Working with UNICEF to Visualize Urban Population Growth and the State of the World’s Children

We recently partnered with UNICEF to help support the launch of their flagship yearly assessment, The State of the World’s Children. The 2012 report focuses on the inequalities children face in towns and cities around the world, and is a gripping assessment of the effect of urbanization on youth.

The report is extensive (156 pages) and contains excellent data on several topics, including population growth, children’s rights, migration, environmental and physical impacts, poverty, and education, among others. There are over one billion children living in urban poverty.

To help visualize some of this information, we used their global population data to map the growth of over 100 countries around the world since 1950. We also projected the population growth to 2050, and visualized what percentage of each country’s total population is specifically urban.

The result is a simple, but effective visualization that demonstrates three somber points: global population rates are increasing, cities are expanding, but the world isn’t getting larger.

Working with an organization as large and globally established as UNICEF was a great experience for us for obvious reasons. It was also eye-opening, because they asked us to work very quickly, something we don’t typically do.

We developed the Urban World visualization in about two weeks, while we were also working on a companion Facebook application to put a different perspective on the report.

The whole project was done in less than four weeks, and for us, working that nimbly was a great reminder that you need to keep the importance of the message in front of whatever you do. Sometimes it’s just more important to make sure the message is widely available, and quickly.

To develop the Facebook application, we used statistics from the State of the World’s Children report to help people imagine what it would be like to be a child growing up in urban poverty today, as seen through the filter of their own Facebook friends.

We often make data visualization tools that allow visitors to sort, parse and explore the data in rich detail, but for this application we decided to take a different approach. We decided that the statistics were powerful enough and didn’t need a visual metaphor.

After thinking about it, we felt the most powerful method of presenting the information would be to create a way for people to put themselves in the place of the children, to imagine what their lives must be like. To imagine what it would be like if their friends were the ones they were reading about, instead of anonymous children in a far off country.

Being exposed to statistics like these, presented in a way that allows you to imagine and empathize, to feel, connect, and be compelled to want to talk about it, – that is a much better way to visualize this information than through any set of data exploration tools that we could have made, had we not been given what seemed like an impossible deadline.

So we’re grateful that we were asked to work outside of our comfort zone. We learned a lot, and gained a new perspective.

Sometimes, you just need to keep the importance of the message in front of whatever you do.

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