Understanding global trade and economic data can feel overwhelming, but fortunately there are online tools that help us to visualize complex economic data. Before these tools existed, my first observations of economic geography and industrial development came when I left the US and was living in Central America.

I lived in Costa Rica during the mid-90s before I was professionally a geographer; I was a geographer in my heart but didn’t know just yet that I would study geography. At that time, Costa Rica’s economy was primarily based on agricultural exports. As a ‘Banana Republic,’ Costa Rica’s key exports were its plantation goods and some light textile manufacturing, as shown on the left-hand side of the graph below.

Exports of Costa Rica,1995

Given the well-educated labor force and stable government, I had a hunch that if companies invested in Costa Rica they could reap some big dividends. In 1998, after studying sites in Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico, Intel chose to build a microprocessor plant in Costa Rica. Intel micro-processing chips are in over 80% of the personal computers sold and that volume of business became the leading economic story for this country of 5 million people. Overnight, Intel became the largest exporter in the country, putting billions of dollars’ worth of electronic goods on the global market each year.

From 1995 to 2012, the Costa Rica economy was radically transformed, propelling Costa Rica into the globalized economy on more equal footing with the consumers of their electronic goods. Recently, Intel announced that they will be leaving their Costa Rican microprocessor plant for bluer skies (and cheaper wages) in Asia. Changes in the global economy have been impacting Intel as well. With the rapid proliferation of smartphones and tablets, the demand for personal computers and microprocessors in them has dropped each of the last three years.

Export of Costa Rica, 2012

Will this be a huge catastrophe for Costa Rica? Will its economy go back to what it was in 1995? Probably not. The investment climate in Costa Rica remains strong and Intel Research and Development will stay in Costa Rica. In a very short span, we’ve seen Costa Rica start out as a primary sector economy (agriculture), and then to put a huge emphasis on the secondary sector (manufacturing) to a growing tertiary sector (services and retail).

This is not an article strictly on Costa Rica’s economy, but to use Costa Rica’s economic history to show how to create simple, yet powerful images from a robust global dataset. You don’t need to add up the figures or be a pro with a spreadsheet; the data in these charts was incredibly easy to gather, thanks to the Atlas of Economic Complexity.
The Atlas of Economic Complexity is hosted by the Center for International Development at Harvard University (MIT also worked on this project and on their site it is called the Observatory of Economic Complexity). The Atlas for Economic Complexity states that it, “makes our analysis and its underlying data accessible to anyone with access to the Internet. The tool will allow users to explore growth opportunities by country and industry, with the potential to provide input into economic policy and private investment decisions. The analysis may also be used to inform the agendas of development banks in policy recommendations and loan programming; an entrepreneur developing a market plan; an investment promotion agency pitching a new factory, as well as guide other choices we have yet to imagine.”
This tool puts the power of big, spatial data in the hands of students and teachers. Although the data behind it is complex, the visualizations charts, graphs and maps are an intuitive ways to make sense of the large, global patterns that as they impact particular countries. This example focused on Costa Rica and computer processors, but the number of topics and places to explore are endless. In the video introduction to the resource that is embedded below, they use the dataset to analyze the Netherlands and the cut flower industry.

So what will you explore using the Atlas of Economic Complexity? What possible projects can you envision your students working on using this resource?