Visualizing a citizen-driven data revolution


How visualizations can empower citizens of developing countries and help to meet the SDGs

As one of three runners-up in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) visualization contest, I was invited to attend the Cartagena Data Festival in Colombia. During this three-day festival, government representatives, academics, technical innovators and NGO representatives came together to try to answer the question “how to do good with data?”

How to do good with data? How to do good with data?

Most developed countries have a rich history of collecting statistical information, whether about the size of the population, economic growth, healthcare or government spending. All are valuable metrics to use when determining new policies, as well as to hold governments to account for their actions. But collecting this kind of data is difficult for many developing countries, something that needs to improve in order to help them successfully meet the challenging Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are in need of good data, both for shaping policy and to validate its effectiveness, so getting a grip on data is vital for countries’ development.

Fortunately, recent developments in the data field have provided interesting new opportunities for collecting data. We now generate a lot of data in ways not previously known to us, such as the data left by our mobile phones or information from social media platforms. Bogdan State, for instance, showed us at...

Zolabo wins UN visualization competition


With its ‘Human Development Tree’ Zolabo emerged as the proud winner of a visualization competition organized by the United Nations Development Programme as part of the Cartagena Data Festival. According to the judges, the visualization’s winning features were its gamification and interactive elements, which allowed people to actively engage with the subject – the Human Development Index.

the "Human Development Tree" visualization is the winner of the UNDP contest the "Human Development Tree" visualization is the winner of the UNDP contest

As one of three finalists, I was invited to Colombia take part in the festival – a three-day conference about the use of data for development purposes. It was a fascinating event that made me realize that there is a clear need for good visualizations within the area of development. In another article on this blog you can learn more about what I gleaned at the conference.

During the festival there was a gala dinner at the beautiful castle of San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena, where the finalists each presented their visualization to the guests before Zolabo was announced as the winner. This memorable evening finished with a dance show and drinks at the top of the castle, affording guests stunning views of the city of Cartagena.

It was a great honor to win the competition and I hope that it will lead to new opportunities for Zolabo to create meaningful work in the field of development. The conference made me realize that there are so many good...

Zolabo Human Development Tree


Envisage a perfect world. Every country would be able to offer its inhabitants acceptable living standards, based on life expectancy, education, income, and gender equality.  

Envisage the perfect world as a tree. The tree – the world – would feature a strong trunk and healthy branches, holding aloft a canopy of fresh leaves – the countries. 

Using this tree metaphor, Zolabo has applied data from the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) to produce a striking and thought-provoking interactive tool representing the varying HDI of countries across the world since 1985. Developed by economist Amartya Sen, the HDI is the ultimate measure by which the living standards of countries are compared (based on life expectancy, education, income and, more recently, gender equality), stimulating debate about government policies and their effectiveness.  

Screenshot of web app "Tree of Human Development" Screenshot of web app "Tree of Human Development"

At the start of the visualization, a user is asked to set their own worldwide criteria for life expectancy, education, income and gender equality, within defined parameters. Once this is done, the user is informed which country has the closest HDI to their criteria, then – after selecting their favourite color – he or she is presented with a stunning 3D representation of their ideal tree; healthy and smothered in leaves.

Then comes the shock value. The clock turns straight back to 1985 and many, if not all, of the leaves tumble to the ground, leaving the branches of the tree bare; a sobering image, demonstrating how the worldwide standard of living three decades ago was much lower than it is today.

As the clock moves forward in time, leaves start floating up to settle on the branches of the tree. Pass your cursor over a leaf and you will learn which country it represents and that country’s HDI and GII (Gender Inequality Index). The shades of...

Urban expansion in Asia


As part of the challenge to visualize urban expansion in East Asia I've been working on a visualization. I have now finished creating an interactive map that shows the population distribution in the region. There are still some other ideas I like to continue with and work out. But in the meantime I thought it was a good idea to write down a bit about the project so far.

Interactive visualization on urban expansion in Asia Interactive visualization on urban expansion in Asia

My goal with this visualization is to gain insight in how people move within the country mainly considering the urban regions. The main questions I like to answer are: where do people come from? Why are they moving this way? And can we use that knowledge to predict future changes?

The first thing to do was creating a map to see how the population is distributed around the different countries. The data I used came from World Pop and consists of raster files with number of inhabitants per pixel (aprox. 1 ha). This raw information had several issues: first because of its large resolution the file is hard to handle. Second the high values in cities make the smaller values in rural areas almost invisible. Third the large amount of speckle makes it hard to see the global picture and draw conclusions. I decided to try creating a map have contours of places with the same amount of people per square km. I wanted to remove the noise and then draw smooth contour...

