After I published the very first version of PopulationPyramid.net in 2011, I wrote “My dream is to have a school using it as material for some homework for teenagers. If you know somebody that could be interested…”
It turns out that this is exactly what happened. The site has been used in a lot of schools over the years.
I did not realize that it was happening at first. I only understood after receiving a few feedback emails. Usually, users report mistakes, which I happily correct, or ask for features, which I try to add. I then like to ask how they use the site and this is how I discovered that lots of teachers were using the site in their course.
Also, when I understood that, I used Google to see what type of site or material was linking to populationpyramid.net and it turns out that there are quite a few courses, like this one where students are advised to use the site to do their homework (go to slide 12).
Furthermore, I can now see everyday, in the real-time analytics of the site, groups of people connecting at the same time. Just as I write, there is a group from Mechanichsburg in Pennsylvania that is connected.
This is most probably a class using the site during a course.
Over the years, as a final proof of interest for the site in education, I received a few authorization requests by school systems in Texas, the UK or Australia to use the site in their learning management system as a resource, or by editors for inclusions of images in various science books.
So basically, the dream from my old blog post came true. This feels great.
Consequently, I have decided to spend more time on this project. For the last year, I have been teaching myself more about data visualization on the web, especially about the d3.js library, which is the current standard for this type of work. I redid completely the backend code (the server side part of the website, which is now using the Django framework) and the population pyramids visualizations themselves. I added a better support for foreign languages, sharing on social media, and discoverability by the search engines (aka SEO: search engine optimization). I worked also a lot on the performance of the site. I want pages to display as fast as they can. I am ok with the idea of students getting bored if it is by the content of the site (you can not please everyone), but not if it is by waiting on pages to be displayed.
Once all this was done, I released the new version of the site in April, with some encouraging success, as since then, the site has become way more popular in Italian and Spanish languages.
I was only getting started. Since then, I imported more datasets in the database, and I tackled new visualizations, like this visualization of the relative population size of all the countries in the world. (I will write other blog posts about these visualizations in the future.) So far, I picked subjects that I thought to be interesting or for which I already had data available, as I was rather exploring the possibilities of the technology than having a well laid out plan.
I think it is time for me to clarify what is my goal with this project: my intent is to provide a quality, although free of charge, resource for teachers around the world. A lot of money is invested in geography books and atlases that students find boring or barely use. My intent is to make a modern version of these books, at least for their visual components. By modern, I mean modular and interactive.
Modular: I think, as a former teacher, that it is important to be able to pick and choose the parts that fits into your own course.
Interactive: it allows students to explore and be surprised by the data, in short, to think about the facts by themselves. I am also convinced that a little bit of animations goes a long way to engage people about the data. I can not count anymore the number of times where I showed the comparison between the population pyramids of Belgium and Afghanistan, and the little animation that happens when you transition from one to the other is really what makes people understanding sink in.
So, this is my goal with this site: make it a modular and interactive resource for statistics and maps of the world. In the long run, I will probably switch all the content of the site from the populationpyramid.net domain name to a new one, once it will be clear that this projects is about more than just population statistics. So far, the best domain name that I have for this is btlas.com, which is a pun: “After Atlas, there is Btlas”. I am still not sure about that one.
Additionally, notice that a nice side effect of this projects is to fight the infamous “fake news” spread all around the world. I will not fix the problem all by myself, but I would like to offer one additional way for people to check the data by themselves for some sensitive subjects, like carbon emissions, or migrations, when they are confronted to suspicious headlines.
For the funding of the project, my goal is to provide the site content free of charge. Indeed, I want to help teachers across the world to whom their institutions are not able to provide all the needed material to support their courses. I know that it happens in Belgium, my country, while it is a relatively rich country, so, I am convinced that it happens all around the world. The good news here is that with the advent of open data, almost all raw data that you need to create your own atlas is available without charges from public institutions.
Nevertheless, I will need some money, if only to pay for the servers and bandwidth used by the site. This is the reason why there are ads on the site. I tend to dislike ads, like almost everybody, but it is the reality of internet today that ads are what fuels most successful websites economics. So, I am swallowing my pride and until I find another way to make some money of this project, while keeping it free for users, ads it is. Notice that I tried to sell posters on the site, having classrooms walls in mind, but so far, I did not sell any, except to … myself. It might be due to the limited offer that I have so far, but I doubt it.
So as a conclusion, let me state that my current dream is thus to make a reference website for teachers around the world, while making a living out of it. Now to hope that this dream will come true, as the one of 2011 did.
This blog post has been crossposted on https://www.populationpyramid.net/blog/declaration-of-intent.html