The Circular Timeline, My Data Visualization Nemesis

In a few recent presentations/trainings that I’ve given through my work at Resource Media on the topic of data visualization, I’ve pointed to one particular circular timeline visualization that drives me crazy.

It’s the “sleep habits of geniuses” visualization that came out in the summer of 2014, and made the rounds on blogs and news sites.  I hate this visualization for the following reasons:

  • It looks pretty but is not user friendly
  • There is no significance to the color
  • The viewer cannot easily determine the total number of hours of sleep for any one of the “geniuses”
  • The area (and length) of each arc does not relate to the total number of hours, giving the visual impression that the people on the inner most part of the graphic have less sleep than the those on the outside of the graphic, even if they have the same amount of sleep.
  • The visual analogy is of a clock face, but rather than showing only 12 hours, it shows 24
  • The white/black background is split 12 to 12 rather than 6 to 6 which would be more aligned with day/night.

When I raised these critiques at the Seattle Tech4Good Meetup, one of my co-presenters, Ben Jones from Tableau pointed me at this Tableau Viz, which turns the data into more of a bar chart and adds some significance to the colors. I went a little less artsy and more utilitarian with my version of the genius data visualization.

I was happy to find a specialist in data visualization and design, Alberto Cairo, voice some of the same concerns about another circular timeline.

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