September 2012


Hot on the heels of my last blog post, I attended the show and tell at the end of the trade data hack event that took place in London this weekend. In partnership with Rewired State, so a couple of familiar faces there, and held in the Centre for Creative Collaboration. It was much easier for me to reach than RLabs (30 minutes on a high speed train rather than an 11 hour flight….), but the energy and creative space was similar. Superficial instant comparison – the ratio of Apple products was completely opposite – only 3 I think in the whole of RLabs, and possibly only one or two non-Apple in London!

However, the approach and solutions to the data challenge set were actually similar in many ways. The teams in London focused on making it simpler for people to understand the data, and tried to find ways to make it fun, so people would actually want to participate. Many added clever visualisations and made working through the data into a game – all had excellent ideas as to how they would expand their idea and prototype into a working thing.

I hope the prototypes will all be available online  (will add links if and when I find out) – as some are very hard to describe, but here goes:

First up, Canada Calculator, a simple one to start with, it lets a consumer see how changing different economic indicators affect the price of commodities in their shopping basket.

The same team evolved their visualisation to produce Global trade challenge: a game which lets people see how changing different economic variables affect the prices of good in different countries. A players initial goal is simply to make the highest profit – but ideas for development included other goals, which might be developing production in your country.

CPIA geochart used a set of World Bank ratings as a basic data set, and mapped them on to a world map. Just seeing the data in this way raised a whole host of questions, not least the scales used – is it good or bad to score highly against an indicator like “transparency, accountability and corruption in the public sector”? Very corrupt but also very transparent about it?! Next steps for this visualisation could be to map trends, and see how countries develop over time – this would be more meaningful than the absolute numbers.

Next up was Surplus/deficit – a 3D visualisation of World Bank data that really has to be seen to be understood!

Surplus/deficit - 3D data visualisation

Surplus/deficit – 3D data visualisation

I absolutely loved this product, and can imagine all sorts of ways it could be extended to include more data. All data is taken from a spreadsheet, and a basic function is that it would help to spot anomalies in the data. Future enhancements could include dials and sliders, so you could see how the visualisation would change over time, or as different filters were applied. One irony, the hack as it stands is a virtual map – by which I mean that all the data points are mapped to capital cities, so if you know the world well, you can guess/work out where the hot spots are. To make it truly functional, a real map outline should be added, but this will take away some of its abstract beauty!

Where the money goes is another simple visualisation that used the basic commodity data provided for the five sample countries.

Where the money goes - data visualisation

Where the money goes – data visualisation

More data could illustrate more elements, at the moment there is just one ‘stripe’ showing tariffs, and the rest of the currency symbol shows ‘the rest’ of the price.

Trademize is a fascinating hack – a solution with 3 aims:  to inform and educate, to engage and to connect. The presenter talked through the information home page, which contains lots of clear explanations and illustrations of trade data, then the engagement element, the part of which I most liked was the idea of a quiz. In this, visitors would select a commodity and then how much of it you consumed (eg Tea, and how many cups a day you drink), then it would calculate how much this cost you a year, then let you know how much you would save if there was a change in one of the tariffs. The ‘connect’ element was that you would then be invited to share the final information in the form of a tweet. Deeper connection was in the form of a contact form where visitors could ask questions of experts. The behind-the-scenes management of this community was interesting, and something to investigate further. The developer used the PODIO task management system and Zapier.  The latter looked for tweets which used a particular hashtag and then created a task which could be assigned to someone to investigate. At least I think thats how it worked…. as I said, one that looked intriguing, to be investigated!

Next up was another tool which visualised World Bank data: Exporty relativiserator. This was highly graphical (true geeks in the room were impressed as apparently this was done on some HD laptop?) but unfortunately it didn’t initially display as the developers had intended. Changing the settings made the countries on the map white, but I think I got the gist – when you select a country, the tool showed  the top 4 regions it exported to, linked by lines, and the thickness of the line indicated the volume of exports. Plans for this included more data, which would show imports and exports, and show the split between goods and services.

