Web 2.0 tools unlock statistics 3 – accessing a whole “world of information”

In my last posts I looked at Australian examples of the innovative use of Web 2.0 to provide free, interactive access to census and other statistical information. This time I’ll shift scale and provide a brief overview of two sites which take a Web 2.0 perspective to the presentation of international statistics.

UNdata was recently launched by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)  Under-Secretary-General Sha Zukang, who states:

“The UN System has accumulated over the past 60 years an impressive amount of information. UNdata, developed by the Statistics Division of DESA, is a new powerful tool, which will bring this unique and authoritative set of data not only to the desks of decision-makers and analysts, but also to journalists, to students and to all citizens of the world.”

The site proclaims that it is a “world of information” and this is no exaggeration. Since its foundation, the UN has been collecting statistical data from member states on a huge variety of topics. As the site states, this is a considerable asset but it was stored across a large number of separate databases, each with different access policies.


UNdata overcomes these problems by pooling these databases into a “single internet environment”, allowing access through a keyword search on the organisation’s home page. There is also a facility for advanced search and country profiles are provided.

The site claims there are over 55 million data points covering a wide range of themes including agriculture, education, employment, energy, environment, health, HIV/Aids, human development, industry, IT, national accounts, population, refugees, tourism, trade, as well as the millennium development goals indicators.

UNdata opens with a somewhat understated home page, “data” which centres on a search facility through which databases can be accessed. Type “health” for example, and 57 databases referring to health are listed. This is augmented by a simple menu system with four alternatives – data, glossary (which lists all the terms used in the databases), wiki (which provides access to a linked wiki which describes all aspects of the UNdata project) and advanced (which provides access to country profiles, advanced search and other features).

Below the search facility is a link to the Monthly Bulletin of Statistics (MBS) which provides economic and social statistics for more than 200 countries and territories. Under this is a section divided into three – Databases (which lists the key UN databases by category), Updates (which shows the latest additions to the databases) and Country data services (which provides links to the government data service of each UN member).

UNCapture2Clicking on a database name provides access to a fairly orthodox table, with columns typically for country, subgroup, year, source and unit value. The table can be sorted by any column and unwanted columns can be deleted. The tables can be turned into pivot tables or exported.

Whilst the front-end customisation features are relatively modest by Web 2.0 standards, a huge amount of work was obviously involved in bringing a large number of disparate databases together, integrating them on one site and displaying this volume of information in a consistent and accessible format.

If you want statistics on life expectancy in Africa or education in South America – or to find out how Australia performs in comparison to other countries in the world – this is the place to go. The country profiles are particularly useful, providing a statistical snapshot of almost all UN member states – and my one criticism of UNdata is that these could be better featured on the start page.

The second international site that I want to look at is linked to UNdata and picks up where it leaves off in terms of presentation. As the site states, Gapminder is a non-profit site “promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels”.

GapminderCapture1The site uses Trendalyzer software to convert tables into animated and interactive graphics. The site opens to four boxes – the two on the right devoted to videos of Gapminder in action, the left to the program itself. The main action is in the top left box, “Gapminder world”. Clicking on this leads to a graph which will show dynamically over time the changes within and between two national variables – for example, size of families and infant mortality, or urbanisation and population growth.

Depending on the variables chosen, the story that Gapminder tells can be extraordinarily vivid – and at times very depressing. Regions are depicted by different colours and its possible to tag specific nations to track their progress (or otherwise) over time. Maps can be attached to emails or blogs – I haven’t tested this, but it appears to send html code that links to the Gapminder site and loads the variables that you have used in the map.

GapminderCapture2It’s definitely worth viewing the tutorial and downloading the pdf document that summarises how the site works. You also need to experiment with the variables you wish to display and to play with the controls scattered around the graph (which could be a bit larger and clearer). Its also important to note that just because there appears to be a correlation between two sets of data does not mean that there is a causal relationship between them – and of course the quality of some of the statistics may be higher than for other data sets.

Verdict: Both UNData and Gapminder are invaluable tools for organisations interested in international aid or issues such as poverty, health or education, as well as those who want to benchmark Australia’s performance on key data sets against that of other countries. The two sites complement each other, so that the UNData site can be used to prvide a detailed snapshot of a particular issue – or through the country profiles, a picture of a specific country – whilst Gapminder can show in a vivid way the story of change over time.

The Trendalyzer software which powers the Gapminder site is available on Google Docs and I will look at it in a future post.

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