HAVING FUN WITH NUMBERS AT ÉPOCA

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Since I started being infographics director at the weekly magazine Época, the flagship of Editora Globo, biggest media group in Brazil, my team and I have produce a reasonable amout of work. I´ve written about some pieces at the official blog of the design and infographics departments, called "Faz Caber!" ("Make it fit!", which is a commonly heard sentence down here when a designer suggests a reporter he or she should edit text down a bit---). If you understand Portuguese, here you have some posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

 



I decided to translate the last one I wrote because I think it is a good example of the changes I am trying to bring to the magazine. It is nothing particularly original, really: it has to do with the position of designers and artists in the newsroom. Traditionally, they were expected to be passive folks who waited for reporters and editors to come up with ideas and proposals. My goal is that, little by little, that mentality will be substituted by another, more modern one, in which designers are proactive and able to gather and process information, and write their own copy. Some other publications in this country (particularly O Estado de São Paulo, a big quality daily) are taking that same road.

 

Anyway, let´s get started. The title of this article is...


THE MUTANT POPULATION INFOGRAPHIC

Sometimes it is not the story that orients you on what kind of data you need to look for. Sometimes it is data that lead you to a story.

This is what happened last week at Época. Every issue of the magazine includes a two-page stand alone infographic. We call that section The Diagram. We´ve made around 50 "diagrams" so far. All of them can be found in Epoca´s Facebook account. Four weeks ago I was looking into potential infographic stories. The Presidential elections won by Dilma Rousseff had just passed and we had run out of options: we didn´t have enough stuff for the upcoming weeks.

When I was about to get a bit desperate, I remembered that a few days before I had read a short story in some paper saying that Brazilian fertility rate (that is, the average number of children per woman at the end of her reproductive life) was about to fall below 1,9, according to preliminary results of the 2010 Census (still to be released). That made me feel curious about the whole fertility issue, so I went to the United Nations (http://unstats.un.org) and World Bank databases. They have detailed lists that go back to 1950. I downloaded a lot of material and put it all together in an Excel spreadsheet. It took a few hours, as data was not organized as I needed them to be.

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My goal was to compare the evolution of Brazilian fertility rate to the one of other countries and regions. So I created a graphic displaying all the figures. The result is this crazy web of color lines.

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which doesn´t convey much other than the fact fertility has dropped in most countries in the last 60 years. That´s interesting enough, but it doesn´t make a story, just a nice picture.

At some point I noticed a promising trend - countries that had been through wars, genocides and other catastrophes had seen their fertility rates plummet. They didn't just fall. They sank. More stable countries, like those in Western Europe, had seen a steady decline, but this was constant and smooth, not abrupt. So I plotted two graphics, one with the dangerous, unstable countries (Vietnam just after the war, Cambodia during Pol Pot, etc.), the other with the pacific democratic ones, side by side.

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Still, this was just a mere curiosity, not interesting enough to be published in a news magazine. Maybe it could be made into a story for a publication such as Foreign Policy, who knows, but certainly not for Época. I kept this graphic and moved on. David Cohen, deputy managing editor, suggested to gather some data on Brazil: how the diminishing fertility is related to development and to women's economic and cultural freedom.



SECOND ITERATION

It was a coincidence that over those days I was reading The Rational Optimist, a quite engaging reverse-jeremiad by science writer Matt Ridley, which (long story short) says that we should trust the future, as it is not as dark as populists, environmental advocates, and profets of doom in general would want us to believe it will be. One of the chapters deals with population. Ridley writes that we will experience neither a population bomb (title of a famous apocalyptic 1968 book by Paul R. Ehrlich) nor a population crash that will destroy the social security net in advanced countries. Ridley says that the fertility rate of all regions tends to stabilize around the 2,1 level, which is called the "replacement level" because it's the number of children per woman necessary to keep any population at its current size. That is good: in the not-so-long term, the population of the world will stop to grow after it reaches 9 billion.

