Posts Tagged ‘emotionally inappropriate

16
Jun
10

On the Abuse of Chernoff Faces

Good day, gentle readers. It turns out, not surprisingly, that no one entered my little redesign competition, and so I’ve no news to report on that front, sadly. Bravely I shall soldier on, however, perhaps to give it another try when circumstances have changed.

Rather than discussing a specific map this time around, I want to take aim at an entire symbology: Chernoff faces.

A face map by Eugene Turner, 1977

You’ve probably run into this sort of multivariate symbology before — using faces to convey data. It’s an intriguing idea. As Herman Chernoff proposed in 1973, we can leverage the power of humans to recognize faces to easily communicate information. The face becomes a gateway for people to see patterns in the data.

When Eugene Turner made the above map, he knew that faces carry emotions. As he said on his website, “It is probably one of the most interesting maps I’ve created because the expressions evoke an emotional association with the data. Some people don’t like that.” A face symbology can give people empathy with the numbers — high unemployment is sad, high urban stresses cause anger. Turner could just as easily have made a multivariate symbol map which used abstract geometric figures rather than faces — say, a cross, with each of the four arms changing length according to the data. The map would convey the same information to the reader, but the emotional content — so much of this map’s power to influence readers — would be lost.

Here’s one problem: if you’re using faces, you’re using emotions, so you’d better be prepared to make emotional statements about your data. Empathy can be a powerful force for the narrative you’re trying to convey, but it’s also hard to escape.

By Aaron Rothberg, 2007. From: http://aaronrb204.blogspot.com/

This is a student map, from the looks of the website it comes from (not from my university, however), and while I try to avoid bringing up the work of students, this one happens to be a good example of this problem of reading faces. According to this map, it’s sad when people over 50 are executed, but it’s pretty happy when people under 40 are. That’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, I would think. This map also suffers from an issue that Turner’s map does: the skin color of the faces. In each map, the fewer white people in an area, the darker the face gets, towards a skin color presumably suggestive of African-Americans. But there are plenty of non-white people who don’t have dark skin. It sets up an easy and dangerous racial spectrum that runs between white and black.

Here’s another Chernoff example symbology, one taken from an ESRI conference paper:

From Spinelli and Zhou, 2004, linked above.

One of their example faces, assembled.

The eyebrows are pretty emotionally charged, and are here linked to how many women are in the workforce. Using their symbology, if you have an area where there’s high unemployment and a lot of women working, you get angry-looking faces. On the other hand, if there’s not a lot of women working, and high unemployment, the faces look sad and depressed. Is this at all sensible or appropriate? More tense emotional states seem to be on display the more women there are in the workforce.

There’s another issue here, besides the dangers of conveying unintentional emotional messages, and that is the simple problem of a nonsensical mismatch between the data and the way its being conveyed. Do places with higher crime have denizens with bigger ears? Does divorce make your nose bigger? Look, it’s not always possible, or even advisable, to make strong visual connections between the symbol and the data (or, if we want to draw on my limited knowledge of fancy semiotics terms: to reduce the gap between the sign vehicle and the referent), but faces seem to me to pose a special case. Perhaps it’s the deliberateness of choice — again, the author didn’t go for something abstract or geometrical, they went for a human face. The reader is not expecting something as out-of-the-blue as “their nose gets bigger when there are more divorced people.” This kind of nonsensical connection breaks the very humanity that the symbol is going for. We know people get angry or sad when there’s high unemployment, and we can relate to that, but their hairline doesn’t recede as their income drops. Why use a face, in the first place, then? These sort of mismatches bother me, but I’m still working out an articulate explanation as to why — perhaps you all can help me with that.

One more example:

One by Daniel Dorling, 1995

A place with a lot of young voters has a big fat nose? And your eyes get bigger, I suppose, if you’re likely to be in a service occupation. Again, people might disagree with me on whether or not this is a problem. I think not paying enough attention to the emotional content of a face is a bigger issue than these sorts of lesser mismatches between eye shapes and % service employees. But the deliberateness, the unusualness, of employing a face suggests to me that I should be looking for a connection, and I am frustrated not to find it.

Chernoff faces can let you bring a lot of power to bear on social data, by showing how people feel right on the map. But it’s easy to squander or misuse their great potential by treating them as simply something cute, amusing, or attention-getting. They require some thought to use.

One Nice Thing: I applaud all of these people for giving Chernoff faces a try — they are a challenge to employ, and not just for the reasons I discussed; they’re also time-consuming to actually draw in most cases. And everyone here used them for social data, which seems the right idea to me. Data about people, shown with faces of people. Much better than say, geological data, which Chernoff used as one of his initial examples.

22
Mar
10

A War without Humans

A colleague of mine, Tim Wallace, recently alerted his classmates to the existence of this Google MyMaps mashup of US drone attacks in Pakistan:

Click to go to the actual map

This map is the poster child for emotionally inappropriate symbology. A lot of people think of maps as simply carriers for data. But they do more than transmit information — they influence our thoughts and our feelings as well. They’re artwork. One point symbol is not as good as any other, and I believe that bright red and green pushpins are completely unacceptable for a map about death, and war, and terror. These are human lives we are talking about here, not regional sales numbers in a spreadsheet. This map is dehumanizing. This map makes war look tidy and fun.

The internet has brought a lot of changes to cartography. Data are cheap, distribution is cheap, and access to the technology to make maps is opening up to more and more people (though we would do well to remember that the touted geoweb revolution is still confined to the iPhone-toting wealthy western elite — click here for more of my thoughts on this). All of this is, to my mind, good stuff. But, right now, the tools are still in the formative stages. The problems with this map are not really the fault of the creator. They had a data set that they wanted to get out there and share with the world. Google provided them a free, easy to use tool to accomplish this. Ideally, better tools and better cartographic education would be available to the new influx of people interested in mapping their world, but the above shows that we’ve still got a long way to go.

And, of course, this data set is all laid on top of an unnecessary satellite photo, along with some roads that will mean nothing to most readers. But, that’s par for the course with these early days of free web maps. It is my hope that the mapmaking infrastructure will continue to improve as demand for custom mapping applications rises.

Finally, I should point out that the yellow and green pushpins are largely indistinguishable to certain types of color vision impairments.

I am glad the author made this map and shared it with the world (I am, in fact, using the data in a personal project of my own). The problems are largely forgivable and understandable. But they are still serious problems, and we need to be aware of the effects this map can have on us when we look at it.




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