See the World Rebalancing with PopTech's Data Viz App

Make your own New York Times "news memory map" and plug into data from young people in the developing world.

This year's PopTech conference in Camden, Maine is exploring how the world is "rebalancing" from volatile times to a new equilibrium, one we can't quite predict or grasp just yet. So naturally, organizers built a slick new iPad app to help us sort it all out.

Andrew Zolli, the head of PopTech, unveiled the app this morning, telling the audience that there is a data revolution underway, and "one of the things it is transforming is the way we tell stories."

The app was built with some heavy hitting partners, including the United Nations and The New York Times.

"For news to emerge from unstructured data, it requires us to insert ourselves," Michael Zimbalist of the Times' R&D Lab says. "News exists at the intersection of the past and the present, and while news is experienced collectively, we want to bring to it our personal experiences."


The most immediately engaging of the app's four features is the intuitive, personalizable way to explore the vast New York Times archives Zimablist and his team have created—they call it your own personal "news memory map." It's part game for dorks, part proof of concept on the future of data visualization.

After a little clicking and tapping to provide information about yourself—when you were born, where you lived while in high school, whether you're retired or still working—a stream of headlines and front page images flows by, asking you to add the oft-elusive element of meaning.

The app asks you to say what news events “had meaning” to you, using the information to populate a scroll of news events the app figures shaped your life. Watch out: This can be a time suck for news junkies as images and forgotten red letter days pop up in front of you, triggering buried memories—remember Nancy Kerrigan, Amy Fisher, Ross Perot, New Kids on the Block? It can even overlay these points with various trend lines demonstrating how frequently the paper mentions the word “war,” and offers links to summaries of the stories (full articles are behind a pay wall).

Future updates to the app could make these memory maps shareable with friends. They could even feed back on the Times archives themselves, helping the Gray Lady sort through its own content and present it in digital form for the ages.

The app's other exciting feature is an unfolding interactive infographic on the state of the developing world—in PopTech parlance, hints of how the world will "rebalance."

It's designed as a game, but it will immerse you in data on jobs, economics, health, and technology use. You might find, on a slick world map dotted with pie charts, that Kenya and Uganda are the world leaders, percentage-wise, when it comes to buying goods and transferring money via cell phone. The U.S. is not included in these surveys, but it’s safe to say we’re nowhere close to the 50 percent of Nigerian respondents who handle commerce, much less Kenya's 92 percent.

"The most important design principle was to present complex and nuanced information in a clear, accessible, relatable way," says Sarah Brooks of Hot Studio. Her firm designed the app and its ability to zoom down to country-level information. "We hope the platform will grow over time, enable reflection on our interconnectedness as people and spark conversation."

Powered by a young company, Jana, the data comes from global text message surveys designed to reach people who aren't always included in NGO studies.

PopTech teamed up with United Nations Global Pulse to develop survey questions that hadn’t been asked before and wouldn’t be asked by the usual Jana customer—companies looking for marketing insights. Jana pays respondents for filling out surveys with fresh cell phone minutes to get high response rates.

It is "very exciting to get a chance to demonstrate the power of mobile phones as a lens into unserved, understudied populations," Jana founder Nathan Eagle says.

Jana send out the questions on Tuesdays, and get responses back almost instantly. The information can be ready by Friday for PopTech to insert into the app as an open data set. Right now it contains one dataset from one survey, but the point is to test the limits of what can be done with text survey data. Jana and PopTech are eager to see others expand on the idea.

"Mobile phone subscribers in many emerging markets spend on average 10 percent of their day's wage on mobile phone airtime," Eagle says. "We envision a future where we can offset much of these costs by enabling emerging market consumers to earn airtime in exchange for engaging with global organizations via the mobile phone."

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