MIT and World Food Programme Receive Anthem Award for a Project That Visualizes Migrant Stories in the Americas

Janaury 31, 2024

Massachusetts /Panama City - The Civic Data Design Lab (CCDL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) have been recognized among winners of the 2023 Anthem Awards which highlight excellence in social impact. The project “Distance Unknown: Risks and Opportunities of Migration in the Americas” today received a Gold Medal in the ‘Humanitarian Action & Services’ category for ‘Best use of data’.

“Distance Unknown” is an awareness art campaign on the complicated realities faced by people on the move, through an exhibition co-produced with migrants. The campaign builds on data collected from close to 5,000 households in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and more than 2,100 migrants from 43 countries interviewed at four border crossings, as they make their northward journey to Mexico and the United States.

The project illustrates that migration comes at a high cost on all sides. “In addition to documenting and raising awareness about the challenges and risks associated with migration, we were stunned to learn the financial burden borne by migrants,” says Sarah Williams, an Associate Professor at MIT and the Director of MIT's Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) and the Civic Data Design Lab. “Migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras collectively spent USD 2.2 billion to travel to the United States in 2021, which is comparable to what their home countries combined allocate to primary education.”

This recognition comes at a critical time, as 2023 saw an unprecedented migrant surge in the continent with over half a million people crossing the perilous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama - more than double the number the previous year. Primarily driven by economic motivations, migrants seek to support their family’s basic needs by sending remittances home, but testimonies reveal that people are also leaving their homes because of insecurity and climate stressors.  

“This data tells an important story: food insecurity and migration go hand in hand. People would rather stay home than risk it all. But when they do not have food, they do what any of us would to feed their families” said WFP’s Executive Director Cindy McCain. “WFP is working together with communities to build livelihoods, produce enough food to feed their families and offer hope.”

Recent monitoring shows that 85 percent of migrants along the main routes are eating less, skipping meals or going without food for entire days.

The “Distance unknown” exhibition features a 15-by-8 feet physical data visualization artwork and an interactive ‘motivational tapestry’ where visitors can follow individual stories and dive deeper into one migrant’s cost and reasons to flee. The display featured at the Venice architecture Biennale May-November last year.

Established by The Webby Awards in 2021, the Anthem Awards are a mark of distinction for social impact excellence, celebrating purpose and mission-driven work worldwide. This year’s Anthem Award Winners were selected from a pool of over 2,000 submissions from 44 countries by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS).


The United Nations World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organization saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.

MIT’s CDDL combined computation and design to create communication strategies that expose urban policy issues to broad audiences and create civic change. They call the process Data Action, which emphasizes the need for working with diverse teams to innovate with data for the public good combining data scientists, policy experts, data designers, and the public themselves. The approach generates policy debates, influences civic decisions, and informs design to help ensure that the voices of people represented in the data are neither marginalized nor left unheard.

For more information from WFP please contact:

Maria Gallar, WFP/ Panama, Mob. +507 6671-5355,

Monica Leon, WFP/ Bogota, Mob. +57 3202548693,

Sarah Williams, MIT, +1267-253-4124,