Short history of OurWorldInData – and where to go from now

Short history: Why I built OurWorldInData.org

About 4 years ago I started working on a book in which I wanted to take a long run perspective and show how the world is changing. There is a need for this since the journalism that informs most of us about how the world is changing is way too focused on current events. Journalists are reporting news – events that happen now – and the long trends that slowly but steadily shape our world are left out of the picture. ‘Industrial revolution happening right now‘ never was a headline.

A consequence of the focus on current events is that many have a very negative picture of how the world is changing – a negative event often happen in an instant (terrorist attack, industrial accident, or natural catastrophe) while most of the very positive events only move very slowly (child mortality or violence are declining over decades or centuries). The idea for the book was to show these long-term trends. I believe we should know these trends and understand what drives them so that we can learn from them and continue to build a better world.

To prepare the book project I started collecting empirical data and visualizations of data on everything that matters for our living conditions. I ended up with a lot of data: Now, after 4 years of data collection this is a database on more than 600 topics (air pollution, terrorism, dental health) and it includes probably around 10,000 visualizations on these topics.

Initially this data collection was just my preparation to write a good book. But when I started working in Oxford it was Tony Atkinson‘s idea that it would be useful to present the empirical evidence I collected freely available for everyone on the web. We came up with the plan to visualize the data and put these visualizations in context – why do these changes matter for us?, what are the limitations of the data?, what is driving these long-term changes? how are the trends interlinked? This is how I ended up building OurWorldInData.org.

For a long time it was my side project that I did in addition to my research on economic inequality. This changed when I told David Hendry about this. He was enthusiastic about it from the start and supported my work on this website. At his research program (EMoD) he gave me the freedom to split my time between research on inequality and the construction of the website. David was immensely helpful: He is one of the world’s top experts on time series econometrics and therefore the very best expert to have on a project that is all about a long run perspective on how things are changing. And he is doing empirical research on a huge range of topics (from the link between productivity and wages (VoxEU here) to research on climate change (together with Felix Pretis) so that he is informed about the many different topics that are covered at OurWorldInData.

It was also together with David that I applied for external funding for OurWorldInData. We applied at the Nuffield Foundation – an institution that is very successfully funding empirical research that is focusing on well-being. The Nuffield Foundation has a great track record of supporting research that matters for the public by getting the work done in research institutions out to a larger public.

Where are we now

The London based Nuffield Foundation gave us a grant to expand OurWorldInData over the course of this year and I’m very thankful for this opportunity. It allows me to devote more time on this project and crucially it means that I’m not doing the work alone anymore: OurWorldInData.org now has a team.

The new team

A month ago I started working with two very talented new colleagues. Lindsay Lee, who is helping to expand the content of the website and Zdenek Hynek, who is building a new framework for storing and presenting the data.

Lindsay is currently doing a MSc in Applied Statistics at Oxford and from September onwards she will continue to do a Master of Public Policy here. She just started working for OurWorldInData – in addition to the preparation for her statistics exams (!) – and she is already doing fantastically useful work for the project. I think she is such great help because she combines very strong quantitative skills  (she is a statistician) with a very good understanding of what the data tell us and why the data matter (she is also a public policy student). Lindsay will continue to work on the project and I’m very much looking forward to continue to work with her. We are planning to add a lot more content together – particular on the empirical evidence of how health is changing around the world.

And did you see the great example of how to combine visuals and text that she chose for the background of her website? She really is a great fit for the project.

 

Zdenek is a London based developer with very strong skills in the technologies that are used for visualizing data on the web. He knows his JavaScript, d3.js, php, SQL, – but don’t take my word for it, have a look yourself: Here are two past projects of Zdenek that I like a lot:

CzechCrime.org visualizes the data on crime in the Czech Republic. It is a great example for the kind of job where visualization is useful: yes, the data has been available for some time, but it is only now after you build a useful tool that this data can actually tell you something.

ecotrust Canada is an example for Zdenek’s skills to design clean, useful websites. I also like the way that maps are used in this site to highlight the work that the ecotrust is doing.

One of biggest problems of the current technical framework of OurWorldInData is that each visualization has to be done individually: A spreadsheet with the data has to be prepared and then you have to write a page of html and javascript to visualize the data stored in this file. This means a lot of manual work to add one visualization and it is also very cumbersome to update figures with new data.

Zdenek is building a system that will eliminate this tedious, not-scalable process. He is essentially creating two tools: A first tool that allows us to upload data into one central SQL database (as opposed to the current system of individual unconnected csv files). And a second tool with which we can then pull any of the data from this database and visualize it in an interactive chart.

Next week we are planning to use this new system for the first time! Zdenek’s job is absolutely fundamental for the future of this web publication and it has been fantastic to work with him.

 

This is what is happening here in our office in Oxford – do you have additional ideas for our work? Are you missing anything on OurWorldInData? Do you have ideas or requests for our work? – Please tell us via the commentary section below!

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