The book suggested an approach to the graphic. I reworked the rough copy I had written and transformed it into an explanation of the reasons why fertility had dropped so much in Brazil - it has to do with increasing levels of education and improvements in the economy. As families have more options to fill their leisure time, they tend to make fewer babies (yep, we buy an iPad and then our marital life sucks). More women in the workforce, and with better education strengthen this trend.

Brazil is an interesting case. It is true that higher education is getting better down here, and that the parity between women and men in universities is quite good compared to other countries. But gross domestic product per capita is still really low: Brazil has the average income of a poor country and the fertility rate of a rich, developed one. I wanted to show that.

I created a couple of scatter-plots because I needed to provide evidence of those correlations. You can see them here:



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And then placed at the bottom left corner of the layout:
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First one compares GDP per capita with number of children per woman. Brazil is at the bottom in both cases. Second correlates parity at Higher Education with fertility.

Another thing that I did was to work with the original graphic, the one showing the evolution of fertility since 1950, country by country. One suggestion from a couple of editors was to compare Brazil with other developing countries (China, India) and to countries that were considered "developing" back in the 60s and 70s, like Spain.

I was getting closer to a real infographics story, but I felt the backbone of the story was still a bit weak. With a fair amount of polishment, it might be worth publishing, but I wanted to make it more current. Moreover, I needed some sort of storyline that tied all the little graphics together to create a seamless narration.


THIRD ITERATION

Salvation came when the Brazilian Institute for Statistics, the IBGE, decided to publish more preliminary data from the 2010 Census. They sent a press release that revealed that they had put together their data, even if they knew that they would have to do everything again after the numbers were updated and consolidated.

I made a phone call to the IBGE press department asking to send me the data in files that could be used with EstatCart, a simple but effective GIS program developed precisely by the institute. It's a neat tool, relatively easy and fast to use. I wanted to design a big map showing the changes in population in Brazil's more than 5.000 towns and cities. Here's a screenshot of the interface:

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Unfortunately, the IBGE refused to send the formatted data until the work was finished, by November 29. That was too late for me. IBGE's answer was bizarre because their own website had a map displaying the preliminary results of all municipalities (it didn't show population change, though, just current populations, which is a bit useless). As I wanted to publish my Diagram right away, before our competitors decided that the Census' data could be a story, I copied the numbers from IBGE website and formatted them myself, with the help of Carlos Eduardo Cruz, our IT mastermind, in Excel and EstatCart. We calculated population variation and voilá. The result:

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And the map placed on the layout:

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Hélio Gurovitz, managing editor of Época, suggested to give a positive view of Brazil's future: fertility is down and the population of the country will grow smaller (beginning in 2030) and older. That will certainly put some pressure on government spending and public health but, is there something positive to say about that picture? I decided to organize the information in five sections, which I named using their headlines:

1. Brazil grew between 2000 and 2010 (data from the 2010 Census)...
2. ... but fertility rate is down, compared to other countries and regions...
3. ...which will eventually lead to a population decrease before it was expected...
4. ... and that population will be older (I used population pyramids for this one)
5. How Brazil can take advantage of the scenario outlined above

One of our reporters, Francine Lima, talked to a well-known demographer to give context to the data and to provide some clues about how to transform a challenge into an oportunity. As a summary: even with more retirees, the country could resist if we start preparing right now. In the next 20 years there will be a lot of employable people; if we give them the right education now, they will transform Brazil's economy pretty quickly into and advanced one, which will generate not only more taxes, but more internal and foreign investment. The storyline was bit generic, but it worked for me. It gave the graphic a solid step-by-step structure.

As my layout was a bit rough, Marco Vergotti, the head of Época's infographics department (I may be the director, but he's the real boss...), who is a much, much better designer than I am, took it and transform it into this gorgeous display:

653DIAGRAMAdemograficaFINAL

Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.

And a lesson in journalism and low-tech data crunching, I guess.