New opportunities to visualise agricultural data

As someone often asked to make presentations, visualising data through charts and graphics is an important aid for communication. The Google Public Data Explorer was launched in March 2010 with the objective to make large, public-interest datasets easy to explore, visualize and communicate. Some of its charts and maps animate over time, which at least is fun and may help to make changes in the world easier to understand. Embedded charts and links update automatically so in principle always showing the latest available data.

The number of data sets and public data providers has been growing, and includes the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, World Economic Forum competitiveness indicators, Eurostat, OECD and others. However, the actual data series available (or metrics, as they are called in the software) are still a bit hit and miss. Only a tiny sample of Eurostat’s statistical series are as yet available, for example.

Below, I give two examples of data series of potential interest to readers of this blog. The first shows data from the Eurostat food supply chain monitor. This shows the year-on-year price changes for food prices for three levels in the food supply chain – farmgate prices (agricultural commodity prices), food processor prices (producer prices) and retail prices (consumer prices).

The chart makes clear how price volatility is smoothed as one moves from farmgate to retail prices. It also shows (as of July 2012) that recent concerns about a third spike in global food prices are not (yet) reflected in consumers’ shopping baskets.

Hitting the ‘Explore Data’ link brings you to the Google Data Explorer page where it is easy to change the series to make comparisons across member states or to drill down to look at price trends for individual food commodity groups.

Hovering the cursor over a data point reveals information on that data point, while hovering over a series label in the legend emphasises that series.

As an example of an animated graph, consider OECD data on trends in obesity in four countries, the US, France, Brazil and Japan, in the figure below (although the heading is labelled overweight and obese, the selected data only show the proportion obese). Clicking on the Play button starts the animation. Data are available for different time periods for the different countries so they appear at different times during the animation.

An interesting observation from the graph is that Brazil’s GDP per capita in 2009 is the same level as the US in 1978, and its obesity rate is very close to what the US rate was at that time.

The Public Data Explorer does not yet support data downloads. You can, however, get the data directly from the provider by following the provider’s link in the lower left corner of the visualization page although often this links to the provider’s home page rather than directly to the data source.

Users are able to upload their own data which can then be displayed using the Data Explorer formats. This requires using the Dataset Publishing Language (DSPL) as the file format (which is a format that Google has created). Apparently, it is fairly simple to convert to this file format from Excel and other file types although I did not yet try this. Users can then make this data visualisation available via email, in presentations or on their websites or blogs, although there does not appear to be any directory of privately-created data sets to help to find these data easily.

Photo credit Healthy Mountain Communities used under a Creative Commons licence

This post was written by Alan Matthews.

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