Physical representations of information can help people make emotional connections with the patterns and relationships contained in data. One way to create that emotional connection is to relate information to sizes and shapes people are familiar with from everyday life.
Access to adequate supply of clean water is considered a basic human right. Humans only need about 2 liters of drinking water a day to survive, but maintaining an acceptable standard of living requires much more. This extra water is needed for washing, cooking and sanitation. Per capita water consumption varies from country to country due to differences in standards of living, levels of industrialization and water availability.
The following graphic appeared in a 2005 Water Facts and Trends report about water published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (page 7). Unsurprisingly per capita consumption is highest in the US, and is lowest in less developed, more arid countries such as Mali.
Using this data I created three coffee mugs. The largest holds 12 oz of liquid. This is the amount of coffee many of us drink at the start of our day. If that 12 oz mug is used to represent per capita water consumption in the US, then a series of other mugs can be made to represent water consumption in other parts of the world. At this scale, India’s 52 cubic meters of water per capita per year translates to almost 3 ounces. Sticking with the coffee metaphor, this translates to roughly 1 1/2 espresso shots. Maybe not as familiar as a full cup freshly brewed coffee, but more than enough to get though the day.
The 4 cubic meters per year used by the average Malian translates to just under 1/4 ounce (0.22 ounces). At this point the coffee metaphor falls apart. Cold medicine is about the only thing I can think of that is consumed at such small volumes.
I have not had a chance to share these mugs with many other people, but the process of making them and then writing this post has given me a bunch of ideas about how such props could be use to contextualize information in both formal and informal educational environments.