Charlie on the MTA

Fathom is excited to have Charlie on our team as an intern for the semester, here from the University of Connecticut. Coming from a journalism and radio background, we asked him some questions about what brought him to Fathom and his memories of his first concert (among other things).


How did you become interested in data visualization?

I made my first data visualization while I was interning at WNPR public radio in Hartford, Connecticut. I had recently switched my college major from biology and pre-med to journalism, and I thought I wanted to be a public radio reporter. Since I knew a bit of programming, I would help out with web tasks at the station when I had free time. I decided to teach myself D3.js, and ended up really liking building data visualizations. I think it’s kind of funny that my internship at a public radio station ended up pushing me to do something other than radio!

How do you like being in Boston so far?

I love it! Being in a city is a welcome change after two years in Storrs, Connecticut. Don’t get me wrong, Storrs is beautiful and I love UConn, but the thrill of passing farm animals as you walk across campus wears off fairly quickly. I grew up much closer to New York and I’m more familiar with that city, so I think I came to Boston expecting to still like New York more. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Lots of great food and cool neighborhoods that are easy to walk around.

The title for this post fits well because I loved the MTA song when I was little. Fortunately, I haven’t been trapped on the MTA yet, though it does sometimes feel like it when I get stuck behind a disabled train on the way home from work.

What do you enjoy most about working in journalism?

I think the best thing about working in journalism is that it forces you to constantly learn new things. I’ve written stories on topics like coastal erosion, brownfield sites, and a fight between Yale and UConn in the late 1800s. I didn’t know much about any of those things when I decided (or was assigned) to write about them, so it forced me to read and learn about things I might not have focused on otherwise. I also like the way reporting lets you to meet people and go places. I’ve had the opportunity to report from remote barrier islands off the coast of Louisiana, interview people in costume at a Connecticut comic con, and spend a day with a competitive lumberjack team.

What was your first concert?

The first time I remember actually going to to see music (as opposed to playing on the lawn with friends) was when I was eight or nine. My dad took me to see a band called Zox, which I guess you could describe as ska music with a violin instead of a horn section. A few years ago I realized that the concert was actually held in the auditorium of the high school in the next town over, which was weird because it definitely felt much cooler at the time.

After that I saw Creedence Clearwater Revisited, which is sort of a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band, except with the original bassist and drummer. Let’s be honest—having the original bassist and drummer doesn’t mean a whole lot. Things got better the next year, though. I got to see the Rolling Stones with Kanye West as their opener. I don’t think I was old enough to fully comprehend how cool that was, but it was awesome nonetheless.

The Measure of a Nation

There’s a great scene in The Newsroom where a college student in the audience of a Q & A panel asks curmudgeonly TV news anchor Will McAvoy to give a reason why America is the greatest country in the world.

After a few facetious half-answers about the New York Jets, the panel moderator coaxes McAvoy into a profanity-laced rant. Why is America the best? “It’s not,” McAvoy snaps. “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”

(Video contains strong language)

While the scene is an entertaining introduction, the issue deserves more attention than five minutes at the beginning of a TV show. Fortunately, Columbia statistician and economist Howard Friedman has already taken a close look at how the United States stacks up against other countries around the world.

In his book The Measure of a Nation, Friedman compares the United States to 13 similar industrial countries using a variety of data to indicate national well-being. He finds that among these competitor countries, the United States doesn’t do very well.


We have the highest homicide rates, highest incarceration rates, lowest voter turnout, and greatest income inequality. We lead in only a few areas, including military and healthcare spending (though we have the worst return on investment when healthcare spending is compared to life expectancy).

To learn more, view the piece and interact with the data yourself.

The data is interesting because it challenges some widely-held assumptions about America’s status as a global leader. “If America were a corporation, it would today be the equivalent of IBM in the 1990s–an industry giant that’s failing to keep up with the times,” Friedman writes.

That’s an angle he takes throughout the book—examining countries as if he were an auditor examining massive corporations, looking for areas of improvement rather than making arbitrary judgement calls.

While it might be tempting to take each country’s average ranking across all indicators and compare them on a grand scale, that isn’t really the point. Since these countries have different cultures, economies, and other factors, it’s hard to make a worthwhile across-the-board comparison. Plus, the indicators aren’t equally weighted. Some, like life expectancy, are probably more important than others, but it would be hard to agree on the correct weighting for each indicator.

But even if we can’t make an overall ranking, it is important to see where other countries are succeeding and try to learn from their success. As Friedman puts it, “companies that are willing to learn will grow and prosper while the manufacturers of black-and-white televisions and eight-track tapes become resigned to the pages of history books.”

Using the 14 countries from Friedman’s book, we collected data on 23 indicators of national well-being in Friedman’s five categories: health, safety, education, equality, and democracy.

Life expectancy: the United States ranks 14th

In order to make fair comparisons with the United States (which is difficult given our size and a host of other factors), Friedman selected countries that were relatively wealthy, with per-capita GDPs greater than $20,000, and relatively large, with populations at least the size of New York City. That eliminates small city-states like Luxembourg.

