A different view of US immigration

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Have you ever found a graph of some interesting information, but the graph was difficult to understand (or even misleading). I strive to fix those graphs - this time it's a graph of US immigration data...

I found the following immigration graph on the flowingdata website - it's a screen-capture of an animated slideshow that (I believe) was created by Alvin Chang.

Immigration_history_flowingdata

It was an interesting topic, but I found the graph a bit difficult to understand, and even a bit misleading. Here are a few of the problems I see with the graph (in no particular order):

  • It is difficult to read the text on the axes, since it is graph text on a black background.
  • The colors in the bars do not match the colors in the legend (the bars seem darker). For example, I first thought the reddish color predominant in the bars before 1920 matched 'Oceania' in the legend (and I thought that very strange). I later found that matched Europe.
  • The bar heights only go to about 10 million, but the vertical axis goes to 24 million (I assume this is to make room for the map in the background?).
  • There is a world map in the background, but it doesn't add to the data analysis - it's just a decoration and a distraction.
  • When I first looked at the graph, I thought it odd that immigration had dropped off after 2010, but upon closer examination I found that the 2010/11/12/13 bars represented single-year values, whereas all the other bars represented decades.
  • And I'm not a big fan of creating the bars out of small 'building blocks' instead of using the traditional stacked bar.A different view of US immigration #dataviz Click To Tweet

I think this data is interesting and important, and it deserves a better graph - therefore I set about creating one. First I located the data (Table 2) on the US Homeland Security website. I wrote some SAS code to import the Excel Spreadsheet, transpose it, and create a more standard bar chart that is easy to read, and avoids things that could cause the user to misinterpret the data.

us_immigration_history

I'm not a big fan of showing the world map in the background, but I decided to add that in order to show how it could be done in a way that might actually help visualize the data. Notice that the regions in my map are color-coded to match the bars and legend. I created the map separately with Proc Gmap, and then annotated it into the Proc Gchart bar chart. Click the image below to see the full size graph, with html hover-text.

us_immigration_history

What other ways might you visualize this data? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section!

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About Author

Robert Allison

The Graph Guy!

Robert has worked at SAS for over 25 years, and is perhaps the foremost expert in creating custom graphs using SAS/GRAPH. His educational background is in Computer Science, and he holds a BS, MS, and PhD from NC State University. He is the author of several conference papers, has won a few graphic competitions, and has written a book (SAS/GRAPH: Beyond the Basics).

11 Comments

  1. Michelle Homes

    Fantastic data visualization improvement!

    I like how you've improved the bar chart and incorporated geography as a type of legend rather than as a background image. I did notice my eye was going between the text-based legend and the map and was wondering if you placed the text partially over the continents, the map could be used as the legend with an on-the-side purple box for Not Specified.

    I find it strange the original chart didn't have a consistent x-axis interval. Goes to show how data visualizations can be easily misinterpreted or maybe that was the intention to display a decline in the last decade?

  2. Leonid Batkhan

    Excellent graph/map/legend presentation mix! I did not get though why the regions in the legend are shown in reverse alphabetical order. Also, could the legend instead of being a separate color pallet be overlaid on the map itself?

  3. Robert,

    Great post. A few suggestions in response to your question:

    - Show a 2010-2019 forecast of immigration using the 4 years of data already provided as an input into the forecast model (I know a tool you can use for this!)
    - Overlay "US Emigration" to better show the net population flows due to moves for a given decade
    - Overlay overall population stats for same time periods so you can show to what extent immigration is contributing to our overall numbers
    - Don't show it as a bar graph at all, and consider stealing a concept from digital marketers by creating a citizen journey map from one region to the next

    Have a great day!

  4. Is it possible to split a sub group of a region? For example since the hot topic now is immigration from the Arab regions I'm curious of that region's immigration over time but it's lumped in with Asia as a whole. South America vs Mexico. Europe vs. The Americas etc.

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