Some of the Neatest Statistics You’ve Never Seen

January 26, 2010

By Sean Rule, Math

Figure 1: from Michael Blastland’s “Go Figure” column, March 11, 2009

Before you read any further, please take a look at the figure above for a few moments.  Pretty, isn’t it?  Now look deeper…what’s it showing you?  (resist the urge to click on the hyperlink).  For you youngsters out there who don’t remember the blockbuster 1997 movie, two hints: 1) big boat; 2) iceberg. 

What strikes me about this graph is not just its beauty, although that sure is a large part of what made me say, “Wow!” when I first saw it.  No, combined with its beauty is its function.  It represents data in a non – traditional way.  To contrast, here’s how some similar data is presented in Wikipedia (among other places):

Category Number aboard Number of survivors Percentage  survived Number lost Percentage lost
First class 329 199 60.5 % 130 39.5 %
Second class 285 119 41.7 % 166 58.3 %
Third class 710 174 24.5 % 536 75.5 %
Crew 899 214 23.8 % 685 76.2 %
Total 2,223 706 31.8 % 1,517 68.2 %


 Figure 2: From Wikipedia

Both represent similar ideas, but I feel the graph in Figure 1 (using parallel sets) reveals a richer data experience.  I also think it contains a “Wow!” factor that might be lost by simply looking at a data table (like figure 2) or histogram.

Here’s another example with (in my opinion) a high “wow” factor:

Figure 3: From Grande Reportagem’s “Meet the World” campaign

(Note:  in case you can’t read it in this image, the colors of the flag represent world statistics:  red = working 14 years old; yellow = studying 14 years old)

Again, these are statistics that could just as easily be presented in a pie chart or table.  But ask yourself: would a pie chart or table grab your attention like the flag did?  And, wasn’t it neat that you didn’t know what you were supposed to get from it right away?  When I use the flag images in MTH 244, I relish the pregnant pause that comes immediately after the students see them.  Then, a moment later, the class lets out a collective, “whoa” when they connect with the representation.  Stellar. 

Let’s talk population, shall we?  What grabs your attention more, the following table…

Rank City State Population
1. New York New York 8,214,426
2. Los Angeles California 3,849,378
3. Chicago Illinois 2,833,321
4. Houston Texas 2,144,491
5. Phoenix Arizona 1,512,986
6. Philadelphia Pennsylvania 1,448,394
7. San Antonio Texas 1,296,682
8. San Diego California 1,256,951
9. Dallas Texas 1,232,940
10. San Jose City California 929,936
11. Detroit Michigan 871,121
12. Jacksonville Florida 794,555
13. Indianapolis Indiana 785,597
14. San Francisco California 744,041
15. Columbus Ohio 733,203
16. Austin Texas 709,893
17. Memphis Tennessee 670,902
18. Fort Worth Texas 653,320
19. Baltimore Maryland 631,366
20. Charlotte North Carolina 630,478


Figure 4a: Populations of US cities, 2006 (US Census Bureau) 

…or the image that Time Magazine published in October, 2006, showing the same information?

Figure 4b: From Time’s America by the Numbers  (click on the link for a clearer display of image)

It never ceases to amaze me when an image like the one above stops me in my tracks (I also like that Alaska is sized properly).  However, it’s easy to realize why there aren’t more like it around.  Aren’t blah – blah tables easier to create?  Sure.  But I also want an answer to this: if we can build a better data construct, that reaches out to more people in more ways…shouldn’t we?  

I’d like to close with some examples form one of my favorite artists.  Check out the following:

Figure 5a: From Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers” series

Oh!  I get it!  It’s impressionistic, right?  Mmmmm…some French guy?  Well, sort of…look more closely at the ladies with the parasol in the middle of the piece:


Figure 5b: …a closer look…


Now closer still…

Figure 5c: …A – ha!

What you eventually realize is that the picture is made up entirely of soft – drink cans…106,000 to be exact.  Chris tells us that the US uses 106,000 such cans every thirty seconds. Stop and think about that for a second or two, OK?  Somehow, the idea “106,000 cans” and the image above, while conveying the same message, could not be more different.  

