Bringing Tony Stark’s tools to UNDP’s data-driven initiatives

UN Development Programme
4 min readDec 16, 2020

Zimbabwe’s informal food economy is the second largest in the world and some of the most vulnerable people depend on it for their livelihoods. It’s important to know how that economy works, and especially how it is being affected by the 2020 pandemic.

We took a data-driven approach to this challenge. We began by asking ourselves two questions. What are the factors determining the price of goods? Second, how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed those systems, and how has it stressed the economy’s weak points?

Like any informal economy, Zimbabwe’s is complicated — the price and availability of basic produce is determined by many intertwined social, economic and environmental factors. The amount of data collected can be overwhelming, and hard to interpret.

The Presence Anytime Anywhere (PAA) project is exploring solutions to this problem, using a new technology called spatial computing that supports 3D data visualization.

Remember the film Iron Man, and Tony Stark’s workshop? He uses holographic computer displays to work with information. He walks around it, moves it with his hands, makes it bigger or smaller. You can see how much easier it is to work with data when it’s something you can see in three dimensions.

That’s exactly what spatial computing helps us do. It uses computerized goggles to create a three-dimensional version of the digital world. Their display can take any digital information and display it in the room with you as a three-dimensional, interactive object made of light.

Edward Tufte, one of the pioneering scientists on data visualization, wrote that: “It is not how much information there is, but rather how effectively it is arranged.” A better visual representation of a dataset makes it easier to see the story that information contains. You might say, it eases the cognitive load of processing that information for your brain and lets your eyes do it much faster and more easily.

Spatial computing uses computerized goggles to create a three-dimensional version of the digital world.

UNDP is working with Flow Immersive ( to create three-dimensional, immersive presentations. Unlike in a simple presentation, data can be charted along three different axes and viewed from all sides in a shared online space.

The Zimbabwe project is one of several pilot programmes being run by the PAA project to learn how to utilize spatial computing for UNDP’s digital initiatives. Additional applications of PAA storytelling with Flow were featured at the UN General Assembly, including as part of the SDG Moment with UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner.

These pilot projects are part of PAA’s broader exploration of spatial computing’s potential as a tool for UNDP’s digital strategy, the first of its kind in the UN system. We’re learning how data-driven storytelling can combine with the ability of people in different locations to work together as if they were in the same room.

As UNDP shifts to an integrated, data-driven approach (SparkBlue), new challenges will arise. Spatial computing can be a powerful tool as we take this next step, to help us see the data clearly, to see the patterns and correlations within it and to convey those lessons to the people who need them to make decisions.

Applications of PAA storytelling with Flow were featured at the UN General Assembly, including as part of the SDG Moment with UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner.

What we have learned:

- Cool is a scientific term — It’s fun to watch, and that’s part of helping people to understand what’s clearly a very complex undertaking.

- Visualizing data on a greater scale — UNDP is using huge amounts of data, which makes it hard to visualize the impact and the real depth and complexity of what is happening. With many sensory modalities — visual, auditory, haptic, somatosensory and olfactory, 3D visualizations are creating perceptually enriched experiences and can help reveal hidden patterns and relationships that can be hard to recognize in complex data systems.

- Empathic experience — 3D visualizations grab people’s attention in a similar way to a movie, TV show or a YouTube video does. They are more engaging than reports which are often ignored or fail to grab one’s attention.

- The future of storytelling — 3D visualizations allow you to communicate much more data in a more compelling and interaction manner. They combat ‘Zoom fatigue.’

- Recognizing new patterns — Immersing participants in the new 3D data reality can help to identify new patterns and perspectives. With new tools and techniques there is the potential to see connections that could not have been seen before, and chart an entirely new, more sustainable future.

Do you want to know more? Or create your own PAA 3D immersive storytelling — write to us:

By Marina Petrovic, Innovative Finance and Technology Expert, UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub; Lejla Sadiku, Innovation team leader, UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub; Naomi Augustine-Yee, Technology Innovation Specialist, UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub; Austin Grossman, Interactive Augmented Reality Narrative Writer; UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub; Carolin Frankenhauser, Digital Analyst, UNDP, CDO; Babatunde Abidoye, Global Policy Advisor, UNDP; Frederic Repond, Senior Consultant, Monitor Deloitte