The challenge of visualizing global education

Last year, the good folks at Acasus came to us with a large spreadsheet detailing the status of eduction from nearly every country in the world.  As a journalist with a passion for data visualization, there is nothing better than receiving a giant well-organized data set.  It’s like giving a bucket of legos to my 8-year-old self. “Oh, all the things I can build!”

Figuring out the important story in that data trove would still prove to be a challenge. But to understand those challenges, the back story was key.

Back in 1950 …

Just under half the world’s primary age children attended school.  By 1999 it had risen to roughly 84 percent.  Today — in part thanks to a coordinated global initiative — nearly 96 percent of children worldwide receive at least some form of primary age education.

But just because they are in school, doesn’t mean they are necessarily learning. India, where 20 percent of the world’s children live, was able to reduce the number of primary children not enrolled in schools from 20 million to 2 million. With that many students flooding into the schools, it’s not hard to imagine some struggle with schooling capacity.

That’s where Acasus comes in. Acasus works closely with governments and other organizations to reform education and health systems, particularly in countries with large populations of children living at the poverty level.

They had been tracking education performance data from nearly every country and they wanted to convey a snapshot of the state of global education. But not all of the data was consistent. Methodology and testing regimens vary from country to country, so how do you establish a baseline that is comparable across all countries?  First you have to establish …

What is a primary age child?

As you can imagine, the ages for primary school varies from country to country.  For the visualization, we went with the cohort of 5-9 year olds, as this age group of children is the most consistent primary school age cross all countries.

How to square different performance data?

There are several global initiatives to assess learning performance. Acasus worked to compare and evaluate the scores from these differing data sources and develop a weighting scheme that would make it possible to classify each country into groups broken down into 10 percent increments.

Once that “learning level” benchmark for educational performance was established, the next challenge was conveying the most important elements in the data.   In short …

What is the story?

Our default circle view compares two data points at a time, and tells the first part of the story.

The circle size of each country helps show which nations have the largest age primary age populations. Would you have guessed that Nigeria has a similar population of primary age children as the United States?  That can then be compared against the learning level measurement,  enrollment and completion rates.

circle map

We also offered a view of those statistics on a mercator projection for those wanting a more familiar view of the global geography


For me, the most interesting data point was one that reveals itself when visualizing two other data points.  We called it …

The learning gap

The learning gap is essentially the students left behind. It’s the total enrolled population, minus those who reach a basic learning level. These are the students in need and are also the primary focus of the work done by Acasus.  They represent the red in the chart below.


And by pinning your own country to the top, you can compare the size of the learning gap in your country to other countries. With such a long list of countries, we felt it was important to offer this level of personalization so the user is better able to contextualize the scope this global challenge.

If you’ve seen other good visualizations of global education challenges, we’d love to see them. Add a link in the comments below!

Want to embed the visualization? You can do so at Dadaviz.





By Matt Ford

Matt is an avid experimenter of new forms of visual storytelling. He worked as a multimedia journalist for The Associated Press covering the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Arab uprisings, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Before journalism, Matt worked in the Los Angeles film industry as a set and studio lighting technician on productions such as Spiderman 2 and The West Wing.

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