As Nice as Pie

If you can't get your graphing tool to do the shading, just add some clip art of cosmologists discussing the unusual curvature of space in the area.

© Randall Munroe of – Image adjusted to fit dimensions of this page

Work by the inimitable Randall Munroe, author of long-running web-comic,, has been featured (with permission) multiple times on these pages [1]. The above image got me thinking that I had not penned a data visualisation article since the series starting with Hurricanes and Data Visualisation: Part I – Rainbow’s Gravity nearly a year ago. Randall’s perspective led me to consider that staple of PowerPoint presentations, the humble and much-maligned Pie Chart.

While the history is not certain, most authorities credit the pioneer of graphical statistics, William Playfair, with creating this icon, which appeared in his Statistical Breviary, first published in 1801 [2]. Later Florence Nightingale (a statistician in case you were unaware) popularised Pie Charts. Indeed a Pie Chart variant (called a Polar Chart) that Nightingale compiled appears at the beginning of my article Data Visualisation – A Scientific Treatment.

I can’t imagine any reader has managed to avoid seeing a Pie Chart before reading this article. But, just in case, here is one (Since writing Rainbow’s Gravity – see above for a link – I have tried to avoid a rainbow palette in visualisations, hence the monochromatic exhibit):

Basic Pie Chart

The above image is a representation of the following dataset:

Label Count
A 4,500
B 3,000
C 3,000
D 3,000
E 4,500
Total 18,000

The Pie Chart consists of a circle divided in to five sectors, each is labelled A through E. The basic idea is of course that the amount of the circle taken up by each sector is proportional to the count of items associated with each category, A through E. What is meant by the innocent “amount of the circle” here? The easiest way to look at this is that going all the way round a circle consumes 360°. If we consider our data set, the total count is 18,000, which will equate to 360°. The count for A is 4,500 and we need to consider what fraction of 18,000 this represents and then apply this to 360°:

\dfrac{4,500}{18,000}\times 360^o=\dfrac{1}{4}\times 360^o=90^o

So A must take up 90°, or equivalently one quarter of the total circle. Similarly for B:

\dfrac{3,000}{18,000}\times 360^o=\dfrac{1}{6}\times 360^o=60^o

Or one sixth of the circle.

If we take this approach then – of course – the sum of all of the sectors must equal the whole circle and neither more nor less than this (pace Randall). In our example:

Label Degrees
A 90°
B 60°
C 60°
D 60°
E 90°
Total 360°

So far, so simple. Now let’s consider a second data-set as follows:

Label Count
A 9,480,301
B 6,320,201
C 6,320,200
D 6,320,201
E 9,480,301
Total 37,921,204

What does its Pie Chart look like? Well it’s actually rather familiar, it looks like this:

Basic Pie Chart

This observation stresses something important about Pie Charts. They show how a number of categories contribute to a whole figure, but they only show relative figures (percentages of the whole if you like) and not the absolute figures. The totals in our two data-sets differ by a factor of over 2,100 times, but their Pie Charts are identical. We will come back to this point again later on.

Pie Charts have somewhat fallen into disrepute over the years. Some of this is to do with their ubiquity, but there is also at least one more substantial criticism. This is that the human eye is bad at comparing angles, particularly if they are not aligned to some reference point, e.g. a vertical. To see this consider the two Pie Charts below (please note that these represent a different data set from above – for starters, there are only four categories plotted as opposed to five earlier on):

Comparative Pie Charts

The details of the underlying numbers don’t actually matter that much, but let’s say that the left-hand Pie Chart represents annual sales in 2016, broken down by four product lines. The right-hand chart has the same breakdown, but for 2017. This provides some context to our discussions.

Suppose what is of interest is how the sales for each product line in the 2016 chart compare to their counterparts in the right-hand one; e.g. A and A’, B and B’ and so on. Well for the As, we have the helpful fact that they both start from a vertical line and then swing down and round, initially rightwards. This can be used to gauge that A’ is a bit bigger than A. What about B and B’? Well they start in different places and end in different places, looking carefully, we can see that B’ is bigger than B. C and C’ are pretty easy, C is a lot bigger. Then we come to D and D’, I find this one a bit tricky, but we can eventually hazard a guess that they are pretty much the same.

