Hidden in the Data

Data visualization can be as simple as creating a graph. As to its benefits over plain text, let’s look at an example most of us are familiar with – the gas bill. Here’s a simple question.

How much do you pay for natural gas?

Bills for natural gas are sent to my household every month outlining in detail not only the cost of the gas itself, but all other associated costs as well. It should be simple to figure out, right? My provider specifies the amount I used every month, its transportation, storage, delivery, the monthly charge, and the tax. Price adjustments to some of these charges are provided from time to time as well.

Hold on a minute. Why is it necessary for me to figure out the answer anyway? Shouldn’t the overall price rate of gas be explicitly stated somewhere on the bill? After all, what’s one more piece of data on an already extensive list of charges? Well, as far as my provider goes, that’s strangely not the case. With all the detail I am given on the gas bill, the answer to the question above is not so straightforward.

gasbill

Perhaps too much detail is given. Personally, I find it excruciating and wonder if the bill is deliberately made to be so confusing. One aspect of it is this; it was on February 4th 2013, that the Canadian Mint stopped distributing pennies to financial institutions, marking the era of the

penny as officially over. And it naturally followed that businesses had to comply with rounding cash transactions to the nearest nickel. My gas provider, on the other hand, specifies all the associated natural gas costs not only without rounding to the nearest five cents, but continues to specify the cents to an astounding four decimal places! At least you can’t damn them for not being accurate.

So, back to the question – how much do you pay for natural gas? Enter data visualization through our good friend, the graph. With the help of a little math and a lot of tedious data management, I come up with this representation of total natural gas prices over almost the last decade. Condensed from copious amounts of numbers, a single curve is created. And viola! The ever-changing total cost of natural gas comes before you at a glance. Click the image.

costofgas

The beauty of this is that it reveals things about the price changes that were before not visible. And just as importantly and inevitably it seems, there arise questions; it is curious to note that there are temporary price increases, typically every year, in the summer months. (see green circles) Summer is coming again. We’ll see if that trend continues. As well, it’s pleasing to see that there was a significant drop in price in the year 2009. Supposedly, this was due to an Energy Department report that showed that the amount of gas in storage had hit a record high for 2008.

So the next time someone on the street asks you how much you pay for natural gas, refer them to this graph and don’t forget to tout the benefits of data visualization. Remember that there is more than one way to look at data and that truths can be found in the decimal places.

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