With all my excitement about the world of data visualization, I think it was good that I stumbled on the website of professor Phillip Howard at Michigan State (website here), who offers a stunning graphic on what he calls ‘pseudo-variety’ in the soft drink industry. What is particularly useful here as a general lesson is that visualization lets you see the ‘big picture’ in data that may otherwise produce completely different conclusions–but that sometimes simpler graphics can serve an empirical point better. Take Pepsi Co.:
Pretty impressive; however, it may not be immediately clear that a large group of conglomerates control a large portion of the industry. The next image, however, clearly demonstrates his point:
That is impressive. You can see the entire thing in pdf format here. What is so great about this graphic is that it tells a story; it allows the viewer to draw conclusions for themselves. This got me thinking, though. At a later point Professor Howard introduces a small graph to show the incredibly high frequency that a low-variety conglomerate’s product appears in stores:
While not pretty, this image actually compresses more information than the large infographic, and is far less confusing. This is what I would expect to find in an agro economics journal, and I suppose there is a good reason. What I mean to say is that we need to keep in mind that cool, new visualization methods can tell a more complete story, but sometimes that story needs to be abbreviated in order to draw empirical conclusions. I am starting to think about data visualization in terms of a more mixed methods approach–you really need both in order to be both robust and accessible.
Howard, Philip H. 2009. Consolidation in the North American organic food processing sector, 1997 to 2007. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, 16(1), 13-30.
Howard, Philip H. 2009. Visualizing consolidation in the global seed industry: 1996–2008. Sustainability, 1(4), 1266-1287.
- Pepsi’s plan for global domination (theglobeandmail.com)
- America’s Biggest Food Companies (blogs.forbes.com)
- The Illusion of Diversity: Visualizing Ownership in the Soft Drink Industry (infosthetics.com)