May 21, 2015

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This week has been filled with some exciting travel and speaking opportunities for the Fathom team. Ben teamed up with Chelsea Clinton in NYC to give a talk at Internet week, and Teri, Alex, and I spent a day in D.C. presenting our work at the World Bank Group.

Ben and Chelsea Clinton presenting at Internet Week, New York, NY

Internet Week celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit and global impact of technology on business, entertainment and culture. Ben took the opportunity to present the process of translating 850,000 data points into a series of accessible, compelling, and interactive stories that live on a larger content platform. He also previewed some of our current work in progress; we are optimizing the No Ceilings map to run on mobile devices using WebGL. Soon users will be able to navigate a 3D globe to access and share the No Ceilings data.

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3D No Ceilings map running on mobile

A few other folks from the office headed to D.C. to present a few projects to the World Bank Group. The event was organized jointly by the India Country Management Unit and the Social Inclusion Global Solutions Group. We spoke about some of the custom tools we created to analyze the data for What the World Eats and No Ceilings. The folks at the World Bank were both excited and surprised to find that 13% of the indicators used for No Ceilings had come from their World Bank Open Data catalogue.

Alex and James outside the World Bank Group’s headquarters. Washington, D.C.

We also had a great dialogue around Open India 2.0, a project we created for the the World Bank Group’s Country Partnership Strategy with India. Open India navigates the progress and challenges of one of the world’s most populous nations by tracking the development of hundreds of projects and knowledge activities across three areas of engagement.

Landing page screen shot of Open India 2.0
Landing page of Open India 2.0

We’re grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the process and progress of some of our recent projects. Keep an eye out for the Fathom road show heading towards a town near you.

May 14, 2015

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We aren’t a poster company, but over the years our love of print has driven us to design a collection of printed artifacts (see Scaled in Miles, All StreetsDencity, and Frankenfont). Our print explorations often occur alongside client work, and reflect the range of interests (and occasionally obsessions) of folks around the office. We donate all of the print-generated proceeds to charities.

Through Donors Choose, we helped schools purchase materials that we also enjoy using, like a projector. Here’s one of the thank-you letters from a sixth grader in Philadelphia.

A large portion of this year’s sales traffic came from a post on Reddit, a radio appearance on BBC Radio, and write-ups from WIRED, FastCo and Quartz. We’re thankful for the interest they’ve sparked, along with all of those who have generated traffic by word-of-mouth (or tweets). Any sharing of our printed work directly impacts the amount we’re able to give away.

We’ve made a point this year to donate to communities both at home and abroad. Read on to learn about the local, national, and international organizations we’ve selected for this year’s donations.


  • Girls Rock Boston empowers girls through musical education and performance (they’re like the movie School of Rock, but even more badass).
  • Food for Free distributes fresh produce to underserved communities in Boston (if you haven’t noticed, we’re enthusiastic about urban farming).
  • Somerville Homeless Coalition provides housing services, emergency shelters, food assistance, and case management to our local stomping grounds.


  • Donors Choose supports classrooms in high poverty districts with STEM-related books and art supplies (we’re talking textbooks, crayons, 3D printers, the whole works).


  • Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) gives emergency aid to those affected by armed conflict, epidemics, healthcare exclusion, and natural or man-made disasters.
  • Congo Medical Relief supports families of healthcare workers lost in the fight against Ebola (some of the heroes that worked with our friend, Pardis Sabeti).
  • Save the Children has a fund for helping children affected by the devastating earthquakes in Nepal.
  • Mercy Corps was on the ground in Nepal before the recent earthquakes, and their relief efforts are providing food, water, and other emergency supplies to survivors.

Some students sent us drawings of the art supplies they received (Donors Choose).

On behalf of the organizations in this year’s lineup, thank you for all for your orders! To learn about our donations in other years, see our previous post.

If you’re interested in purchasing a print, check out the 3rd floor (prints we stock and ship from our studio), All Streets collection (printed on demand in California), and Frankenfont (printed on demand from Blurb).

Thanks again from all of us at Fathom, and stay tuned for the next print in our collection.