This chart makes it easy to get a quick idea of how a country is doing, and because the indicators are arranged by category, you can see exactly where a country is succeeding or struggling. Japan, for example, does well in health in safety, but not as well in equality and democracy.

Life expectancy: Japan in first place

The imperfections of rankings

This whole visualization is built around the idea of ranking countries. Nearly everything in the design, from the position of countries to the colors, is determined by rank.

But the truth is, it’s not always a good idea to rank things, and depending on the data, a ranking can give a faulty impression. For an example, let’s look at the “income mobility” indicator, which come from a 2009 paper by London School of Economics researcher Jo Blanden.

In the paper, Blanden uses a complicated formula to calculate an “elasticity index” representing income mobility between generations. But since these figures are estimates, they come with standard errors, which in some cases are quite large.

Blanden gives the U.S. an elasticity index of 0.41 and the U.K. an index of 0.37 (lower is better). But the U.S. has a standard error of 0.09 and the U.K. has a standard error of 0.05, meaning it’s possible that the U.S.’s actual index is as low as 0.32 and the U.K.’s is as high as 0.42. That totally reverses the rank.

Error bars blanden
This chart shows the standard errors for the income elasticity indices of 12 countries. Notice that the 95% confidence intervals of many countries overlap, making them difficult to rank. (Image credit: Blanden, 2009)

In fact, Blanden notes this and explicitly warns against using this measure to rank countries. “While it is tempting to immediately form the estimates into a ‘league table,’ we must pay attention to the size of the standard errors,” she writes. “Large standard errors on the Australian, French, British and U.S. estimates [make] it unclear how these countries should be ranked.”

Since this visualization is just an introductory piece for public use, we were less concerned about the detail lost by using rankings (plus they’re used in the book, so we didn’t want to leave them out). But if we were to revisit the piece for an audience of policy-makers, for instance, we’d be using a very different representation that would de-emphasize rankings and do more to expose details like standard error to avoid any erroneous conclusions.

To learn more, view the piece and interact with the data yourself.

Interactive reports

From trends in civic tech, to monitoring poverty in New York City, to understanding the future of business, we’ve been fielding more inquiries from organizations who want better ways to communicate the data in their research and reports.

Even as they move away from printed reports and into PDF documents shared online or by email, the same questions remain: How do I reach a broader audience? How do I make the data as understandable and transparent as possible? How do we make sure this information is widely shared? No matter how important the information in a report, even a motivated reader will be challenged to find the time to dig into a few dozen pages, given the number of things already competing for their attention. In these projects, we make complex reports more accessible by creating simple interactive diagrams. They first draw attention to the most important aspects of the data for the quickest possible read, but also provide additional controls so that interested users can delve into the report.

In a series of reports monitoring poverty and well-being in New York City, we translated survey data from Columbia University into multiple interactive visualizations for the Robin Hood Foundation. Normally, only a smaller expert audience already familiar with this kind of report would have seen this information. But with the visualization on their site, Robin Hood has been able to expand its audience, engaging more people with vital information on how poverty manifests in New York.

Robin Hood: Poverty Tracker

With this project, as we do with every project, we’re thinking about not just the data, but also key audiences and the context in which they’ll be using the data or interacting with the report. Will they be on a tablet during their morning subway commute? Sitting at their desk later in the day? Glancing at their phone in an elevator between meetings? Given the importance of Robin Hood’s subject matter, how do we share that with the general public? How do we clearly reach previous—and potential—donors? Can the piece help explain the poverty situation to legislators or motivate their constituents? Ultimately, we want to empower the user by making the data more accessible and understandable.

Our process always begins by looking at the data. Through initial sketches or tools, we depict the available data and reveal interesting stories contained within. From there, we work with our clients to align what we see with what matches their understanding of the data, based on their deeper knowledge of the information or subject matter. Frequently, this initial work will reveal new patterns that our client wasn’t aware of, and we’ll work with them to identify a point of interest to be pursued, an anomaly in the data that requires fixing, or simply an unnecessary distraction.

Next we begin to develop the overall narrative and visual structure of the piece. It all comes together as we build the final interactive piece, which makes its way through several rounds of software development, design iterations, and refining with our clients, the domain experts. By designing directly with code, we can refine the interactions and the animations as we go, and work out the kinks in ideas that initially looked promising, but weren’t supported in the final analysis or design of the piece.

A second example of our process is a project commissioned by the Knight Foundation. In conjunction with research they conducted on the evolving civic tech landscape, we created an interactive visualization that allows users to explore over $695 million of investments across 241 organizations. The resulting piece on their site turned their traditional SlideShare approach into something engaging and exploratory. We were pleased to hear a year later that the project has continued to have exceptionally high levels of engagement in terms of number of visitors and time spent on the site.

