What we do
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We care enormously about New Zealand. We care about the future of our country and its people—those who are here now and those who are away but still call New Zealand home.
New Zealand has everything it needs to be a country that is cohesive, wealthy, and filled with smart and healthy people enjoying a variety of lifestyles in a gorgeous environment. It also has everything it needs to be fragmented and poor, filled with uneducated and unhealthy people who struggle every day, surrounded by a damaged environment.
We must understand this country’s history. We need to remember those who have come before us and how their actions have shaped who we are today. Two-thirds of all New Zealanders who have ever lived are alive right now. There are 4.6 million of us, and there have been 7 million in total. We have the ability to shape the future of our country and to make it great for everyone. At Figure.NZ, our purpose is simply to enable New Zealand to be as awesome as we know it can be.
Before the 2000s, it was hard for people to share information and to communicate widely. This shaped the world we lived in. The best future was created by having a few great leaders—of countries, of companies and of communities. It made sense that those leaders had information delivered directly to them to digest, consider, and make plans for the future. Communicating was expensive and time-consuming. Mass-communication such as engaging with communities was largely limited to convincing others about decisions that had already been made and mobilising their support. This required communication that lacked nuance—it had to be clear, simple, and unambiguous. There was no space for sharing all the information and thought processes that went into making decisions.
That world no longer exists. Now it is easy to share incredibly rich, deep information, and to communicate with many people at once across huge distances. This fundamentally changes how we can organise ourselves and make decisions. The future can now be created with everyone making great, informed decisions in all areas of their lives. We can all help shape the direction of our businesses, our communities, and our country.
There are many factors that go into making great decisions. These include knowing how to ask good questions, how to listen to those who have important lessons to share with us, and listening to our instincts. One factor that’s really important is data; specifically information expressed as numbers.
Everyone can use data
Each of us only sees a tiny slice of the world. Measurements and numbers enable us to interpret patterns and trends that are broader and deeper than anything we can directly experience. This includes seeing how the country’s active sand dune extent has declined since the 1950s.
… or how many mushroom businesses are there in New Zealand?
Data challenges us to pop up from our individual vantage points and see more clearly what’s around us. It enables us to understand how our experiences may be different from others. Although numbers alone don’t solve anything, they are a vital piece of the puzzle and working with data is often a good first step to understanding a situation’s context and complexity.
Yet few New Zealanders use data. Tens of thousands of datasets offer insights into the nation’s health and wellbeing, but they are difficult to find and too hard to use for most people.
Figure.NZ exists to enable everyone to make sense of data and see Aotearoa clearly. Our dream is that when every New Zealander wants to use data, can get their hands on it, and knows how to use it effectively, the nation will be able to shift away from a culture of binary debate and arguments over what the situations are. Instead we can debate where we want to head to and how we can get there based on where we are now.
Lillian Grace had the idea for Figure.NZ at 1:57 PM on 24 February 2012. We know the time because she felt like it was going to be a big deal and wrote down how she was feeling in the moment.
Lillian’s twisty career path prior to Figure.NZ had given her a unique vantage point. Originally training to be a high-school physical education teacher (teaching at Kaipara College in Helensville), she then went on to help run Massive Software (articifical-intelligence based 3D animation software used in visual effects in movies), before joining The New Zealand Institute think tank.
At the NZ Institute Lillian saw websites like Statisics NZ and OECD data for the first time. She was amazed. There were literally thousands of stories about our country hidden away in the numbers that hadn’t seen the light of day. Over the subsequent months Lillian was taught to use data in her thinking (largely by the Director, Rick Boven), and she would then present to different groups about what the team had learnt, always including slides with simple charts in them.
Audiences tended to be capable of understanding the charts and they were generally surprised and interested in what the data showed. It became apparent that people didn’t avoid data because they were disinterested or fundamentally unable to understand it, but rather it was too hard and time-consuming to find and use, so it remained something that just experts used when they were paid by someone to look at a specific issue.
After a couple of years at The New Zealand Institute, Lillian started contemplating what is the most valuable thing she could spend her time on. She created a context for thinking—lying down on a picnic blanket, under a tree in Hawke’s Bay, coffee and iPad at hand. After working in such a variety of roles on many different topics, Lillian felt like she cared about pretty much everything. She found it really difficult to imagine focusing on just one product or service, forsaking the others. Whilst wrestling with this, she suddenly realised something common across everything—whether it was how to grow tech companies, reduce youth disadvantage or improve our environmental outlook. To do great things, one must understand the relevant data. Lillian suddenly thought:
Imagine if there was a place online that had all the data in simple, visual form so it was fast and easy for everyone to use. A place where people could be looking at and understanding data on a daily basis, where it was easy enough to peruse that we got answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask. Imagine if EVERYONE started using data for EVERYTHING! What then?!?
Figure.NZ had begun, albeit under a different name. The initiative was originally called Wiki New Zealand as Lillian initially thought the site could be created by lots of people contributing graphs. It soon became apparent this wouldn’t work because there weren’t enough people using data to start with or consistency in how it was treated and presented.
After quitting her job, Lillian started working on Figure.NZ properly on 1 April 2012. Initially she focused on three things: talking to as many people as possible (about 230 people in the first few months) to see how people responded to the idea, and how they would use it; drawing out what the product would look like and what it would include; and assembling a governance board.
The Trust was established on 16 July 2012. They helped refine and articulate the organisation’s purpose. Some of the points from the original whiteboard session have lasted the distance.
The original site was made with a combination of Wordpress, Excel, and a bunch of macros. It went public with 150 charts on 9 December 2012. Over 1,000 people visited the site on the first day, and that was just the start…
Why not the government?
Government agencies aren’t able to take an independent position to create a data democracy that pulls together not just data from the public sector, but also from the private sector, and academia. We are able to take bolder steps, move faster and work with others in ways that the public sector is not structured to do.
Why are you a charity
In the same way that Wikipedia wouldn’t work if it were a government or commercial entity - being a charity is critical to our position and ability to work with others. Both data providers and users need to be able to rely on our independence, motives and priorities. New Zealand is unashamedly our priority.
How are you funded?
Figure.NZ has multiple sources of funds:
- We provide commercial services to organisations that want their data publicly available, and also to those that want a specific collection of charts created i.e. for their website or annual reports.
- We enjoy the support of Patrons, who donate to specific topic areas they care about, directly enabling us to flesh the areas out with more content.
- We have some awesome partnerships (mentioned below) who have made a massive impact to our organisation.
- We don’t accept donations from individuals as we have other types of funding (but we really appreciate your support).
Who are your partners?
Figure.NZ’s vision is bigger than our organisation. We work with a wide range of private and public sector partners to achieve it. Our existing relationships include partnerships with:
- Statistics New Zealand
- New Zealand Treasury
- The Department of Internal Affairs
What is your technology?
Figure.NZ runs on a bespoke technology stack, developed in-house as a result of a two year requirements-gathering process.
You can view a behind-the-scenes demo video here, which includes the chart designer and extractor.
Hosted on Amazon EC2 in Sydney, the stack comprises two main components. One system is a sophisticated tool for extracting data from documents, systems such as CKAN and APIs such as SDMX, while the second system delivers the public web presence for Figure.NZ.
Both systems are based largely on Python and MongoDB, connected via a RESTful API. A high-level design goal is that the Figure.NZ web site is built from exactly the same API we will soon make available to the public.
We like Flask for the delivery of templated web content, we use Bootstrap and React for responsive layouts and admin interfaces, and our charts are delivered using D3.js and Vega. Our site search is powered by Elasticsearch.