At first, it sounds like an eye-rolling story out of Portlandia. A group of web designers and data crunchers band together to do good. Except that when you sit down with Periscopic, they seem the last thing from judgmental. And while they have some obviously “good” clients like the World Wildlife Fund and UNICEF, others are more corporate, like GE and Yahoo!. Aren’t those the kinds of companies the good-doing movement runs from in terror?
It turns out that doing good is more complicated than it would seem. And Periscopic is thinking a lot more about the problem than we might imagine.
“Anyone can do good, including corporations,” says co-founder Dino Citraro. “You just have to be careful. It’s not like when I was in my twenties in a punk rock band. It was easy to build walls then. We have a more nuanced discussion now.”
MAKING DATA MAKE AN IMPACT
Periscopic excels in a field that may not sit prominently on your radar: data visualization. It springs from a curious human weakness, our inability to process numbers effectively. Think of the last time you heard a politician reel off a string of statistics: 44 percent of this, 40,235 of that and so on. It probably didn’t sink in. But that story of 78-year-old Annie Wilkins of Fargo, North Dakota, who is set to lose her ride-sharing program and doesn’t know how she’ll get to the grocery store—you get the point.
“As humans, we don’t understand the differences between large numbers. For example, it’s hard to understand the difference between 100 million and 1 billion,” explains lead technical designer Brett Johnson, “At Periscopic, we strive to make projects so intuitive that you can easily see how one thing relates to another. And then you say, ‘Oh that is obvious.’”
To see how it works, we can start with a recent in-house project inspired by the Sandy Hook tragedy. Periscopic began with a database you might expect: the unified crime statistics compiled by the FBI in 2010 and 2013. They showed, of course, that a lot of people are killed by guns every year. But most Americans don’t need a report to tell them that, and many don’t care.
So Periscopic flipped the idea around. They paired the crime statistics with life expectancy data from the World Health Organization. Rather than looking at the age at which people died, they focused on the amount of life they might have lived had they not been shot. The resulting visualization uses arcs that trace the hypothetical lifespan of every person killed by guns in 2010 and 2013. They start out orange, but at the point the person was killed, they turn a ghostly white. As a result, you can quickly (and hauntingly) see how much life was lost.
Like most Periscopic projects, the site does not advocate a solution. “It is not about gun control or mental health,” says Kim Rees, also a co-founder of the firm. “We’re not telling people that you have to get involved or be activists. If you want to, fantastic, but what we really want to give people is something to think about.”
BRINGING LIFE TO DATA
Periscopic began as a concept nine years ago. At the time Rees and Citraro owned a web firm, making sites for anyone who walked in the door. But they weren’t happy with it and began to take long walks in Portland’s 400-acre Washington Park, talking about what they could do. Rees had been deeply impressed by the Glass Engine, a website which used data to examine the works of composer Phillip Glass. Maybe they could do something like that, but with an ethical angle.
“On a personal level,” says Citraro, “we wanted to wake up every day feeling good about what we were doing.”
So they rebranded themselves as Periscopic and adopted the tagline “doing good with data.” Their first major project was for a researcher named Peter Rand, who was working with data sets about Pacific salmon populations. And so, Periscopic did what any smart firm in their situation would: They massively over delivered. The State of the Salmon site offered a complete visualization of the current condition of Pacific fisheries, as rated by the Marine Stewardship Council. The site proved a big hit not only with scientists and data visualizers, but also with the public.
It would be nice to say that, as with so many interactive-design firms, the phone rang off the hook after that. But it didn’t. Data visualization was still quite new, and it’s never easy to sell people on something they’ve never seen before.
“I’d say it was a long process, and we’ve had really great clients,” says Rees. “We’re lucky to hit a niche by doing good with data. Now data visualization is a big thing, people want it and are excited about it.”
A FAMILIAR PROCESS
So how do you visualize data? Interestingly, the workflow looks a lot like traditional web design with a twist. Where most firms start with a discovery process, Periscopic starts with analysis. They break open a database and strategize about how to use the information. Typically, they look for something that offers plenty of avenues for exploration.
“People believe in things they can explore,” says Johnson. “A statistic would be easy to make up, but if you can explore something, it becomes real.”
The State of the Polar Bear offers a good example of that point. It features a map-like interface that brings together all of the known data sets on polar bear populations. Click on an area and you can drill down into topics like pollutant levels, annual kills by humans and even the names and websites of the institutions that performed the research.
What makes it compelling, however, is that the story is not consistent. You can find places where polar bears are doing well, places where they’re doing poorly, and even places where we don’t know how they’re doing. While the trend of the data is clear and depressing, the information is imperfect enough to be believable—and in the end, convincing.
DOING GOOD FOR THE FUTURE
Like many data visualization companies, Periscopic is on a fast growth curve. The firm has doubled in size in the last two years, and expects to do the same in the next. Even so, they have no plans to compromise on their mission of doing good. Which begs the question, what exactly does it mean to do good? Surprisingly enough, for Rees it’s something you really can’t measure.
“We’re hoping to move people with our pieces,” she says, “and perhaps even compel small actions. Maybe it’s switching to CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps] to reduce energy consumption or intervening when they see domestic violence. Even small actions can make an impact.” ca