The new “improved” UN job application website

Anyone who has every applied for a job at the UN will feel a sweat break out on the back of their neck at the mention of the 90’s-style faux-Latin-named job application site “Inspira”. (Remember when things were all called “Exceptimus” and “Ignitor” and stuff? Ugh.)

Anyway, the site’s been down for a few days for modernisation, and the new improved site came back up on Friday. (They had a FOUR DAY outage! This alone is enough to make me suspect that the people who designed the website didn’t know what they were doing. Outages should measured in minutes or hours, not days.)

Given my experience of large organisations and their ability to procure IT which isn’t grossly overpriced and absolutely terrible (for which see Britain’s NHS, Barclays’ several iterations of terrible online banking websites, any government department in the world ever) it’s no surprise to see that the fundamentally broken Inspira has been given little more than a lick of paint.

Still present are the absence of a “Back” functionality, because the site doesn’t use URLs to control location, visible meaningless Javascript all over the place (hovering over a link to my job opening reveals “javascript:submitAction_win4(document.win4, ‘HRS_CE_WRK_HRS_JOB_LINK$21$$0′” which gives just a hint of the horrors people meeting the website’s code for the first time must experience), Windows 98-style icons and the overall user-experience and look and feel of being dragged by chain up a muddy slope by a slow moving tractor.

But my personal favourite is the built-in spell-check function. (Note to developers: people don’t develop their own spell-check functions any more. Browsers do this now.) My entire cover letter passed the spell-check with flying colours bar one exception: It suggests I replace the word “in” in the opening sentence with the admittedly more emphatic, but perhaps overzealous “IN”.

I’m not even joking.

The UN Inspira spellcheck suggesting "IN" as a replacement for the word "in"

Modelling Africa’s trade routes

People talk a lot about how development aid might be used to improve a country’s attractiveness as a trade partner. (Mostly the World Trade Organisation, but not exclusively!)

“Aid for Trade” is a controversial project because it has a distinctly globalisation-friendly vibe about it, and a fundamental belief in the kind of trickle-down economics so beloved of market-oriented people and organisations.

But one thing that is never discussed when the possibility is raised of improving a country’s export competitiveness, is that in the absence of additional global demand, any increase in export due to an Aid for Trade programme must be accompanied by a reduction in exports for somebody else.

With the global economic model I’ve built as part of my PhD (and some fabulously bold assumptions about how trade works), I can have a stab at modelling which countries stand to gain and which to lose from a particular Aid for Trade project.

This picture, drawn using ESRI’s flashy new ArcGIS Pro shows the modelled results of improving Ethiopia’s export infrastructure. (It’s “inspired” (for which read, pinched) from this nice flight paths visualisation.)

Flows which increase are in blue, and those which decrease are in red.


Here are the boring but very necessary caveats:
– Only those between African countries are shown.
– Because the increased flows are much bigger in magnitude than the decreased ones (at least within Africa) I’ve had to compromise on the line thicknesses, leading to an overstatement of the decreases!! Caveat emptor!!
– This is based on a gravity-type trade model. Their use in predicting trade is controversial.
– The economic descriptions used in this model are based on estimates, since most African countries don’t publish the kind of economic data you’d need to build a proper description.

Fun with projections

Everybody loves a good map projection, none more so that the nerds here at UCL’s CASA.

I made a little toy visualisation of survey responses per global region for a pal of mine at Kings College, but knew he’d be unhappy with my choice of projection. So I decided to take the decision out of my hands and give control to the user.

The result is this fun little way of playing with map projections, relishing the smooth animations from one projection to the next. Go on, pick your favourite!


mercator transverse


The uncomprehending, blinking gaze: this is the default response when I tell people I’m “into” data.

It’s like being into electrical wiring, or urban sewer systems – yes, we’re glad they’re there, and yes, we’re certainly glad they work as expected, but yes, aren’t we also rather glad it’s someone else who has to worry about them and not us?

Well, I can see where these people are coming from. Data, as I’ve said on this blog before, looks like this:
Screenshot from 2015-10-21 15:06:59
That’s about as boring as it’s possible for something to look I’d say.

So it’s little wonder perhaps that no one knows, cares or thinks about data in this world of exciting stuff to see and do.

Screenshot from

But data is the one abstract concept that could feasibly be said to run the world. It’s being gathered in every imaginable context, from your pocket, to the furthest reaches of the solar system, and it’s being used to make decisions on how we deal with subjects ranging from refugees to pirates, to city planning to arms trading.

On Thursday of next week, I’ll be giving a lunchtime lecture here at UCL on the subject of data, why it’s informative, when it’s misleading and why on earth I love it so much. It’ll have examples of data visualisation so beautiful they’ll make you want to quit your job, and examples of the misuse of data so scurrilous they’ll make you wish other people would quit theirs. It doesn’t get more exciting than that…