speech delivered during height of US fiscal crisis (10/02/08) to the SustainCommWorld conference on data feeds and visualization as a means to improving management and achieving the "triple bottom line"
What’s happened in the past few days definitely constitutes a crisis.
It’s also important to remind ourselves that the Chinese ideogram for crisis, wei ji, combines the ones for danger -- that’s
obvious -- and opportunity.
I believe the opportunity, while less obvious right now as we deal with the credit crunch and Wall St. crash, is there, but
that it will require a willingness to say goodbye to conventional wisdom, whether that’s in business or government.
We need ways of operating -- and, in light of the role of failed regulatory systems in the crisis, new ways of regulating --
that capitalize on 21st-century technologies, and, equally important, 21st-century ways of thinking that realized we need to
temper competition with collaboration for mutual gain.
Where’s my data??
A key to the transformation is data: something that many of us find not only difficult to deal with, but difficult to find.
Remember the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Ark of the Covenant was moved to a government warehouse?
You knew it would never be seen again.
That’s what seems to happen with a lot of government data. We pay taxes to collect them. Our activities and lives are
their raw material. They determine whether many of us get more government benefits and which states and communities get
grants. In the case of the current economic crisis, data -- if reported quickly and in ways that would have been easy to deal with
-- data might have been an early signal of distress and might have avoided or at least minimized the problems.
But once they’re collected, most citizens -- and a lot of government employees for that matter -- don’t have a clue where
government data are stored or how they’re used. Even worse, that robs us of important tools that could improve government’s
performance and cut its operating costs.
Fast forward to 2008. Lo and behold, in the latest Indiana Jones sequel, Indy retrieves the Ark!
In my book, that’s an omen that you can’t keep things hidden forever!
Similarly, closely-controlled and long-lost government data are being liberated by the growing demand for transparency
by watchdog groups such as the Sunlight Foundation, the media -- and us. In fact, immediately after the draft of the recovery
bill rejected Monday was completed, Sunlight’s Public Markup.org site posted the draft, and urged interested members of the
public to comment. I doubt seriously that the comments influenced any Representatives’ votes, but in the wake of its rejection
in large part because of constituent concerns, perhaps the new iteration will be posted with enough time for constituent
suggestions to be solicited and Congress to consider them.
Beyond shedding light on how government operates, far-reaching and unprecedented change can result when we make
reams of data available, plus tools to portray them visually.
Generally acknowledged as the leading thinker on data graphics, Edward Tufte says that even the most skilled statisticians
often find representing data visually is the most insightful way of making sense of them:
quot;Modern data graphics can do much more than simply substitute for small statistical tables. At their
best, graphics are instruments for reasoning about quantitative information. Often the most effective way
to describe, explore and summarize a set of numbers -- even a very large set -- is to look at pictures of those
numbers. Furthermore, of all methods for analyzing and communicating statistical information, well-
designed data graphics are usually the simplest and at the same time the most powerful.”
This example is a Google mashup Jon Udell whipped up quickly to highlight pothole complaints to the DC Department of
Public Works, and track -- on a real-time basis (because the city releases that data automatically) -- the repairs’ status.
Sure, you might find that information in a chart, but who’d sift through pages of records in hopes of possibly finding the
one or two that applied to their neighborhood? By contrast, if you saw this map, and lived near one of the pointers, wouldn’t
curiosity compel you to click on it? Wouldn’t the fact that it includes not only information about where the pothole is and when
the complaint was made, but also the repair status TODAY, both fascinate you -- and provoke you to call the DPW if it’s now 3
months later and the map shows the repair still hasn’t been made?
Thus, a simple map can be the impetus for citizen awareness – and greater agency accountability.
Some visualizations combine various data bases to illustrate convergence, contrasts or possible causality.
This example is Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles, a collaboration between UCLA and community activists. Its motto
is “neighborhood improvement and recovery is not just for the experts.”
This is an important example of the value of data visualization, because it combines and maps data on 7 “problem
indicators” (including code violations, property tax delinquencies, and fire records, etc.) that might have otherwise remained
isolated. When you see a single block where many danger signs are repeated, that’s a signal to city officials to intervene NOW
with coordinated services to halt the decline.
You can imagine the power of overlaying a variety of environmental indicators on a geographic basis.
Still other data graphics give context to global issues, which can seem so massive and complex that many of us shy away
from trying to understand, let alone to influence them.
None are as eye-catching, and informative as the visualizations on issues facing developing nations created by the
Gapminder Foundation using its innovative, animated Trendalyzer software. Goggle now offers Trendalyzer for general use
under the Motion Chart name, so perhaps they will become commonplace.
This static screengrab can't do justice to the powerful additional understanding gained when you view one of Gapminder’s
animated trend diagrams!
… put together big enough and diverse
enough groups of people & ask them to
make decisions affecting [the] general
interest, [and] that group's decisions will,
over time, be intellectually superior to the
isolated individual, no matter how smart or
well-informed he is.
