Is This the Best, or Worst, Graph Ever Drawn?

Note: the first part of this post may not be of much interest to many people. But if you scroll down, you will see a couple of really cool animations of data.

Charles Joseph Minard (27 March 1781 – 24 October 1870) was a French civil engineer recognized for his significant contribution in the field of information graphics in civil engineering and statistics. Minard was, among other things, noted for his representation of numerical data on geographic maps, especially his flow maps.

Minard is best known for his cartographic depiction of numerical data on a map of Napoleon’s disastrous losses suffered during the Russian campaign of 1812. The illustration depicts Napoleon’s army departing the Polish-Russian border. A thick band illustrates the size of his army at specific geographic points during their advance and retreat. It displays six types of data in two dimensions: the number of Napoleon’s troops; the distance traveled; temperature; latitude and longitude; direction of travel; and location relative to specific dates without making mention of Napoleon; Minard’s interest lay with the travails and sacrifices of the soldiers.

The numbers of men present are represented by the widths of the colored zones at a rate of one millimeter for every ten thousand men; they are further written across the zones. The red designates the men who enter Russia, the black those who leave it.

Modern information scientists say the 1869 map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn. French scientist, physiologist, and chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey praised “its brutal eloquence, which seems to defy the pen of the historian”. Information designer Edward Tufte says it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn” and uses it as a prime example in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Howard Wainer identified Minard’s map as a “gem” of information graphics, nominating it as the “World’s Champion Graph”. The Economist described it as one of “three of history’s best” charts.

That’s a lot of praise, but it is not universal.

One prominent voice criticizing the graph is that of Seth Godin, who said in a speech:

Tufte is really proud of this graph. He says this is the best graph ever made. I think he is completely out of his gourd and totally wrong. I think this is one of the worst graphs ever made. He’s very happy because it shows five different pieces of information on three axes and if you study it for 15 minutes it really is worth 1000 words. I don’t think that is what graphs are for. I think you are trying to make a point in two seconds for people who are too lazy to read the forty words underneath. To make me take 15 minutes to study it doesn’t make sense. And I thought about it and I was going to jump all over him, then I moved it to this section, ’cause he picked it because it is broken on purpose. For the kind of person that you want to reach, they want to read a complicated, difficult to understand graph and get the satisfaction of figuring it out. Sometimes the best thing to do it so break it for the people you don’t care about and just make it work for the people you do.

I’m not sure that Seth is really criticizing Minard’s graph; I think what he is doing is stressing the importance of tailoring your graph to your audience. Some people, historians for example, probably love all the detail in the graph. A casual observer just trying to get a sense of what happened to Napoleon’s army may not want to spend the time necessary to fully interpret such a graph. Seth, as he is prone to do, favors keeping things as simple as possible. I’m with Seth on keeping things simple.

But I have to agree with many people who are impressed with Minard’s graph. It did take a me a while to fully understand all the information that is contained within the confines of the graph, but once I did, it’s fascinating to see how he was able to show so much in just two dimensions.

Now there are tools available to show data over time, using animations.

I found the following two videos a fascinating way to tell a story using data visualization techniques.

Thanks to John at SalsaWorldTraveler for this one

For this next one, try to guess which fast-food franchise will have the highest number of outlets at the end of 2019. The answer surprised me. Thanks to Ray at Mitigating Chaos for this one.

I love how the video ends, by saying that data is beautiful.

And I’d have to agree, but how it is presented makes all the difference…

*image from Wikipedia

55 thoughts on “Is This the Best, or Worst, Graph Ever Drawn?

  1. Darn, I was rooting for Taco Bell. I think Subway cheated by putting franchises in already existing gas stations.

    I like the graph about the French Armee. It’s amazing how few emerged alive from that boondoggle of a war Napoleon started. That’s a good graph for all military strategists to study.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a bit of a math nerd, so I like looking at graphs. I think most people don’t want to look at a graph as sophisticated as Minard’s. I think the average person is looking for simplicity and bright colors when they look at a graph.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like to create my graphs as quickly and simply as possible so that it tells the message I want. I never was much into formatting graphs with nice colors, and shading, 3D effects, and all the bells and whistles offered by a program like Excel..

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think Minard’s graph is exceptional. It is not because of the amount of data points displayed in a two-dimensional representation. It is because you cannot look at that graph and miss the devastating losses suffered by Napoleon’s army, not only in getting to Moscow, but during a long and arduous retreat. It may help to keep in mind that Minard did not have computers and Excel to do all the hard work for him. His graph was drawn by hand from raw data. Of course, now we have a graph or pie chart for everything, so it may seem a bit lackluster. Great post, Jim!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. it is amazing that he did this without easy access to the data and no technology like Excel. It captures very well the losses suffered by Napoleon, as well as the brutal conditions that they fought under.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Jim,

    Alternatives to visualizing multivariate data (over 400 illustrations) —
    http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/352wpvisual/000datavisualization.htm

    My favorite multivariate visualization is the History of Pandemic Deaths at
    https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/
    Although there have been more deaths from Corona-19 since March 2020 the above graph would still show that our current pandemic is relatively puny.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks for those links, Bob. The visualization of the pandemic deaths is quite well done; let’s hope the number of deaths from COVID-19 doesn’t keep moving up the chart…

      Like

  5. this gave me instant vertigo, and I had to quickly scroll down to the text. )I think you’re right, it’s all in the presentation, and knowing your ‘audience,’ a lesson I’ve never forgotten from my catering years. it is an important piece of work, especially for that time and considering what he had to work with. there’s a lot of loss and sadness in that graph.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like this form of animated graph: I think it really highlights the effects of change over time. Have you seen the one which relates US COVID cases to Trump’s pronouncements? I saw it on Twitter shared, I think, by the Lincoln Project. It made its point well!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I found one chart that shows Trump’s comments mapped on top of the number of covid cases, early on in the pandemic. It is embarrassing. If there is another chart you have in mind, I’d love to see it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I had forgotten that you mentioned it was from the Lincoln Project, so this is not the one I had seen. Let’s hope this video has the intended effect. thanks for sending me the link.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It makes its point, doesn’t it! Hopefully they have booked a slot in the Hannity Show for maximum effect – he’ll go ballistic. You’re welcome, glad to have helped.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I am impressed with the time he obviously had to take to make the first graph, but too detailed for me, just give me something simple to look at, with nice music, like the videos. 🙂
    The first video was sombering though!
    The 2nd was fun, I actually would rate Chipotle the best among all of them, they forgot that one! 🙂 I was surprised seeing Subway win. I thought it would be Starbucks.
    So what kind of entertaining graph are you going to make?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I couldn’t really read the words on the first graph, but your description made it easy to understand. Fantastic work.

    I was recently wondering how a person could created one graph that showed the variables for Covid safety (risk management) – distance, time, location, breathing action, masks, etc. Could a single graph be something that would end the arguments over when to mask? Would it help the belt AND suspenders people to realize that belt OR suspenders is just as good in some circumstances?

    I didn’t finish watching the COVID video… the music and flashing numbers set me on edge. Or on a ledge – I’m taking a break from mass and social media for a month or so…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does take a few minutes to understand Napoleon’s graph, it packs a lot of info. And that would be a great idea if a chart could show all the COVID-19 variables in one place. And I could have done without the music as well in the one video…

      Like

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