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…