Friday Fun: Data can be sexy too

Paris Metro

DataParis maps the secrets of the city using open data and metro stops. Photo by Zilverbat.

Data visualizations and apps that rely on open data have become popular tools in the past few years. Data visualizations are wide ranging, from maps of traffic fatalities or wind patterns to diagrams of the atmosphere or infographics showing how urban sprawl affects our health. The ability of data visualizations to communicate complex information in a fun and accessible way has made them good tools for explaining data to a broad audience. The rise of open data – data made freely available to everyone without any copyright restriction – has spurred the creation of tools like DataParis, which maps the secrets of the French capital using open data and metro lines.

Recently, The New Yorker featured an interactive data visualisation which mapped the median household income surrounding each stop on any given metro line. Using open source data from NYC Open Data and the U.S. Census, it demonstrated startling income disparities throughout New York City. Inspired by this, four students from the Paris-based Hetic School of Internet, Communications, and Information Technology, decided to create a data visualization which would help viewers to discover Paris through the demographics surrounding each metro station. By combining a map of the Paris Metro with open source demographic data (e.g. the proportion of retired, single, married people, political opinion, cost of housing etc.), its creators hoped to create a fun and interesting way to understand the makeup, and disparities, of their city.

What does DataParis tell us?

The four students – Gilles Bertaux, Remi Fayolle, Vincent Garreau and Robin Lambert – started their project by searching for ways to highlight inequalities in Paris by using Open Data. They used data from The French Institute of Statistics and Economics (INSEE), the Paris Transport Agency ( RATP) and the  Secretary of the Interior, giving these dry numbers a sexy second life.

DataParis plots this data across a map of Paris, with points representing each metro station. Each demographic indicator is represented by colorful circles: Political opinions are red and blue, areas with more second homes are dark orange.

Gilles Bertaux, one of the designers of DataParis, said the project was meant to be “fun and pedagogical”. Indeed, at the crossroads of design, fun and science, DataParis is an appealing way to give people access to information that they otherwise would not have been able to visualize or even understand. With DataParis, people are active users of the data, choosing what they want to see on the map and which sets of data they want to juxtapose.

Though this data visualization is an interesting tool, we have to be careful not to draw hasty conclusions or judgments from reading these maps. The creators of DataParis remind us that “this data visualization is not meant to be a precise study. It is intended to show general trends based upon reliable data.” With that in mind, lets take a look at something we can learn from DataParis.

The Center of Paris as a Second Home?

As the maps shows, most of the apartments and homes which serve as secondary residences are located in the core of Paris, revealing one cause of the existing tensions in Paris’s housing market. In 2009, 14.3% of the homes in the city were either second homes or simply empty. This statistic has raised many questions and debates about the scarcity of affordable housing. The French Minister for Territories Equality and Housing – Cécile Duflot – is expected to announce measures addressing the affordability of housing in Paris within the next few months.

DataParis map showing number of second homes per stop

This is the era of open data

Recently, many institutions have been working to make open data even more accessible and useful.

During the 39th G8 Summit, June 17th-18th, 2013, G8 Presidents signed a Charter on Open Data, highlighting access to information for all as a way to promote entrepreneurial, civic and social innovation. The potential of Open Data is fully recognized as an agent of change and innovation.

Open Data, coming to a smartphone near you

Paris Transport agency – RATP – encouraged citizens to use its data to create independent smartphone apps that will help to ease transport problems. The Agency launched a contest to create an app from the data made available by the RATP. Several innovative apps were born out of this contest. The webapp TimeReader offers reading material calculated to last the exact length of one’s trip on public transport. Another project, “Boîte à Sardines” (squashed like sardines) uses open data and crowdsourced information to notify users, in real time, how crowded any given metro line might be.

Apps, visualizations, and infographics are just a few of the uses of open data. As more data becomes publicly available and technologies advance, the public’s understanding of their surrounding city will likely get better and better, provided we use this data with care.

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