May 07, 2015

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On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck Nepal. Since then, multiple aftershock tremors of magnitude 6 and greater have caused devastating casualties and damage in Kathmandu and its neighboring areas. Papua New Guinea, too, was in close proximity to a 7.1-magnitude earthquake earlier today. As our thoughts are with the affected families and communities, we’ve updated our earthquakes web explorer with the most recent data to shed light on the immensity of the recent earthquakes and their aftershocks.

Please consider donating to local and international relief efforts.

Many of the world’s most densely populated areas sit along the most seismically risky locations. The Nepal earthquake was triggered by the release of escalating tension along major fault lines, where the plate containing most of Europe and Asia overrode the subducting India plate. The Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, home to more than one million people, sits just 48 miles southeast of the earthquake’s epicenter.

There have been four magnitude 6 earthquakes along the boundary of the India and Eurasia plates in the last century. In the last month alone, there have been 379 earthquakes between magnitude 4.5-9.0 around the world.

Our web application demonstrates that the most densely populated areas are often at the greatest risk for high magnitude earthquakes. Many of these high-risk regions require improved infrastructure that can sustain the frequenting tremors.

The Himalayan region is one of the most densely populated (light green) regions in the world, and also puts the residents at extremely high mortality risk (red).
The Himalayan region is one of the most densely populated (light green) regions in the world, and also puts the residents at extremely high mortality risk (red).

We hope our tool can act as a guide as to where we can focus future efforts to improve infrastructural and institutional preparedness. Please take the time to learn more, and support the international aid efforts where possible.

May 06, 2015

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Some of us at Fathom are easily sucked into geeky hobbies. When I first came across a site dedicated to SDR, or software defined radio, I turned my desk into a makeshift communication outpost for several days to learn the basics. It turned out to be surprisingly relevant to our core interests of data visualization and programming.

A farmer listens to an early radio broadcast. While communication technology has evolved, radio remains a critical medium today. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and USDA.
A farmer listens to an early radio broadcast. While communication technology has evolved, radio remains a critical medium today. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and USDA.

In recent years, software defined radio (SDR) has become a popular pastime among a small but enthusiastic community of hobbyists. SDRs are radios enmeshed with computers. Software that runs on a standard personal computer can replace parts of the radio that we typically think of as physical objects with wires and knobs—like amplifiers, filters and so on.

We used this small, inexpensive USB dongle to scan a wide range of radio transmissions.
We used this small, inexpensive USB dongle to scan a wide range of radio transmissions.

Integration with the computer makes SDRs extremely versatile. They can be applied to a variety of projects, such as building a simple FM tuner, receiving broadcasts from satellites, and even DIY radio astronomy. Best of all, they’re cheap! So we purchased an SDR kit for the office, opting for the extra large whip antenna, and took it for a spin.

Our setup included a laptop, SDR dongle and a 5-ft antenna. High-end equipment is available, but this was enough to have some fun.
Our setup included a laptop, SDR dongle and a 5-ft antenna. High-end equipment is available, but this was enough to have some fun.

SDRs are relatively new and still a niche interest, so the available software is predominantly developed by the user community. Several applications are available for specialized purposes, but it seems the largest platform for developing custom tools is GNU Radio.

A small radio tuner script written in GNU Radio Companion's visual programming environment
A small radio tuner script written in GNU Radio Companion’s visual programming environment

GNU Radio offers a collection of software blocks written in C++ that handle low-level functions like signal processing. It’s packaged in Python for a convenient and approachable API. With GNU Radio, applications can quickly be written in Python, or using the convenient node-based visual development environment in the GNU Radio Companion.

Following some readily-available tutorials, the first program we made was a basic FM receiver. Here it is tuned to WMBR, the MIT campus radio station.
Following some readily-available tutorials, the first program we made was a basic FM receiver. Here it is tuned to WMBR, the MIT campus radio station.