Reach for the Pie was the first app designed to work on a mobile – and it was demo’d on an iPhone.

Reach for the Pie - data visualisation

Reach for the Pie – data visualisation

Users choose a country, then sector, then product, then the tool gives you a pie chart which illustrates how the price of that commodity (in the example above – apples from Chile (we think)) is made up – tariffs, transport costs etc.

The same team had also found time to create a ‘physical’ hack – they invented a board game: Trade Aid game.

Trade Aid board game

Trade Aid board game

Working along the lines of snakes and ladders, it took the player on the route from producer to market. The ‘snake’ hazards are things like: delays at border, miss 2 goes, while a ladder might be: receive training to meet EU standards, advance 2 squares.

The next hack was presented by an extremely energetic and enthusiastic presenter, who described the approach they had taken in developing a way of presenting trade data in a way that anyone could understand. Pictotrade used pictographs to represent complex concepts, using consistent colours to represent trade topics (export, import, services etc)

Pictotrade - pictorial trade data explorer

Pictotrade – pictorial trade data explorer

The team aimed not to overwhelm – their app starts with a blank canvas that the user gradually fills by selecting countries, and commodities, and the focus is not on absolute numbers, but on relative relationships – eg a small image shows not much activity, while a big one shows large scale success.

One idea was that schools could make use of this, working through particular examples to create an illustration that could be printed off as a poster – to raise awareness of a particular issue or country’s trade position.

This group also wins the prize for the ‘additional extra’ which I don’t claim to understand at all – but somehow the tool they used to create their ‘stretching’ icons could also be used to show ‘stretching’ cats……. dont ask! [thanks for the link @shish2k ]

Into the finishing stretch, the next presenter showed a role playing game: Trade War. Imagine you are Minister of Trade for India, your task is to work through a series of years making changes to the volume of products and the amount of tariffs you place on trade, with the aim of keeping consumers, producers and exporters happy.

Trade War - role playing game based on trade data

Trade War – role playing game based on trade data

You change your plans each year, and the country you are trading with – in the presentation this was China – responds. Each year your three different communities are graded as to their reaction – pleased, thrilled, grumbling or angry.  When asked if he had learned anything from creating this game, the developer  responded with the unsurprising “you can’t please everyone!”

The last two hacks came from the same team. First up was Tariff bot – a fascinating idea, which as it says in its own profile “tries his best to chip into relevant conversations with data from the World Bank”.

The team correctly identified the challenge that no matter how fantastic your creation, too often it sits on a server somewhere and after the initial flurry of interest, no one uses it. So they wanted to create something that would go out and find people who were having conversations anyway about trade topics. Tariffbot currently uses the twitter search API to find people talking about topics (using certain terms – it currently loves countries and questions) then tweets a link to a data graph of relevant information. Thus  someone saying “I wish I knew more about trade tariffs in Japan” would received a helpful tweet in reply. It isn’t programmed to ‘@’ reply people – the developers wanted to avoid being accused of spamming people, so I’m not completely clear how the questioner would see the helpful answer – but I’m sure with more development this could turn into something really interesting!

The last in show app was a cheeky one, which exploited the fact that there is a google chrome extension that allows you to inject your data into a site (lots of unlikely caveats here – like people accepting unauthorised apps – but it made a nice point…..) Tariffic is a neat idea that for example when a shopper was using the online store of a wellknown mainstream supermarket, and for example chose a packet of coffee, the app would insert a pie chart which told you how much of that price went to the producer, how much went in tariffs etc. It would only work if the supermarket had included the country of origin in the product entry – but nevertheless – an intriguing idea.

In all, a hack that was on the surface, different in many ways from the first DFID sponsored trade data hack, in Cape Town, but actually showed lots of similarities of approach. The developers’ products were further advanced, and many of the graphics more sophisticated, but the energy and enthusiasm that went into making complex issues clear and engaging to people was consistent throughout. I look forward to hearing from colleagues about what was produced at the trade data hack in CCHubs, Lagos.

