Data visualized: The world’s refugees over four decades

To spend just a few minutes experiencing the newly created online data visualization The Refugee Project is to start to comprehend just how enormous, complex, and problematic the ebb and flow of the world’s millions of refugees has been over the past almost half century. That’s the unique power of data visualization, which is an emerging way for designers, developers, media companies and organizations to tell complex and data-rich stories visually.

Developed by design firm Hyperakt and designer Ekene Ijeoma, The Refugee Project takes close to forty years worth of refugee data from The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as world population data from the U.N, and overlays it on an interactive map. The team also mixed in narratives from about 80 individual refugee conflicts (from Rwanda to Afghanistan), and set the whole thing on a yearly timeline.

A screenshot of The Refugee Project

A screenshot of The Refugee Project

The result is an experience that enables the viewer to click on a given year, or country, and visually see the flow of refugees from the world’s conflict regions over time — you can see where they came from, where they ended up, how many there were, and what percentage of the country fled. It’s not just educational, it’s also emotional, and beautiful to look at, and at the same time could be the most comprehensive and powerful demonstration of the world’s refugees to date.

Data storytelling

Despite that the demand for, and the field surrounding, these types of data visualizations is growing in this data-rich era, such sophisticated projects, addressing important world issues, are still relatively rare outside of well-funded media outlets. Some groups like DataKind or Pitch Interactive (and its drones project) are pushing the medium forward, but in reality these types of projects take a lot of time and resources, and not many have the data design skills required to produce them.

Hyperakt’s Creative Director Deroy Peraza told me that The Refugee Project took 500 hours of work between six collaborators, and it was a project that Hyperakt took on as a labor of love when they had time between client work. Creative technologist Ijeoma tells me he used D3 — a  newer tool created by the now graphics editor of the New York Times Mike Bostock — as well as HTML5 to develop the piece.

The Visualized Conference next month in New Work

The Visualized Conference next month in New York

Such methods aren’t commonly used by the non-profit and government-funded groups that hold the keys to such public and humanitarian data. But some groups like the World Bank are actively looking to incorporate more of these techniques. Peraza and Ijeoma will both be speaking at the Visualized conference next month in New York, which is an event that highlights leading data visualization designers and organizations (Gigaom is a media sponsor).

The crew at Hyperakt originally connected with the UNHCR over a year ago to help the massive organization — which has a staff of over 7,000 in 125 countries, and had an annual budget of  $4.3 billion in 2012 — present their troves of data in new and unique ways. While the UNHCR helps 33.9 million persons affected by conflicts globally, they haven’t traditionally been at the forefront of design.

The Refugee Project is independent of UNHCR, but perhaps it can act as an example of a way that organizations (government and otherwise) can collaborate with cutting edge data designers to produce meaningful works. As the amount of data produced by the world continues to explode, developing ways to visualize that data to tell important stories will only become increasingly valuable.