tasks involved in reading a graph. For a given data analysis task, the goal is to align the information being presented with the perceptual tasks the viewer accomplishes the best. Continue reading