Background A visualization referred to as rainfall plot has recently gained popularity in genome data analysis. The plot is mostly used for illustrating the distribution of somatic cancer mutations along a reference genome, typically aiming to identify mutation hotspots. In general terms, the rainfall plot can be seen as a scatter plot showing the location of events on the x-axis versus the distance between consecutive events on the y-axis. Despite its frequent use, the motivation for applying this particular visualization and the appropriateness of its usage have never been critically addressed in detail. Results We show that the rainfall plot allows visual detection even for events occurring at high frequency over very short distances. In addition, event clustering at multiple scales may be detected as distinct horizontal bands in rainfall plots. At the same time, due to the limited size of standard figures, rainfall plots might suffer from inability to distinguish overlapping events, especially when multiple datasets are plotted in the same figure. We demonstrate the consequences of plot congestion, which results in obscured visual data interpretations. Conclusions This work provides the first comprehensive survey of the characteristics and proper usage of rainfall plots. We find that the rainfall plot is able to convey a large amount of information without any need for parameterization or tuning. However, we also demonstrate how plot congestion and the use of a logarithmic y-axis may result in obscured visual data interpretations. To aid the productive utilization of rainfall plots, we demonstrate their characteristics and potential pitfalls using both simulated and real data, and provide a set of practical guidelines for their proper interpretation and usage.
This item's license is: Attribution 4.0 International