Better living through data visualizations? A new web app called “Spark” claims to improve your body through data viz. And art. And a gizmo called a fitbit. Whatever you call it, it’s both interesting and scary. If you have the time to spare (and, presumably, the calories), you can purchase the fitbit gizmo to track your every physical movement to help you get a very, very detailed sense of your physical activity throughout the seconds and minutes of your life. Really. People do this.
Okay, enough of that. What’s interesting is the use of data visualization to emotionally inspire people to keep moving, walking, jogging, or whatever people do who don’t have enough sense to ride a bike.
Upload your fitbit data (remember that’s the gizmo you have to purchase and presumably wetwire into the back of your skull) to your computer or tablet, log into “Spark” and you’ll be rewarded with piles of visualizations reflecting your activity level. In real time (using the fitbit API, Raphael and HTML5 Canvas). Please ignore the fact that Spark is hosted on a website with a url that begins with “QuantifiedSelf.com.” Apparently data vis is headed for greener pastures.
Sarcasm aside, Spark provides an interesting example of how data visualization can extend into nontraditional paths. More power to ‘em, I say.
It is by now a cliché to to point out how developing countries most in need of what data journalism provides–a credible, fact-based approach that cuts through the noise of bias to help average citizens become informed participants in the problem-solving processes of improving social-political challenges–is not (quite) manifesting itself where it is most needed. Yeah, that’s a long sentence. But Bolivia is a case in point.
A search for data visualization in Bolivia yields mostly European NGOs posting myriad Tableau and GoogleMap visualizations about the usual statistics on health and economy–laudable efforts in their own right, but not a good representation of the state of information and data visualization in Bolivia proper.
To find what Bolivians are doing, you need lots of time and a high level of tolerance for dead links. But it’s out there. As a recent example, Bolivian@s Globales produced a modern, candid video on the state of Bolivia. It’s a solid blend of information and optimism, and shows us what today’s Bolivians are capable of producing in the digital space.
And–in a country where where the government can be reliably counted upon to discourage openness and transparency–multimedia, even the simple use of video, is critical. Fortunately, there is evidence that digital journalism is growing. The major papers went online years ago, but more importantly, there are now digital journalism sites and signs that Bolivian bloggers are growing, both in quality and in numbers.
Crowdsourcing, mapping and social media in Bolivian elections
Sadly, one of the most encouraging examples of data visualization and social media in Bolivia went dark, but the screenshots and documentation that remain are encouraging. In 2009, Voces Bolivianas and other Bolivians began using data visualization to monitor Bolivian elections (Elecciones 2.0 Bolivia). See how monitoring was crowdsourced through GoogleMaps:
Bolivia (as well as other developing nations and rural communities in the U.S.) faces another challenge–reliable internet speeds. A recent Bolivian infographic (in Spanish) describes the problem and the social media citizen lobbying effort (Mas y major internet en Bolivia–Better and more Internet in Bolivia) to address it.
I’ll be honest. As I was researching information for this post, I found myself frustrated with the fact that, after days of searching, I couldn’t easily point to a few examples of cutting edge data visualization pieces. There was a part of me that wanted to say to the world, “see, we’re doing it too, you just haven’t found us.” But I’m walking away from this experience with a much more sober understanding of the challenges that Bolivians face. I’m not a journalist. I no longer live in Bolivia. I don’t have to deal with civil unrest, strikes, sketchy Internet access and the uneasy history that Bolivian governments have bequeathed to journalists and citizens concerned with civil liberties and human rights.
The willingness of Bolivians to put in the sweat equity to learn, exploit and disseminate these technologies is self-evident and encouraging.
The next steps, as I see them? Helping Bolivian journalists continue to embrace data journalism, raising awareness of open source data platforms such as Tableau and Ushahidi, and empowering today’s technology-minded Bolivians to learn how to turn information into power through openness and transparency. I’d be most interested in hearing from you on how this is happening and look forward to writing more about it.