By Maris Harmon
We humans are undoubtedly attracted to fun, digestible visual representations of large swaths of information, a resource that is constantly being revolutionized by the internet. With everyone vying for our attention on computers and phones, it’s a competition to see who can hold our interest the longest.
Take Facebook, which is frequently re-arranging its webpage designs. Or Uber, which just reformulated its interface to present its map differently. Simple and witty memes flood our screens with big images and few words.
It’s not a secret that we are attracted to beautiful images, exciting colors, and (literally) large words. So how does the world of important, but perhaps, less entertaining data keep up? Let’s say, data about your city and its progress on its environmental sustainability agenda?
Well, this city chose to give the people what they want: simple, clear visualization tools with interactive features as you float your mouse over information.
Built by the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT) and spearheaded by Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability’s Greenworks program, these colorful charts and graphs are called the Greenworks Dashboard, and work to tell a story of the city’s efforts to work with and for the earth.
In the past, the Greenworks data collection was presented as an annual booklet, offering graphs and charts designed by and for data enthusiasts.
Then, The Office of Sustainability reached out to the community, gauging how the city was feeling about this booklet. They held community meetings, open houses, and online surveys in English and Spanish to see what Philadelphians wanted.
“What we were finding this year,” explained Richard Freeh, co-author the annual Greenworks progress reports, “is that a lot of folks found this to be a very intimidating document. Actual residents were glad the city’s doing this, but it’s really challenging for them to look at this document and see themselves in it.”
But a solution was in sight.
In this age of comprehensive infographics and animated educational youtube videos, we can spread the visual love to heavy data sets, making information more accessible to everybody, not just the academic elite.
As you scroll over the ODDT’s charts and graphs, numerical values and categories pop up over colorful, representative blocks and lines. You can view larger trends and specific numbers at the same time.
The City of Philadelphia is definitely leading a spirited fight in the charge to mitigate climate change. Housed within this effort, Greenworks offers a comprehensive sustainability plan, and works towards eight concrete sustainability goals to improve the city.
The plan makes sure to place an emphasis on equity — focusing on access and distribution of important projects by making decisions around the reality of social inequality. The Equity Index, a project coming soon to a city near you, plans on mapping out areas that are not benefitting from sustainability in order to implement more informed projects.
If you end up feeling overwhelmed after taking a look at The Dashboard because you’re not sure what you could ever do to help, Greenworks has something for that too! Greenworks on the Ground provides checklists for individuals, communities, and institutions that show how you can contribute towards the greening of your city.
Realistically, Greenworks understands that beautiful charts will not solve the issue, but are a contribution among many that build up a foundation for change.
“We’re always trying to careful about using technology as a kind of palliative to address so many deep social challenges that we’re not going to solve with a map or a visualization,” Freeh explains, “But I think if we’re able to talk more openly about the challenges we’re having, that hopefully people will be inspired to take more action.”
With our changing presidential administration and consequent increase of climate change skeptics in power, it is more important than ever to focus on our areas of progress, and how we can improve upon them.
As Freeh puts it, “Local city governments have been and often are the laboratories of democracy on issues of sustainability. A lot of the really trailblazing work in mitigating climate change has come from the local level, not the federal.”
Essentially, we must remember to focus on our local programs to make the change we want to see.