Of course, dedicated members of the SDR community have written much more sophisticated applications. One of them is GQRX, a free and open source project built on the GNU Radio platform. Its basic workflow features a precise tuner augmented by visualizations of real-time activity on the radio spectrum. As with any radio, users can only listen to one frequency at a time, but a Fourier transform graph shows activity across the entire bandwidth of the range the radio is receiving. Simultaneously, a waterfall graph ticks along below it, showing broadcast strength at each frequency over time. Aside from the geeky coolness factor, this is also a great application of visual design to a technical challenge. The visualizations let users examine a broad range of frequencies at a glance to find active stations, rather than having to blindly try each frequency one at a time. The program is immensely useful when exploring frequencies outside the well-known commercial radio range.

The GQRX Fourier transform graph (top) and waterfall (bottom) showing two broadcast stations.
The GQRX Fourier transform graph (top) and waterfall (bottom) showing two broadcast stations.

While we were considering other SDR projects to try, we discovered that it is possible to download imagery from NOAA weather satellites as they pass by. We’ve been doing quite a bit of cartography lately (see No Ceilings, All Streets, Urban Agriculture) so this seems like a natural next step, and we hope to have some weather maps ready to share soon!

People may not be listening to music on the radio as much as they once did, but our electronic devices are constantly “on the air,” transmitting and receiving data via radio waves to keep us connected. One reason why we are interested in SDR is because it lets people peek into those layers of data, which would otherwise be inaccessible. And making the inaccessible accessible—or the invisible visible—is the goal of data visualization.

So don’t touch that dial! We’ll be back with more after the break.

May 01, 2015

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The social–sharing experience is a crucial and often overlooked element of information design. In addition to updating content and the UI/UX of our latest No Ceilings site, we are constantly developing its “shareability.” Between deep linking, bite-sized graphics for stories, and pre-populated social links, we have made sharing as easy and visually compelling as possible.

We strive to make sharing well designed, like this recent tweet about women entrepreneurs and executives
We strive to make sharing well designed, like this recent tweet about women entrepreneurs and executives

Deep linking has been active since launch. It allows viewers to share a map view of any indicator at any given year. We realized, however, that a truly shareable map must also be embeddable. That is, viewers should be able to peel off any story from the data-driven map and show it on their own sites or presentations.

Embeddable map (right) redesigned to communicate the information, look and feel of the original (left) at smaller sizes and as a static image
We redesigned the original map view (left) into an embeddable image (right) to better communicate its information, look, and feel at smaller sizes and as a static image.

Making the map embeddable required significant design and technical work. In addition to layout and typographic adjustments, we needed to generate over 20,000 static images to recreate every map setting in both the original web colors and a new, more versatile palette. But the hard work was well worth it. The new embeddable maps include all critical information at a scaled-down size, in two color schemes. While they can stand alone on external sites, each image links to the original map from which it was shared, opening a path to the No Ceilings site for new visitors.

Viewers can now share No Ceilings data maps on their own sites in a matter of seconds
Viewers can now share No Ceilings data maps on their own sites in a matter of seconds
A new color scheme option makes the maps visually compatible with a variety of external sites
A new color scheme option makes the maps visually compatible with a variety of external sites

The embedding feature is a valuable tool for journalists, scholars and anyone with a blog or website. By simply clicking the “Embed” button and copy–pasting the given code, anyone can share their findings from the No Ceilings data map. So explore, share, and speak out!

April 24, 2015

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From the start of their education to the prime of their careers, women’s professional paths look rather different from their male colleagues. The extent to which workplace inequity influences women’s careers, though, varies by locale in a way you may not expect.

A South African entrepreneur, fashion designer, and mother of four works with one of her designers.

In Europe and Latin America, more women enroll in college than their male colleagues. Further, there tends to be higher concentrations of female college grads in the workforce than men with equivalent schooling.

So why is it that the share of men in high-level management positions is so much greater than that of women? Our No Ceilings story on women’s transition to the labor force shows that though women receive equal or higher levels of education, they are far less often in executive or management roles. A 2011 study by the Harvard Business Review found that for more than 7,000 leaders “at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts—and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows.” The disparity is certainly not a matter of competency.

The study also compares male and female performance of 16 core traits that are important to effective leadership. Women outscored men the most in areas of “taking initiative and driving for results—[which] have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.” As we take findings from the study to a more tangible level, it’s interesting to see how women’s entrepreneurial initiative varies geographically.

