Generate your own Risk Characterization Theatre

October 24, 2010

(This article was first published on Stubborn Mule » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

In the recent posts Visualizing Smoking Risk and Shades of grey I wrote about the use of “Risk Characterization Theatres” (RCTs) to communicate probabilities. I found the idea in the book The Illusion of Certainty, by Eric Rifkin and Edward Bouwer. Here is how they explain the RCTs:

Most of us are familiar with the crowd in a typical theater as a graphic illustration of a population grouping. It occurred to us that a theater seating chart would be useful for illustrating health benefit and risk information. With a seating capacity of 1,000, our Risk Characterization Theater (RCT) makes it easy to illustrate a number of important values: the number of individuals who would benefit from screening tests, the number of individuals contracting a disease due to a specific cause (e.g., HIV and AIDS), and the merits of published risk factors (e.g., elevated cholesterol, exposure to low levels of environmental contaminants).

As regular readers would know, most of the charts here on the blog are produced using the statistics and graphics tool called R. The RCT graphics were no exception. Writing the code involved painstakingly reproducing Rifkin and Bouwer’s theatre floor plan (as well as a few of my own design, including the stadium). For the benefit of anyone who would like to try generating their own RCTs, I have published the code on github.

RCT (Shaded theatres)

Using the code is straightforward (once you have installed R). Copy the two files plans.Rdata and RCT.R onto your computer. Fire up R and switch to the directory containing the downloaded files. Load the code using the following command:


You will then have a function available called rct which will generate the RCTs. Try the following examples:

rct(18, type="theatre")
rct(18, type="stadium")
rct(c(10, 8, 5))

The rct function has quite a few optional parameters to tweak the appearance of the theatre:

rct(cases, type=”square”, border=”grey”, fill=NULL, xlab=NULL, ylab=””, lab.cex=1, seed=NULL, label=FALSE, lab.col=”grey”, draw.plot=TRUE)

  • cases: single number or vector giving the number of seats to shade. If a vector is supplied, the values indicate how many seats of each colour to shade. The sum of this vector gives the total number of seats shaded
  • type: the floor plan to be used. Current options are “square”, “theatre” (the original Rifkin and Bouwer floor plan), “stadium” and “bigsquare”
  • border: the color for the outlines of the floor plan
  • fill: vector of colours for shading seats. If no value is supplied, the default is a sequence of shades of grey
  • xlab: text label to appear below floor plan. Default is “x cases in n”
  • lab.cex: character expansion factor (see ‘par’) to specify size of text labels (if any) on the floor plan
  • seed: specify the starting seed value for the random number generator. Setting this makes it possible to reproduce exactly the same shaded seats on successive calls of rct
  • label: if TRUE, any text labels for the specified floor plan will be displayed
  • lab.col: colour used for any text labels
  • draw.plot: if this is FALSE, the RCT is not drawn and instead a data frame is returned showing the seats that would have been shaded and the colours that would have been used

Risk Characterization Stadium

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