Visualizing Four Numbers

This request is from Billy.

I saw this chart a few weeks ago and immediately felt that it was a terrible way to show the data. (Let’s ignore for the moment that with only four numbers, a graphic may not actually be necessary and that having annual data would be helpful). When I sat down and started sketching alternatives, I didn’t love any of them, so I’m seeking help on visualizing just these four numbers–100 years & 4.4 gigatons; 3 years & 6.6 gigatons.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 11.16.46 AM

Alternatively, one could convert the numbers to gigatons per year and just plot it as a simple column chart, etc, but I think the four-number challenge is a bit more interesting.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 9.16.36 PM


6 thoughts on “Visualizing Four Numbers

  1. I looked into this when it came out because the published graph is useless on its own. It’s not comparing apples to apples. From the graph, as far as we know the US cement usage also took off in 2011-2013. Maybe it was more than China. You can’t tell from the graph!

    However, the numbers I found showed the truth is almost as amazing as the implication. US cement usage is at averaging about 120 megatons per year this decade with a peak at 150 megatons in 2006. China is using about 2300 megatons per year. Cumulative cement usage might make a good time series plot to show how China has caught up and passed the US.

    But since your real question is about a chart showing the original small data set, I’ll suggest that a simple bar chart is best — a dejunked version of the original. The real story is in the words

    • @Ira. Thanks for the idea–I think the problem with this approach is that it sort of looks like the US has been producing 4.4 gigatons of concrete *per year* instead of total production over that time period.

      @Xan. I agree that the text really says this better than the graphic. Your solution is probably the best way to go about this. Thanks.

  2. Every chart with just 4 numbers is a bad chart… just use a table or write a short sentence.

    The diagram below gives an idea, but as a chart it is not valid – it has a lie factor, because it simply does not show the true consumption, just an imaginary hint of the consumption rate.

    The only way to make this right it to get the actual data on consumption for both countries from 1900 until 2013 for each year. This would probably be quite interesting, especially because I guess the cement consumption rate in China is probably exponential…

    Less is not more. Less is simply less.

  3. After listening to I couldn’t resist going to this site and look if I could contribute. This first one immediately has the right stuff :)
    Four numbers is hardly a chart and looking at the concrete-website this is more an editorial-infographic.
    So i would suggest this; I had to do something with the 100 vs the 3 years, but not implying that it’s evenly distributed over the years….

  4. I’d say that this not a problem of how to chart four numbers.

    It’s a problem of finding data that actually tells the story of the comparison of the consumption rates.
    Until you have a data set that relates in a meaningful way, there isn’t much point in visualizing it.

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