Using Graphic Design to Visualize the Aftermath of Genocide and War

A new website mines data to show the movements of displaced populations around the world.
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The Refugee Project

Following the killing of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, 2,257,573 refugees (40 percent of the population) took asylum in 36 countries. In 2012 when Tuareg rebels in Mali captured Timbuktu after an army coup, 297,552 refugees (2 percent of the population) settled in 28 asylum countries. These are just a fraction of the world’s refugee population being documented on a dynamic new website, The Refugee Project, an example of how graphic designers increasingly are turning their attention to framing data that stimulates action.

While data visualization will not end the refugee problem, the designers at Brooklyn-based graphics firm Hyperakt and designer and technologist Ekene Ijeoma think they can make some difference by developing a tool that decision-makers can use to advocate for humanitarian relief.

“Our own lack of knowledge about the millions of people around the world who have been forced to leave their homelands led us to want to tackle this story,” Deroy Peraza, Hyperakt’s creative director, said. “We thought it would be very helpful to visualize and compare all the refugee crises happening around the world—and not just for this year, but over time. We also wanted to have an understanding of the causes behind massive migrations.”

The Refugee Project is a research and analysis platform, designed to put crises like the ongoing one in Syria into context. Peraza hopes it'll help empower aid workers, governments, academics, and citizens to seek compassionate solutions for some of the most vulnerable populations on Earth. There's also a "donate" button, with proceeds going to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The media tends to put so much more emphasis on crises that happen in the Western world,” Peraza said. “Presenting the data on a global map offers a great opportunity to present all refugees as equals, regardless of geography or politics.” 

Among the insights gleaned from the data, the most obvious is the sheer number of global refugees that have been tracked by the United Nations—more than 19 million during the peak year of 2010. Afghanistan has been amongst the top three countries in the world in refugee volume for all but six years since 1975. In 1990, one third of the country’s population was displaced. 

“We compared the refugee data to population data for each country to determine what percentage of a country’s population was displaced,” Peraza told me. “Viewing the data through this lens, you can see that countries with small populations often suffer relatively massive devastation compared to larger countries with more refugees.” In the late ’70s, he added, “half of Equatorial Guinea’s population was displaced. After the genocide in Rwanda, 40 percent of the remaining population was displaced.”

Using data sets, including refugee and population totals from the UN, they additionally sought out answers to questions about what all the numbers actually mean. “It’s tricky stuff,” Peraza said. “The refugee population numbers, for example, are always a snap shot in time. In terms of data, the most difficult task we had was deciding what to use and what not use.”

Hyperakt paid for the project, collaborating with Ijeoma on data analysis, visualizations, and the site's interface. Although the UN did not officially sponsor or contribute financially to the project, Hyperakt was given access to high-level United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees staff whenever there were questions.

The site's still in its early stages, and Hyperakt's hoping to find more funding so as to tell more complex stories about global migration. “We’d love to also present data describing the effects of these event on asylum countries,” Peraza said. “This is the tip of an iceberg that can be explored much further.”   

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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