It’s worth noting that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America have higher rates of female entrepreneurship than the U.S., and most countries in Europe for that matter. The share of female entrepreneurs in Nigeria rings in at 41%, while in the U.S. just 10% of women are entrepreneurs.

Much of the regional variance reflects the different stages of national economies. Africa and Latin America contain economies where the fear of failure is less than that of more innovation-driven economies like Europe and North America. Of course there are many other issues at play which you can learn more about by reading the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2014 Global Report.


All this being said, the conditions and hurdles facing businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa put the odds against entrepreneurs. Even with the difficulty of accessing funding, lack of government support, corruption, and lack of access to research, entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa have shockingly high levels of enthusiasm.

So, what can we say about how gender influences where we land in our careers? Even with higher levels of educational attainment, a myriad of structural and cultural issues hinder the professional success of women in more developed economies.

And as far as the ladies in Sub Saharan Africa go, well, we’re still trying to figure out how we can emulate their go get ‘em entrepreneurial spirit. With so many barriers to success, their initiative to expand opportunities, gain independence, and increase their incomes certainly sets an example worth striving towards.

April 15, 2015

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One in four girls worldwide marries before her 18th birthday. Child marriage violates basic human rights, and denies millions of girls worldwide the control over their health, education, and futures. One of the data-driven stories featured in No Ceilings, our latest project for the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation, details the prevalence and negative impacts of underage marriage, along with the detrimental effects it can have for girls, their families, and their wider communities.

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India is home to more child brides than any other country.

Although laws often prohibit the practice, child marriage is still widespread in many developing nations. The legal minimum age of marriage in India is 18 years old, but 47% of girls—or an astounding 25.9 million—are married before their 18th birthday. That means roughly one in two women in India recited their nuptials before graduating from high school, and in too many cases, even before graduating elementary school.

Though legislation helps curtail the numbers, laws are often disregarded or ineffectual in eliminating the practice. Further, in some countries circumstances like parental consent, religious custom, or court approval allow girls to marry at a younger age than boys.

In cases of child marriage, young girls are typically taken from their families and married to older men. As a result they are often forced to stop their schooling and instead work for the family of their new spouse. Their education—as well as their childhood—is cut short.

As the prevalence of child marriage increases, so does the rate of teen pregnancies. School enrollment also tends to decline. In Niger more girls have given birth than enrolled in high school. Girls face more positive conditions in Jordan.

High rates of teenage pregnancy are also common in places where child marriage is prevalent. Girls must often bear children before they are physically, emotionally, or financially prepared to do so. In Niger, where there is no minimum legal age of marriage, one in five girls under 18 have given birth—which is higher than the percent of girls enrolled in secondary school (i.e. in a given year, more girls under 18 have given birth than enrolled in high school).

The visualization allows users to compare rates of child marriage, secondary school enrollment, and adolescent pregnancy across countries. For a more human account of the story, see the incredible video made by media partners, Scratch, about girls in India who are taking a stand against child marriage.

Visit the site to explore the pervasive impacts of child marriage around the world, and to watch the short video featuring women who are taking control of their own futures.

March 26, 2015

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Topics: , ,

Scaled in Miles was recently featured on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The show’s producers had an interest in the role of album covers from the days of 12″ LP’s, and their counterparts in the digital age.

When I was a kid, I would often contemplate the twelve square inches of cover art (or more) while listening to my favorite albums. As I got older and my tastes shifted towards jazz, reading the liner notes provided helpful hooks for finding new artists, and described the historical context of what I was hearing. With digital streaming, you don’t get that large artifact to read, hold, and ponder. What can be done to rekindle that experience?

It was in that context that we were contacted by Bernard Achampong of the BBC to see if we might be interested in discussing Scaled in Miles on the radio. In his view, our piece is like a set of liner notes for an artist’s entire career, as it shows all his collaborations and how they link to key recordings. Since we were scheduled to be live on air for a morning segment, James and I gathered at my house at 4:00 in the morning for the interview. Alas, the spot was so quick that James’s dulcet voice did not have a chance to grace the British airwaves, though his moral support was invaluable.

