How we helped the UN use #dataviz for social change
29 November 2017
Data capture and analysis
Working in the city of innovation, San Francisco, I’m surrounded by big tech giants and people who strive to make the world a better place. Early last year, Helena Price, a Silicon Valley photographer, started a project "Techies." She interviewed and took 100 portraits of underrepresented minorities who work in tech. Her project challenged the stereotypes and encouraged tech companies to hire a more diverse workforce.
Her message “everyone can leverage her/his own strength to make a difference” inspired me to initiate my personal project #VizforSocialGood. I created a series of data visualizations that illustrate challenges women face and shared them on Twitter to promote gender equality. After giving a talk about #VizforSocialGood at the Tableau Conference last November, I received a great amount of interest from the audience in contributing their skills. Therefore, I decided to transform my small project into a community that helps mission-driven organizations harness the power of data visualization for social change.
In the past 10 months, Viz for Social Good has grown into a community with more than 500 volunteers globally. We have partnered with several organizations, including the United Nations Children's Fund to visualize and increase awareness of the child refugee crisis; the United Nations Development Programme to analyze people’s views on poverty, inequality, and climate change to influence global leaders; and Stanford University to identify factors holding women back in science, technology engineering and math.
Getting the conversation started with the UN Development Group
During my quest to build partnerships with nonprofits, I stumbled upon the United Nations Development Group’s Data Visualization Contest sponsored by Tableau. I saw this as a sign that the UN was craving for data visualization, and thus I reached out and proposed a collaboration.
In the first conversation with the UNDG team, I was impressed by their enthusiasm for data. I also saw countless, untapped opportunities for data visualization that could empower staff to carry out their missions. This conversation ignited my desire to bridge the data literacy and technology gap for the UN. That’s how we started our journey!
The fun and not so fun bits
For this particular project with UNDG, our goal was to scope the UN Country Teams’ external partnerships and topics that they were working on in 2017. We quickly discovered that the data had 445 columns, and thus reshaping data was needed.
We also learned that some of the value in the data were entered manually by staff, so the data was not always consistent. Therefore, it took us some time to “clean up” the data and make sure that the value is consistent across the board (for more details you can check Michael Mixon blog Anatomy of a Viz).
Having said that, we truly enjoyed working with the UNDG team! They were genuinely curious about learning everything on data and data visualization (as proof, you can check the recording of our webinar where we got more than 200 participants!). Their passion was contagious and encouraged all of us to keep moving forward with this project. It’s certainly fulfilling to see how our visualizations have been used to educate people internally and externally, and have helped the team understand their own data.
Getting involved with Viz for Social Good
First the good news: anyone can become a volunteer. Viz for Social Good is a community, not a competition, that allows everyone to enjoy creating visualization while making a positive impact. Each project is just like a virtual hackathon -- we receive a data visualization project request from nonprofit, we share the project with the community online, and anyone who is passionate about the social cause can jump in. People can then share their data visualizations on Twitter using the hashtag #VizforSocialGood. It’s always fun to see how each volunteer analyzes and interprets the same data in a very different way.
Next year, for nonprofits, we want to scale our impact by not only designing visualizations for them but also strengthening their skills through presentations and trainings. Also, we would like to get involved with many other more social causes that we haven’t worked on this year, such as LGBT issues, racism, and wildlife.
For volunteers, we hope to provide them more growth opportunities through in-person hackathons in their areas. Our community mostly connects virtually, so we would like to have local events for people to get together, talk about a social cause, and visualize it.