Sankey Diagrams vs Parallel Sets

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Charles Friedo
Charles Friedo

Sankey Diagrams vs Parallel Sets

For many years now, a lot of people have found it difficult to identify the difference between Sankey diagrams and parallel sets. The two have made headlines, given that most people find it challenging to note what makes them different from each other. What remains to be undeniable is the fact that the Sankey diagram is among the top data visualization tools mostly used by business owners and data analysts.

A Sankey diagram is mostly used by business owners to evaluate the flow of various data elements within their business environment. Even though there are multiple tools used in data visualization, most of the tools available on the web have multiple names. This is one of the elements that confuse most people who are on the lookout to find out what makes these two charts unique.

Given that there is a lot of confusion, it is high time to address what makes these two charts unique and how they operate. Remember that when investing in data visualization tools, applying the wrong tool is likely to cost you at the end of the day. The reality remains that what makes people confused between a Sankey diagram and parallel sets is their appearance.

Sankey Diagram

The Sankey diagram was invented by an Irish engineer known as Matthew Sankey, who developed it with the aim of evaluating the energy efficiency of a steam engine. Besides, the Sankey diagram is considered to be the most complex type of data visualization, considering how it processes data and the context of its output. The chart outlines the flow of data from one point to another within a company environment.

A Sankey diagram uses different flow paths that come with varying sizes, depending on the volume of the flow. It elaborates on how data enters the system and leaves to showcase the final product and how all the activities take place. The path on the chart is used to showcase the direction of data flow across the entire system. What people need to understand is that not all Sankey diagrams use arrows to show the direction of the flow.

This type of Sankey chart shows the direction in a visual manner which makes it easier to communicate the data input and output. The flow of data in a Sankey diagram can be split or combined at any point to showcase how quantities within a system can split after a certain change takes place.  In most cases, a color or divider is used to split the Sankey diagram into different categories depending on the nature of the data flow.

The thickness of a particular data flow is directly proportional to the magnitude of the flow. This mode of data visualization enables you to compare and contrast different data quantities that are flowing within an organization or business. Considering this mode of operation, the Sankey chart is the most ideal data visualization tool that can be used to display communication inside an abstract system.

Anytime you want to analyze the direction of your data flow, the Sankey chart gives you a chance to evaluate your data from different angles and assess how it flows from one point to the other, as well as the change that takes place. The chart can also point out the dominant contributors to the entire flow across the system. With a Sankey diagram, you can evaluate cases of inefficiencies within the data visualization system and find out the most ideal ways to solve the problem.

The color combinations used in the Sankey diagram make it an attractive mode of data visualization that your target audience will enjoy viewing. Since the chart displays data at different levels, analysts find it easier to analyze data from different perspectives before making conclusions. If you choose this mode of data visualization, you can acquire a Sankey diagram maker that is designed to do the job on your behalf.

Parallel Sets

Parallel sets were invented in 2005 by three scientists who wanted to use it to analyze their categorical data in a visual way. This mode of data visualization was mainly designed to analyze and extract insights from large volumes of data within minutes. It also has features that can visualize complex data sets and convert them into a simple language that a non-technical audience can understand without interpretation.

This mode of data visualization was mainly propelled by the parallel coordinate plot. After the tool was established, several changes were made on it to make it more advanced and accommodate large volumes of data. Parallel sets offer clear data output that data analysts can enjoy using. The tool contains parallel sets of lines that are outlined depending on the nature of the data under visualization.

On the chart, every set of data is represented with a coloured band, also known as a flow path. The lines are divided into nodes that reciprocate the number of data sets represented. The length of every line slit is mainly determined by the proportional fraction of the categorical data presented. Every line slit on the chart is used to represent a certain part of the whole data relationship.

The lines are outlined in a manner that they maintain the same length across the entire chart. Note that the lines can be divided further into multiple categories, depending on the data you intend to visualize and the nature of the results you intend to generate. Parallel sets are mostly used to showcase the distribution of data within a given system or organization.

Comparing the Differences

Considering the explanation given above, Sankey charts are mainly focused on determining the flow of data between different points. In other words, you can consider a Sankey chart as a simplified flowchart that is more advanced compared to a typical flowchart. What makes a Sankey diagram different from a flowchart is that it can involve different data cycles, which cannot be presented in a flowchart.

The direction of flow in a Sankey chart can split or combine at any point within the system, contrary to the parallel sets. A Sankey diagram is only dedicated to showing the flow of data, and it does not display a series of nodes across the system. When you want to build a Sankey diagram,  you only need access to a Sankey diagram maker, which will take responsibility for the remaining task.


When you evaluate the facts outlined in this article clearly, you will realize that there is a major difference between a Sankey chart and parallel sets. Even though the two may appear similar in appearance, they are two different tools that are used to achieve different goals. A Sankey diagram is specifically designed to show the flow of data between two different points or across the entire business environment.

On the other hand, parallel sets are used to show the distribution of data in an organization or business setting. Always keep in mind that the Sankey diagram and parallel sets are completely different aspects, although they are all data visualization tools.

This entry was published on Jul 02, 2024 / Charles Friedo. Posted in Data Analysis & Modeling. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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Charles Friedo posted on Tuesday, July 9, 2024 3:45 AM
Adding Some more info:

You can use a Sankey to visualize data from a wide range of industries, including:
Supply chain management
Marketing analysis
Visualizing Customer Journey
SWOT Analysis
Energy production Renewable Energy Chart
Business procedures
Expenditure on sectors like finance and budgeting
Cash Flow Analysis

Tools to create a Sankey chart:

Microsoft Power BI
Excel and Google Sheets (Using 3rd party add-ons like ChartExpo)
Online tools like SankeyMatic
Charles Friedo
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