A website in a modular structure?

I’m part of the team that is building the web publication Our World In Data that presents the empirical evidence on global development.

We present this evidence topic by topic – war, democracy, child mortality, higher education, corruption and so on. One reason why I wanted all of these different aspects in one publication is that they are all related: better education for women leads to lower child mortality for example.

These cross-connections are really at the heart of development: from education to democracy, from democracy to war, from war to public debt, from public debt to spending to education etc. etc.

 

Because development has this structure we increasingly run into a problem however. The link between education for women and child mortality should be part of both entries – the one on education for women and the one on child mortality. And currently we have a similar section in both entries.

But an ideal system for such a publication might be to write that section X which discusses the link between A and B and then this same section X is shown in both entries, entry A and entry B. These modules would be reusable blocks – we write them once and use them several times. In computer science this is referred to as transclusion.

The idea for a ‘modular structure’, as I put in the title, would be to write these bits in modules:

  • Education of women -> Child mortality
  • Education -> Democracy
  • Democracy -> Education
  • Education -> Health of children
  • Health of children -> Economic Growth
  • etc.

and then these modules are shown in the appropriate entries. Our current structure would work well since one module could always be headline-text-visualisation.

Other advantages:

– This structure would us also help to possibly solve a second problem, namely that our entries get very long and they are becoming hard to navigate. A structure that breaks them in pieces in a good way might be helpful.

– It would then be straightforward to recombine modules to other ‘articles’. Every module that is tagged ‘USA’, or ‘long-term perspective’, or ‘public good finance’ etc.

 

My main questions is has anyone seen some structure for a web publication like this on WordPress? Are there helpful examples that we could look at?

 

ADDED ON 20 FEB: In response to the request above I’ve received several very helpful emails. Many thanks for this!

One pointed to this WordPress plugin https://wordpress.org/plugins/insert-pages/ which seems to do what I had in mind. But I haven’t tried that plugin myself yet.

Don’t be fooled; the evidence does not suggest that democracy is bad for growth.

Trump is obsessed with comparisons of the US with China. In the last debate he said:  “China is growing at 7 percent. And that for them is a catastrophically low number. We are growing — our last report came out — and it’s right around the 1 percent level. And I think it’s going down. … Look, our country is stagnant.”

This post is about why Trump’s comparison of the US with China is not useful. More broadly I want to defend democracies against the mistaken argument that authoritarian countries perform better economically than democracies.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish between two different forms of economic growth – growth at the technological frontier and catch up growth. Secondly, it is important to distinguish between the level of prosperity (GDP per capita) and the growth of prosperity (growth of GDP per capita).

If we don’t distinguish we get all confused about what political systems make possible or impossible for growth.

 

Growth at the technological frontier is very, very hard and always slow. The US was always at the frontier over the last 2 centuries and average growth never exceeded 2%. (in the last 2 years it was 1.5% and 1.8% – source.)

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-09-54-38

Catch-up growth is different from that, it is all about adopting existing technology and making use of it at a large scale. Catch-up is hard enough – if we knew how to do it everywhere we would have ended extreme poverty long ago. But once a country starts to catch up it can improve living conditions very rapidly; growth can be much higher than 2% for extended periods. And from what we have seen over the last decades autocratic rule is not necessarily an impediment to catch-up growth for very poor countries.

The confusion comes from the fact that richer countries are much much more often democratic countries. (The only countries who are rich and autocratic have an economy that is relying on the exports of fossil fuels.)

If we don’t distinguish between the two forms of growth we are in danger of comparing the fast growth in autocracies with the slow growth in democracies and take away that autocracies are better for growth.

The key to understanding why China and others could grow so fast is not that they are autocratic but that they are very, very poor. China’s level of GDP per capita is only a quarter of the American GDP per capita.

Fast catch-up growth can only happen in poor countries. What determines the “growth advantage” of autocracies is not that autocratic countries work better but that autocratic countries are poor.

Catch up growth can only happen in poor countries and it is very misleading to do what Trump does and to compare a country on the technological frontier (the US) with a very poor country (China) that is catching up. This is a same confusion that leads people to believe the ‘old argument’ above.

A fundamental problem in social science is that all good things come together. Developed countries are richer, healthier, happier, better educated, more democratic etc. The trouble for researchers – and ultimately policy makers – is then to find out what causes what. There is some research that suggests that democratic rule – ceteris paribus – is good for growth, but I would not think the evidence for this causal relationship is overwhelmingly clear.

What is however clear is that there is no reason to believe that a rich country at the technological frontier would do better if it was autocratically ruled. This false idea comes from the confusion of catch-up growth with growth at the frontier.

Don’t be fooled by China or Donald Trump, autocratic rule is not good for growth.

OurWorldInData in 2016

It is great to see OurWorldInData growing! More aspects of how life on earth is changing are discussed and visualised and the technical framework of OurWorldInData.org is becoming much more powerful. (OurWorldInData.org is the web publication on global living conditions that I am working on for the last 4 years.)

