Visualizing the World Water Day Challenge

Visualizing the World Water Day Challenge

In 2008, the world passed an historic milestone: for the first time, more than half the planet's people lived in cities. Today the urban landscape continues to grow — some 3.3 billion of us now live in urban hubs.

Cities have traditionally been, and continue to be, crucibles of innovation, creativity, and wealth. But there is a darker side to urban growth. As cities expand, crime, pollution, disease, and poverty also rise apace — slums now represent some 38% of urban expansion. And because many of the world's metropolitan centers lack the planning and infrastructure to support the new tide of urban residents, access to clean water — for drinking, cleaning, and industrial use — becomes newly critical.

What kinds of human activities consume the most water? Who has access to water, and where is it most needed? When it comes to global water inequity, is virtual water flow part of the solution, or part of the problem? How is the price of water changing around the world?

In anticipation of "World Water Day 2011", we recently joined forces with the folks at Circle of Blue to shine a spotlight on these challenging urban water issues. We invited the design community to visualize urban water data, and help us draw connections and insights from across the spectrum of health, economic, environmental, and policy perspectives.

After much interactive clicking and much deliberation, today we're happy to announce the winner (and award them $5,000 from GE) and two runners up (who will each get $500 from GE)

Congratulations to Joseph Bergen and Nickie Huang for garnering top honors!

Water is embedded in everything, from hamburgers to microchips. It flows around the world in consumer products, and most importantly, as part of global food trade. "What is Your Water Footprint?" captured this concept effectively and elegantly by enabling us to explore just how much water we consume, based both on where in the world and how we live.

The graphic has two basic components. In the first cartographic profile, users can scroll over different nations to compare details of water supply and usage around the world. First click on the US, for instance, then the hover over Nicaragua to see how their numbers stack up: 300 million Americans versus 5.5 million Nicaraguans. Americans use 4,382 liters per person per day; Nicaraguans use around 648. (It doesn't take much mental math to see that US total water consumption also dwarfs its Latin American neighbor).

Even more innovative than the map, however, is Bergen and Huang's consumer product lineup:

Here, we can scroll over different items to explore the virtual water embedded in beverages (beer, coffee, and milk, to name a few), crops, animals, and more. You might not be surprised to learn that beef is water-intensive — 60,000 liters per kilogram — but you might not have thought much about the water footprint of your laptop: the standard microchip takes about 16,000 liters to produce.

The judges all agreed that Bergen and Huang's treatment garnered high marks for being unique, easily accessible, and interactive. They made their visualization useful too, with a playful "LABEL" feature that enables users to generate a water footprint label for any item of choice. As the designers put it: "Label your lunch, your drink, your friends, yourself, even the whole world with its water footprint!" If one goal of good visualization is to promote transparency, and foster social change, then we all agreed: What Is Your Water Footprint scored high marks, and our top-notch ranking.

A runner-up award goes to Matt and Hal for Urban Water needs: Can We Keep Up?

Combining their engineer's precision with creativity honed at the London Royal College of Art, Matt and Hal first designed a world map entirely out of cheap kitchen sponges. They then poured water onto each country in amounts proportional to that its expected urban water consumption in 2030. Elegantly literal, the sponges grow in height according to how thirsty the country will be, generating a stark topography of future needs for urban domestic water.

As more people crowd into ever-expanding cities over the next 20 years, those cities will experience huge increases in the demand for domestic water – the kind used for cooking, cleaning, sanitation as opposed to industry and agriculture. It's easy to see that the needs will not be equitably distributed. As Matt and Hal note, "While this will have little impact on some countries, others will need to develop large new infrastructures. Some countries will be able to afford this more easily than others."

Matt and Hal have also produced a video that shows how they constructed the viz:

Urban water needs: Can we keep up? from Hal Watts on Vimeo.

A runner-up award also goes to Tuduyen Nguyen and Cameron Reynolds-Flatt for Water: An Unequal Human Right.

Water: An Unequal Human Right gives us an unvarnished look at the many imbalances of water around the world. The visualization comprises two parts: The left side looks at water consumption patterns in wealthy, "Consuming" countries versus "Developing" countries. Using the average American as the model, they show how much water an individual runs through: 20 gallons down the toilet per day, 50 billion bottles of it consumed each year, nearly 15,000 lost due to leaky plumbing. In contrast, we see where the big numbers stack up in developing nations' logbook: 40 billion hours spent by women and children walking for water each year, 90% of sewage and 70% of industrial waste discharged without treatment. The right side, meanwhile, delves further into vast global water discrepancies with a visual roster reminiscent of the Harper's Index.

Nguyen and Reynolds-Flatt told us, "Despite water being a universal human right, it is unequal in many ways. We hope from this visualization, we can not only inform, but empower people to converse about what is left of our precious water resource." We agreed that their streamlined and lucid infographic did just that — it certainly spurred conversation amongst the judges, causing us to shake our heads and re-consider the impacts of our next flush, our next drink.

A big thank you to all of you that entered visualizations - we loved your work. A special thank you to our Jury: Adam Bly, Brian Collins, Heather Cooley, J. Carl Ganter, Alon Halevy, Russell Kennedy, Camille Kubie, Jennifer Palilonis, and Kimberly Ramalho.

To see all the entries, visit: WWD Submissions

Interested in submitting your own water visualization? We hope to continue this discussion outside the bounds of this contest, throughout 2011 and beyond. Send us your visual take on the global water challenge by uploading here.

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