Data Visualization Marathon: “How Might We Grow?”

Miguel Luengo-Oroz
Nov 22, 2011


Part of Global Pulse’s work is to catalyze and encourage new methods and approaches for analyzing and using information and data. In a world where we are saturated with data, the skillsets of information designers, infographic artists and visual thinkers will become increasingly valuable for presenting complex information in effective, memorable and easy to digest ways. In our ongoing quest to tap into and learn from these skills and innovations in data analysis, Global Pulse partnered with – a community of data visualization studetns and professionals – to host a 24-hour visualization challenge around global sustainability data.

The Challenge

Twenty years ago, 178 nations came together in Rio at the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (otherwise known as the “Earth Summit”) to discuss the connection between economic growth, the environment, and social equity. Taken together, these are the three pillars of what is known as “sustainable development.” The Earth Summit resulted in three landmark international conventions – on climate change, desertification and biodiversity – that have helped shape global policy on these issues ever since. Next year, the world will reconvene at the “Rio+20” Summit to assess how far we have come – or not come – in the past twenty years in advancing sustainable development.

This month, the Global Pulse team, together with the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, compiled a unique data set pulled from a variety of sources presenting development along the three pillars of sustainability: the economic, the social, and the environmental. challenged 17 teams of students from 9 local universities, including RISD, Columbia, NYU, and Pratt, to develop a data visualization that will help policymakers and the public rethink the connection between the economy, the environment, and social equity using that data set.

The Results

The participants did an amazing job in the challenge, resulting in 16 visualizations that summarize the richness and complexity of issues related to global sustainability. The judges could only select one winning team and two runners-up but our feeling is that all the works deserve praise as they each tell a different part of the story! You can view and interact with all of the entires here on's website, and below is a summary of the perspectives and reflections that were visualized in each of the projects:

The jury panel awarded the first place winning prize to the visualization entitled “Urban Leaks,” is a very elegant visualization that makes clear how we have done with the clean water challenge over the last 20 years and which are today’s challenges. An honorable Mention winning visualization, “E-CUBE-LIBRIUM 3D Sustainable Growth Solver” shows an original representation of indicators from the social, environmental and economic pillar mapped to a Rubik’s cube analogy applied to 12 different countries. And a second honorable mention prize was awarded to “PAST PROGRESS, FUTURE FORECAST?” is a nice static visualization that summarizes the evolution of our planet from the social equity, environmental, and economic perspectives using global average indicators.

Among the submissions, a few clustered themes emerged:

A number of the submissions provided a global look at global sustainability indicators. "Is Constant Growth Sustainable?" shows indications of global imbalance. It particularly highlights how economic, social and environmental resources are unequally distributed along the different countries. While "How Far Have We Come?: A Tool For Exploration" - compares indicators for the 25 most populated countries, and "A Room in a Country" allows the user to retrieve sustainability indicators in a country in a specific year.

Some of the teams focused on the issue of water explicitly. “20 Liters” illustrates in a very simple way why the pace of consumption of clean water in the developed world is not an option, and “GDP Versus Access to Clean Water” shows in an intuitive iconic video how GDP and clean water have been directly correlated in several countries.

Two of the entries focused on the theme of connectivity. For example, "Mobilizing Our Future" shows the adoption of mobile phones in the developing world and features several examples of how communities can be empowered using different mobile phone based applications. The compelling visualization "How Much is Too Much?" highlights countries with mobile phone usage higher than 100% thus highlighting the consumption related lifestyles of today.

Meanwhile, three of the visualizations tackled economic data. "4 Billion Shadow Economy" brings to light the important issue of billions of people working in the informal sector around the world. "Trade Flows Shape Our World" visualizes imports and exports to pinpoint the greatly changing relationships between areas of the world, and "What Does the World Need?" displays some of the changes that are happening today related to unemployment.

And finally, three of the teams zeroed in on important environmental indicators. "Climate Change" showcases the key concepts which drive the global climate change discourse through an interesting bubble representation. "The Forest Beyond The Trees" tells the story about how the relationship to the forest becomes more fragile. as the global population grows and nations develop. "Sustainability Does Grow on Trees" is a very stylish visualization that depicts the evolution of GDP, nutrition and deforestation. It demonstrates two possible futures: either with continuous deforestation or with replenished vegetation.

Our experience compiling the data, and supporting this Data Visualization Challenge demonstrated that sustainability is indeed a very complex issue, and the data can be approached from many different perspectives. Now that world leaders are reviewing what has happened over the last 20 years, we must set the frameworks and landscape for the next 20 and beyond. Today, we increasingly live in a context of volatility, with multiple fast-moving global social, economic and environmental changes happening all around us. Global Pulse is committed to finding ways to detect such shifts more quickly than is possible today by harnessing the latest innovations and skillsets that can help us parse through data in real-time and thus be able to course-correct when disconcerting trends emerge. After all, achieving global sustainability is a not just a sprint, but a marathon.

Miguel Luengo-Oroz is Global Pulse's New Data Scientist

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