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Visualising Finnish Arms Export Data: How Open Data can Benefit Society

Minja Axelsson • Designer

Arms exports is a controversial subject. Opinions are widely diverse among different groups like journalists, peace activists, arms manufacturers, politicians, you and me, and everyone has their own agenda. So imagine what it would be like to build a service sheds some light on the business of selling arms, with all these different groups and their differing agendas as you user group.

That is just what we did.

This fall, Chilicorn Fund helped SaferGlobe, a Finnish group of researchers and peace activists, increase the transparency of Finland’s arms exports.For many years now, SaferGlobe has compiled an annual report on Finland’s arms trade and published on paper. Our mutual goal was to digitize this year’s report and make the gathered data more accessible and engaging.

The final product. https://saferglobe.fi/armsreport/

Our visualisation shows two different types of arms exports: military and civilian. These exports are based on data collected by SaferGlobe. The visualisation also shows the global peace index (GPI) of each country in any given year. The GPI, defined by Vision of Humanity, provides context for the exports. Additional context is provided via articles next to data of significant exports. These articles are written by SaferGlobe, and can be browsed on the website, too. We also built an About-section that explains the terminology used on the website and how the data was collected.

Data presentation challenges

The diverse group of users meant that our main goal as designers was to remain neutral. We wanted to present the data in the most understandable and accessible way, without building a narrative. This way we could retain trustworthiness and transparency in what is a very controversial subject. It is up to the user to explore the data and make up their own mind about it. One way to ensure neutrality was to forego emotional content, such as stories from war-torn countries, on the site. We just presented the data. The articles on the website are written in a matter-of-fact tone-of-voice, and make no value judgements on selling a particular product to a particular government.

Highly granular data is provided for expert users as a download on the website.

Due to addressing diverse user groups, our service had to accommodate different levels of granularity. A regular citizen wants to get an overview of things and needs help understanding the context of the information. Without a context for the euro amounts of weapon exports, the user doesn’t understand how meaningful a certain export is (since there is no comparison), or what it means (is the receiving country peaceful or at war). For this reason we decided to use the global peace index, and provide additional information in the About section and in articles. We made sure that more granular information is available for researchers: all data is downloadable as an excel-sheet. Making the data available for download also supports Spice’s open data principles.

Colors for a diverse user group

Choosing colors for data visualisation is always difficult, choosing eight distinct colors for a map visualisation even more so. We wanted to ensure the visualisation is accessible and approximately 4% of Finnish population are red-green colorblind. We clocked several hours of work in testing colors and looking for inspiration in previously implemented data visualisations. What made choosing the map colors especially difficult was opting for a diverging color scale (as opposed to a progressive one) to accurately depict countries that are very peaceful and countries that are not at all peaceful.

A few of our color experiments, and the final result.

Testing with real data

One thing we needed to keep in our mind during the whole design process was to always test our designs with real data. Using dummy data until the deployment of our service would have resulted in an unpleasant surprise, as some of our initial designs did not work with actual data. The range of our data didn’t work and we didn’t accommodate outliers. Luckily we noticed these things early on, since we worked with real data right from the start.

This meant that we were coding with D3.js from the beginning of the project. For the unacquainted, D3.js is a JavaScript library built specifically for creating data visualisations. It lets the developer use data from csv or JSON files and render their data visualisation to the DOM of a webpage. It’s a difficult library to learn, but it was absolutely worth it for designing this data visualisation.

Great in theory, terrible in practice: a failed design with actual data

Impact

The impact of this service has been significant and measurable. All of Finland’s main ministries were present at the publishing event. The keynote speaker at the event was Finland’s former minister of foreign affairs, Ilkka Kanerva. The report now goes directly to the highest levels of Finnish political decision-making.

The media also took interest. The arms export report was the number 1 news item on Yle’s main news broadcast at 20.30, a first for the report. SaferGlobe’s executive director Maria Mekri commented on the improved accuracy of the reporting, noting that journalists had clearly used the website, and were using the correct terms and figures, so it works as intended.

My hope for the service is that it will inspire other organizations to share their data in a clear and understandable format. If accurate information is available to everyone, we get closer to a more truthful view of things, regardless of subject matter. In addition to arms exports, open data could be utilized to solve or at least explore problems in areas such as gender, race, income inequality, substance abuse and mental health.

Open data has the potential to create new knowledge from combined data sources and find patterns in large data volumes. The field of open data and data visualisation will keep evolving and creating change. If you feel inspired and want to explore a dataset through data visualisation, the code for our digitized arms report is available as open source. You are free to take the code and modify it, and use it for your own service.

As Maria Mekri from SaferGlobe said: “I’m really looking forward for what we can do in the future, but for now, I am very proud and happy! I feel we have made the world a better place.”