As things are changing I wanted to look back on the last year and give an update on what is next.

 

It has been great to see that there is so much interest and enthusiasm about this publication. More than 200 articles have used and covered OurWorldInData, more than 1.5 million people have visited the website and it is shared on social media and – what I’m especially happy about – used in teaching.

To just pick out three recent articles on OurWorldInData:

  1. Quartz chose the OurWorldInData chart that shows the decline of global poverty over the last 2 centuries as the Chart of the Year 2015.
  2. The Guardian covered the web publication in a portrait of the work of Hans and Ola Rosling, Ruth DeFries, and me.
  3. The Edge Question of the Year 2016 is “What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news?” and Steven Pinker answered – in a fantastic essay – that  the most interesting scientific news is that human progress can now be quantified. Pinker explains perfectly why it is important that we need to communicate human progress and I am honored that he refers to OurWorldInData as a platform that presents this empirical evidence.

 

 

I have said it before, I will definitely continue my work on OurWorldInData.

The difficulty for this work is and remains who wants to fund this. Over the course of 2015 I had support from the London based Nuffield Foundation but this has now come to an end. For the future I still need to find support for this work, but at least for the next 6 months I have good news: for this time OurWorldInData will be based at the Oxford Martin School and supported by the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The idea of this short term funding is to find financial support that would make OurWorldInData possible over the longer future and now with a very capable and responsive administrative team I very much hope that this will be successful.

Next steps

The current situation is that I have a job for the next 6 months – supported by the two previously mentioned institutions – and I am able to work on this online publication for this time.

And then there is a second and really unexpected stream of support: In November the founder of the crowdfunding platform Tilt, James Beshara, used his platform to raise money to support OurWorldInData. And after one week 139 generous people actually gave money to OurWorldInData! Many thanks again to all of you who donated!

I want to use this money to support the very heart of OurWorldInData: The visualisation tool OurWorldInData-Grapher that makes this platform so useful to many of us. This way all of the many aspects covered on the website will be presented more clearly and we can use and learn better the available empirical evidence on how living conditions changed. To expand this tool I am looking for a new web developer:

New web developer position

The new web developer that I am looking for will focus on improving the data visualisations and the technical framework of OurWorldInData. I have just finished the job description today and you find all details here: http://bit.ly/OWID_WD

We are looking for a candidate as soon as possible. It might be worth mentioning that the position would also be suitable for web developers anywhere in the world since remote work is possible. If you are interested in joining me to build OurWorldInData or you know someone, please get in touch!

Thanks to the 4 previous collaborators!

Over some months in 2015 I had support from a fantastic team that helped to build this platform and I would like to thank each of them wholeheartedly for their work and for being such fantastic colleagues.

From May to September 2015 Lindsay Lee expanded the coverage of OurWorldInData – particularly on health and demographics – and made the content more consistent across the site. Her personal site is LindsayEvansLee.com. Lindsay continued her studies at the University of Oxford after her work at OurWorldInData and I wish her all the very best for her studies and her career – hopefully in global health.

In the summer of 2015 Julia Murphy, who is a student of economics and engineering at Dartmouth College, was contributing to this project as an intern. She focused on expanding the section ‘Media & Communication’ and very quickly helped to develop this project further.

From June to October 2015 Mohamed Nagdy – an economist who has invaluable quality of combining a thorough theoretical education in economics with strong empirical skills – helped to expand the content on the growth and distribution of incomes, economic development, violence, and education. Mohamed completed his MPhil in Economics in 2015 at the University of Oxford and after his work at OurWorldInData he went to London to work as an economist.

From May 2015 to January 2016 Zdenek Hynek expanded the capabilities of the web publication by building the OurWorldInData-Graper. He also overhauled the technical framework of OurWorldInData.org completely. I am very thankful for his work on this publication. Zdenek is a London-based web developer and with his very strong skills in the technologies that are used for visualising data on the web, including JavaScript, d3.js, php and SQL he is a sought-after web developer. He had several job offers and decided to join a top information design agency in London after his work for OurWorldInData.

Many thanks to Lindsay, Mohamed, Julia, and Zdenek!

Future funding

Unfortunately, it has not been possible yet to find funding that would make it possible to build a team that would work on  OurWorldInData for a longer time. But I will try to make this possible. What is certain is that it is a and will remain a public good: All data on OurWorldInData.org  is available for download. All visualisations done for OurWorldInData are Creative Commons licensed. And all tools are open source.

I will try my best to find funding for OurWorldInData and very much hope that one day OurWorldInData will be an open-access web publication, written for anyone interested in global development, that uses accessible data visualizations to present empirical research on living conditions around the world. The web publication will present the empirical evidence on how living conditions have changed and it will present the academic research that explains why. (I have published a funding request here.)

And – the last update –, after many people asked for this, it is now possible to support OurWorldInData with a donation.

 

 

This is the current situation at OurWorldInData and I wish you all the very best for 2016!

Kind regards,

Max