Posts by Katy
Records for Life: visualizations designed to collect (better) data

It should come as no surprise that we spend a lot of time geeking out over data. Unless we’re busy watching movies, you’ll find us exploring existing datasets, and working towards a clear and compelling visual representation of the stories we find inside. Reimagining the child health record as a part of last year’s Records for Life contest offered an exciting opportunity to apply those same design concepts to the input mechanisms themselves — both digital and analog — in order to increase the volume and accuracy of global health data.

The weight-for-age chart, for example, was not a required component of the contest. We were drawn to it for its ability to engage parents in the immunization process, making them more likely to both participate in — and complete — a vaccination program for their child. Attrition is a big problem in developing nations. In one study only 39% of the children surveyed completed their immunization, if they started at all. We saw the weight-for-age chart as a key way to convert parents into participants in the medical process. A parent who contributes to the vaccination record is a parent who takes care of the card, knows when their child’s next appointment is, and brings the card with them. They also have it readily available should a national health surveyor pay them a visit.

We started by examining existing records, which are often dense, confusing, and assume a level of literacy that some populations just don’t have. Plotting single dots on top of a full color document can also make future scanning and digitization efforts less accurate.

While the visual design might vary widely, these records are built on top of a rigorous dataset provided by the World Health Organization. The dataset contains daily median weight for boys and girls from birth to five years, accurate to four decimal points, as well as four z-scores above and below median.

This is the first stab at pulling real data into this chart. The intent was to compress cues for what is normal or healthy into the chart itself. The data comes from the WHO infant growth standards. There is a set published every few years for both boys and girls, including four standard deviations from the norm.
Our first stab at pulling real data into a Processing sketch. From left to right, there is a bar for each month from birth to five years of age. Each open dot is the median weight for girls plotted on a scale from zero to twenty kilograms. The four closed dots above and below represent z-scores.

The chart above demonstrates an instance where the needs of the parent may be different from those of a doctor or a policymaker. From a medical or research perspective, data gathered at this level of detail is essential. To a parent, however, the difference between a child weighing 15 kilograms and 15.1 kilograms is negligible. Their question is more fundamental: “Is my child healthy?”

In an early iteration, we replaced plotted circles with a column of squares for each month. Each square is a single digit value from zero to forty kilograms. Cells with thicker borders indicate statistically “normal” values (in this case, two z-scores above and below median), while blue and red cells indicate where the normal range was unique for either boys or girls.

We made a conscious choice to simplify the standard weight-for-age chart, enabling parents to use it as a tool to answer that one basic question. Our challenge lay in deciding what range to highlight, and how to calculate it. Since falling exactly inside or outside a certain range isn’t an absolute indication of health, and just getting close to the edge should be cause for alarm, we used an average of male and female values at two z-scores above and below the median to define “normal” — a range that statistically captures about 95% of the population. This allowed us to create a chart that worked for both genders, saving valuable real estate and cutting large-scale production costs. We also decided to use a single knockout color that can be filtered out easily by optical character recognition (OCR) software.


Asking parents to fill in an exact square for each month proved to be tedious and error prone. We ultimately shifted to values designed to be circled, with structured inputs for more exact decimal weights only at key milestones. Circles only appear around the values in the “normal” range, highlighting when a parent should be concerned.

There is one column for each month of the baby’s life from birth to 60 months (five years old). Potential values for the baby’s weight are listed in each column. Parents or caregivers circle their child’s weight in kilograms for each month. Along the top there is space for decimal weights to be entered at key milestones.
There is one column for each month of a child’s life from birth to five years. Potential values for the baby’s weight are listed in each column. Parents or caregivers circle their child’s weight in kilograms for each month. Along the top there is space for decimal weights to be entered at key milestones.
The weight-for-age chart. This side is geared toward parents, with a revised weight-for- age chart and a section for recording addresses and notes.
The weight-for-age chart in the larger context of our entry.

