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- 10% of the news in infographics …

How to show the International Trade … Not!

international-trade
This is an example of overdesigning and sacrificing your story completely to obtain a certain innovative look to your graphics – if there really is a story in these numbers. Maybe I wouldn’t be bothered as much, if it was something small hidden away in the business section. But this is an entire spread in National Geographic!

I know they spend a lot of money and effort on other graphics, and I can perfectly imagine the people with a budget to keep become more than happy, when such a graphic is proposed. No expensive props, sculptors from Netherlands or trips around the world to produce this one. Only a ruler and a small amount of blueish tinted inks.

What does it say – what is the story:

Trading regionally – although globalization has created a tangled web of trade connections worldwide, most trade still takes place with neighbors in the same region, as Europe and Asia illustrate below.

Aha – so you’re dividing the world in seven areas, and when you see a certain pattern in two of them, you have your angle?

The text is inaccurate
Looking at the numbers it gets a bit worse: Asia is only really trading 49.7 percent within the region – not the ‘most trade’. But then you have North America with 51,3 percent trade inside the region, so it kind of makes up for that. But it’s still inaccurate – and you have no idea, when you see this tangled web. If you’re interested in this story you’ll need the spreadsheet to extract any usable information out of it.

No wonder Europe makes such a large bar anyway. Over here we’re divided into lots of small countries – that makes for a lot of export and import, which would never be registered in areas with bigger countries. If goods are transported the distance of 25 km from Copenhagen to Malmö (Sweden) it’s probably counted as ‘Export taking place within the region’. If goods are transported 25 km inside US or China, it would be something like ‘I went to the city and bought some goods’.

Lose your reader with long lines travelling across a spread
Back to the design: is it really such a good idea to print a tangled web of lines across a spread? When you cross the middle you’ll be sure to lose the eyes of anyone trying to follow one of the smaller lines. It’s very distracting to read a piece like this – and my guess is that no one really used this huge chart for anything else than a quick look and reading the inaccurate caption – and then moved on. Happy to know, that National Geographic uses innovative formats when presenting difficult numbers. But in no way enlightened.

Call me old-fashioned too, but I miss some visual indication of what the subject is. Unlike some datavisualizations, these lines aren’t pretty enough to stand on their own, and they could mean anything – can we have something trade-related in the visuals here as well?

Here are the numbers directly from the source WTO, if you would like to make something out of it.

Origin North America South and Central America Europe CIS Africa Middle East Asia World
Value
World 2517 451 5956 397 355 483 3294 13619
North America 951,2 130,7 328,7 12,4 27,3 50,1 352,1 1853,5
South and Central America 151,3 122,0 105,6 6,4 13,7 9,1 80,2 499,2
Europe 458,5 80,4 4243,6 189,0 147,7 152,9 433,7 5772,2
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) 23,6 6,3 287,5 103,2 6,9 16,2 59,6 510,3
Africa 91,9 14,6 167,5 0,9 40,5 10,5 80,9 424,1
Middle East 83,9 4,4 108,3 4,8 27,5 93,4 397,3 759,9
Asia 756,4 92,3 714,6 79,8 91,4 150,4 1889,8 3799,7

Click here for an online version of the same dataset from 2005. (it’s a flash file, so can’t be linked directly – look down for the third button ‘International Trade, Money moves the world’

The online version actually works a lot better. Now you get the chance to see one region at a time, so you lose the tangled web, unless you decide to show it yourself. And you’re not crippled by running lines above the gutter between pages.