05
Aug
09

Concerning the Value of Human Life

Today’s effort is brought to my attention by one of our readers, Robin, who previously alerted me to the problems of Moon Maps. This map appears in a post on the OKTrends blog, where the authors analyze the geographic distribution of how people answer various questions on the dating site OKCupid. We’ll take one of them as an example:

human_lives_map

Obtained from http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/2009/07/13/sweet-ass-american-trends/. Legend, title, and map combined by author into one PNG file.

Side note: the darkest red, for the highest percentage “No,” shows up as a single pixel at DC. So, I cannot claim that the map doesn’t follow the legend. Though, the DC dot is so unnoticeable it might as well not be. Putting an area on a map which is too small to be seen is a serious problem. Better for the authors to include an inset or two, showing the smaller states in a more magnified fashion (as we say in the business: at a larger scale).

There’s a fundamental error that a lot of people are prone to making with these maps (and, in fact, I didn’t notice myself doing it until I’d spent quite a while looking at these). If you look at the map above, or any of the others in the OKTrends post, there is always one state at each end of the scale. In the above example, Nevada is the brightest green, matching the far “Yes” end of the scale, and DC (thought you can scarcely see it) is the darkest red, matching the “No” end of the scale. This does not mean that 100% of the people in Nevada answered yes and 100% of those in DC said no. It just means that more people answered yes in Nevada than anywhere else. Maybe in DC 2% of the population said “yes,” and in Nevada 5% did, with all the other states in between. But this legend makes it appear as if DC uniformly said “No,” and Nevada “Yes,” with the vote being split in all other states. It is unintentionally misleading, which is the most tragic cartographic sin. The authors wanted to convey some information in good faith, but their communications became twisted and false.

The Yes-No labels on the legend are not the only problem. It’s the color scheme. It’s a diverging color scheme – the green and the red are opposite ends, and states shade toward one end or the other. There are many good reasons to use these schemes, but in this instance, it just makes it look like there are solid No states and solid Yes states, instead of states where a handful of people said yes, and those where a slightly larger handful of people said yes. The color scheme should be one hue, changing in lightness (say, from a pink to a dark red), and the map should show % yes votes (or % no) votes only. This still lets you pick out trends – Nevada has more Yes votes than other states, but it doesn’t mislead you in to a panic about the amoral citizens of Nevada and how they disregard human life. You can tell that “yes” is unpopular, but less so in certain areas.

Another reason to ditch the red-green scheme, which the authors use uniformly throughout their maps: It doesn’t always make sense when the options are other than yes and no. Here’s a map from later in their post:

Obtained from http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/2009/07/13/sweet-ass-american-trends/. Legend, title, and map combined by author into one PNG file.

Obtained from http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/2009/07/13/sweet-ass-american-trends/. Legend, title, and map combined by author into one PNG file.

These two colors, green and red, have certain connotations of positive and negative in much of the english-speaking world, so here, the scheme is a problem, unless you’re going with an implied value judgment where “Right to Bear Arms = Good” and “Right to Vote = Bad.” The people on the OKTrends blog don’t quite strike me as that type. Nor the type to greenlight an unequal valuation of human lives. And, of course, the legend does again make it look like Idaho is 100% behind giving up the right to vote. I’m guessing (and it is just guessing) that if you looked at the data, the vast majority of respondents in each state said they’d rather keep the vote and lose their guns. But Idaho happened to have the most people who were more fond of guns than voting (hard to hold that against them, given the political climate). Probably just a few percent. But people will come away from this map with the sentence stuck in their mind “Idaho strongly prefers to lose the right to vote.” I have belabored the point, so let’s move on.

Note that there are two states in the lower right corner which are not actually filled in with any color. Thanks for playing, Hawaii and Alaska! It’s OK — they’re just happy to be there, given how often they’re left off of US maps.

The shapes of the states are poorly generalized, and may in fact have been drawn freehand. Possibly just traced loosely, instead. But it has that feeling to it. Many of the states look slightly-to-moderately wrong. Look at my beloved Michigan – it’s become an amorphous blob. Saginaw Bay is entirely missing. It’s a sizable body of water. Like, nearly as big as some states. Also, I’m pretty sure Ohio doesn’t look quite like that. And Maryland seems to have taken over part of Virginia. Wyoming, though, is just as rectangular as ever.

