Seeing the World’s Economy Through Connections

Data scientists have tackled different ways to visually depict the economy since the field of data visualization was in its infancy. But the economic visualizations of today have come a long way since William Playfair’s simple 18th century line graphs and bar charts. Now, German NGO Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Global Economic Dynamics project has created a new online tool, called GED VIZ, that visualizes the world’s economy since 2000 as a network of ever-changing international relationships. The tool allows the user to see connections with several different economic indicators, including the amount of merchandise trade, migration and the value of bank claims tracked between countries. “While studying the European debt crisis already back in 2010, we bumped into the New York Times’ European Web of Debt infographic, which captured at a single glance the essence of what we had been researching for several weeks,” wrote Dr. Jan Arpe, the project manager, in an email to Visually. “To us, this was an eye-opener in two ways: We directly experienced the power of visualization in our specific working context (Global Economic Dynamics), and we became aware of the need to focus on relations and dependencies between countries rather than just country-specific figures such as GDP, unemployment etc. to really make sense of globalization.” The graphic itself is data rich, with most components visualizing several data points and small sparkline graphics to add context to static numbers. The lines showing connections between the various nations have a thickness proportional to the size of the exchange they’re representing, and have a hover feature that displays specific numbers and percentages. The years on the timeline double as quick comparisons of the size of the overall economy over time, and sum all the numbers in the graph for that year. What makes the visualization extra cool is its share-ability. On the right side of the screen is a “slideshow” option where a user can “capture” any screen of the visualization they want, and put it in a slideshow queue that can be shared by link, email, social media, or embedded directly onto a website with interactive capabilities. If you want to compare a grouped set of countries, say everyone in the Eurozone, there are already pre-built groups that prevent users from tediously going through the list and adding each individually. The best way to use the graphic is smaller groupings of countries, say 15 or fewer. With too many countries selected, the graphics become too small to be useful and the header starts to encroach into the graphic space. Otherwise, the graphic is clean, aesthetically pleasing, readable and easy-to-use. “We first built a prototype that showed debt relations over time only and that design-wise pretty much reflected the NYT infographic,” Arpe wrote. “After getting our extended requirements straight in several workshops until summer 2011, we started to develop the visual concept and design with Prof Boris Müller from the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam and Timm Kekeritz from the design agency Raureif.” The tool is easy to wander around in, and reveals interesting data, even if you only have one or two countries selected. Dr. Arpe said he was surprised to see “The immense emigration of Romanians, in particular,” after Romania joined the EU in 2007. Looking at the data shows in that year, Romania lost more than six times as many people as France, another EU emigration country with three times the population. Explore the data and make some slideshows yourself using the full tool below.

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