Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Challenge With Visualising Gun Deaths in the US

A few days ago President Obama asked the worlds media to do a dataviz for him. He asked them to show the number of deaths due to terrorism compared to the number of deaths due to guns. This was prompted by the most recent mass shooting in the US. The response has been amazing, my twitter feed filled up with chart after chart showing the massive difference between terrorism and gun crime such as this one made by

Then people went on and created a whole range of vizzes based around gun homicides, gun laws, differences between states and countries. There are bar charts, maps, static, interactive, in every shape colour and size. One of the best that I have seen was by Andy Kriebel.

I was planning on making a viz and then it occurred to me, what was the point. Would it make a difference? Would it change anything? And the answer is, probably not. All of the vizzes coming out show something that everyone already knows. America has a serious gun problem, but no idea how to solve it. The bigger problem though is that by visualising the data, it sanitises the underlying data. Rob Radburn talked about this at his talk at the London Tableau Roadshow, where he said that it's not just pixels on a screen, there are real people behind this data. 

Europe is in the midst of a migrant crisis. Thousands of people are fleeing Syria and other countries in the region. They are risking their lives in makeshift boats and shipping containers in an attempt to reach the safety of European soil. Others are coming to Europe seeking a better life for their family. This has been going on for the last few years but has been increasing over the last few months. Again everyone knew it was going on, said it was terrible and things had to be done, but that was about it. We saw the stats, the numbers and the charts. But that didn't change peoples attitude. What did, was a single photo. A photo of a boy. His name was Aylan. He was 3 years old, from war-torn Syria. The photo of his lifeless body, washed up on a Turkish beach went viral. I saw it, I cried, I went and found my two girls and hugged them, they asked me why and I didn't tell them. Now the crisis had a face, it became real, the numbers, the stats melted away and it was now about real people. It shocked the world into action, countries relaxed their immigration rules, increased aid. The public demanded the governments do more. It wasn't a viz that did that, it was a 3 year boy. 

After Sandy Hook, I really thought things would change. How could it not? And a lot of pro-gun people started to say they would give up their guns for the sake of others, but nothing really happened. If it didn't change after Sandy Hook, then will it ever?

So, will the gun vizzes change anything? I suspect not. They don't show the victims, the lives cut short, the real data. They are hidden in a bar getting longer, a line getting higher. By visualising this kind of data it removes us from the real story. When you combine the individual victims into a point on an axis, a length of the bar you loose that link to the fact that represents someone who lost a life. Maybe it's the frequency of these events that have now made us immune from them , they are seen as almost a way of life. 

The closest I think I have seen is this one from Periscopic

Instead of aggregating the victims it shows each one as it's own line. By extrapolating the victims lifeline beyond their death it emphasis that these are not numbers, statistics, these are people. These are mothers that never got to see their daughters marry, sisters that never got to be an aunt. A child that never got out of school. By just talking about the big numbers, the totals, you miss that fact. 

As an outsider looking in it's hard to understand how this still goes on. The US love affair with their firearms seems bizarre in the face of these continuing tragedies. 

A few years ago Rockstar launched Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas, the 5th in the franchise. You played Carl, a young guy living in a fictional LA in the 90s. He starts of as part of a gang but wants to get out of that lifestyle. As with all the GTA games there are guns aplenty and you can do pretty much anything that you like. When this game came out it caused the normal outrage about the violence in video games, corrupting the young people etc. However the game was given an NC17/18 rating, much the same as a violent action movie and all was well. Until that is someone discovered some left over code on the disk that hadnt made it into the game. This code was a mini game, known as hot coffee,  where it allowed your character girl to have sex with his girlfriend. You could control the action and see it played out in a very crude way. This caused major outrage, the game had to be re-rated to Adult Only and got pulled from most of the major outlets. Rockstar had to recall the disks and remove the content. This sent the message that the US was fine with guns but sex, no thank you. 

I don't have any answers to this and I don't think anyone really does. It's a very hard thing to solve, but it needs solving. I don't want to have to know about another small town in America that is now famous for all the wrong reasons.

JFK once said, "We choose to go to the moon, and do these others things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard". Sorting out the US gun problem is hard, but thats no reason to not give it a go. 

Matt Francis

Author & Editor

Tableau Zen Master, Social Ambassador, Wrangler of Data, Vizzer of Data


  1. Thanks for posting this, Matt. I've had very similar thoughts the past day or two.

    1. Thanks for the comment, who ever you are ;)

    2. Great post. I've got to admit though, I'm still confuzzled by Periscopic's viz. I've looked at it twice last night and once this morning with fresh eyes...still don't get it.

  2. is 26 too old to become a rockstar?