NB – I didn’t capture anyone’s names, and may well have misunderstood some of the more complicated work. If I have misrepresented your hack, or if you would like me to assign correct credit for your work, please contact me via the comments field, or on twitter @juliac2

UPDATE: Hacks now live on Rewired State: http://hacks.rewiredstate.org/events/dfiddc2012/centres/london

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As the second DFID sponsored trade data hack day (in Nigeria, at CCHub) draws to a close, and the third (in London, in partnership with Rewired State) kicks off, I thought I’d better haul myself up to date and write up my notes from the actual hacks done in Cape Town.
Two days of hacking, at the end of which 12 or so projects were presented to all the other participants and panels of judges. Prizes were awarded in several categories, including best web/mobile app, best Mxit app, most creative idea, and a bonus category – for the best idea – even if it hadn’t been worked up into an actual app.

Two main themes emerged as the teams worked through the data – first, that it was simply too complex for most people, and they came up with a range of ideas aimed at simplifying it, whether for students – to help them understand the whole process, or for anyone who was in the very early stages of wanting to understand trade and economics. The second broad group of ideas  was around price comparison, including crowd-sourcing retail price data.

The Web and Mobile Application winner was an application that presented the very large WDI dataset in a colourful way, sorted by region and theme. The user can select indicators to learn more about e.g. unemployment, trade volumes, etc.  The application provides statistics but also gives an explanation of what the indicator means and has a “discussion forum” feature to enable people to comment on what it means for them.  In future, the developers hope to have some experts available to comment in the discussion forum to be able to guide the conversation. They also made a MXit version of this application, which we saw tested on a range of phones, from modern smart phones to very simple text based screens – and it worked fine on all of them.

The MXit winner was a price comparison application that makes use of crowd sourced data on pricing to help people find sales and bargains and put pressure on retailers to be more competitive.  The application will also feature a section on “product information” such as origin, main producer countries etc. “Whats your price?” is available on Mxit now. The team’s presentation suggested a whole range of other ideas which would take advantage of the functionality offered on the Mxit platform, and the idea of generating community interest in their ideas, including something I think was called “Chick Pix” – which mixed together the fact that one of the commodities selected in the sample trade data set was chicken, with the idea of crowd sourcing prices, and a popular Mxit application – where people send in photos of themselves and the community rates them. Their idea is that you would take a picture of the chicken you bought in your local store, add price data, but also comment on its packing, presentation and condition! Could be fun – and also encourage stores to improve their ways.

I was very impressed with the team who won the creative prize. They were concerned at low levels of literacy, and wanted to help people use routes that they liked to find out information and learn things they wouldn’t otherwise think about. They suggested a mobile comic strip application, designed to explain trade processes and economics terms to people in simple language.  It would also have functions such as links to wikipedia entries, and an element that reads the terms out to you so you know how they are pronounced.

The final category winner was a team who outlined their idea for an educational application aimed at secondary school students. It would explain economics terms in simple language, and include a game to be hosted on a social networking platform such as Facebook that would connect students from different countries who could then “trade” with each other.

Other teams presented some fascinating ideas, including one aimed at helping micro businesses to sell their products to a wider community – taking advantage of some of the Mxit apps which enable mobile payments. This was a very engaging presentation, as a team member had gone out into the community and interviewed a furniture maker she knew and included photos and comments from him as to how such an app would be useful. Several others were about crowdsourcing prices to enable people to find the best local bargains – confirming for this community at least, trade is an issue very close to home, and the whole question of international trade tariffs and barriers could wait for another time.

For many of the teams it was the first time they had ever presented in front of an audience, and they all deserve prizes for the energy and effort they put into their 3 minutes. I’m left with an absolute certainty that this sort of local event is vital in asking people what will really be of use to them, and hope we can run others to look at other data sets, and what can be done with them. I look forward to seeing what the teams in the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos come up with (I hope a completely different set of apps and ideas) and the Rewired State developers in London tomorrow.

