Do you need a case study on how to explore big data like the Observatory of Economic Complexity with students to uncover geographic patterns? This site let’s you ask interrelated questions and enter a rabbit hole of economic, geographic data. This is one of the best online tools for student projects in geography, so let me show you how the data visualizations can be used to make concrete observations that will unearth spatial relationships.

While I was wondering about the world largest coffee exporters, I looked at the Observatory of Economic Complexity’s data visualization tools. I was expecting to find mostly tropical countries where coffee is grown. I was baffled to find that Germany was listed as a major coffee exporter, along with many other Western European countries. 

Major Global Coffee Exporters (but definitely not all producers). SOURCE: OEC

This at first seemed like a misprint but many European countries like Germany import import green coffee beans from a variety of tropical countries, so they are a major producer of coffee without growing a single bean. In fact, the world’s largest single port for shipping coffee is Hamburg.

Where does Germany import coffee from? SOURCE: OEC

The highlands of East Africa were the original hearth of coffee beans and today, countries like Ethiopia and Uganda export green coffee beans overwhelmingly to European countries which in turn, roasts them and then exports them internationally. 

Which African countries does Germany import coffee from? SOURCE: OEC

African coffee growers face some steep difficulties when it comes to exporting roasted coffee.  This “value added” step would certainly increase the trading power of their agricultural commodities on the international trading market, but many European coffee labels already dominate that step in the commodity chain and have the made deep in-roads with consumers. 

What does Germany export? SOURCE: OEC

Exporting the finalized roasted coffee is but a very small part the overall German economy (the largest of the light green boxes-0.26% of total exports). For Ethiopia however, coffee exports is a major component of all their international trade (34.6%). Ethiopia produces something of high value, but is not positioned to extract a lot of profit from that commodity.

What does Ethiopia export? SOURCE: OEC

This is the crux of what makes decisions about free trade/fair trade difficult for individual consumers that are hoping to “vote with their pocketbook” to put their dollars in economic practices that they approve of. Commodity chains of so many products have become increasingly complex and these goods are more connected with far more places and workers than most would imagine.  Simply reading the label does NOT tell the full story of most products and the economic geographies that produced them.

This is just one story about the global economy that can be unearthed by exploring the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Were you wondering about Ethiopia’s cut flowers or Uganda’s gold? There is an entire network of economic relations that waiting to be uncovered if you are curious and willing to explore the data. This is why it is one of the best online tools for student projects in geography.    

GeoEd Tags: agriculture, economic, Germany.