What’s neat, also, about Chris’ art is its scale; this piece, Cans Seurat, is 5 feet high and 8 feet wide, a size he uses frequently.  However, that’s one of his smaller pieces.  Consider his piece Building Blocks, which depicts 9 million toy blocks, equivalent to the number of children without health care coverage in 2007:

Figure 4a: Building Blocks

 As you get closer, you begin to realize that each of those blocks in the original piece actually consists of smaller blocks:

Figure 4b: Building Blocks zooms

 Now, what’s really striking about this piece is its actual size…16 feet high by 32 feet wide:

Figure 4c: Building Blocks with reference

 I believe that Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers series blurs the line between art and statistics. He’s also amazingly passionate about his work.  If you have time, please spend 11 minutes to watch a TED video where he presents some of the elements of Running.      

Please realize I’m only expressing my opinion here when I speak of the gravity of these images.  After all, they’re only showing data…or are they?  In this age of ubiquitous, not – always – researched  – nor – refereed  information (and atrocities like CNN “text in your answer” polls), we are inundated with statistics.  Not all are meaningful; I’ll even go out on a limb here and say that most data with which you are confronted on a daily basis in media is biased so badly it’s meaningless.  However, if and when we get good data, I believe it’s our responsibility to provide that data in 1) as correct a manner as possible, and 2) in a way that makes the reader stop and think, not from our viewpoint, but from their own.  I believe the examples above do that, and much, much more.  I hope you get as much out of them as I do.


Creating Your Own Blog

January 19, 2010

By Ralph Phillips, Computer & Information Systems

Blogs are one of the most popular forms of web site available to us. Hey, you’re reading one now. A blog is a specialized web site that displays content in reverse chronological order (most recent at the top). Blogs are created by a series of posts. A post is an entry or article within the blog. Some blogs display new posts once per month while others post five or more per day. Although most blogs generally have an overall theme, there is no rule. Someone’s personal blog could be about politics one day and worm composting the next.

Ideally, the blog posts will have content that is interesting enough for others to want to read. If successful, the blog will build a cohort of followers that will subscribe to the blog’s feed and get notified whenever that blog is updated with a new post. Most blogs enhance the community feel by allowing the readers to submit comments on particular posts.

A blog owner/writer doesn’t need anything fancy to start their own blog. It doesn’t cost anything. If you wanted to create your own blog then you’d probably start with one of the two most common tools for creating and maintaining a blog: Blogger and WordPress.

Blogger (owned by Google), would be my first recommendation for a new blogger (someone who blogs). It’s management interface is just a bit more user-friendly than WordPress. After creating a Blogger account or using your Google/Gmail account, you can create one or more blogs on any topic you like. Blogger, like others services allows you to add new blog posts using a web-based interface. You can also add new posts via e-mail. When you get your blog, it will be available online for all to see at a special web address called a URL. If you’re using Blogger’s free service, your address will be something like with the “blogspot” domain. You can use one of the many template designs or you can customize your own if you’re handy with HTML and CSS.

WordPress tends to be the more common blog tool for bigger, more professional blogs. This doesn’t mean you can’t do some impressive stuff with Blogger, but WordPress has a wider variety of customizing options and allows users with their own web servers and design abilities to really make the blog look unique. Like Blogger, WordPress has a web-based interface for management. You can add posts via e-mail, text message, and using a WordPress app for a smart phone. If you use WordPress’s free service, your domain will have “wordpress” in the URL:

With either of these popular tools, you can use own domain if you have one to refer to your blog and your own space if you’ve got access to a web server. When you use your own space, both Blogger and WordPress let you do even more stuff with your blog without added cost.

There a lot of great and interesting blogs out there. I subscribe to dozens of blogs and read them regularly. A few of my favorites are…

Building Community: One respectful step at a time

January 12, 2010

by Karen Roth, Diversity Coordinator

At the  last Fall COCC Campus Retreat in September, I introduced, on behalf of the campus’ Diversity Committee, the Principles of Community.  This document was actually retrieved from the inner depths of the Student Rights and Responsibilities webpage, and had been created by a team headed by then Director of Student Life, Sara Henson.  While reviewing this statement, the Diversity Committee decided that it could be used as a set of principles guiding all of our activities and behaviors on the campus, in the classroom, in the workplace, etc.  If you haven’t seen a copy of the revised Principles as yet, here is the link from the Multicultural Center’s website:

This document, however, only makes a difference in our campus community if we understand it and practice what it asks of us.  For example, let’s say you are having lunch with a colleague and she makes a racist remark.  What will you do?  Do the Principles have anything that would be instructive on how to respond?  I think many of us might feel uncomfortable in this situation but not know what to say.  We don’t want to hear this kind of language, but we also want to maintain the relationship with have with this colleague.  In these kinds of situations, it has always helped me to ask myself a few questions:

  • If any of the friends of mine who are People of Color were sitting next to me, how might they feel about the comment?  And what would they hope I would do in support of ending racist remarks?
  • Will I be able to maintain my relationship with this colleague now that I have heard what she had to say?  Will this incident somehow change how I feel about her?
  • If I don’t speak up, might I be subjected to hearing this kind of comment again in the future?  Or might this colleague think that I share her views about the group she has just disrespected?
  • Lastly, what did she mean by her comment?  Did she intend to make a racially maligning statement?  Or did she not know that her comment could be taken as bigoted?

Over the many, many times I’ve encountered this kind of situation, my honest reflection of these questions always prompts me to speak up.  As a way of beginning, it seems most important to find out what was meant by the comment.  So, I often start by asking, “What did you mean by that?”  Often times, the person has no idea that what they said was offensive and they are appalled that they let those words come out of their mouth.  I’ve been in a similar place before as well, when a phrase I grew up with was just common language and I didn’t even know what it meant.  Common phrases among teenagers right now are “That’s so gay!” or “That’s so retarded!”  When confronted, most of them admit they didn’t know that these comments were considered offensive to the gay/lesbian or the disability communities.

At times, however, the person did mean what they said and harbors ill-will towards members of other ethnic groups.  In these cases, I am prompted to take more time to talk further with the person, to find out how they came to hold the views that they have, and to share information or personal feelings that I have about the groups.  Usually we come to a better understanding, and while we may not always agree, the person typically doesn’t repeat similar comments in my presence.  I also believe that even if the person repeats their remark with other folks, our conversation will pop up in their memory and perhaps change how and when they use it again.

Over the years, I have become less worried about how I will be perceived by others if I interrupt an offensive comment and more concerned about the quality of the community that I want to exist for everyone.  By allowing bigoted statements to go unchallenged, we are essentially promoting the level of community that we believe is acceptable. 

At the retreat, I offered the “Tolerance Scale” that I hoped would help us consider the kind of community that we want to foster.  The scale moves from Tolerance (one step better than intolerance, hatred, or bigotry) to Acceptance, Respect, and finally, Advocacy.  While “tolerating” someone is certainly better than actively discriminating against someone, for me, it’s not the kind of community that I want to settle for.  An “accepting” environment is certainly better, but I worry that if there is a disagreement among community members, we may not have a deep enough relationship to sustain our acceptance of one another.  “Respect,” on the other hand, means that I have a deep commitment to someone so that even if we happen to disagree about some  core values, we will still share a high regard for one another and maintain our relationship.  Advocacy takes us even one step further to that place where we will ensure that other people’s rights to a fair and respectful community are maintained.  We will speak up on behalf of others if they are being treated as “less than.”

Creating a respectful and diverse community benefits all of us.  We will be more creative, more satisfied, more productive when we have an environment that values and affirms us.  It’s the kind of atmosphere that helps us all thrive!  It is my goal to help us create this kind of community here at COCC so that we can all enjoy the time we spend together here.

I hope you will join me in making the Principles of Community a living document by practicing the actions that it recommends.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts about our new Principles of Community and welcome your input on how we can further this dialogue.

Could a college degree change your life?

January 5, 2010

by Tina Hovekamp, Library

Happy New Year everyone!

As we are all wading through high demand for classes, long waiting lists, new student loans, and high stress levels, some may wonder, is this mess all worth it? And does a college degree really make a difference?  Today an advisee of mine emailed me  feeling frustrated with the prospect of additional debt and more hard work to get a degree in the hopes that it may eventually improve his chances to make a good living (thus the inspiration for this post…).

In a recent article by U.S. News & World Report, author Richard Whitmire argued that colleges have become the new high school while college degrees are the most basic tool for economic survival. Some may disagree.  After all, a college degree, besides being time consuming, could be quite expensive! Is there really a guaranteed payoff? According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, “Education pays in higher earnings and lower unemployment rates.” The graph on this web page from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is quite clear. There is no ambiguity. The payoff  of college education may not necessarily be your dream job right away, but it  certainly seems to guarantee  job choices and  higher earnings.

So, brace yourselves, dear students!  There is a light at the end of the tunnel!  Paying for college now seems like a good investment in your future.