Representing Data Graphically

Learning Outcomes

  • Create a frequency table, bar graph, pareto chart, pictogram, or a pie chart to represent a data set
  • Identify features of ineffective representations of data
  • Create a histogram, pie chart, or frequency polygon that represents numerical data
  • Create a graph that compares two quantities

In this lesson we will present some of the most common ways data is represented graphically.  W e will also discuss some of the ways you can increase the accuracy and effectiveness of graphs of data that you create.

Presenting Categorical Data Graphically

Visualizing Data

Categorical, or qualitative, data are pieces of information that allow us to classify the objects under investigation into various categories. We usually begin working with categorical data by summarizing the data into a frequency table.

Frequency Table

A frequency table is a table with two columns. One column lists the categories, and another for the frequencies with which the items in the categories occur (how many items fit into each category).

Example

An insurance company determines vehicle insurance premiums based on known risk factors. If a person is considered a higher risk, their premiums will be higher. One potential factor is the color of your car. The insurance company believes that people with some color cars are more likely to get in accidents. To research this, they examine police reports for recent total-loss collisions. The data is summarized in the frequency table below.

Color Frequency
Blue 25
Green 52
Red 41
White 36
Black 39
Grey 23

Sometimes we need an even more intuitive way of displaying data. This is where charts and graphs come in.  There are many, many ways of displaying data graphically, but we will concentrate on one very useful type of graph called a bar graph.  In this section we will work with bar graphs that display categorical data; the next section will be devoted to bar graphs that display quantitative data.

Bar graph

A bar graph is a graph that displays a bar for each category with the length of each bar indicating the frequency of that category.

To construct a bar graph, we need to draw a vertical axis and a horizontal axis.  The vertical direction will have a scale and measure the frequency of each category; the horizontal axis has no scale in this instance.  The construction of a bar chart is most easily described by use of an example.

example

Using our car data from above, note the highest frequency is 52, so our vertical axis needs to go from 0 to 52, but we might as well use 0 to 55, so that we can put a hash mark every 5 units:

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 5 from 0 to 55. Horizontal measures Vehicle color involved in a total-loss collision, showing from left Blue (25), Green (53), Red (41), White (37), Black (39), Grey (24).

Notice that the height of each bar is determined by the frequency of the corresponding color.  The horizontal gridlines are a nice touch, but not necessary.  In practice, you will find it useful to draw bar graphs using graph paper, so the gridlines will already be in place, or using technology.  Instead of gridlines, we might also list the frequencies at the top of each bar, like this:

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 5 from 0 to 55. Horizontal measures Vehicle color involved in a total-loss collision, showing from left Blue (25), Green (52), Red (41), White (36), Black (39), Grey (23).

The following video explains the process and value of moving data from a table to a bar graph.

In this case, our chart might benefit from being reordered from largest to smallest frequency values. This arrangement can make it easier to compare similar values in the chart, even without gridlines. When we arrange the categories in decreasing frequency order like this, it is called a Pareto chart.

Pareto chart

A Pareto chart is a bar graph ordered from highest to lowest frequency

Examples

Transforming our bar graph from earlier into a Pareto chart, we get:

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 5 from 0 to 55. Horizontal measures Vehicle color involved in a total-loss collision, showing from left Green (52), Red (41), Black (39), White (36), Blue (25), Grey (23).

The following video addressed Pareto charts.


In a survey[1], adults were asked whether they personally worried about a variety of environmental concerns. The numbers (out of 1012 surveyed) who indicated that they worried “a great deal” about some selected concerns are summarized below.

Environmental Issue Frequency
Pollution of drinking water 597
Contamination of soil and water by toxic waste 526
Air pollution 455
Global warming 354

This data could be shown graphically in a bar graph:

Pareto Bar Graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in units of 100 from 0 - 600. Horizontal measures Environmental Worries. From left, Water Pollution (600), Toxic Waste (~500), Air Pollution (~450), and Global Warming (~350).

 

To show relative sizes, it is common to use a pie chart.

Pie Chart

A pie chart is a circle with wedges cut of varying sizes marked out like slices of pie or pizza.  The relative sizes of the wedges correspond to the relative frequencies of the categories.

examples

For our vehicle color data, a pie chart might look like this:

Pie Chart titled "Vehicle color involved in total-loss collisions." Almost one quarter of the pie is green, then red, black, white, blue, and grey is the smallest slice.

Pie charts can often benefit from including frequencies or relative frequencies (percents) in the chart next to the pie slices. Often having the category names next to the pie slices also makes the chart clearer.

Pie Chart titled "Vehicle color involved in total-loss collisions." Almost one quarter of the pie is green (labeled Green, 52), then red (labeled Red, 41), black (labeled Black, 39), white (labeled White, 36), blue (labeled Blue, 25), and grey is the smallest slice (labeled Grey, 23).

This video demonstrates how to create pie charts like the ones above.


The pie chart below shows the percentage of voters supporting each candidate running for a local senate seat.

If there are 20,000 voters in the district, the pie chart shows that about 11% of those, about 2,200 voters, support Reeves.

Pie Chart labeled Voter preferences. Almost half the left side is black (labeled Elison, 46%), Most of the right is green (labeled Douglas, 43%), and a small portion near the bottom is red (labeled Reeves 11%).

The following video addresses how to read a pie chart like the one above.

Pie charts look nice, but are harder to draw by hand than bar charts since to draw them accurately we would need to compute the angle each wedge cuts out of the circle, then measure the angle with a protractor. Computers are much better suited to drawing pie charts. Common software programs like Microsoft Word or Excel, OpenOffice.org Write or Calc, or Google Drive are able to create bar graphs, pie charts, and other graph types. It is suggested you refer back to the chapter on Excel and create your pie graphs using that software.  If you are ever need to create a pie chart and do not have access to Excel, there are also numerous online tools besides Excel that can create graphs.[2].

Don’t get fancy with graphs! People sometimes add features to graphs that don’t help to convey their information. For example, 3-dimensional bar charts like the one shown below are usually not as effective as their two-dimensional counterparts.3D Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 5 from 0 to 55. Horizontal measures Vehicle color involved in a total-loss collision, showing from left Blue (25), Green (52), Red (41), White (36), Grey (23), Black (39). The tilted angle of the display makes it difficult to line up the top of the bar with the frequency numbers.

Here is another way that fanciness can lead to trouble. Instead of plain bars, it is tempting to substitute meaningful images. This type of graph is called a pictogram.

Pictogram

A pictogram is a statistical graphic in which the size of the picture is intended to represent the frequencies or size of the values being represented.

example

Two drawings of money bags, one on the left substantially larger than the one on the right. Left is labeled Manager Salaries, right is labeled Worker Salaries.A labor union might produce the graph to the right to show the difference between the average manager salary and the average worker salary.

Looking at the picture, it would be reasonable to guess that the manager salaries is 4 times as large as the worker salaries – the area of the bag looks about 4 times as large. However, the manager salaries are in fact only twice as large as worker salaries, which were reflected in the picture by making the manager bag twice as tall.

This video reviews the two examples of ineffective data representation in more detail.

Another distortion in bar charts results from setting the baseline to a value other than zero. The baseline is the bottom of the vertical axis, representing the least number of cases that could have occurred in a category. Normally, this number should be zero.

example

Compare the two graphs below showing support for same-sex marriage rights from a poll taken in December 2008[3]. The difference in the vertical scale on the first graph suggests a different story than the true differences in percentages; the second graph makes it look like twice as many people oppose marriage rights as support it.

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency (%), in increments of 10 from 0-100. Horizontal measures Do you support or oppose a same-sex marriage? Support (~40%), Oppose (~50%).Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency (%), in increments of 5 from 40-60. Horizontal measures Do you support or oppose a same-sex marriage? Support (~43%), Oppose (~55%).

Try It

A poll was taken asking people if they agreed with the positions of the 4 candidates for a county office. Does the pie chart present a good representation of this data? Explain.nguyenmckee

Presenting Quantitative Data Graphically

Visualizing Numbers

Blue background with magnetic numbers attached to it. 1-5 are arranged sequentially at the top, while remaining digits are clustered at the bottom right

Quantitative, or numerical, data can also be summarized into frequency tables.

Example

A teacher records scores on a 20-point quiz for the 30 students in his class. The scores are:

19 20 18 18 17 18 19 17 20 18 20 16 20 15 17 12 18 19 18 19 17 20 18 16 15 18 20 5 0 0

These scores could be summarized into a frequency table by grouping like values:

Score Frequency
0 2
5 1
12 1
15 2
16 2
17 4
18 8
19 4
20 6

Using the table from the first example, it would be possible to create a standard bar chart from this summary, like we did for categorical data:

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 1 from 0-8. Horizontal measures Score, in irregular increments from 0-20. 18 is the highest frequency score, at 8, while 5 and 12 are the lowest frequency scores, at 1 each.
However, since the scores are numerical values, this chart doesn’t really make sense; the first and second bars are five values apart, while the later bars are only one value apart. It would be more correct to treat the horizontal axis as a number line. This type of graph is called a histogram.

Histogram

A histogram is like a bar graph, but where the horizontal axis is a number line.

example

For the values above, a histogram would look like:

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 1 from 0-9. Horizontal measures Score, in increments of 1 from 0-21. This includes several empty scores, denoting 0 frequency, while keeping data of earlier bar graph on this page.

Notice that in the histogram, a bar represents values on the horizontal axis from that on the left hand-side of the bar up to, but not including, the value on the right hand side of the bar. Some people choose to have bars start at ½ values to avoid this ambiguity.

This video demonstrates the creation of the histogram by hand from this data.

Fortunately, you can create a histogram using Excel.  Refer back to the section on histograms in Chapter 2.

