Graphs: an analysis of 7 showing 2014 was hottest year on record

I'm sure you've already heard yesterday's news: 2014 was the hottest recorded year on Earth. And I'm sure you've seen the attention-grabbing maps and graphs associated with this news flash, too.

But did you pay attention to which were the most accurate - or just the ones that looked the prettiest?

Here's a roundup of several that hit our eyes this month, via web articles and social media shares. Let's take a closer look. (For the purposes here, I will not address the content of these visuals, I will just focus on the way it is represented.)

Creating a useful graphic of any kind is both an art and a science.

When it comes to graphs and maps, scientists used to be at the helm, often leading to overly complicated and hard to understand visuals that left common citizens in the dark. Today, more designers are using them, but often they aren't experts on communicating technicalities so important visuals may be reduced to eye-candy meant to go viral.

Here are some guidelines no matter who's making them:

  • A good map or graph should be at the very least both accurate and able to be understood.

  • A great one is also easy to read and engages us in learning.

  • An excellent one draws our eye to what we need to know and distracts us with nothing m ore so we are more likely to remember it.

Let's start with the more traditional graphs. The first ones below from NASA/NOAA are clearly for a scientific audience. Not only is there a lot of precision but it's obvious that the creators are not well versed in color theory. I wonder, do you understand what these graphs are really saying? 

The one below is a bit clearer, especially because we understand what is being measured and why. The colors are simple too, which helps. What would make this even better would be an impactful title.

I think NASA is starting to realize the great need to improve public understanding of their data, because the one pictured below is featured in one of their educational videos and is much more to the point. The axes are labelled minimally and the key data point is highlighted.

What would aid our understanding of this data even more would be some sort of average, as indicated in the one below:

Now, let's see how the non-scientists tackle this data. The one below was produced by Mashable and is a mirror of the best one NOAA had to offer with a few key additions. We are able to get more meaning from this one because of the clear title and subtle trending line, in addition to the average and key data point being highlighted.

This last one, however, is just as poor as the first. It is from a blog written for the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council and was shared on social media. It certainly has nice fonts and style. But, it seems to be completely inaccurate compared to the one right above. It is simple enough to read but it oversimplies the data leading one to wonder about the credibility of the data it represents - an absolute no-no when it comes to presenting data. Even if it's just meant to be an image, it looks like a graph and so we will assume it is one.

So now I'll ask you: which of the above did you most enjoy looking at? Which do you think you'll remember? And, most importantly, did any inspire you to learn more about what this data means?

As for which got the most views, tweets and retweets, well that's another story.