So we can compare Pie Charts and talk about how sales change between two years, what’s the problem? The issue is that it takes some time and effort to reach even these basic conclusions. How about instead of working out which is bigger, A or A’, I ask the reader to guess by what percentage A’ is bigger. This is not trivial to do based on just the charts.

If we really want to look at year-on-year growth, we would prefer that the answer leaps off the page; after all, isn’t that the whole point of visualisations rather than tables of numbers? What if we focus on just the right-hand diagram? Can you say with certainty which is bigger, A or C, B or D? You can work to an answer, but it takes longer than should really be the case for a graphical exhibit.


There is a further point to be made here and it relates to what we said Pie Charts show earlier in this piece. What we have in our two Pie Charts above is the make-up of a whole number (in the example we have been working through, this is total annual sales) by categories (product lines). These are percentages and what we have been doing above is to compare the fact that A made up 30% of the total sales in 2016 and 33% in 2017. What we cannot say based on just the above exhibits is how actual sales changed. The total sales may have gone up or down, the Pie Chat does not tell us this, it just deals in how the make-up of total sales has shifted.

Some people try to address this shortcoming, which can result in exhibits such as:

Comparative Pie Charts - with Growth

Here some attempt has been made to show the growth in the absolute value of sales year on year. The left-hand Pie Chart is smaller and so we assume that annual sales have increased between 2016 and 2017. The most logical thing to do would be to have the change in total area of the two Pie Charts to be in proportion to the change in sales between the two years (in this case – based on the underlying data – 2017 sales are 69% bigger than 2016 sales). However, such an approach, while adding information, makes the task of comparing sectors from year to year even harder.

The general argument is that Nested Bar Charts are better for the type of scenario I have presented and the types of questions I asked above. Looking at the same annual sales data this way we could generate the following graph:

Comparative Bar Charts


While Bar Charts are often used to show absolute values, what we have above is the same “percentage of the whole” data that was shown in the Pie Charts. We have already covered the relative / absolute issue inherent in Pie Charts, from now on, each new chart will be like a Pie Chart inasmuch as it will contain relative (percentage of the whole) data, not absolute. Indeed you could think about generating the bar graph above by moving the Pie Chart sectors around and squishing them into new shapes, while preserving their area.

The Bar Chart makes the yearly comparisons a breeze and it is also pretty easy to take a stab at percentage differences. For example B’ looks about a fifth bigger than B (it’s actually 17.5% bigger) [3]. However, what I think gets lost here is a sense of the make-up of the elements of the two sets. We can see that A is the biggest value in the first year and A’ in the second, but it is harder to gauge what percentage of the overall both A and A’ represent.

To do this better, we could move to a Stacked Bar Chart as follows (again with the same sales data):

Stacked Bar Chart


Once more, we are dealing with how proportions have changed – to put it simply the height of both “skyscrapers” is the same. If we instead shifted to absolute values, then our exhibit might look more like:

Stacked Bar Chart (Absolute Values)

The observant reader will note that I have also added dashed lines linking the same category for each year. These help to show growth. Regardless of what angle to the horizontal the lower line for a category makes, if it and the upper category line diverge (as for B and B’), then the category is growing; if they converge (as for C and C’), the category is shrinking [4]. Parallel lines indicate a steady state. Using this approach, we can get a better sense of the relative size of categories in the two years.

However, here – despite the dashed lines – we lose at least some of of the year-on-year comparative power of the Nested Bar Chart above. In turn the Nested Bar Chart loses some of the attributes of the original Pie Chart. In truth, there is no single chart which fits all purposes. Trying to find one is analogous to trying to find a planar projection of a sphere that preserves angles, distances and areas [5].