For more information check out the documentation of our final contest entry, as well as the original Records for Life brief.

All weight-for-age data was sourced from the  World Health Organization, and handled according to their published standards.
The emergence of civic tech

Hot off the presses! Our latest project with the Knight Foundation went live today. Trends in Civic Tech is an interactive tool for exploring the rapidly growing field of “civic tech” — organizations and companies operating at the intersection of technology, open government, and citizen engagement.

Trends in Civic Tech
The visualization includes organizations within the civic tech sector that received funding between January 2011 and May 2013. Each organization is represented by a circle, with color coding for how much of their investment came from private (cyan) and philanthropic (magenta) sources.

Earlier this year Knight teamed up with Quid to map this emerging field, combining semantic analysis and public investment data to produce a detailed picture of the civic tech landscape. Their publication, The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field, was also released today.

The civic tech landscape is divided into two overarching themes. Open Government organizations are focused on advancing government transparency, accessibility of government data and services, and civic involvement in democratic processes. Community Action organizations catalyze peer-to-peer information sharing, civic crowdfunding and collaboration to address civic issues.

Open Government and Community Action are further subdivided into eleven innovation clusters.

Private funding is abundant in clusters such as Peer-to-peer sharing (which includes Airbnb, Inc), while the balance shifts to grant funding in clusters like Data Access & Transparency (which includes the Sunlight Foundation).

Within these clusters are 209 individual organizations and companies.

Civic tech organizations
Filled circles indicate companies that received funding from Jan 2011 to May 2013. Outlined circles had no investment data for this time period. The size of the circle indicates the dollar amount invested during the study timeframe. The company with the highest investment was Airbnb, in the Peer-to-Peer Sharing cluster.

Hovering over an individual company highlights how interconnected the civic tech sector is.

Faint lines connect the highlighted to the other companies in the study that are technologically similar. A complete list of these connections appears in the sidebar.

We entered into this project already believing in the power of technology to improve the lives of citizens and efficiency of government, so it was both illuminating and inspiring to help bring this first-of-its-kind picture of the civic tech landscape to life. We’re excited to continue our work with this visualization, to make it even more useful as a tool for civic tech practitioners and investors alike.

For more information, Knight has published a blog post about their research, and an executive summary is available on Slideshare.

Connected China named a finalist in 2013 Fast Company Innovation by Design Awards

In September we were honored that Connected China was named a finalist in the 2013 Fast Company Innovation by Design Awards.

This past week a Fathom contingent headed down to New York for the awards ceremony, where all the finalists took home a little something extra:

Innovation by Design Award

Head over to Fast Company to find a full list of winners, as well as pictures from the awards ceremony! (Hint: keep your eyes peeled during the video to see one of our own walking the red carpet.)

Fathom’s new leadership

We all loved it when James brought his family to visit the office this summer — especially when his oldest daughter Joy took a particular shine to the Big Chair:


I, for one, welcome our new toddler overlords.

Dan Shiffman Day!

Last week we were lucky to be able to welcome Dan Shiffman to the Fathom offices for a full day of Processing workshops. Dan is a professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program program at NYU, and is the author of Learning Processing and Nature of Code. (As far as we know, he is also our first guest to commute to the office via ferry from Maine.)

As a team we’re fans of Dan’s books, and have multiple copies in our office library, but it was great to gather around the table and really sink into the more abstract concepts, ask questions, and work through examples.

Dan Shiffman workshop
Getting ready for our workshop.

There was a lot of scribbling on notepads as we tackled some of the unique math and geometry behind the PVector class, which we explored as the foundation for modeling forces found in the physical world and using them programmatically.

A day's worth of accumulated diagrams and explanations.
A day’s worth of accumulated diagrams and explanations.

In you’re interested in working through some of the concepts in our workshop, Nature of Code is available in its entirety online, or can be purchased in print form as well. Dan has also produced a thorough set of explanatory videos to go along with each chapter.

Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

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