Visualizing Marathon 2011 Grand Prize Winner

Visualizing Marathon 2011 Grand Prize Winner

The global 2011 Visualizing Marathon program challenged university students in five cities around the world to use data and design to tackle some of today’s most complex issues — from sustainable development to the impact of demographic shifts on healthcare. One winning and two honorable mention teams were selected in each city by an esteemed global jury. The 15 finalists were then asked to submit a brief essay highlighting an insight into their city’s challenge topic that was revealed through data visualization. Today, Visualizing and GE are proud to award the “Imagination at Work” Grand Prize to the winning team and $10,000 to their university to support research and education in data visualization.

The winning team at work

Congratulations to Damon Lau, Cheng Lee, Rebecca Marriott and Kimberly Nguyen from Columbia University in New York! Their project, E-CUBE-LIBRIUM, made open data work to uncover new insights and open new avenues of research into the pressing and timely issue of sustainable development. Challenged with visualizing the delicate balance between economic growth, social equity, and environmental health, the Columbia team created an innovative and promising 3D tool to investigate this relationship and visually analyze how different countries are faring in striking a balance. Now with additional time and resources, we are excited to see how Damon, Cheng, Rebecca and Kimberly develop their project — especially in light of this summer’s Rio+20 Summit.

A huge thank you to all the jurors, speakers, partners, and of course, students, who made the global 2011 Visualizing Marathon program such a success! And in case you missed the announcement last week, we’re thrilled to be hosting the first Visualizing Marathon of 2012 in New Delhi on March 2-3. Register here!

Read the winners’ essay:

E-cube-librium is the new interactive tool for visualizing and solving imbalanced world development. By configuring social, economic, and environmental data in terms of a Rubik’s Cube analogy, the cube represents a country’s growth with inversely proportional categories placed opposite each other. For example, how do economic gains adversely affect social and environmental health? In each cube, we are searching for stable equilibrium and positive, balanced development that can be sustained over time. Unstable equilibrium may appear to be balanced, but it is not sustainable, due to an irresponsible levels of CO2 emissions, or alarming income and social disparity, for example. For these reasons, it has the potential to easily fall out of equilibrium.

We took from the set of 200 countries from the UN Global Pulse a representative sample with countries on all parts of the development ladder. What became important to us is identifying relationships such as how members of the BRICS and N-11 countries grew in relation to countries of the post-industrial advanced economies and the countries of the developing world. Which environmental and social factors were affected as a country’s economy advances? How distorted must the cube be in order to achieve growth?

We used Excel spreadsheet and Grasshopper to analyze and find trends in the UN Global Pulse data set for 200 countries and 8 categories of development indicators. These numbers were then scaled and translated into three dimensional volumes using 3D modeling software, 3DS Max and Rhinoceros 3D in order to precisely visualize the data. The various extrusions on each cube face is a growth indicator, showing volumes where data increases or decreases. In order to compare different data sets and posit them on a single cube diagram, we normalized the data by creating a 0-100 scale using the minimum and maximum values found across our selected countries. For example, since Qatar had the highest level of CO2 emissions (in metric tons per capita) in 2005, this value became 100 and every other value was scaled proportionally. After applying this formula to each data set, relationships between different data sets and different countries were comparable. The 0-100 scales determined the amount each face of the country cube was extruded in Grasshopper and Rhino – essentially a three dimensional radar chart in cube form. From these models, we are able to quickly draw connections and visually identify how each factor affects the equilibrium of the entire system – thus using these relationships between the development indicators to translate into a sustainability indicator: e-cube-librium.

Depending on how we mapped economic indicators to the cube, this system is then able to reveal surprising counter-intuitive relationships in a country’s growth. For countries such as Brazil, China, and India, substantial increases in GDP do not result in decreases in income inequality. Urbanization does not necessarily result in greater access to clean water. And regardless of all other indicators, CO2 emissions continue to rise.

With the ECUBE system, we can begin to understand where the imbalanced sectors are, common unstable tendencies in development, and start to rotate the puzzle with the goal to solve for a cube in stable equilibrium. With country cubes that have imbalanced growth, their cubes will lean towards one direction out of equilibrium. By rotating the puzzle, we are creating new relationships between sustainability indicators, looking for connections that will foster sustainable growth. For example, perhaps urbanization, which has the potential to offer greater access to health care resources, can encourage an increase in health and social expenditures. The social, economic, and environmental growth indicators are set on opposite faces of the cube. If the cube is to remain in equilibrium, then each category must grow in harmony in order to counterbalance the growth on the opposite face of the cube.

By abstracting data into these virtual objects, they can then be tested for physical properties such as center of gravity, balance point, mass, inertia, aerodynamics, and any number of precise simulation results. Combining multiple development indicators into this virtual, dynamic cube gives us a very unique way of looking at this puzzle of economic development. The center of gravity of a cube gives us indications as to where a country’s development is distorted and which direction the country needs to move in order to achieve balance. Inertia allows us to test for direction of past and future movement – or lack thereof. Aerodynamics would reveal holes and outliers in a country’s cube, indicative of a crisis or a boom/bust capitalist cycle.

While our current model volumetrically visualizes the economic indicators, we are currently developing a way to represent additional physical properties of the volume in hopes of answering some important questions about global progress. What does it mean for a cube to be in a stable vs unstable equilibrium? or to be in dynamic vs static equilibrium? Where is the threshold for a country’s balance point? Given the complex issues facing a country’s development, how can we solve for a cube in equilibrium?

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robertgoldring's picture

can’t believe this was back in 2011, how time flies, well done to the winners.

TBOU's picture

I have issues with their assumptions (that their metrics are mutually exclusive for one), their display is non-intuitive, their display seems biased to only show their beliefs instead of whatever the data might show, and they seemed to go in with the goal of forcing all data to conform to a
“Rubik’s cube analogy” (whatever that is).

I’m not surprised it won, even the Pontiac Aztek won a committee’s vote.