What does human development look like? This tree will show you

By Ma. Eliza Villarino 30 April 2015

The Human Development Tree presents a snapshot of human development. Image by: Jurjen Verhagen

Early last month, Jurjen Verhagen took a break from his work at Dutch data visualization firm Zolabo and took a stroll in the Vondelpark, the iconic public park in Amsterdam. That’s when the idea that led him to win first prize of the Human Development Visualization Competition struck him.

Verhagen created the Human Development Tree, an interactive tool that allows users to visualize the level of human development based on certain minimal conditions in terms of life expectancy, expected years of schooling, mean years of schooling, gross national income per capita and a country’s emphasis on gender. So if you indicate an expected life expectancy of 67 years, expected years of school to be 14, mean years of schooling to be 10 and a gross national income per capita of $10,800, you'd get a score of 0.717 on the Human Development Index which is comparable to Algeria.

The tool will then show your “ideal tree,” using the colors you choose. Leaves that fall off represent countries that don’t meet the minimal conditions in 1985. But because of improvements through the years, you’ll see more leaves growing on the tree, resulting in a tree that reflects human development as of 2013.

“I saw the trees [at Vondelpark] and thought maybe that’s a good way to actually show the development of something, using a tree and using the leaves growing on the tree and then also the leaves falling off,” said Verhagen, who also revealed that the interactive Valentine’s Day flower created by Resn likewise provided him with inspiration for his project.

The Human Development Tree generates a combination of interest but also disappointment, even shock, particularly when people see the leaves fall off, Verhagen told Devex.

Nonetheless, the tree was an instant hit in the Human Development Visualization Competition. The contest drew more than 80 entries from 29 countries, from which nine were chosen as semifinalists. Finalists were then flown to the Cartagena Data Festival, which was held April 20-22.

Verhagen’s tree set itself apart from the competition because it was the only one that incorporated gamification and interaction to get people engaged, noted Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, online communication manager of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report Office, which organized the contest.

“I think the tree rose up to the top fairly quickly [among the voting panel] … Everybody that saw it thought it was quite interesting, so there wasn't much debate [on the choice] for this one,” said Fournier-Tombs.

The outcome of the competition has inspired the UNDP office to continue its engagement with data artists, by providing them with data “in a way that is helpful to them and make it easy for them to create this art.”

As it has done for the competition’s semifinalists, the office intends to feature future data visualization contributions on its Tumblr page.

“We're realizing how effective it is as a communication tool, as an outreach tool,” Fournier-Tombs told Devex. “So many more people know human development now than they did before the competition.”

Help shape our coverage on global development innovations. Do you know of an innovative idea or project? Let us know by leaving a comment below or by emailing gdb@devex.com.

About the author

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Ma. Eliza VillarinoDevexElizaJV

Currently based in New York City, Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.


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