The Knight Foundation: Civic Tech
The Knight Foundation: Civic Tech

More recently, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work conducted a study of digital impact on business, and asked us to create an interactive tool that executives, journalists, and others could mine for information relevant to them. Traditionally, this type of material is released as a white paper, so we were challenged to present that research in a different, compelling, and understandable format for a broader audience. For Cognizant, we focused a lot of attention on how to create a smooth experience for a business leader accustomed to reading traditional reports. When a reader feels confident that they clearly understand the data, they might be encouraged to share what they’re learning and continue to spread the information.

With all pieces that complement a report, the emphasis is on showing more than telling — interactive graphics with brief accompanying text rather than long paragraphs and static charts. How do you visually demonstrate your argument, rather than constructing it from paragraphs of text alone? The best interactive graphics may even replace the white paper or traditional report, but that’s not always (or even usually) the point: more often, we hope to guide the viewer from initial engagement with the data to greater involvement.

Check out all three projects here:

Robin Hood: Poverty Tracker

The Knight Foundation: Civic Tech

Cognizant: The Work Ahead


Related posts
Poverty Tracker’s latest update
The emergence of civic tech
Poverty Tracker’s latest update

We’re excited to release the latest update to the Poverty Tracker. The project is a collaboration with the Robin Hood Foundation and Columbia’s Population Research Center that has continued to look at poverty and hardship in New York City over the past three years.

The new landing page design features an updated navigation and rotating carousel of visualization thumbnails.

Building off the longitudinal data from the previous report, the latest edition depicts the total count of those who experience hardship over three years. A single year’s data might suggest that only a small percentage of New Yorkers are facing poverty, but looking over three years shows how almost half the city’s population experienced poverty at some point during that time.

The interactive donut chart represents years spent in hardship across seven demographics in New York City.

This report also takes a look at the different types of “shocks” people are facing—such as losing a job, going through a divorce, or getting arrested—and how that affects the length of time individuals experience hardship.

The ripple chart represents the percentage of people who have experienced shocks and years they spent with disadvantage in New York City.

It’s been a privilege to build on this project with the Robin Hood Foundation and Columbia’s Population Research Center as more data is collected and new reports are added. Since its launch in 2014, the Poverty Tracker site has grown from one report to four, and with that, into an accessible resource that paints a striking picture of poverty in New York City.

You can check out the full site at povertytracker.robinhood.org

Related posts
Poverty isn’t Permanent
Poverty, Health, and Neighborhood Services
All about Paul

The Fathom team is excited to welcome Paul, our new designer and recent graduate from the Sam Fox School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis. We asked him some questions about design and typefaces (among other things).


Who or what has inspired your design practice?

Before studying design, I found inspiration in drawing, printmaking, mapping and typography. I didn’t fully consider the crossover between them, but at its core my fascination with art, language and maps is about creating systems for communication. They’re just different ways to translate information into a story. I’m most inspired by artists who explore and connect those interests: Xu Bing, Paula Scher, Piet Zwart, Hannah Höch, Julie Mehretu and Yanagi Yukinori, among others. In a big way, my family has shaped my approach to design as well. My mom’s a photojournalist, so while growing up I learned all about the world of the newsroom. Both design and journalism, at their best, require a critical eye and a commitment to telling the truth. My dad is a map designer—maybe my career choice isn’t a huge surprise!

What are some of your favorite typefaces?

I always enjoy reading in Mercury. It has a stylish, chiseled look that holds up well on the page and screen. Other great typefaces for extended reading are Malaga, More, Quixote and Scala. I’d also recommend checking out the exciting and versatile work of Klim Type Foundry (designer Kris Sowersby).

Akzidenz Grotesk is another favorite. It’s a classic sans serif and a real anomaly in type history. Typically you see it compared to Helvetica, which is ubiquitous and more streamlined as a design. But Akzidenz was created sixty years earlier (in the late 1890s, and based on even older faces) which makes it one of the first sans serif type families. From the shape of its letters you can see how designers were experimenting at the time, trying to invent ways to keep stroke width uniform across a collection of weights. So Akzidenz’s originality gives it quirks that Helvetica is missing. These features produce better readability and a surprising personality for such a corporate context. The elegant curves of the question mark and number 2 are especially nice.

Typography confession: When I write, I always type as plain text in the default Mac editor (monospace, without formatting). I think it’s helpful to concentrate on the writing before bringing in a typographic voice.

If you could redesign anything what would it be?

Before moving to Boston, I spent some time studying the transit system while hunting for an apartment. (It definitely paid off to know that Kendall and Kenmore are different places!) It’s funny how Boston, like many other cities, tries to apply a Massimo Vignelli style to its wayfinding system, even though its geography is an organic network of squares — pretty far from a grid. Creating a complete transit map of Boston that stays true to the actual landscape would be a great challenge. I’ve started sketching a few concepts to see where it can go. It would be fun to droplift alternative posters at the station and see how people respond.

On the other hand, I think Boston’s place names are perfect as they are. I commute on the Red Line heading to Braintree, which is a wonderfully weird image.

What is your favorite snack?

I always enjoy fruit, especially dried mangoes. So far, I haven’t needed to bring in any because we have an excellent CSO (Chief Snack Officer) in the office.

Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.