538’s Best Data Visualizations
Folding context, arguments, and data into one graph to tell a story is devilishly difficult. It is a challenge that requires not just creating a clean, accurate graph but also thinking about data and storytelling as inherently intertwined.
538 is a masterclass of data visualizations. In every category they cover, they find ways to make stories out of data interesting, accessible, and interactive. They have figured out how to present data through (interactive) graphics in a way that folds in discussion and narrative.
Leveraging politics as a key part of the 538 site is a shrewd move. Many political situations can be represented in graphs, charts, timelines, or other interactive viz. 538 distills commentary down to a “just the facts, ma’am” article without manipulating readers or leaving them short.
After Trump’s election, questions about who, exactly, voted him into power have been bubbling up all over left-leaning news outlets for two years. The question of whether or not white women were particularly to blame was a particularly hot take from an exit poll that is still being disputed.
Before all of this happened, 538 preempted this discussion in a data-visualization-driven article that showed a likely breakdown of voters:
The viz pulls no punches and offers easy-to-digest graphics. Critically, they include both projected seats and a map figure. Because the number of congressional seats is related to population and not to land area, a map alone could have been misleading. But having geographic information adds a layer of information about which regions lean one way versus another, even given demographic breakdowns.
The text that accompanies these graphics offers commentary and additional historical information but supplements the bold graphic takeaways. This is a clean, crisp political article.
Presidential approval ratings are mentioned pretty much anytime something major happens in national politics. They’re a simple shorthand for the national mood, and 538’s constantly updating presidential-popularity rating tool is a piece of evergreen content that politics nerds will be coming back to again and again — at least for four years.
The tool is simple and interactive, and it’s an easy pit stop for anyone wondering what the polls are saying about Trump’s popularity.
One shrewd move here is the choice of colors. Green and orange are colors that don’t have a major political association. It would have been easy to make “Approve” red and “Disapprove” blue, but doing so would have falsely equated approval with Republicans and disapproval with Democrats, which is not necessarily the case.
This is a great example of a functional piece of data viz that is, in itself, a story to be told.
Sports fans who are also data nerds are a picky bunch. If they don’t like your analysis or visualizations, they’re likely to go out and make their own, better, graphs as they roast you. 538’s made a name for themselves off of pleasing this finicky group because they do everything with the precision of a sports fan.
March Madness is as high-stakes a sporting event as any in college sports. Brackets abound among friends, coworkers, and random groups of strangers on the internet.
538 dominates March Madness because of its slick predictions tool. It not only gives probabilities for each game but also ranks an “excitement factor” that helps you choose what to watch.
You can also track games as they happen to see how your bracket is faring in real time. It’s a super user-friendly tool that is accessible to anyone who is even vaguely interested in NCAA basketball, but its methodology and interface is solid for superfans as well.
Using their usual data-driven approach, 538 asks whether or not men and women could compete together on the ski circuit.
This is a highly effective take for a divisive topic. Rather than posit what-ifs and debate pundit points, they simply present evidence: In some events, men are faster than women, and in some events, women are faster than men. And this depends on the year, as well — which could correlate to fields of competition, rule changes, etc.
This breakdown puts to rest questions about historical or by-event data and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. This question definitely has a lot of angles, and 538 gets away with the minimal, graph approach because most of those questions have been discussed endlessly. Rather than do something everyone else has done, 538 offers a clean and concise take that puts readers in the driver’s seat.
Science and Health
Telling a whole story with graphs is harder than it sounds; it’s why so many outlets use charts and viz as a way to supplement their stories, not tell them.
When 538’s science and health graphs are the focus of the story, it works because they’re informing with rich graphics that benefit from description, not ones that are just props to back a main point.
California’s recent wildfires were a tragedy that drew attention from news outlets coast to coast. 538’s coverage was set apart by their graphical coverage of the wildfires, as well as the fires’ causes and destruction.
The main points of the articles — that an extra-dry California, with a population in proximity to deadwood, caused the fires to be so destructive — is clear from the graphs alone: