The New ICAC Data Portal: The Difference between Text and Context



22 September 2022

With today’s public release of its new Data Portal, the ICAC has seized a leadership position in the exciting new field of ‘data storytelling’: the ability to effectively communicate insights from a dataset using narratives and visualisation. In the words of ICAC Data Scientist and architect of the Data Portal, Matthew Looney, it’s about telling a compelling story using numbers — a way to convert simple text into context, so to speak.

Although that sounds like the goal is to make visually appealing charts, tables and graphs, that’s only a part of its effectiveness, according to Mr Looney. ‘It’s not about the numbers themselves; it’s about using data to create a narrative that humans can relate to in a more useful and meaningful way’, he says. ‘Traditional data dashboards can be effective at showing when something changes, but they aren’t very good at explaining why something happened, or what that change might mean in the real world’.

The implementation of the Data Portal has been one of the biggest developments at the ICAC in recent years and is designed to accomplish two things:

  • Putting basic, yet still very robust, data storytelling capabilities into the hands of the global cotton and textile community. All users who visit the Data Portal will be able to X, Y and Z, which is a substantial upgrade over the basic information that comes from querying a traditional database.
  • Adding significant new value to ICAC Member governments. Some of the most powerful functionality found in the Data Portal is reserved for use by ICAC Members only. It’s one of several steps the organisation has taken over the last five years to provide even greater value for Members; others include the development of the Four Simple Steps to Sustainable High Yields programme, Virtual Reality Cotton Training and a voice-based app designed for illiterate small holder farmers.

As an example of the Data Portal’s capabilities, let’s assume a user wants to view regional statistics about the C4+2 cotton-producing countries in Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Cote D'Ivoire, Senegal). A quick glance at the image below reveals that this region is doing well in the 2022/23 season, as all major variables are green, thus indicating an increase from the previous season. In fact, if these numbers hold, the C4+2 countries are on pace for the largest production in their history.

However, when we look at the graph view of the data at the bottom of the image, we notice an anomaly in the 2020/21 season. Using the dashboard, we can perform a small amount of investigative work and drill down into each of the C4+2 countries to have a closer look. We would find that Mail had a particular tragic 2020/21 crop year, and that is the reason for the depressed numbers in the C4+2 during that time period.

This simple example illustrates the ability to view data at the regional level. Users can drill down into the data at the country level and instantly have a plot available to quickly understand the trends in the data. Users also can download the data in excel (csv) format so that you can further manipulate the data depending on your specific use case.

‘The dashboard that is being showcased today is the foundation upon which the ICAC will build’, said ICAC Data Scientist Matthew Looney, creator of the Data Portal. ‘In time, we will migrate our publications into interactive and dynamic reports, giving you the ability to dig deeper into the data to help understand the analysis. This is a massive change from the way we have been operating the statistics program. With formal databases, interactive dashboards and dynamic reports, we are excited to provide the same excellent analysis using the latest in modern and cutting-edge data science technology’.

‘Not only has this Data Portal ensured that the ICAC is now at the cutting edge of data provision but it also has an added advantage of allowing ICAC Members to interact directly with the data we hold’ said ICAC Executive Director Kai Hughes. ‘It really is a fantastic achievement and developed in-house by our Data Scientist in just a few months’.

To try out the new ICAC Data Portal, please click here.