According to the philosophy of the Alibaba Group, success comes not from putting others at your service but from serving others. This manifests in Alibaba’s approach to data: as a platform serving more than 200 countries and more than half a billion users, and committed to frictionless exchange between every point of its network, it has much more to gain than to lose by making its data accessible and instrumental to the public. In that sense, Alibaba’s performance in reality is inextricable from the image it projects of a seamless global force powered and steered by live, comprehensive data. Of course, given the complexity and diversity of its functions across multiple continents, languages, and infrastructures, this vision of the platform as intelligent, self-optimising dataspace is technically impossible. But it is also debatable whether such transparency is really Alibaba’s goal. The AliResearch Institute, established in 2007, makes this data available only in highly curated reports that support Alibaba’s agenda of e-commerce expansion.

Custom Printing 4-Metre Inflatable Globe reveals how information design is always instrumental to a unique perspective on reality—in this case, how Alibaba sees the world in terms of its production, logistics, sales, and cloud infrastructure—and how that perspective constructs the future, in turn, according to the agency of those who determine, design, and read the data. The cartography of the globe brings together in a single surface the complex and often disconnected layers of Alibaba’s hegemonic expansion: Taobao villages meet new Silk Roads, products are mapped according to popularity, and logistics trade routes form the main connections across international waters. Designed using only the data provided by AliResearch, the globe represents how Alibaba sees itself. The giant inflatable sphere was produced by Singar Inflatables Co., Yantai (China), a vendor found through Alibaba’s e-commerce platform.



What is Alibaba’s goal in publishing research, and how did you work with AliResearch as an information designer?

The information available from AliResearch differs from a standard open data set. The data is not presented as a classic database, but can be extracted from research reports on critical issues for the Alibaba system, such as the cross-border economy, Taobao villages, or the future of e-commerce. While the reports published by AliResearch could be considered valuable per se, it is clear that they are not neutral: their conclusions promote Alibaba by creating a positive, unquestioned image of technological innovation in the service of globalisation and ubiquitous e-commerce. The AliResearch Institute website envisions a "golden era of DT times", where DT [data technology] is the evolution of IT [information technology]. I tried to capture the Alibaba Group’s univocal techno-optimism by representing a world using only their own data, presenting it as a carefully curated collection. In this way, the project imagines how Alibaba sees itself and the future of the global economy as a unique convergence.

Your globe disorients the viewer in a few ways: south is on top, the oceans dominate in bright orange, and the scale is overwhelming. What does your design say about Alibaba?

I chose to play with familiar elements, such as scale, colour and orientation, in order to challenge the automatic reading of the information. An unusual setup can induce a sense of doubt in the viewer towards what they are being shown. At the same time, the design depicts the world of Alibaba—a huge-scale phenomenon with global repercussions, the oceans a massive field of orange—the signature colour of Alibaba Group’s e-commerce platforms—to put the emphasis on the shipping routes, and a reversal of the conventional map orientation associated with European exploration and colonial imperialism. This approach considers how hegemonic visions and global visualisations are interlinked.

What was the most surprising information you discovered through AliResearch?

One of the most intriguing pieces of data, which I included as anecdotal information on the globe, was a list of exceptional destinations for packages sent through AliExpress. These included 155 orders from Greenland (" located in the northernmost part of the earth"), 30 from Lesotho ("a country located in the south of Africa and with the world’s highest average elevation"), 15 from the Vatican ("the world’s smallest country") and 18 from Syria ("in chaos").

Project Images

Copyright Design Academy Eindhoven. Photographs by Nicole Marnati.