UPDATE: Some of the hacks now published on Rewired State:  http://hacks.rewiredstate.org/events/dfiddc2012/centres/capetown

The trade data hack grew out of an idea to provide consumers with information on trade-related costs and how trade barriers affect them. There is a lot of data already available, although maybe not that well known, and certainly not presented in ways that general consumers understand. There are also gaps in the data, things that are not hidden, but not available generally or aggregated beyond local knowledge. DFID therefore envisaged making the most of the opportunities offered by various digital channels to inform and educate consumers – through interesting and eye-catching graphics, visualisations, apps, websites etc which would illustrate trade patterns and barriers, and examine the relationship between trade costs and the prices consumers pay.

But, before we could commission anything, we needed to do some practical research involving people in different countries. We looked for partners who could bring together a mix of developers, creative thinkers, designers, and local community activists. RLabs in Cape Town was a perfect fit. [nb 2 further trade data hack events are planned: in Lagos, Nigeria, in partnership with CCHub, and in London, in partnership with Rewired State]

RLabs logo

RLabs welcome sign

The strapline for Rlabs is “a social revolution” – and from the stories I’ve heard from a whole range of the people who work here or are somehow involved, it is certainly a revolution in this area of Cape Town, and is part of a network of RLabs hubs all around the world – not just neighbouring countries like Tanzania and Namibia, but also Somaliland, Brazil, Finland, Portugal and more. Away from the tourist areas of the waterfront and business district, although with spectacular views of the back of Table Mountain, it is based in the Cape Flats area: Bridgetown, Silvertown, Athlone and Kewtown – an area with 70% unemployment and more than a few problems with drugs and gangs.

Its location chosen deliberately to be part of the community which supplies most of the students and participants, it grew from a one room operation where tech developers had to share space and swap when the counsellors and advisers had their sessions, into a multi room centre which is expanding all the time. The kitchen was extended literally days before we arrived, and they are well set up to offer everything from full day events with 40-50 people (such as our hack day) to smaller training sessions for very small groups. Fully stable wifi (excellent compared to UK venues where similar events have taken place!) and 4 smaller rooms radiating from a central space – each carefully set up with a different thing in mind – whether resembling a formal board room where people might go to make a pitch to big business, or a creative space with brightly coloured desks and wall art. Oh yes, and there are bean bags, a play station, and plentiful supplies of crisps, muffins and super-sweet South African sweets.

Creative space at RLabs

Creative space at RLabs

RLabs was founded by the energetic and enthusiastic Marlon Parker, who was also our host (for which many, many thanks – also for giving up his time to ensure we saw the many sides of Cape Town, from the problems to the highlights (literally – on Signal Hill, looking at Table Mountain at night, with the tablecloth cloud descending and the lights of the city spread around the bay was spectacular)).

Here’s how they publicised what they called “Africa’s largest hack bootcamp

During the three days I heard some inspirational stories from some of the graduates of the programmes run at RLabs – including the Grow academy, and their legacy programme.

Marlon also heads Mxit reach, and one of the few structured sessions of the 3 days was when Andy Volk who is head of developer relations at Mxit gave a presentation on the evolution of this platform – Africa’s largest social network with over 50 million registered users and 750 million messages every day. They partnered with RLabs in supporting the hack, and will promote the winning entry on their  platform and support it to be developed further.

I’ll write up the actual hacks in my next post, but to end with more flavours of the event – and two highlights which make it completely different to any hack I’ve ever attended: one of the participants was the artist who created much of the artwork which decorates the centre. He created a giant canvas which was definitely African, but with logos illustrating global trade scattered across it.

Hack day artist at work

Hack day artist at work

And the most noisy component of the day, a live radio station: The Taxi,  broadcasting from reception. I was in awe of the multitasking skills of the @theTaxiWP team – using iPads, mobiles and blackberries to involve their audience, monitor what was being said and still create entertaining and information packed interviews.

Taxi radio team

Taxi radio team