Visualizing the UNDP Human Development Report

| January 9, 2012

On November 2, 2011, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released its newest Human Development Report, which provides a comprehensive data set on the overall well-being of nations. An important focus of the report is that the challenges of sustainability and equity are interlinked and therefore must be addressed together.  It includes a call for new approaches to global development financing and environmental controls. In order to visualize this interplay between sustainability and human development, the UNDP Human Development Report Office joined to issue a design challenge based on the report.

The Challenge

Participants were instructed to identify a particular issue or question within the HDR 211 data and visualize an analysis of it. The winner would be awarded a free trip to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, announced on the HDR site and, as well as be featured in a Winner’s Q&A.

The data set, which can be viewed here, includes the Human Development Index 2011, Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index 2011, Gender Inequality Index 2011, Multidimensional Poverty Index, and Sustainability indicators from the 2011 report. This is for nearly 200 countries over the last 3-4 decades.

On December 14, 2011, Worldshapin, by Carlo Zapponi and Vasundhara Parakh, was announced as the challenge winner. It features a radar chart with six axes, each of which represent selected indicators (education, population, health, workplaces equality, co2 emissions, and living standards).

Three entries were also chosen as honorable mentions, which are discussed in the results post on I’d like to focus on one of the honorable mentions: a piece by Jen Low called CHOICES: Global Human Development.

Choices: Global Human Development

CHOICES is a visualization by Jen Lowe, the founder of Datatelling, which is an exploratory data analysis and visualization studio. Her vision is to “combine story with data through visualization” in order to foster creative thinking and “solutions to hard problems.” Lowe has a background in information science and mathematics and currently provides data analysis and scientific programming for the Research Foundation at California State University.

Considering her background is in data analysis, CHOICES is particularly interesting because of its simplicity yet clarity of message. Using the four categories of the Human Development Index, Lowe created a slideshow of very simple charts and graphs that show disparities in developed v. underdeveloped regions from different angles (i.e.: education, pollution, life/death). What’s striking is her use of photography (all photos of the Democratic Republic of Congo) as the main design element, something I’ve seen very rarely in data visualization. The images are powerful and text is layered upon them.

Perhaps the design isn’t very complex and in some ways, reminds one of a series of postcards or pages in a coffee table book. Yet as a learning tool, the message is very clear and the data Lowe chose to represent from the report is very well organized. Most importantly the relationship between sustainability and human development is replete with examples that visual learners of all ages could certainly be likely to remember. Considering that the contest was motivated by a desire to project this call to action, a compelling combination of fact and image is important. That said, I think the photos serve the data well.