In 2011, the government of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais created a data portal with a team from MIT to help policymakers find opportunities to diversify their economy. By focusing on attractive data visualisations and a user-friendly website, the state published data for the whole of Brazil, and within the space of three months it was attracting 9,600 visits a month from government, business and the public. Data Viva is now the Brazilian government’s principle open data portal. The format has since spawned iterations in the US and Africa and influenced the redesign of the US census site.
Results & Impact
Within three months of launching in 2011, Data Viva was attracting 9,600 visits a month. It has become the main open data portal for Brazil, and by 2017 was averaging over 600,000 monthly visits.
MIT Media Lab, Minas Gerais State Office for Strategic Priorities
In 2013, government officials from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and the MIT Media Lab, a group of technology experts, created an open data portal for Brazil. The team prepared and cleaned masses of economic and financial data from across Brazil and made it publically available on the Data Viva website. Data Viva focuses heavily on ease of use with attractive data visualisations, which allows each user to cut the data in whichever way they need. The Lab ran subsequent projects, Data USA and Data Africa, which added dedicated pages for specific topic areas that were designed to feature prominently on search engines. The design of Data Viva and its sister projects has had a strong influence on other data portals: the new US census site will be modelled closely on Data USA.
Minas Gerais, Brazil
Cost & Value
The portal and each of its sister projects cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create.
Completed in 2015
Both government officials and staff at MIT had to convince the governor of Minas Gerais to make a wide range of financial and economic data public. Whilst the utility of open data was clear to see, it also increased government accountability, and politicians were concerned that the data would open them up to scrutiny. A new government was elected halfway through the project, and the original public servants working on the project were replaced with less ambitious staff. The MIT Media Lab team had to stop work on profile page features for Data Viva, and instead delivered the more limited portal outlined in the original contract.
After completing the completing the Data Viva project in Brazil, Cesar Hidalgo from MIT Media Lab created Data USA in partnership with Deloitte. This built on the work done with Data Viva, but added new features, including a function which allows users to add data from different datasets to create a bespoke sheet. The team have also developed Data Africa, which, unlike Data Viva and Data USA, collects data from across different countries into one place. In the next year they will launch the data portal Data Chile.
“There is a very nice story that I’ve been meaning to tell titled: ‘How an email from Brazil changed the US census site.’”
This is how Cesar Hidalgo, Director of the Collective Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab, describes his work on Data Viva, a data portal for the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, which in two years grew into an open resource for the whole country, spawned two similar data portals in the US and Africa, and which is now providing the model for the redesign of the US census site.
The Minas Gerais State Office for Strategic Priorities (OSP) launched Data Viva in 2013 with the MIT Media Lab, a group of technology experts. The site is an open data portal with statistics covering the whole of the Brazilian economy and which allows users to call up information quickly and easily.
“We were able to get a very comprehensive dataset that was able to tell us not only what Minas was like, but all the states and municipalities and all other occupations, products and services in Brazil,” said André Barrence, then CEO at the Strategy and Delivery unit at the OSP.
From 2011 to 2014, staff at the OSP worked closely with a team from the MIT Media Lab, led by Hidalgo. Minas Gerais’s economy is heavily dominated by mining and commodity exports and policymakers required detailed data on the regional economy to help them find where potential for development lay.
Hidalgo had previously helped to develop the Observatory of Economic Complexity at MIT, an open data portal which provides detailed economic data and presents it attractively. Using an economic complexity index it measures the “knowledge intensity” of an economy or product, namely the expertise required to produce the goods an economy puts out.
“What caught our attention was not necessarily the visualisations, but the economic theory that was behind it. The economic complexity index struck us as an interesting approach to looking at and understanding economic development, not in a national perspective but more from a regional and local perspective,” said Barrence.
Although originally contracted to write a report, Hidalgo quickly realised that a data portal would be far more useful to help Minas Gerais’s policymakers understand their economy. It also made little sense to the team to restrict the report to data from Minas Gerais alone.
“If you want to look at the complexity of a municipality, or if you want to look at the economic opportunities, or the trade partners, or any of that stuff, you don’t want a report that’s going to be stuck in a draw, you want an interactive tool that’s going to allow you to do this with every state in Brazil,” said Hidalgo.
The team also decided early on to commit to opening the portal they were creating to the public. Barrence had to convince his government colleagues that the benefits of open data would outweigh the political difficulties caused by increased oversight.
“We realised that we had something much bigger than just a planning tool,” said Barrence. “What if we just make this whole data visible and public – so that entrepreneurs and businessmen can have access, and can look at the data most interesting to them? Opening data up opens you up to public scrutiny, but in the end we managed to show that there was a greater public good the data would serve.”
The team concentrated closely on the design of Data Viva as well as its ease of use. They built attractive visualisations of economic data to encourage interaction with the datasets.
“What I think we did well was understand that the form – or the design – matters. Design creates desire, and more importantly, design creates ease for users,” said Barrence.
Data Viva launched in 2013, but Hidalgo and Barrence immediately set to work on improving it. By analysing the visitor data to the website, Hidalgo discovered that the visuals weren’t attracting the right kind of users to the platform.
“Social media traffic was very short-lived – the bounce is really high, while with the organic search traffic, the people stayed around three times longer. That was telling us that these were people who were actually looking for the exports of Brazil or the industries in Minas Gerais on Google – and when they found this page, they struck gold. They finally found the data they were looking for.”
His solution was to build custom profile pages for specific statistics which would feature more prominently in search engine results. He started to work on an update of Data Viva with Barrence based on these ‘profile pages.’
“I thought, let’s flip the project,” said Hidalgo. “Let’s do something that’s not so focused on custom visualisation-building, but on building a network of profiles that are going to be the target of our search engine optimisation. There has to be a profile for Sao Paulo, a profile for the export of mine and ore, a profile for China as a trade destination, and a profile for the shoe manufacturing industry…”
But Hidalgo was unable to bring this update to fruition, as in 2014 the incumbent state government for Minas Gerais was voted out of office. The new ministers were unwilling to experiment beyond what was stipulated in the contract. So he scrapped the plans he had made and delivered the portal as outlined in the original brief.
The profile pages eventually made their way into his subsequent projects, Data USA and Data Africa. As with Data Viva, both have a heavy focus on attractive designs and ease of use, but from Data USA onward specific metrics have their own pages. Data USA launched in June 2016 to 39,000 monthly visits. It now attracts upwards of 150,000.
This year he launched Data Africa and will launch Data Chile in the near future. He hopes to add features that allow users to manipulate data within the site itself, up to running regression analyses and statistical tests.
Data Viva’s design innovations continue to influence the way data portals are built elsewhere. Hidalgo recounted how a colleague of his recently met staff from the US census: “They showed him the design of what they want to do with the census site, and the design looked just like Data USA. And that’s how this email from Brazil in 2010 ended up changing the US census site.”
(Picture credit: Data USA)