FITC Amsterdam


A conference about “design, technology and cool shit” in Amsterdam, that's something I just can't ignore. For two days (February 23 and 24, 2015) Pakhuis de Zwijger was the setting for the eight edition of FITC Amsterdam. The program was packed with exciting, fun, but above all inspiring presentations.

From the introduction movie – which was projected on 9 screens – to the final presentation by Jessica Walsh I was flooded with beautiful visuals. There is no doubt the spearkers of FITC know very well the meaning of 'cool shit'. What made this conference different was that most of the creative output was driven from technology. Here technology wasn't just used as a mean to get the result, but it became the concept or any way a fundamental part of it.

FITC Amsterdam FITC Amsterdam

Steve Vranakis from Google Creative Lab did talk about this specifically in his presentation. In his experience as an art director he noticed that 'coders' often are very creative people (I agree!). In the current society where technology plays such a big role, technology should also be an important theme in art. Although technological driven art exists for many years, Steve tries to gain wider support within society for the theme with some awesome projects from the Creative Lab.

Technology powers creativity
Technology powers creativity says Steve Vranakis - picture @_iamChris

Creativity is not only important in art projects. The importance of creativity in innovation was emphasized in the presentation by Nicola Bortignon. Playing creatively with technology can result in valuable new ideas. By asking questions like “What can you do with 20 dollars?” Google tries to spark creativity. This question for example led to a carton virtual reality kit in which you can slide your...

Statistical data from CBS


English translation will follow soon.

Zolabo ondersteund LocalFocus bij het realiseren van een automatische import functie van tabellen van het CBS. Het data-persbureau LocalFocus verzamelt journalistiek relevante data en biedt een platform voor datajournalistiek. Via dit platform kunnen nieuwsdiensten gemakkelijk inzichtelijke visualisaties maken. Nu het CBS sinds kort haar ruim 3000 datasets binnen StatLine beschikbaar heeft gemaakt via een open API, leek het LocalFocus een goed idee deze data geautomatiseerd beschikbaar te maken in hun eigen Platform.

An example of a LocalFocus visualization used on NRC Q using data from CBS An example of a LocalFocus visualization used on NRC Q using data from CBS

Zolabo is bezig geweest deze koppeling te realiseren. De API die het CBS gebruikt de OData interface. Het idee was een interface te ontwikkelen waarin de datajournalisten van LocalFocus een taak kunnen aanmaken en gefilterde gegevens direct in LocalFocus kunnen gebruiken. In een paar klikken moet het mogelijk worden om van de complexe datastructuur van het CBS te komen tot een eenvoudige set relevante getallen om te gebruiken in een kaart, staafdiagram, lijngrafiek of één van de andere visualisatie opties in LocalFocus.

De uitdaging voor Zolabo was dus om een generieke methode te ontwikkelen om het selecteren en filteren van de data zo eenvoudig mogelijk te kunnen doen. Om dit te bereiken moet het volgende gebeuren:

  • Het snel kunnen vinden van de juiste dataset uit het ruime aanbod.
  • Een overzicht geven van de structuur van de dataset
  • Het kunnen kiezen welke gegeven te selecteren, gezien de meeste datasets veel verschillende type waarden bevat die...

Ranking dutch hospitals


Each year the news magazine Elsevier publishes a ranking of Dutch hospitals, based upon around 1400 indicators. Zolabo created an interactive tool to give medical professionals insight into how the researchers determined the end scores.

Sunburst of catagorized indicators Sunburst of catagorized indicators

The app offers three base screens. One with an overview of hospitals, one with an image to show how scores are build up and ease of identifying problems, and the last for more in depth analysis. The tools starts to give you an overview of all hospitals with their ranking on the main domains.

ziekenhuizen visualisatie

Once a hospital is selected you can view a sunburst diagram showing the results of all the indicators in one image. Using colour you'll see how this hospital scores relatively to others (you can choose to which group you want to compare) and you see how this is reflected in the final scores. Selecting a category in the circle lets you zoom in with a smooth animated transition.

ziekenhuizen visualisatie

Continue to zoom in and you get to the lowest level: the indicator. This is the actual question the hospitals had to answer and is the source data for this research. An overview gives you the input value and shows how this hospital scores compared to others.

ziekenhuizen visualisatie

In the last...