-- The Wisdom of Crowds
Equally important, web-based data visualization tools may also include a variety of community-building Web 2.0 tools,
including search, topic hubs, tags, and discussion areas. They make it easy to focus many individuals’ and groups’ attention on
an issue, increasing the chance that new insights will emerge precisely because of the interplay of so many perspectives.
As James Surowiecki wrote in “The Wisdom of Crowds,” “… put together big enough and diverse enough groups of people
& ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest, [and] that group's decisions will, over time, be intellectually
superior to the isolated individual, no matter how smart or well-informed he is.quot;
1 st: release the data
Successful data visualization projects, whether in government or companies, include two components.
The first is to release data -- plenty of it -- in easy-to use, easy to find, ways.
It’s true that motivated, technologically- sophisticated individuals can create informative data visualizations the hard way,
by “scrapping” data from governmental web sites.
However, now that it is so simple to create data feeds such as RSS that are generated automatically as new data are added,
there’s little rationale not to do so.
In fact, Princeton researchers recently released a paper making a startling assertion:
“Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive
branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data”
Several federal and state agencies now publish a variety of RSS and other feeds.
By far, the most exciting model is the District of Columbia’s Citywide Data Warehouse, created as part of the city’s
operational reform efforts. It provides real-time numerical and geospatial feeds, drawn from more than 260 data sets, ranging
from crime reports to to building permits to 20 dealing with environmental issues.
2 nd: visualize data
The second major component of a public data project is to help people find simple-to-use ways to portray the data visually.
A growing range of new Web 2.0-based visualization tools are readily available. Several of the commercial sites now offer
secure versions making it simple for agencies to add visualization services behind the firewall as well.
The creators of IBM’s Many Eyes say it’s:
“… a bet on the power of human visual intelligence to find patterns. Our goal is to ‘democratize’ visualization and to
enable a new social kind of data analysis …. All of us ... are passionate about the potential of data visualization to spark
insight. It is that magical moment we live for: an unwieldy, unyielding data set is transformed into an image on the screen,
and suddenly the user can perceive an unexpected pattern.
As visualization designers we have witnessed and experienced many of those wondrous sparks. But in recent years,
we have become acutely aware that the visualizations and the sparks they generate, take on new value in a social setting.
Visualization is a catalyst for discussion and collective insight about data .... When we share it and discuss it, we
understand it in new ways.”
While I’m a great advocate of government agencies and corporations releasing data to the public and media for us to
analyze and visualize, there’s another potential benefit of automatic data feeds, that I believe may be equally compelling, and
may tip the balance, leading more to try the practice.
It’s one that also can contribute directly to achieving a robust triple-bottom line: using the same feeds that are released
publicly behind the firewell also, as a management tool.
To my knowledge, no corporation or government agency is practicing this approach to the extent that the District of
Columbia is doing, as demonstrated by this new intranet dashboard that it introduced in July. Soon, they will add a variety of
widgets for special purposes that individual employees can choose -- or not, to include in their own dashboards.
After all, agencies’ employees may be struggling with incompatible data bases, may need to reach across agency “silos” to
see if there might be synergies between programs, and employees from another agency may be able to provide new insights
simply because of their differing life experiences and expertise.
Also, as more young workers, who have never known life without the Web, join governmental workforces, they’ll naturally
ask why tools they’ve used can’t be used in government. A data graphics project can empower them and tap their expertise.
It’s impossible to predict how sweeping the changes in internal management can be with addition of these tools, but I’m
convinced they will be varied and invaluable.
Let 1,000 mashups bloom!
Once an agency, or company has done this behind-the-scenes work and realized value from an internal data visualization
program, the prospect of a parallel set of public data feeds and a data visualization site is less worrisome.
Of course there are obstacles and risks with transparent government through data visualization. However, realistically,
there’s little choice about whether to implement it: as the public becomes more at ease with already-available Web 2.0
participation tools and sees the benefits of ad hoc projects such as illegalsigns.ca, they will do more and more data
visualizations whether or not agencies facilitate them. If that’s the case, why shouldn’t government also reap the benefits of
growing public understanding and insight?
The payoff: transformation!
Outweighing the obstacles are the benefits, particularly in an era in which public faith and participation in government
must be rebuilt. When more employees within agencies and the public at large become comfortable with data and its
interpretation, the potential benefits include:
• more informed policy debate, grounded in fact, rather than rhetoric
• consensus building
• better legislation
• greater transparency and less corruption: greater accountability
• optimizing program efficiency and reducing costs:
• new perspectives, especially when “the wisdom of crowds” emerges.
Who would have believed that dry data -- with a healthy doses of Web 2.0 magic -- could become
the engine for organizational transformation!
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To learn more about transparent government and how to create the processes and policies to make it a reality, contact:
Stephenson Strategies 335 Main Street, Medfield, MA 02052 (617) 314-7858 D.Stephenson@stephensonstrategies.com