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Worst graph ever?

June 17th, 2013

I just downloaded the Queensland government’s paper announcing, but not spelling out, a 30-year electricity strategy to be developed in the course of this year. I started with healthy scepticism about this, but scepticism turned to bemusement when, on page 5, I ran into one of the worst graphs I have ever seen.

EnergyGraph

This graph, taking up half a page, contains a total of six data points (energy intensity and gross state product for three states). The relevant data, such as it is, is contained in the three yellow bars. The legend describes them as “Electricity use (KwH) per $ of state product”, while the axis label claims that the measure is “Energy use (Mj) per $ of state product” Since a joule is a watt-second, it’s easy to check that a kilowatt-hour is 3.6 megajoules, but the difference isn’t large enough to work out which one is correct. It’s a fair bet, though not sure, that the quantity being measured is electricity use, and not all energy use. The only information conveyed is the unsurprising fact that Queensland’s economy is more electricity-intensive (or maybe more energy intensive) than those of NSW and Victoria.[1]

The real joke, though, is the second measure, of total state product. This is of no interest at all, since it just reports the well known fact that NSW has a larger economy than those of Victoria and Queensland. But the thing that would make Edward Tufte turn in his grave (if he were dead, which Wikipedia tells me he is not) is that this irrelevant information is reported in a line graph, making it appear that there is some sort of relevant order here.

The rest of the graphics are almost, but not quite, as bad. There’s an amusing one describing the “engagement and accountability model”. Three Venn-style intersecting circles representing market, government and customer are overlaid with an equilateral triangle, the vertices of which are labelled “Engaged”, “Efficient” and “Effective”. All stakeholders are invited by the government to “get on board and challenge current thinking”.

Eager as usual to be a team player, I’ll be contributing some thoughts on the failure of electricity market reform to the Guardian, hopefully appearing tomorrow. I will certainly challenge current thinking and look forward to being welcomed on board by the Newman government.

fn1. Since no more explanation is given, I’ll take a stab at explaining the significance of these numbers. Assuming the Kwh measure is correct, and taking an average price of 15c/KwH, electricity amounts to around 3.3 per cent (0.15*0.22) of the total Queensland economy. That sounds about right to em.

  1. Newtownian
    June 17th, 2013 at 17:20 | #1

    I don’t understand your problem John. Having just sat through a departmental meeting loaded with euphemisms its content is quite clear to me. This is another one of those moving feast KPI setting exercises designed to induce a monotheism guilt complex and get you to strive better for no clear reason other than being better than the (imagined?) competition whose source is selectively chosen with this in mind. Surely you have had similar ad hocery imposed on you by your School, Faculty and University?

    Edward Tufte might worry but his philosophical twin brother Darryl Huff wouldn’t.

    Don’t worry no one will remember it in a week.

  2. Russ
    June 17th, 2013 at 17:44 | #2

    The other thing I find intriguing with the graph you show is that for some reason there is a line joining the Gross State Product points. Is there some reason these things should be connected? They would seem to me to be completely separate data points with no relationship.
    The rest of this publication must be great (I especially like the sound of the Venn diagram overlaid by a triangle).

  3. Ikonoclast
    June 17th, 2013 at 19:45 | #3

    That report is what happens when you train people in Business Management courses and then let them loose with spreadsheet, graphing and presentation applications. I am sure these people loved drawing big blobs of colour at kindy. And hey presto! they get to draw neat and rectangular big blobs of colour at work twenty or thirty years later. Isn’t life wonderful! It is so heart-warming to see people fulfilled.

  4. June 18th, 2013 at 00:08 | #4

    Russ – Credit where due to Dr. Q.; “this irrelevant information is reported in a line graph, making it appear that there is some sort of relevant order here. ”

    I suspect the graphic is trying to show that Queensland does not use electricity/energy “efficiently,” in which case I would have “simplified” it to three points–the ratios of each. At which point the bars remain, and the graph is just too simplistic–not disingenuous and too simplistic. And that’s giving the benefit to a lot of doubt.

  5. Ernestine Gross
    June 18th, 2013 at 11:43 | #5

    Isn’t it going to be difficult to respond to the invitation by the government to “get on board and challenge current thinking” when there seems to be no current evidence of that which is to be challenged?

    So, ‘the market’ intersects with ‘the consumers’. Who would have thought that? Who or what is in the compliment of the intersection? etc, etc, etc. Diagrams showing three intersecting circles with three words somewhere are as obiquitous in the management publications (literature doesn’t sound quite right) as diagrams of the positive orthant in introductory micro-economic textbooks with different words written on the axis (intro micro isn’t all there is, however). The superimposed equilateral triangle is, I suppose, an innovation in communication. This ‘symbolic’ stuff is the religious part of management. It annoys actual business people, educated marketing people, and just about everybody else (eg one politician who recently decided to read from the script in public – good on him).

    Have the ‘engaged, efficient, effective’ PR lot discarded their previous fashionable words of ‘embrasing change on the journey to move forward’?

    Looking forward to hear whether you, Prof Q, like many others, will be told you lack ‘people skills’ or ‘emotional intelligence’ when you come ‘on board….’.

  6. Greg Bird
    June 30th, 2013 at 16:22 | #6

    John, I thought showing the level of the denominator was particularly interesting in this graph. If there are diminishing returns to gross state product from energy use then one would expect a larger economy to be less efficient in its energy use based on the metric shown. The interesting thing about this graph is that Queensland has the smallest economy, but is the least efficient in terms of energy use based on the metric shown (I have no idea if this was what this graph was meant to convey – I haven’t read the paper). Alas, perhaps all this is immediate to you John, and hence the stupidity of the graph, but for us mere mortals (i.e. non economists) this graph seems pretty interesting – no?

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