If we have a large number of widely varying data values, creating a frequency table that lists every possible value as a category would lead to an exceptionally long frequency table, and probably would not reveal any patterns. For this reason, it is common with quantitative data to group data into class intervals.

Class Intervals

Class intervals are groupings of the data. In general, we define class intervals so that

  • each interval is equal in size. For example, if the first class contains values from 120-129, the second class should include values from 130-139.
  • we have somewhere between 5 and 20 classes, typically, depending upon the number of data we’re working with.

example

Suppose that we have collected weights from 100 male subjects as part of a nutrition study. For our weight data, we have values ranging from a low of 121 pounds to a high of 263 pounds, giving a total span of 263-121 = 142. We could create 7 intervals with a width of around 20, 14 intervals with a width of around 10, or somewhere in between. Often time we have to experiment with a few possibilities to find something that represents the data well. Let us try using an interval width of 15. We could start at 121, or at 120 since it is a nice round number.

Interval Frequency
120 – 134 4
135 – 149 14
150 – 164 16
165 – 179 28
180 – 194 12
195 – 209 8
210 – 224 7
225 – 239 6
240 – 254 2
255 – 269 3

A histogram of this data would look like:

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 5 from 0-30. Horizontal measures Weights (pounds), in increments of 15 from 120-270. Measurements are noted between the 15-pound ranges, so that everyone weighing between 165-180, for instance, falls in the same category of measurement.

In many software packages, you can create a graph similar to a histogram by putting the class intervals as the labels on a bar chart.

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 5 from 0-30. Horizontal measures Weights (pounds), in increments of 15 from 120-270. Measurements are noted between the 15-pound ranges, so that everyone weighing between 165-180, for instance, falls in the same category of measurement.

The following video walks through this example in more detail.

Other graph types such as pie charts are possible for quantitative data, but are not recommended. The usefulness of different graph types will vary depending upon the number of intervals and the type of data being represented. For example, a pie chart of our weight data is difficult to read because of the quantity of intervals we used.

Pie graph, Weights (pounds). 10 colors are noted with a key on the right side. The biggest slice is aqua, for 165-179.

To see more about why a pie chart isn’t useful in this case, watch the following.

Try It

The total cost of textbooks for the term was collected from 36 students. Create a histogram for this data.

$140    $160    $160    $165    $180    $220    $235    $240    $250    $260    $280    $285

$285    $285    $290    $300    $300    $305    $310    $310    $315    $315    $320    $320

$330    $340    $345    $350    $355    $360    $360    $380    $395    $420    $460    $460

When collecting data to compare two groups, it is desirable to create a graph that compares quantities.

Example

The data below came from a task in which the goal is to move a computer mouse to a target on the screen as fast as possible. On 20 of the trials, the target was a small rectangle; on the other 20, the target was a large rectangle. Time to reach the target was recorded on each trial.

Interval (milliseconds) Frequency

small target

Frequency

large target

300-399 0 0
400-499 1 5
500-599 3 10
600-699 6 5
700-799 5 0
800-899 4 0
900-999 0 0
1000-1099 1 0
1100-1199 0 0

One option to represent this data would be a comparative histogram or bar chart, in which bars for the small target group and large target group are placed next to each other.

Bar graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 2 from 0-10. Horizontal measures Reaction time (milliseconds), in increments of 100 from 300-399 to 1100-1199. Two colors of bars are given, noted by a key on the right: blue is small target, purple is large target. The large target is more dominant in 400-499 and 500-599 ranges, while the small target is noted in more columns and is more frequent in 600-699 and 700-799 milliseconds.

Frequency polygon

An alternative representation is a frequency polygon. A frequency polygon starts out like a histogram, but instead of drawing a bar, a point is placed in the midpoint of each interval at height equal to the frequency. Typically the points are connected with straight lines to emphasize the distribution of the data.

example

This graph makes it easier to see that reaction times were generally shorter for the larger target, and that the reaction times for the smaller target were more spread out.

Line graph. Vertical measures Frequency, in increments of 2 from 0-10. Horizontal measures Reaction time (milliseconds), in increments of 100 from 350-1150. Large target, depicted in pink, shows a dramatic increase and decrease, spiking at 550. Small target, in blue, shows a more erratic progression, gradually increasing to 650 and decreasing with bumps after.

The following video explains frequency polygon creation for this example.

 

Attributions

This chapter contains material taken from Math in Society (on OpenTextBookStore) by David Lippman, and is used under a CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States (CC BY-SA 3.0 US) license.

This chapter contains material taken from of Math for the Liberal Arts (on Lumen Learning) by Lumen Learning, and is used under a CC BY: Attribution license.


  1. Gallup Poll. March 5-8, 2009. http://www.pollingreport.com/enviro.htm
  2. For example: http://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/createAgraph/ or http://docs.google.com
  3. CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. Dec 19-21, 2008, from http://www.pollingreport.com/civil.htm

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Representing Data Graphically by Gail Poitrast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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