The Power of One Graph

I speak in my daily life about numbers, about the power of numbers, about interpreting numbers, and about the power of graphs and charts to let us really “see” what the numbers are saying. I draw upon experts such as Edward Tufte, Cole Nusbaumer Knaflic, Nathan Yau, Alberto Cairo, and Steven Few, among others to illustrate just how powerful an image can be — and how powerless it can be if not handled with care.

They’re all right, and then some.

This morning’s print edition of the New York Times has an image that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past hour or so. The paper graphs just one metric: weekly U.S. unemployment claims since 2000, which last week soared to almost 3.3 million. Granted, that’s a very big number, but it took seeing the graph this morning for me to understand just how large that figure is. The Times needs almost 80% of its vertical page inches to graph this figure.

It’s bad enough to see a number that high, and to think of the 3.3 million fellow Americans who make up that number. But to actually “see” it drove home to me the scale of what’s facing us as a country really hit home. Quite powerful for a relatively simple graph.