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Contradictory Data and Rigorous Sorting

March 1, 2009

For those who think the role of design in the executive branch ends at improving tax forms, voting ballots and Whitehouse.gov, consider this piece of advice to president Obama from Bob Woodward:

Presidents get contradictory data, and they need a rigorous way to sort it out.
In 2004-06, the CIA was reporting that Iraq was getting more violent and less stable. By mid-2006, Bush’s own NSC deputy for Iraq, Meghan O’Sullivan, had a blunt assessment of conditions in Baghdad: “It’s hell, Mr. President.” But the Pentagon remained optimistic and reported that a strategy of drawing down U.S. troops and turning security over to the Iraqis would end in “self-reliance” in 2009. As best I could discover, the president never insisted that the contradiction between “hell” and “self-reliance” be resolved.

It is the sixth of 10 “take-aways” for the incoming president Woodward wrote about in the Washington Post in January, based on nearly a decade of interviews with the outgoing administration.

Woodward’s story for this particular piece of advice–the contradiction in accounts of the Iraq war–focuses on qualitative data. (After all, by some accounts “self-reliance” is a sort of hell.) Packed beneath the surface of those assessments, however, is layers upon layers of real data, of information that an interested president could use to have a perhaps more nuanced view of the situation.

In the coming years, the amount of data will not diminish: That is clear from a mere glance at the state of information technology today. President Obama’s insistence on having a BlackBerry speaks not only to our culture’s increasing symbiosis between people and communications technology, but also to the need to be close to information. I’ll be curious to see how the assorted hamstringing policies and lawyer-imposed technological constraints affect the president.

Some people have called for instituting a national design policy. While the mission is admirable, if not ambitious, there’s something missing. The fourth bullet perhaps comes closest:

Policy as designed to address design’s role in making American democratic values tangible to the people.

The design policy people have a collection of 10 initiatives. The second is:

Set guidelines for legibility, literacy, and accessibility for all government communications.

What neither the mission nor this initiative state is the use of design in making the government more efficient internally. Design, broadly speaking, and information design more specifically dovetails nicely with the new administration’s overall philosophy of transparency. But there’s more to the opportunity.

Most government agencies have an office of the inspector general (OIG), a group dedicated to ensuring that the agency is meeting their objectives and operating ethically. Agencies have other groups (office of civil rights, for example) to ensure that they are meeting other external requirements. Agencies also have internal service bureaus (chief counsel’s office and office of communications for example) which provide services to other operational parts of the agency. There are, therefore, many models for incorporating these high-touch disciplines into the work of the executive branch.

I’m imagining a communications design manager responsible for visualizing all the information–quantitative and qualitative–that is produced by the agency. This role might sit in some sort of service bureau or might be dedicated to each operational part of the agency. (In a separate bureau, though, the manager may be divorced from the organizational politics that can obscure and undermine effective data displays.) The role of this person would be–at best–to oversee the design of work product destined for the desks of higher-ups, or–at worst–provide consulting on the design of the work product.

Such a manager would also be responsible for facilitating brainstorming meetings, those whose agenda is to comb through lots of information and pull out the relevant stuff. They would work with subject matter experts and policy makers to make sure ideas are clearly expressed, portable, and comparable.

  • Clearly expressed ideas are generally free from editorializing. At best, a good visualization can separate the facts from interpretting the facts. At worst, it admits the bias of interpretation. Good plots of data amplify the patterns in the data, call attention to the stuff that matters, and invite interpretation based on facts.
  • Making ideas portable means that the person with the ideas does not have to be present to express them. A portable idea is expressed succinctly and in a self-contained way such that anyone looking at the visualization can understand its story.
  • Ideas need to be comparable, such that people can make decisions not with single data points from here and there, but from a symphony of well-coordinated information. The federal government silos knowledge based on subject matter. This is operationally convenient, but challenging when trying to pull together a complete picture.

The government is not ripe for this sort of position. Its responsibilities would require going against the cultural grain, once characterized by a deputy director from the State Department under Powell as a “need to know culture”.  It is a culture that thrives on holding information close to the chest, on marking things “top secret”, and on politicizing information. It is a government where power is determined by how much you know, not how much you contribute. The same deputy director insisted that a shift was necessary, from need to know to a “need to share culture”.

Making information accessible, meaningful, and share-able, is the role of a designer. The distinction between this proposal and the broad initiative suggested by the national design policy people is one of audience. While the American people are the primary audience for government communications in terms of priority, they are not in terms of usage. Ultimately, the audience for communications is an audience of one: the president.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. elise permalink
    March 2, 2009 7:14 pm

    canny timing on that. this also came through my feed reader today:

    Microsoft’s Vision for 2019 is Data Visualization
    http://flowingdata.com/2009/03/02/microsofts-vision-for-2019-is-data-visualization/

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