I like playing with data. One of my favourite tools is Gapminder, which allows you to plot graphs with any of a large number of country-by-country indicators, and even animate the graphs to see how they change over time. For example, looking at their CO2 emissions data, I could plot CO2 emissions against population (notice the yellow and red dots at the top: the US and China respectively – both with similar total annual emissions, but the US much worse on emissions per person). Press the ‘play’ button to see everyone’s emissions grow year-by-year, and play around with different indicators.

Gapminder looks good, but it’s lacking a narrative – these various graphs are only really interesting when used to tell a story. You get some sense of how to add narrative with the videos of presentations based on Gapminder, for example, this gapcast, which creates a narrative around the CO2 emissions data for the US and China.

But narrative on its own isn’t enough. We also need a way to challenge such narratives. For example, the gapcast above makes it clear that China’s gross annual emissions caught up with the US in the last couple of years, largely because of China’s reliance on coal as a cheap source of electricity. But what it doesn’t tell you is that a significant chunk (one fifth) of China’s emissions are due to carbon outsourcing: creation of goods and services exported to the west. In other words, one fifth of China’s emissions really ought to be counted as belonging to the US and Europe, because it’s our desire for cheap stuff that leads to all that coal being burnt. Without this information, the Gapminder graphs are misleading.

The only tool I’ve come across so far for challenging narratives in this way is: the blog. Many of my favourite blog posts are written as reactions (challenges) to someone else’s narrative. Which leads me to suggest that the primary value of a blog isn’t so much the contents per se, but the way each post creates new links between existing chunks of information, and adds commentary to those links. Now if only I had a tool for visualizing those links, so I could get an overview of who’s commenting on what, without having to read through thousands of blog posts…

Taking breaks, staying healthy
Serendipity is One!

3 Comments

  1. Check out the Google Public Data stuff too; they let you animate bubble graphs, map-graphs with bubbles and colors (and bears, oh my!), embed them in a post (and it has an option to always use the most recently available data when the page loads); pretty neat.

    [Cool, thanks! Possibly even better than Gapminder - Steve]

  2. @jstults
    I have the pleasure to brief on our Data Visualization software “Trend Compass”.

    TC is a new concept in viewing statistics and trends in an animated way by displaying 5 axis (X, Y, Time, Bubble size & Bubble color) instead of just the traditional X and Y axis. It could be used in analysis, research, presentation etc. In the banking sector, we have Deutsche Bank New York as our client.

    Link on Chile’s Earthquake (27/02/2010):

    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/EarthQuakeinChile/

    This a link on weather data :

    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/aims/

    This is a bank link to compare Deposits, Withdrawals and numbers of Customers for different branches over time ( all in 1 Chart) :

    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/bank-trx/

    Misc Examples :

    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/airline/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/stockmarket1/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/tax/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/football/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/swinefludaily/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/flu/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/babyboomers/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/bank-trx/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/test/v2/advertising/

    This is a project we did with Princeton University on US unemployment :
    http://www.epicsyst.com/main3.swf

    A 3 minutes video presentation of above by Professor Alan Krueger Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University and currently Chief Economist at the US Treasury using Trend Compass :
    http://epicsyst.com/trendcompass/princeton.aspx?home=1

    Latest financial links on the Central Bank of Egypt:

    http://www.epicsyst.com/trendcompass/samples/Aggregate-balance-sheet/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/trendcompass/samples/balance-sheet
    http://www.epicsyst.com/trendcompass/samples/banks-deposits-by-maturity/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/trendcompass/samples/egyptian-banks/
    http://www.epicsyst.com/trendcompass/samples/currency-by-denomination/

    I hope you could evaluate it and give me your comments. So many ideas are there.

    You can download a trial version. It has a feature to export EXE,PPS,HTML and AVI files. The most impressive is the AVI since you can record Audio/Video for the charts you create.

    http://epicsyst.com/trendcompass/FreeVersion/TrendCompassv1.2_DotNet.zip

  3. “In other words, one fifth of China’s emissions really ought to be counted as belonging to the US and Europe, because it’s our desire for cheap stuff that leads to all that coal being burnt.”

    Unfortunately, not quite that simple. Supply-side stuff plays a role: for instance, China has – for many sectors – a policy of subsidising exports and keeping its currency at a level designed to push those exports. Hmm… I suppose, though, if we were forced to place the buck somewhere, it would have to be the buyer. Though note that wouldn’t seem to place any direct onus on the producer to be carbon-efficient.

    Damn, this stuff is complicated. I went to a talk by Lord Stern last night: he’s off to China, and apparently they have some amazing new tools for analysing all this. As you can imagine, they’re quite keen to do what you suggest: make carbon outsourcing a vital part of future carbon accounting.

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