Rather than finding the Philosopher’s Stone [6] of an all-purpose chart, the challenge for those engaged in data visualisation is to anticipate the central purpose of an exhibit and to choose a chart type that best resonates with this. Sometimes, the Pie Chart can be just what is required, as I found myself in my article, A Tale of Two [Brexit] Data Visualisations, which closed with the following image:

Brexit Flag
UK Referendum on EU Membership – Number voting by age bracket (see caveats in original article)

Or, to put it another way:

You may very well be well bred
Chart aesthetics filling your head
But there’s always some special case, time or place
To replace perfect taste

For instance…

Never cry ’bout a Chart of Pie
You can still do fine with a Chart of Pie
People may well laugh at this humble graph
But it can be just the thing you need to help the staff

Never cry ’bout a Chart of Pie
Though without due care things can go awry
Bars are fine, Columns shine
Lines are ace, Radars race
Boxes fly, but never cry about a Chart of Pie

With apologies to the Disney Corporation!


It was pointed out to me by Adam Carless that I had omitted the following thing of beauty from my Pie Chart menagerie. How could I have forgotten?

3D Pie Chart

It is claimed that some Theoretical Physicists (and most Higher Dimensional Geometers) can visualise in four dimensions. Perhaps this facility would be of some use in discerning meaning from the above exhibit.



Playfair also most likely was the first to introduce line, area and bar charts.
Recall again we are comparing percentages, so 50% is 25% bigger than 40%.
This assertion would not hold for absolute values, or rather parallel lines would indicate that the absolute value of sales (not the relative one) had stayed constant across the two years.
A little-known Mathematician, going by the name of Gauss, had something to say about this back in 1828 – Disquisitiones generales circa superficies curvas. I hope you read Latin.
The Philosopher's Stone

No, not that one!.


From:, home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases


A Tale of Two [Brexit] Data Visualisations

Rip, or is that RIP? With apologies to The Economist and acknowledgement to David Bacon.

I’m continuing with the politics and data visualisation theme established in my last post. However, I’ll state up front that this is not a political article. I have assiduously stayed silent [on this blog at least] on the topic of my country’s future direction, both in the lead up to the 23rd June poll and in its aftermath. Instead, I’m going to restrict myself to making a point about data visualisation; both how it can inform and how it can mislead.

Brexit Bar
UK Referendum on EU Membership – Percentage voting by age bracket (see notes)

The exhibit above is my version of one that has appeared in various publications post referendum, both on-line and print. As is referenced, its two primary sources are the UK Electoral Commission and Lord Ashcroft’s polling organisation. The reason why there are two sources rather than one is explained in the notes section below.

With the caveats explained below, the above chart shows the generational divide apparent in the UK Referendum results. Those under 35 years old voted heavily for the UK to remain in the EU; those with ages between 35 and 44 voted to stay in pretty much exactly the proportion that the country as a whole voted to leave; and those over 45 years old voted increasingly heavily to leave as their years advanced.

One thing which is helpful about this exhibit is that it shows in what proportion each cohort voted. This means that the type of inferences I made in the previous paragraph leap off the page. It is pretty clear (visually) that there is a massive difference between how those aged 18-24 and those aged 65+ thought about the question in front of them in the polling booth. However, while the percentage based approach illuminates some things, it masks others. A cursory examination of the chart above might lead one to ask – based on the area covered by red rectangles – how it was that the Leave camp prevailed? To pursue an answer to this question, let’s consider the data with a slightly tweaked version of the same visualisation as below:

Brexit Bar 2
UK Referendum on EU Membership – Numbers voting by age bracket (see notes)

[Aside: The eagle-eyed amongst you may notice a discrepancy between the figures shown on the total bars above and the actual votes cast, which were respectively: Remain: 16,141k and Leave: 17,411k. Again see the notes section for an explanation of this.]

A shift from percentages to actual votes recorded casts some light on the overall picture. It now becomes clear that, while a large majority of 18-24 year olds voted to Remain, not many people in this category actually voted. Indeed while, according to the 2011 UK Census, the 18-24 year category makes up just under 12% of all people over 18 years old (not all of whom would necessarily be either eligible or registered to vote) the Ashcroft figures suggest that well under half of this group cast their ballot, compared to much higher turnouts for older voters (once more see the notes section for caveats).

This observation rather blunts the assertion that the old voted in ways that potentially disadvantaged the young; the young had every opportunity to make their voice heard more clearly, but didn’t take it. Reasons for this youthful disengagement from the political process are of course beyond the scope of this article.

