Visualizing the Voices of Vulnerable Populations in Times of Global Crisis

| September 16, 2011

During the summer of 2010, UN Global Pulse, an innovation initiative in the Executive Office established by the Secretary-General, launched an unprecedented, large-scale SMS survey to participants in 5 countries around the world: India, Iraq, Mexico, Uganda, and Ukraine. The study aimed to gather data about how people in these different regions are coping with the ongoing impacts of the global economic crisis. Researchers hope that gathering such data will aid a larger effort to develop a contemporary approach to real-time crisis impact monitoring that uses emerging technologies.

The Study

Data was collected between May and August 2010 through 5-question mobile-phone surveys comprised of the following two multiple choice questions and three open-ended questions texted consecutively as answers were received: (1) In the past year, meeting your household needs has been: Easier, Same, More Difficult, Very Difficult. (2) In the past year, how has the (insert country) economic situation changed?: Better, Same, Worse, Much Worse. (3) What has been the greatest change you had to make to meet your household needs this past year? (4) How has your quality of life changed over the past year? (5) In one word, how do you feel about your future?

The Visualization Challenge

In July 2011, survey results were presented through an interactive visualization proposal challenge conducted by the UN and Visualizing.org. Over 20 submissions were received from various designers, whose mission it was to create clear, informative, creative visualizations of the data in answer to one or more of the following questions: (1) How do people in different nations describe their quality of life? (2) What types of changes do people make in order to cope with economic uncertainty? (3) How do individuals perceive their future outlook? Supplementary data from the UNDP Human Development Index and the World Bank Country Level Economic Data Sets were provided for designers to contextualize survey results.

The Winning Artist

On August 9th, 2011, Elena Paunova was selected as the challenge winner by a jury of representatives from UN Global Pulse and Visualizing.org, for her “uniquely compelling vision” of the data sets. See Paunova’s full visualization here.

Paunova is a New York based designer and graduate of Parsons The New School for Design. Passionate about science, religion and history, she’s most interested in working with large data sets and finding a way to achieve the challenging combination of quantitative and qualitative information into cohesive visual systems. Because the survey results are entirely based on human perceptions, and the economic and human development indicators provided as supplemental data are entirely objective, her visualization for this project is a striking piece of data art that achieves just that combination. It was selected because she achieves both a micro and macro view of the data set and she draws juxtapositions that immediately surface intriguing questions.

For example, the visualization starts with an overview of human development and economic statistics for each of the five countries, juxtaposed with graphs that color responses to the second survey question: In the past year, how has the economic situation in your country changed? The viewer is immediately compelled to consider the relationship literacy, poverty, life expectancy and unemployment rates have with peoples’ perception of their country’s economic situation.

Paunova presents the next level of data in a colored grid of individual responses to the first question in each of the countries: In the past year, meeting your household needs has been: easier, same, more difficult, very difficult. Again, she sets up an interesting comparison by providing the verbatim responses to the three subsequent open-ended questions for each “person” on the grid, when you mouse over their position. In this manner, Paunova is able to simultaneously highlight a trend in the overall numbers while illuminating individuals’s stories conveyed through the text messages. The result: humanized data.

Her visualization also offers a summary page that details the frequency of rhetoric used in the open-ended responses in total and per region.

Paunova has arrived at an important achievement in her data visualization: the preservation of all data, including access to each text message in its entirety, rather than only overviews of the results than can be charted. Edward Lee of Visualizing.org writes, “Exploring at this level of detail intimately connects you to the triumphs and challenges of the anonymous respondents, conveying a sense of personal contact rarely found in data visualization.” The viewer is granted access to an overview of the data and also invited to explore the details in depth if he or she so wishes.

The potential value of this kind of data collection and visualization is enormous. Miguel Luengo-Oroz, Global Pulse’s Data Scientist and one of the jury members for the challenge, writes, “This kind of fast paced survey methodology fits into our work directly, as we are looking for early indicators of stress, which can alert us to when a community is changing its collective behavior due to the effects of global shocks like food, fuel and financial crises.” Global Pulse hopes that understanding these indicators will help the UN be able to develop more “agile and targeted policies” for protecting vulnerable peoples.