12/7/2013

How Europe Lives: An Interactive Map by Süddeutsche Zeitung

 

By Wolfgang Jaschensky, Head of Newsroom and Digital Innovations at Süddeutsche.de

Many interesting data driven projects are based on a funky idea. Data is scraped from some odd source allowing surprising insights visualized in new ways. Compared to those kinds of projects the idea for the Europa-Atlas seems so straightforward that it might look a bit uninspired at first.

The Europa-Atlas visualizes key indicators on population, economy, education and so forth by using heat maps and line charts. Isn’t this something that’s way older than the internet? Isn’t it something that many websites and organisations have done, particularly for Europe, since the continent is in its most severe crisis? Well, yes. But also no.

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Screenshot of Europe-Atlas interactive map showing unemployment in Europe in 2011.

Two aspects differentiate the Europa-Atlas from the projects we have seen so far that cover the euro crisis – or any other for that matter.

First of all, it allows users to see and understand data really in depth. We took open data from the European Statistics Office covering more than 40 indicators for all countries, states and regions of Europe. Readers can compare every single region with another, or even match countries with states and regions, and all of that over a period of around 10 years or even longer.

Secondly, the Europa-Atlas is so easy to use that it is fun to play with. You want to know if youth unemployment in Andalusia is worse than in Greece? Five clicks and you know it. You want to check if more people in London shop online than in Paris? Five seconds and you know it.

Why build Europa-Atlas?

Europe is now suffering from its biggest crisis. We report, analyse and comment on this crisis almost every single day on our news website, Süddeutsche.de. But what exactly are the living conditions for people in Europe? How different is the situation in countries like Greece or Spain from that in Bulgaria or in Berlin? Or in your home country or city? How did things change over time? We figured that a tool that allows users to answer these questions for themselves would be a great asset and would complement well our regular reporting on the crisis.

How the project was made

The whole project took around half a year to finalise. Overseen by our editor-in-chief, Stefan Plöchinger, and our art director Astrid Müller, two coders, a graphic designer and an editor – me, worked closely together along the way. It was crucial for the success of the project that all people involved met regularly to discuss our progress and what needs to be improved.

The data is easily available on the Eurostat website. But it had to be checked rigorously due to some inconsistencies, which took a freelance colleague two weeks. The official raw material can be found here.

We decided to use a Bing Map, since we wanted a map that allows you to dive in deeply and actually see if a city belongs to a certain region. We used a free data set of .svg files for countries, states and regions that were converted into a JSON file. The statistical data was also converted into a JSON file using the free tool Mr. DataConverter. All editorial content was edited in a Google Doc.

The challenge

We had two objectives: 1. Allow our readers to analyse as much data as feasible and make it as interesting and deep as possible. 2. Make it as easy to use and understandable as possible (on all devices). The main challenge was to combine the two. We tried to think of use cases that we thought would appeal to many readers and implement those as straightforwardly as possible. And we tried to visualize the information in a way everybody understands right away. Heat maps and line charts are good in that respect. We allowed users to customize their charts by choosing a range of regions or countries that they were interested to compare. At the end we had heat maps that give a good overview and line charts that allow in depth comparison. To make sure everyone understands the options provided we made a short explanatory video.

The impact

The way the Europa-Atlas was received was beyond our expectations. The traffic was constantly high, both for the actual app and for the reporting we did when the Europa-Atlas was launched. Even more encouraging was the feedback we got via email and social media. Many readers, but also politicians from the European Parliament and the German Bundestag, as well as NGOs, were excited about our project. We are planning to update the Europa Atlas as soon as new data is available.

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