However it is still hard (at least for the author’s eyes) to get the full picture from the second chart. In order to get a more visceral feeling for the dynamics of the vote, I have turned to the much maligned pie chart. I also chose to use the even less loved “exploded” version of this.

Brexit Flag
UK Referendum on EU Membership – Number voting by age bracket (see notes)

Here the weight of both the 65+ and 55+ Leave vote stands out as does the paucity of the overall 18-24 contribution; the only two pie slices too small to accommodate an internal data label. This exhibit immediately shows where the referendum was won and lost in a way that is not as easy to glean from a bar chart.

While I selected an exploded pie chart primarily for reasons of clarity, perhaps the fact that the resulting final exhibit brings to mind a shattered and reassembled Union Flag was also an artistic choice. Unfortunately, it seems that this resemblance has a high likelihood of proving all too prophetic in the coming months and years.


I have leveraged age group distributions from the Ascroft Polling organisation to create these exhibits. Other sites – notably the BBC – have done the same and my figures reconcile to the interpretations in other places. However, based on further analysis, I have some reason to think that either there are issues with the Ashcroft data, or that I have leveraged it in ways that the people who compiled it did not intend. Either way, the Ashcroft numbers lead to the conclusion that close to 100% of 55-64 year olds voted in the UK Referendum, which seems very, very unlikely. I have contacted the Ashcroft Polling organisation about this and will post any reply that I receive.

– Peter James Thomas, 14th July 2016



Caveat: I am neither a professional political pollster, nor a statistician. Instead I’m a Pure Mathematician, with a basic understanding of some elements of both these areas. For this reason, the following commentary may not be 100% rigorous; however my hope is that it is nevertheless informative.

In the wake of the UK Referendum on EU membership, a lot of attempts were made to explain the result. Several of these used splits of the vote by demographic attributes to buttress the arguments that they were making. All of the exhibits in this article use age bands, one type of demographic indicator. Analyses posted elsewhere looked at things like the influence of the UK’s social grade classifications (A, B, C1 etc.) on voting patterns, the number of immigrants in a given part of the country, the relative prosperity of different areas and how this has changed over time. Other typical demographic dimensions might include gender, educational achievement or ethnicity.

However, no demographic information was captured as part of the UK referendum process. There is no central system which takes a unique voting ID and allocates attributes to it, allowing demographic dicing and slicing (to be sure a partial and optional version of this is carried out when people leave polling stations after a General Election, but this was not done during the recent referendum).

So, how do so many demographic analyses suddenly appear? To offer some sort of answer here, I’ll take you through how I built the data set behind the exhibits in this article. At the beginning I mentioned that I relied on two data sources, the actual election results published by the UK Electoral Commission and the results of polling carried out by Lord Ashcroft’s organisation. The latter covered interviews with 12,369 people selected to match what was anticipated to be the demographic characteristics of the actual people voting. As with most statistical work, properly selecting a sample with no inherent biases (e.g. one with the same proportion of people who are 65 years or older as in the wider electorate) is generally the key to accuracy of outcome.

Importantly demographic information is known about the sample (which may also be reweighted based on interview feedback) and it is by assuming that what holds true for the sample also holds true for the electorate that my charts are created. So if X% of 18-24 year olds in the sample voted Remain, the assumption is that X% of the total number of 18-24 year olds that voted will have done the same.

12,000 plus is a good sample size for this type of exercise and I have no reason to believe that Lord Ashcroft’s people were anything other than professional in selecting the sample members and adjusting their models accordingly. However this is not the same as having definitive information about everyone who voted. So every exhibit you see relating to the age of referendum voters, or their gender, or social classification is based on estimates. This is a fact that seldom seems to be emphasised by news organisations.

The size of Lord Ashchoft’s sample also explains why the total figures for Leave and Remain on my second exhibit are different to the voting numbers. This is because 5,949 / 12,369 = 48.096% (looking at the sample figures for Remain) whereas 16,141,241 / 33,551,983 = 48.108% (looking at the actual voting figures for Remain). Both figures round to 48.1%, but the small difference in the decimal expansions, when applied to 33 million people, yields a slightly different result.