Launch, grow, and unlock your career in data

February 4, 2013

Improving the WSJ Historical U.S. Unemployment Rates heat map


In chapter 1 of Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, he presents this chart by the Wall Street Journal as an example of non-figurative graphics.


I was struck at first by the use of a red/green color palette (so many people use this to represent positive and negative situations).  Then I realized that it need a bit more to really make it useful.  I wanted to be able to:

  1. Understand the magnitudes of the rates
  2. Compare years
  3. Fix the color scheme
  4. Make the chart wider

Here’s what I created using the Tableau 8 (all of this can be done in 7).  Does it answer my questions?


  1. Nice job. I remember seeing this in Cairo's book, but didn’t really pay close enough attention to get the point, which I think is that unemployment rises quickly during a recession and slowly recovers---blue to darker red, to lighter red back to blue.

    A couple of thoughts:
    1 – Move the second chart to the top, since it’s more of a summary and makes the recessions more conspicuous. Views can then “zoom” to the heatmap.

    2 – In the bottom line chart, have a line for each of the major (8ish) recessions since 1948 and show the duration, months from normal unemployment levels to peak and back to return to normal. (If indeed this is the story you’re trying to tell.)

    I’m still on Tableau 7, and I was hoping the UX for 8 would be a little better (given client-side HTML5). Responsiveness on the tooltip is still poor and "tweaky." For example if I hover on the heatmap, the tool tip won’t update until I move outside the area of the tool tip (i.e., several squares up or to the right). And it’d be nice if scrolling over the second chart would highlight the square in the heatmap. …

  2. Andy, for your consideration....

    1 There are three different charts showing monthly data. I don't think we need three views, and I find the first, with the months stacked vertically to be the least intuitive (and eye moving back and forth between Jan and Dec repetitive).

    2 Like Jim (above), I would like to see some comparison or marking of cycles. I don't know the right math to use, but some combination of slope (month to month change) and duration within a certain range (previous 3 month average?) might work.

    3 I like the min/max/avg metrics. It's like a weather summary. Are there other weather-type presentations you could apply?

    Hope this helps

  3. Andy, can you elaborate why you thought red/blue was better than red/green?