I would be tempted to complain about the map projection, but since I think it’s freehanded, it doesn’t exactly have one.

Note the line around Michigan, showing the water border between the US and Canada as it passes through the Great Lakes. Except, the line only shows the border as it passes through two of the lakes. The actual border passes through two additional ones, north of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York – but you don’t see that section here for some reason. So, we have part of a Canadian border. And no Canada, by the by.

The map suffers from the dreaded island effect, where the US looks like it’s floating off in the ocean with no land nearby, and Canada looks like a great and forbidding sea, much like the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. I might not call this a problem for this map otherwise, but putting a portion of the Canadian border in, and then not actually drawing Canada, makes this a serious issue.

Nitpicky: Both maps have a few artifacts here and there, like in Louisiana in the bottom map. A few pixels the wrong color.

One Nice Thing: It’s an unclassed choropleth, which I rather like. Most choropleth maps organize data into classes – say, one color will represent all states with yes votes between 0% and 5%, and the next color will be for states from 6% to 10%, etc. — the states are grouped. In an unclassed choropleth, such as those above, each state is given a color in exact proportion to the number of votes for one choice or the other. A state with 1.1% yes votes gets a different color from one with 1.2%, because they have different values. They’re never grouped together into the same color, as they would be in a classed choropleth. There’s a whole debate as to which is better, classed or unclassed, and I will not get into it here. I will just say that I am a fan of the unclassed choropleth, so I think it’s a Nice Thing.

Addendum: I am a bit embarrassed that I didn’t notice this at first, but these maps are very unkind to the millions of people with red-green colorblindness, as several commenters on the original OKTrends post mentioned. Here’s an approximation of what a red-green colorblind person sees when they look at one of these maps:

Run through http://colorfilter.wickline.org/ with protanopia filter

Run through http://colorfilter.wickline.org/ with protanopia filter

Designers cannot ignore such a vast population, and must take color vision anomalies into account.

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4 Responses to “Concerning the Value of Human Life”


  1. 1 :)
    6th August, 2009 at 7:15 am

    *Intentionally* misleading, you mean. This obviously isn’t serious research, and I’m sure they’d be happy to know they’re getting a rise out of people by polarizing the map.

    “It’s worth pointing out that because there are only a handful of greenish states and yet roughly a dozen reddish ones on the other side of the mean, those few green ones came down *very strongly* in favor of rape role-playing compared to the rest of the country. It’s also worth pointing out that cattle outnumber women 26:1 in Wyoming.”

  2. 2 Tony
    6th August, 2009 at 11:26 am

    The map is the default US map from the Google API. I had seen it before at some other website — I’m originally from Michigan too and when I first saw this map, I also immediately thought Michigan was drawn very poorly. For example:

    http://themechanism.com/blog/2008/03/30/thematic-mapping-with-the-google-charts-api-a-brief-tutorial/

    http://chart.apis.google.com/chart?cht=t&chs=440×220&chd=s:_&chtm=usa

    Google must have found some random map and lopped off Canada or something, which would explain the weird boundaries in Lakes Huron and Superior. Although other features of the US are detailed (Florida Keys, the islands off southern CA, etc.), the Thumb is pretty much gone. I did just notice that Louisiana’s coast is also kind of mushed together. I’m not sure if the colors are Google’s default too.

    • 3 Daniel Huffman
      6th August, 2009 at 11:33 am

      Thanks for the links – this is interesting to know. I’m a bit surprised, to be sure. The people who brought you Google Maps couldn’t manage to put together a decent set of linework?

  3. 4 xj
    28th August, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    I wonder what results they would have gotten if they had asked the question, “Is the life of a member of your family worth more than that of a stranger?” or possibly “Do you think the life of Mother Teresa was more valuable than that of John Wayne Gacy?”

    (Answering “yes” to either question is effectively agreeing that some human lives are worth more than others. You would probably not find very many people who would answer “no,” but FWIW my guess is that, ironically, Mother Teresa would have been one of them.)


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