18 April 2010

Yesterday, @christianevejlo tweeted interest in whether volcano-grounded planes were a net benefit for the environment. Retweeting an answer, she referenced Information is Beautiful’s post “Planes or Volcano”, an indeed aesthetically pleasing illustration of the CO2 emissions of the European aviation industry next to that of the Icelandic volcano. I replied that [“Information is beautiful seems to be more about beautiful than about information..”][5]. She asked me to elaborate, and here goes..

Infographics seems to have had a renaissance recently. There is a lot of information out there, and visualizing it in various ways helps convey this information to a much larger audience. This is a good thing. [Information is Beautiful][6] is part of this, and they have some [truly][7] [stunning][7] [work][8]. However, in this case, what was conveyed wasn’t data. It was the point that commercial aviation is evil bad for the environment. The way I can tell is the way they casually observe that Eyjafjallajökull belches out 3000 tons of Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) daily, while they have no interest in this beyond using it as a stepping stone to estimate the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas that may very well have some very negative effects, but they lay decades in the future.

SO2 is what causes acid rain.

Planes emit CO2 - but they emit almost completely clean CO2 (note that bar global warming, CO2 isn’t considered harmful). Volcanoes blast tons and tons of all kinds of nasty and not so nasty stuff into the air. Some of the ash contains nutrients that will fertilize soil, other will, as mentioned, cause acid rain. It’s much more complex than CO2.

Information is Beautiful could have chosen to diagram the amount of SO2 emitted by aviation (next to nothing) next to the amount emitted by the volcano (a lot), but they didn’t — and that’s OK, because it wouldn’t make sense.

The point is that a volcano compared to commercial aviation is apples to oranges. No matter how beautiful the infographics, it’s comparison in itself is pointless.

Now, the general statement that Information is Beautiful is more about beautiful stems from their previous post — “[How much do music artists earn online?][9]”. Looking at this, again, very good looking illustration, it’s easy to scroll down and say “boo, evil Spotify”. But until you look at the numbers (which, in infographics, is sort-of the point not to), you don’t realize that it compares apples to oranges.

They equate selling one physical CD with selling one album download with selling one track download with getting one play on a service like Spotify. Or the short version: for this graphic to convey an honest version of the truth, you have to accept the premise that selling a physical CD and getting a play on Spotify is the same.

First, one album download should equate ten, not one, track downloads. And getting a play should acknowledge that a play has zero marginal cost to the user, and that the user may choose to play a track many times. Once you’ve purchased and downloaded a track, you’ve got unlimited plays, forever.

If you accept ten tracks to an album, and ten plays pr. track, the three bottom circles should be 100 times smaller (and the circles relating to single track downloads, 10 times smaller). That would make Rhapsody only twice the low-end retail deal. Considering that Rhapsody, last.fm and Spotify are widely available to artists, and retail deals aren’t, that’s not bad at all. Spotify is still on the cheap end, but only 11 times the low-end retail deal. Considering the enormous long-tail opportunities that the Spotify-like services provide (would you buy, say, Rick Astley’s “Never gonna let you down”? Probably not. Would you play it on Spotify at a party once or twice? That’s more likely), the number 11 shrinks even more.

And what is probably the worst offense: why doesn’t it compare a Spotify play with a radio-play? These services are essentially single-listener-market radio stations.

Again, the agenda is clear. It’s not about the data, it’s about calling Spotify evil. The data may support that conclusion. The graphics doesn’t.

Finally, if you want more, please take a look at the [limited edition posters being sold in the right-hand column][10]. Nominally, it’s an illustration comparing the political left with the political right. Read closer. The right is said to be “exclusive”, the left “inclusive”. The left-wing parent is “nurturing” and has a relationship with her child that is build on “respect and trust”, while the right-wing parent is “strict” (as opposed to nurturing) and the relationship is build on “respect and fear”. “Survival of the fittest” is repeated twice on the right side, the left has “One for all and all for one”.

I have no doubt that this is how the urban, american left views itself, I know I’m probably guilty of similar prejudices the other way around. But if it’s an infographic, it’s about american left-wing prejudices, not about political philosophies.

In conclusion: Information is Beautiful makes beautiful things. For information, they are little better than any political blog.

[5]: http://twitter.com/mseebach/status/12356337232 (“Information is beautiful seems to be more about beautiful than about information..”) [6]: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/ [7]: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/who-really-spends-the-most-on-their-military/ [8]: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/four-infographical-morsels-no-5/ [9]: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/how-much-do-music-artists-earn-online/ [10]: http://informationisbeautiful.bigcartel.com/