Haiti & Avatar – updates.

This post is a bit of a swiss-army knife. Without being too long-winded, I’m going to clarify some misunderstandings, update some figures, talk about Canadian foreign policy, respond to some criticism and remove a rock from a horse’s hoof. To start, then, let’s

Clarify some misunderstandings

I published a post last week comparing Haiti aid per capita to Avatar ticket prices. The post got a lot of attention, and the figures and general concept were cross-posted and re-hashed in many places. Some people seemed to have misunderstood the post, though, and thought that I was comparing the contributions of individual governments to the production costs of Avatar. This is not what I did.

To get my figures for ‘Avatar minutes’ I started with the total aid contribution for a country, and divided it by that country’s population to get a per-capita aid figure. I then calculated how many minutes of Avatar that per-person contribution would pay for, using a ticket price of $8.50 (with a running time of 162 minutes, an ‘Avatar minute’ is about 5.25 cents). So, with Canada’s aid contribution of $5.5M, and a population of 33.3M, the per-person donation is about 3 Avatar minutes. Now, before any of you angry Canadians start frothing at the mouth, let me

Update some figures

Haiti/Avatar Updates

When I published by post last week, I used the data that was then available. Many people commented about my use of the figure $5.5M for Canada, since very shortly after the post it was announced that the Canadian government was drastically increasing their Haiti aid contributions, and at the same time stated that they would match Canadian citizen’s contributions dollar-for-dollar, with no capping amount. I highlighted Canada in my post not to shame the government, but because I live in Canada. Again, I used the data available. I promised at the time to update the figures as more information became available, so, without further ado:

  • Canada: 74 minutes
  • Sweden: 47 minutes
  • Norway: 41 minutes
  • Denmark: 39 minutes
  • Luxembourg: 28 minutes
  • Finland: 27 minutes
  • Guyana: 25 minutes
  • Spain: 19 minutes
  • Estonia: 14 minutes
  • Australia: 12 minutes
  • Ireland: 12 minutes
  • Switzerland: 11 minutes
  • USA: 10 minutes
  • France: 9.5 minutes
  • Germany: 5 minutes
  • Netherlands: 5 minutes
  • Italy: 3 minutes
  • Japan: 1 minute

The contributions pledged by the Canadian government are impressive. But the point of the original post was not to single out any individual country for either congratulation or condemnation. Instead, it was to take the figures and put them into some kind of context.

$130,733,775 is a lot of money. Really. But our measure of amounts always depends on what context we put the numbers in. $130 million is a lot of money when compared to my yearly income. But it’s not that much money compared to the 2010 olympic budget – $1,700 million for a two-week sporting event. It’s just under half of the estimated production costs of Avatar ($280M). It’s less than 4% of Canada’s foreign aid budget.

Comparing Millions

If we add up ALL of the contributions to Haiti Aid, we get an even bigger amount of money – $1.75 billion dollars. A huge amount, to be sure, but again, a number that needs to be looked at in context. $1.75B is just a little bit less than Avatar has made in global ticket sales. It’s about 50% of Canada’s foreign aid budget, and 0.25% of last year’s monstrous US financial bailout. It is, repeating myself from the last paragraph, pretty much exactly what Vancouver is spending on next month’s winter games.

Comparing Billions

All of this mention of Canada and foreign aid may have already have tipped you off that I’d like to

Talk about Canadian Foreign Policy

Canada’s foreign aid budget is $3.45B, or about 0.25% of Canada’s GDP. Compare that to the Danes, who spend 0.83% of their GDP on aid (up this year from 0.82%, despite a record forecast deficit), or to the Swedes who spend about 0.92%. Canadians like to believe that we are a shining example of global citizenry, but largely this is an artifact of the pre-Mulroney governments of the 1970s and 1980s. The Center for Glocal Development ranked Canada 11th in their Commitment to Development Index from 2009, behind countries like Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Ireland, Spain, and Australia.

This index includes factors like aid, trade, investment, and migration. As the report notes, our migration levels of unskilled immigrants from developing countries has changed very little since the 1980s (we rank 11th on the list for migration). 

Like many other Canadians I grew up feeling proud about my country and about our role in the world. Unfortunately, the more I look into the actual figures, I realize that we have in many ways failed to maintain these ideals in the last 30 years.

I hope that the Canada’s actions on Haiti mark a change for our government (and not, say, a convenient way to buy some much-needed PR). I would like nothing more than to see Canada return to the role of the good global citizen. In the meantime, I will continue watching the government’s record with a deserved amount of criticality.

Speaking of criticality, let me finish this post by taking a moment to

Respond to some criticism

Jen Stirrup wrote a nicely detailed blog post in response to my Avatar/Haiti piece, in which she argues that the visualization puts beauty in advance of clarity. If we take the images that I used in the post as examples of data visualizations, I can’t help but agree. However, these images weren’t intended to be stand-alone graphics. Instead, they are screenshots of an animated, interactive visualization tool that I built to explore the data. As is very often the case when I work with data, I wrote a little program using Processing which was constructed specifically to deal with this data. I use the term ‘little’ here to emphasize the fact that it was a quick project – from the time that I had the idea to the time when I pressed ‘publish’ last Sunday was about 4 hours.

I would love to develop a workflow to take these interactive visualization tools to a stage where they can be shared more easily – at this point they tend to sit around while I harbour the best intentions to clean up the code enough for a proper release. In the meantime I can say that if you ask nicely, I’m usually willing to share my messy pre-release code. I will also be posting a brief video which might give you a better feel for how the project behaves – which, for the sake of continuity, I’ll title ‘Remove a rock from a horse’s hoof’

4 thoughts on “Haiti & Avatar – updates.”

  1. people are silly.

    you did great work – providing context (exactly like you said) for numbers that are otherwise difficult to fathom. and also 'context' in the sense that Avatar is 'like so hot' right now, it relates two things that are in people's minds at the moment from reality and fantasy.

    after all, we're not all data analysts.

  2. I paid $11.50 to see Avatar in 3D, and I think that's the only way to see it.

    Seriously, there's as big a question about the ability of a country like Haiti to absorb aid compared to the ability of a country to put it to use. Aristide, for instance, wanted $25B in reparations from France, but a government of Haiti's maturity is able to do only one thing with that kind of money: steal it.

    In the short term, Haitians need food and shelter. In the long term, they need a robust economy and resilient society; experience proves that's something money can't buy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *