How I Made That: Interactive Beeswarm Chart to Compare Distributions

The histogram is my favorite chart type, but it’s unintuitive for many. So I’ve been using the less accurate but less abstract beeswarm.

The How I Made That series describes the process behind a graphic and includes code and data to work with.

Distributions are far more interesting than means and medians, and statisticians most often use histograms to see the former. For me, a statistician, reading histograms is straightforward and unintuitive, but for those who don’t look at distributions on a regular basis, reading histograms can be a challenge.

Histograms require readers have a certain level of statistical knowledge. Readers need a mental image of how the spread works and how individual items or data points can abstract to bars.

To solve this problem, I’ve tried interaction and annotation with histograms on FlowingData a handful of times. It only seems to kind of work. In contrast, the beeswarm chart seems to more easily gain traction. My hunch is that people can relate better to individual shapes moving across a distribution range than they can bars moving up and down. Just a hunch though.

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About the Author

Nathan Yau is a statistician who works primarily with visualization. He earned his PhD in statistics from UCLA, is the author of two best-selling books — Data Points and Visualize This — and runs FlowingData. Introvert. Likes food. Likes beer.