Grab a bite to eat, then go deliver a baby: Data viz and being human.
Here I am once again participating in this month’s #SWDchallenge (I’m 4/4 this year!)
This visualization was created as a part of the April 2019 #SWDchallenge, “Emulate.” This month’s challenge was to “honorably copy” (as in giving the original artist credit) a data visualization that inspires you. When I read this challenge Nadieh Bremer and Zan Armstrong’s “The Baby Spike” came to mind immediately. I’ve always loved this visualization for several reasons:
1. It’s absolutely beautiful. Nadieh is a true artist and I am extremely inspired and overwhelmed by her work (overwhelmed in the good way- like OMG I have so much to learn). The creativity around using a radial design for cyclical data, using a non-zero baseline, the colors used, the concentric circles and the magical way the scatter plot dances around the circle are all beautiful nuances, that I didn’t even get close to emulating in my honorable copy.
2. This particular data story brings to light something I’m very passionate about: the medicalization of our health. I haven’t gotten into too much in this blog yet. (Sauerkraut infographics are just the tip of the iceberg of my crunchy vibe.) but I think this is a great example of how we can use data analysis and visualization to call attention to human patterns, but also how some human patterns take precedence over others (natural birth times vs doctor’s schedules). Although, to be fair, when you break it down by birth type (C-section, induced and natural) natural births do tend to occur in the day time, with a small spike at lunch, according to this more detailed blog by Zan.
I’ve been really drawn to circular patterns lately. After spending a lot of time studying what Elijah Meeks calls the “1st wave of Data Visualization” I think I’ve been scared out of using circular designs because of all the negative critiques of bar/donut/radial charts. Even though the pervasive idea that people cannot properly see quantities/size/scale in circular form has been contested, I’ve also come to learn that data visualization is an art, and I think breaking the “rules” is where real creativity lives. Data visualization is about making information, human. As I continue on my data visualization journey, I’ve also come to learn that data visualization isn’t always about how to make the visualization follow all the rules of “visual perception.” Which is really about making exact numbers easily comparable. Sometimes we need to recognize that other things come into play when people are learning to relate to and understand information. In R.J. Andrews new book, Info We Trust (highly recommend) R.J. relates the pie chart or radial chart representation to our visual perception of the world, by recognizing polar coordinates and how we turn our head in a circle. Earlier in the book R.J. discusses how circles or cycles are so ingrained in our experience as humans:
“As hunter-gatherers, our lives revolved around the cycles of birth, life, and death. At night we looked to the stars and tracked their progression. The agricultural revolution extended our understanding of time -time is a circle- to the lives of crops and livestock. As early agriculturist’s experience was not that different from the life of their parents. Unlike the last few hundred years of history, there was little discernable change between generations. All noticeable changes came from natural cycles. The health of the community depended on our ability to manage these cycles. Every spring, the rebirth of crops and new baby animals strengthened communities. If you master the circle of time, then you can rule the world.”
-R.J. Andrews, Info We Trust, pg. 55.
So does a graph that tracks how many babies are being born per minute throughout the day fit into the circles = human life category? I would certainly say so. Another beautiful aspect of the original “Baby Spike” viz is how Nadieh smoothed the curves of what basically was a radial area chart. Alli Torban of Data Viz Today in the second podcast of her show ( in which highlighted “The Baby Spike” viz) cites a study that claims the attraction to smoothness of these shapes is extremely “human” as well. The researchers found more brain activity in their participants when looking at shapes with smooth curves. They hypothesized the evolutionary nature of these curves to the muscle and shape of an animal, which could pose a threat, or be food, where a shape with jagged edges (a rock) is less important in the eyes of our ancestors.
I had a lot of fun trying to emulate this graph, but it also brought up a lot of big-picture ideas about data visualization and information design for me, which I find highly valuable. Nadieh made “The Baby Spike” with R, Illustrator and D3.js. To be clear, I just basically eyeballed this in illustrator, so it’s not an exact copy. I do hope to one day to be able to use all these tools to create my own data stories. I also would like to acknowledge that some have not honorably copied Nadieh and Zan’s work, and I hope this exercise shows others how it’s done.
Read Nadieh’s blog about the design process here.