In 2018, de Volkskrant ran a year-long project that investigated the question whether we can feed the 10 billion people that are expected to inhabit the world in 2050. A storm of responses ensued, both in writing and on social media, and numerous readers suggested involuntary birth control and China-inspired one-child policies as a means to prevent population growth in the first place, especially in Africa. In spite of the frequently racist tone of voice, we decided to investigate these suggestions thoroughly, as it apparently sounds like an entirely logical solution to many people, while it is a very complex topic.
The result is this data-driven stand-alone site with interactive graphics, which explains in-depth why the world population will continue to grow due to so-called population momentum, why the one-child policy didn’t make much of a difference in China and why it is better to invest in socio-economic improvement to drive mortality and birth rates down in a humane way, instead of implementing forced birth control.
Because we wanted to reach a critical audience with a strongly different opinion we spent a lot of time finding the right, informal tone of voice for the written text and developing an interactive population calculator (“zo groeit de wereldbevolking verder\”), which lets readers explore for themselves what changes in birth rates are actually needed to slow down population growth. Also, we draw parallels with the demographic history of The Netherlands, to provide our Dutch readers with a better understanding of the current situation in African countries, where the biggest population growth is expected in the near future.
What makes this project innovative?
The outcomes of the various population growth scenarios of the UN World Population Prospects are readily available as open data online. We went a step further, though, and implemented the underlying cohort-component computation method ourselves, so that the reader can use an interactive calculator and directly experience what the impact of different birth rates is. We also draw many parallels between the history of The Netherlands and the African situation now, so that the facts start to live more for our Dutch readers.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
Unfortunately, I can't provide these metrics, but personally I found it very encouraging that we really reached some of the people that before seemed ill-informed and somewhat racist. This played out in renewed discussions on social media, with some of the people adjusting their point of view. We even had an exchange with Wybren van Haga in our national government, who suggested a similar ‘solution’ for Africa not too long ago.
Source and methodology
I researched the topic using the information and resources from Our World in Data and the reports and open data from the United Nations World Population Prospects. Using the ‘Methods for population projections by sex and age’ and the ‘Methodology of the United Nations Population Estimates and Projections’ publications, I reconstructed the cohort-component computation method in an interactive Observable notebook and tested the results against the numbers of the various UN scenarios that can be downloaded from their online database. I also analysed the UN data, in Excel and Observable notebooks, to identify big trends and compelling (visual) examples on country and regional levels, which I used to build our story. Historical data for The Netherlands was obtained from the open data portal of Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.
We used the following technologies: Excel, Observable, D3.js, HTML/CSS/JS, Adobe Creative Cloud
Stan Putman, Sophia Twigt