Building a Data Visualization Platform for Global Air Quality
With frontier research quantifying the causal relationship between air pollution and reduced life expectancy, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) engaged Constructive to create The Air Quality Life Index, a groundbreaking nonprofit data visualization platform. Their goals? To make clear that air pollution is the greatest threat to human health, and to provide policymakers, leaders, and the public with the insights and tools needed to shape policies that promote longer, healthier lives and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
How does particulate air pollution impact human health?
Initiatives like the AQLI that involve complex scientific concepts and research face a steep challenge when the goal is to use data to engage, educate, and empower a wide range of audiences. Experts demand depth and rigor—and are usually eager to dig into the details. Influential non-experts and the broader interested public typically want a more surface-level understanding and top-level takeaways that focus on the big picture. We helped EPIC meet the needs of both audiences with a digital strategy that balances the nonprofit’s long-form and data-heavy content with editorial and design that quickly explain the issues, the science of air pollution, and the AQLI’s method of measuring its impact on life expectancy.
What design assumptions do we need to challenge?
The core of the Air Quality Life Index is an interactive map that takes extremely high-resolution data and makes it accessible so that audiences can explore its research and test its findings. As a first-of-its-kind platform presenting new concepts, we needed to make sure the AQLI was not only fast and easy-to-use, but also expository—providing contextual clues to help bring users along. Throughout digital strategy and information architecture, we conducted user research and testing, gaining a range of insights and ideas that were then iteratively incorporated into the platform.
We want a brand that's quantitatively minded & qualitatively beautiful.
In designing the Air Quality Life Index’s brand, we wanted a memorable mark that both reflected the brand’s scientific rigor and created an emotional connection. We started with design research exploring a range of scientific, mathematical, and geographic information systems mapping concepts. Initial concepts focused on ideas to beautifully represent the AQLI’s global scale of air quality data and its potential for impact on global air quality and life expectancy. Dots arranged in a phyllotaxis pattern that expands as it creates the shape of a globe signify both air particulate matter and the living world, while a colorful array provides the AQLI brand with the palette needed to produce a rich assortment of data visualizations.
How can we help audiences move from awareness to action?
Data-driven social indexes like the AQLI carry a higher burden for effecting change than traditional nonprofit websites. Why? Because they must both maintain an empirical, scientific perspective and deliver calls-to-action that speak to the significance of an issue. To help AQLI audiences cross the bridge from awareness to action, we designed the website and its interactive data tools to communicate urgency—leading with language that speaks to air pollution’s impact on human life, using “hot” color overlays that visually represent the threat, and using cool tones for the user interface, creating a calm environment for exploring the data.
The AQLI takes a volume of high-resolution data and presents it through a variety of lenses with visualizations that make its information more accessible and insights more apparent.
What action have governments taken & what are the results?
As with most large scale social or environmental issues that require collective, cross-sectoral action, policy is usually the biggest lever for change. The Air Quality Life Index adds to its value as a data visualization platform by providing historic context into the policies enacted around the world to combat air pollution and their impact. As a result, audiences are more knowledgeable about how environmental policies have played a successful role in the past—and can use this insight to more successfully advocate for additional ones in the future.
We need to reach countries with the biggest opportunities for impact.
The countries that produce the most air pollution are the ones that exist at a specific intersection: high industrial production and low environmental regulations. In the 21st century, this means that while America and the EU must provide leadership on reducing air pollution, the most significant opportunities for progress are in China, India, and Pakistan. The AQLI meets this challenge with multilingual design, currently delivering experiences in Mandarin and with Hindi on the horizon.
Yes, some people still prefer print.
The AQLI’s core strength is its function as an environmental data research tool that empowers audiences to understand and act on the threats of air pollution. However, carefully constructed research reports still play an important role in helping both government policymakers and influential leaders in the private and public sectors make informed decisions. To connect with these essential audiences, we designed a system of research reports and fact sheets for ongoing production of communications focused on global and regional environmental developments.