I am waiting for the 52 Crosstown at the Dartmouth Bridge Terminal. Across from the platform is the row of parked out-of-service buses. The one right across from me has a placard on its side promoting the Start By Believing campaign of Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. It's a nice seafoam green.
The text says, "25% of sexual assault victims are children under the age of 12. To help, you can start by BELIEVING."
The graphic on the placard has rows of stick figures representing victims of sexual assault. They're the typical bathroom gender figures: everyone standing at attention; females in dresses; males not. The white figures representing children are slightly smaller than the black figures representing adults.
The 52 wasn't coming so I started counting, and was I surprised. Stay with the tour; I'll do all the math.
Five rows of 28 figures each equals 240. Just as the headline of the ad states, exactly 25 percent, or 35, of the figures are of children. I count the female and male figures and that's where I start to murmur, WTF? Exactly half of the figures are female: 140 of them. What? That can't be right---half of all sexual assault victims are male?
The 52 comes along and later at home I go looking for statistics.
On the Avalon Centre website, under the Resources tab, I click on Statistics and read, "From 2006 to 2010, 3,541 sexual assault victims/survivors reported to police in Nova Scotia. About 85 percent of the victims/survivors were women and 15 percent were men."
Since 85 percent of the victims were women, shouldn't that placard have not 140 female figures, but 238? What the hell happened to the missing 98 women? Why are they disappeared?
This is unfair and just plain wrong. Yes, men and boys are sexually assaulted; but out of 280 figures there should be 42 of them, not 140.
Graphics can be a powerful way to get information across in a hurry. This graphic works well: we're asked to contrast and compare information and we can do it at a glance, without turning pages or poring through tables of numbers. Reading this graphic is easy and immediate. You've only to glance at this graphic to get an immediate sense of how so very many children are sexual assault victims. A bus could be rushing by and the imprint of those figures will remain on your brain. And on some level so will the male female split, and that's the problem: the graphic lies.
Edward Tufte is a god for those interested in the design of information; among many things, he's an expert in charts and diagrams. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is his seminal book about how data looks and it's a thousand times more interesting than the title might hint at. In it, Tufte lays out what graphical displays should do, including: show the data; induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology; encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data; reveal data at at several levels of detail and avoid distorting what the data have to say. It's the last where this falls down so badly.
In a way, the power of this graphic is its undoing. Graphics can reveal data in a powerful way, and here we don't have the real numbers to compare the graphic to.
The strength of its message is compromised by the lie within it. We have no chance to get the numbers right.
I don't hate it. There's so much that's nice about this placard. The seafoam green of it. The use of bathroom door stick figures is nicely minimalist, although I wish somehow the bathroom door figure for transexual---a half and half affair, could be in there somewhere. The use of only one typeface (a clean Frutiger) allows the viewer to concentrate on the information. The design converts nicely between vertical and horizontal versions, and between different sizes, by varying the number of stick figures.
I don't hate it, but the lie of the numbers makes me sad, like finding out the angels don't put the stars up with scotch tape.