Sergio Estella, co-founder of Vizzuality: “Open data allows people to understand what’s happening in our world and what choices should be made to secure a sustainable, equitable future”

The goal of Vizzuality is making beautiful data design a true driver of change and impact on people’s lives. From his position as its chief designer officer, Sergio produces beautiful visualizations, intuitive user experiences and help people to understand the massive amount of information flowing everywhere. He believes that we all have the opportunity –and also the responsibility– to improve the Planet and our lives.

Vizzuality slogan is: “Beautiful data design for a better world”. How can this be linked?
Our interpretation of beautiful data design is data that’s understandable, accessible, useful and exciting—it’s not just pretty to look. It also means is easy-to-use, useful and used. Our work is about helping people understand huge amounts of information for them to make the right decisions and fight for the environment and human rights; information is key and the more that understand it, the merrier, the clear benefit is for mankind and will improve our time in the world.

Data and digitalization are becoming more important in sustainability management. How has it evolved? What development will it have in the coming years?
It was just a matter of time. All the data we generate everyday from satellites, ground sensors, social networks, while using our phones and so on, has to be processed, otherwise, it is just useless. Thanks to algorithms and AI, we can process more data, more quickly— but we humans still have to interpret all this information. We can’t rely on technology alone, even if it can do certain things better than us, and we must ensure that we use it in ways that are good for our planet.

What development will it have in the coming years?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this question. I really don’t think anyone can, but I’ll tell you what I’d like to see in the future. We humans train machines and they help us be better. They would allow us to understand the big issues and find not just answers but also to focus on them and work proactively in many things. It means that we have to reinvent the future of labour as we know it, which is obviously already happening, and make ourselves be more efficient and happier, but also assure ourselves that we will be on this earth for longer and with a higher standard of living.

Which projects would you highlight from those you have carried out with companies or organizations?
Our projects, such as Resource Watch, PREP data, and Climate Watch have made data about our climate, environment, and the challenges we face more accessible. By giving people access to open, freely available information they can use it to inform themselves about the issues that matter most to them, and make decisions that are based on evidence. Our most impactful project to date is Global Forest Watch, which has received over 2 million visitors since it was launched in 2014. It allows people to see where forest loss occurs in almost real time, and take action to reduce deforestation.
The impact of opening up forest loss data in this way was illustrated in 2015 and 2016 when Mongabay published a series of stories supported by GFW data that showed United Cacao, a cocoa producer, was illegally deforesting primary tropical forest and ignoring orders from the Peruvian government to cease its operations. Weekly alerts sourced from satellite imagery documented United Cacao’s ongoing deforestation activities and yet the company continued to deny any wrongdoing, despite the evidence being visible to all who visited the GFW website. An official complaint to the London Stock Exchange Alternative Investment Market, on which United Cacao was listed, ultimately led to a series of events that culminated in the business ending its operations in 2017. I will talk about these projects in my presentation on 9 October, but I’d also like to share some projects we haven’t launched yet that I think are going to be quite remarkable and impactful.

How are data contributing to fight against climate change and inequality?
It’s not just data that’s contributing to the fight against climate change and equality; it’s open, freely accessible data that’s turning the tide. With open data, people have access to the evidence and information they need to understand what’s happening in our world and what choices they should be making to secure a sustainable, equitable future for all. Open data platforms like Resource Watch allow scientists to share their knowledge with others in a standardised, transparent way that could lead to new discoveries and solutions. The transparency of these platforms also helps build trust between scientists and the public. But there’s still more to be done in terms making sure data is democratic and useable by everyone. Right now, there are still millions of people who don’t have access to the internet, or who lack the skills that enable them to make use of the data that is already available. We need to make sure everyone has the opportunity to learn digital literacy skills and access the resources they need.

How can technology be put at the service of society?
Technology is everywhere, right? Many of us carry around a gateway to the rest of world inside of our pocket or handbag. But to put technology at the service of society, we have to make sure that technology benefits society. It has to be good for all us, not just a few. Personally, I would love to help people understand where all the things we consume come from. We’ve already started to do this with Trase, a platform that traces the global supply chains for soy, beef and palm oil. By understanding where our raw products come from, we can begin to make better products. We can be more deliberate when we choose which footwear, furniture, or foods to buy. We aren’t there yet, but we’re making progress and both technology and more advanced data analysis can help us get there. If I talk about what we’re best known for, I’d love to help people find where all the things we consume come from.

At Sustainable Brands Madrid 2018 you will speak about “Getting Data & People to Interact Better”. How can this be achieved?
We agree that our goal is to stay in our planet longer and with good quality, right? To do this, I think that people need to be informed and make better decisions about it; but to be better informed, information has to be accessible and used, that’s key. The problems we have with data now, is that data is not processed at the speed we create it therefore it is not understood. If we manage to make it happen, we will be able to interact better with the data we’re producing and improve our future. Sounds easy? Yes, it is. But we have to start working on it right now.

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