Use the Schwartz

One of my favourite pastimes is to redesign plots. Don’t judge.

A little while ago I came across this interesting article about national values. As I followed the rabbit hole of links I found some fascinating research on the topic, namely Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Human Values, and some public data to map them across the world.

In a nutshell, researchers have been mapping global values based on this framework for a while. Professor Nick Haslam, the author of the article linked above, made the point that despite much talk about uniqueness, Australian values seem to be quite mainstream.

It is a very interesting thesis, and one backed up by data, but that’s not what I’m interested in right here. I thought that the main plot, good as it is, could be spruced up to convey the meaning in a more memorable fashion.

Let’s take a look at the before image:

Figure credit: Prof Nick Haslam / The Conversation.

Welcome to Plot Makeover!

Vis = data + design

Professor Haslam’s plot is fine. It does the trick. But the meaning could be reinforced by taking advantage of one missing aspect: area.

While each dot is equivalent, the plot is meant to show where the bulk is. The article discusses how near the global norm Australia is. This is currently displayed through the positioning of a red dot, representing Australia, along the vertically arranged axis.

What we can use to strengthen this point and perhaps aid with interpretation and memorisation, is a type of plot that employs area. We could turn this into a histogram, but then we wouldn’t be able to display seven parallel axes without overwhelming the reader.

Instead I will turn this into a violin plot: a smoothed histogram (a Kernel Density Estimator) that is mirrored across the baseline axis. Simple! I will also rotate 90° clockwise to make labels more easily legible and display in a landscape orientation. From dots to blobs, let’s see the after image:

The white line substitutes the red dot one-for-one and we have plenty more information: we can see where the volume is. That means we have brought more context to this plot. And (for me) the labels are easier to read this way.

This may appear somewhat complicated to any reader not already familiar with violin plots. But the area makes it fairly intuitive and we end up conveying more information in just as compact a form.

Bonus round: combine all the metrics!

Part of the reason I found that article so intriguing was its simplicity. It seems to say here are some data that contradict a conventional wisdom; the end. In both science and journalism that scores a few points!

What if we could make it even more concise? What if we can condense all of this information into a single design?

The original and my remake both chart a dimensionless quantity: standard deviations away from the norm. These seven Values create a seven-dimensional space, but each individual country can be expressed through a single value: the combination of all seven standard deviations.

I have taken the orthogonal distance from the median of all Values to be the new, overall metric of values alignment and plotted it as a single violin plot. This time I am representing each country as a vertical line.

In this tally Australia is the third least unique country on a list topped at the other end by China. This conveys Prof. Haslam’s point that “Australian values are hardly unique when compared to other cultures” in a single image.

In terms of visual storytelling, this would make a strong banner image to whet the appetite of the reader. Even to eyes accustomed to violin plots this will appear somewhat mysterious at first glance: Australia is at one end of a ranking, what does it mean? And as the story develops the reader would have this idea reinforced, first through the breakdown into the seven values and then through the longer explanation of the second image.

Violin plots FTW 🎻

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