A New Direction

Loyal readers may have noticed that this blog has been dormant for most of 2012. That’s mainly because I’ve been running a blog that covers international development for my day job, leaving me with very little left to say in my personal time.

Long story short: I’ve decided to start writing here again, but I’m not yet sure about what. I’d still like to focus on some of the big-picture issues and petty controversies of the development world, and on infographics and data visualizations, but I may branch out further into my other areas of interest as well. Be warned!

List of Puns about Penis Size and GDP Growth

In order of self-satisfaction likely experienced by the writer in producing them.

10. an inverse U-shaped relationship

9. abusing the notation

8. the exact channel through which these penile-effects take place

7. all evidence is suggestive

6. non-disposable groin-area endowments

5. male organ has not been touched in the growth literature before

4. quite penetrating an argument

3. male organs dwarf political institutions in importance

2. the `private sector’ deserves more credit for economic development than is typically acknowledged

1. The aim of this paper is to fill this scholarly gap with the male organ.

[Male Organ and Economic Growth: Does Size Matter?]

Jesse Lawson on Being Wrong

I used to get so mad when Sami would tell me I was wrong about something, especially when it was something that I study and talk about on a daily basis. After all, not only do I surround myself with academia about sociology and psychology, but I write about socialization and sexism all the time. How could I be wrong about something if I do all these things? How could I be wrong about feminism if I am active in the community and know a lot about it? How could I be wrong about what is sexist and what is not?

The answer is easy: I’m not a woman.

Or: maybe despite reading and studying a lot, you were just wrong. Most people don’t need a vagina and/or personal journey of discovery to know that ‘She was asking for it’ is not an acceptable response to a rape accusation.

Now, what do we blame when a woman ‘surrounds herself with academia’ and still comes to wrong conclusions? (The patriarchy, I guess.)


Telling Stories with Data II: The Slopegraph Strikes Back

Part II in a series. Read part I.

In my last post, I introduced the slopegraph, a fun ‘new’ kind of chart from 1983. My first attempt didn’t quite live up to my expectations, so I’m trying again today with some more fresh and interesting data from Bill Easterly and Ariell Reshef’s working paper on African export successes. This data is actually so perfect for the slopegraph format (which focuses on both rank order and relative rate of change) that the original paper used a sort of proto-slopegraph to show how rankings of some African countries’ top export goods had been reordered. But it’s not only the characteristics of the data that make slopegraphs interesting in this context — it’s the role of chart-making in the construction of a narrative, which is the aspect I want to focus on today. To keep things simple, I’m going to use only one example, their export data and related chart for Tanzania:

Figure 1: Original ‘Tanzania Top Ten’ chart

No offense to whoever put these together — it is a working paper after all — but the charts in the original contain a lot of what data nerds would call ‘chartjunk,’ or unnecessary graphics and information. The preference for beautiful, minimalist charts is not just aesthetic chauvinism: while nice looking charts are, of course, nice to look at, there is a more important issue here. Chartjunk imposes a real cognitive burden on readers, which actually makes it harder for them to understand the chart’s message. Professional academics and researchers will be able to chew through the gristle and get at the meat, but of all the economic specialties, development economics probably has one of highest proportions of non-technical readers — notably development practitioners, policy makers, and advocacy groups. For this reason, minimizing unnecessary cognitive burden in development papers is especially important. This is equally true of working papers, since practitioners, politicians, and advocates will rarely wait for peer review to disseminate, digest, and discuss a new research finding.

I do think that the ‘throw everything in’ tendency that academics have when making charts arises from a laudable desire to fully disclose all the data on which they are basing their arguments, so that their peers can potentially spot inconsistencies or contradictions. I would say that this data should be included, but as an appendix. Charts form a part of the argument of the paper, and so should be tuned to focus on those aspects that the author considers important or notable.

(Read on to find out how I tried to ‘fix’ this funky-looking chart…)

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Telling Stories with Data: The Slopegraph

One of the original purposes of this blog was to explore how data visualization techniques could contribute to development, on both the academic and practical side. Today I thought I’d get back to that by presenting to you the Slopegraph. Read on to find out some of the challenges I faced in creating it and whether it’s right for your data.

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