Our segment was paired with artist Matthew Cooper, whose most recent project doubles down on the power of printed album sleeves. Using innovations in printing technology, each individual album cover features unique artwork. Having spent some time staring at Mr. Cooper’s work in the past, I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to talk with him on air.

You can check out the entire episode on BBC Radio 4’s podcast (we go on around the 02:23:20 mark), or listen to just our segment here.


March 20, 2015

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No Ceilings, our latest project for the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation, features a myriad of data-driven stories on the global progress of women and girls over the last twenty years. Cutting across gains in health, education, economic participation, leadership, security, and communication, the stories reveal areas that have experienced the greatest improvements, as well as places where the gaps remain. In the vein of women’s leadership, No Ceilings features a dichotomous story on women’s political participation: while women often vote at comparable rates to men, they are often under-represented in positions of national government. suffrage-screencap4 To say that women gained the right to vote can mean two things: either a gain in gender equality or a gain in democracy for the overall country. But to see that women are underrepresented in positions of government makes an unequivocal statement on the status of gender equality (or lack thereof) in national and local politics. While women in most countries are voting at similar rates as men, they are less frequently sitting in positions of national government. The issue isn’t that women aren’t getting elected, but rather that they aren’t even making it to the ballots.

Women are still gaining the right to vote in 2015

The No Ceilings story regarding women’s suffrage contains a timeline of when women in each country gained the right to vote. It also compares the rate of voting between women and men, and shows the gender breakdown of representation in parliament. Rwanda, Andorra, and Cuba have the highest female representation in the lower chambers of national parliament. In contrast, the United States, with just 18% of national parliament seats held by women, is below the global average.

Histogram showing the regional breakdown of when women gained the right to vote over time
Histogram showing the regional breakdown of when women gained the right to vote over time

The histogram shows a regional breakdown of women’s suffrage over time. You can see geographic patterns emerge by clicking on each region, and seeing when its resident countries permitted universal women’s suffrage. Most countries in Europe and Central Asia, for instance, gave women the right to vote from 1918-1921. By contrast, countries in the Middle East and North Africa didn’t allow universal suffrage until post World War II (partly due to the fact that many countries in the region were established after 1945).

Regional view of the Middle East and North Africa
Regional view of Europe and Central Asia

In building this story, we were shocked to learn that countries like Switzerland gave women the right to vote as late as 1971, and in Saudi Arabia women only just gained the vote this year. Learn more about women’s political participation and many other topics by visiting the site.

March 09, 2015

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In conjunction with International Women’s Day and the upcoming session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, we’re thrilled about the launch of No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project. Despite gains over the last twenty years, we still haven’t reached gender equality worldwide. The gap in the share of women in the workforce versus the share of men has barely changed in two decades. To make matters more grim, the United States is one of nine countries worldwide that doesn’t provide for paid maternal leave.

No Ceilings, our latest site for the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explores twenty years of data to demonstrate the gains and gaps facing women and girls worldwide. Between a series of interactive data visualizations, an exploratory map, videos, articles, and sharable peel-off factoids (we like to call them quotables though rumor has it former Secretary Clinton has been calling them snackables), the site features a breadth of timely information on gender equality across a range of themes.

Child marriage is a violation of human rights, and it denies girls control over their health, education, and futures. 1 in 4 girls worldwide was married before her 18th birthday.

The No Ceilings initiative is unique in that it is the first comprehensive view of data specifically on women and girls worldwide. After receiving an enormous spreadsheet, our team spent eight months analyzing the data, generating stories, designing, and developing the site and its visualizations with the Clinton and Gates Foundations.

We identified more than twenty data-driven narratives that could be explored or illustrated visually. While some stories contained ample information to work as full interactive pieces, other stories were better served as headlines with simpler graphics. In addition, users can see the entire data set mapped by country from 1995 to the present, across 850,000 data points.

Women are still gaining the right to vote. In Saudi Arabia, 2015 marks the first year that women can rock the vote.

The No Ceilings site gives newcomers an understanding of complex issues on gender equality and enables them to share their findings, while also offering more depth for policy-centric audiences. As we continue to update the site over the next several months with additional interactive stories, please explore, share, and stay tuned for more information at