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An Emerging Role for Data Visualization

The goal of this international endeavor is to enable international comparisons. It involves scientists, statisticians and policymakers working together to improve the collection of data within their countries as well as the “harmonization” of data collection across countries.

by Pamela Ebert Flattau, PhD; IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute Social and Behavioral Sciences and Education and CIRP member

In 2007, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) announced a world-wide effort to foster the development of indicators to measure the progress of societies, with the ultimate goal of “improving policy making, democracy, and citizens’ wellbeing” (www.oecd.org/progres). The goal of this international endeavor is to enable international comparisons. It involves scientists, statisticians and policymakers working together to improve the collection of data within their countries as well as the “harmonization” of data collection across countries. Within the United States, the organization known as “The State of the USA” will serve as a node for data related to the progress of the American society: http://www.stateoftheusa.org/index.asp

The success of the American effort to improve measures of social progress will depend in large part on the continued advancement of the indicators research currently underway in many locations throughout the United States and in the rest of the world. In this article I will outline some examples of this exciting work. I have been involved in these efforts as a member of the US delegation to the OECD-sponsored first world forum on “key indicators” (Palermo 2004) and the second world forum on “measuring the progress of societies” (Istanbul 2007). In addition, I have had the opportunity to integrate cutting edge international advancements in measurement and data presentation into work for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as well as other federal agencies through my work in the Policy Institute.

Perhaps because of my background in experimental psychology, with an emphasis on perception and perceptual development, I am especially drawn to the exciting developments in the presentation of complex information to planners and policymakers through emerging data visualization techniques.  Developing strategies for enhanced data visualization strategies is a highly dynamic area in the policy world – nationally and internationally. Here are just a few examples of our efforts at STPI to introduce those developments into our own activities.

Isolating “Key” Measures among Many Available Measures
Each year the US government publishes a variety of statistical reports outlining scientific, educational and social progress in the United States, often providing international comparisons.  Several years ago, the National Science Board Office (NSBO) of the National Science Foundationasked STPI to review developments in the presentation of data for planners and policymakers.  The purpose of the analysis was to guide the further refinement of Science and Engineering Indicators – a report issued since 1973 by the Board which presents a compendium of information about science and engineering nationally and internationally: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind08. Through a series of briefings, STPI advised the Board that many nations routinely issue indicators reports, as well as a number of cities, states, and private foundations within the US.  The hallmark of many of these reports was the purposeful selection of “key indicators,” the adoption of easy to grasp graphic design, and exploitation of computer-based “interactive” tools – as I had learned at the OECD meeting in Palermo.


Earlier this year, the National Science Board issued the first version of the Digest of Key Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 based on our suggested options, including the use of some interactive tools which STPI prepared: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/digest08.

Tools of the Future
During the course of conducting our work for the National Science Board Office, we discovered that many organizations – such as the United Nations and the World Bank – are incorporating animation tools in their analysis of complex data sets.  Here is a snapshot from www.gapminder.org  – an organization which received an award from OECD at the 2007 world forum in Istanbul for its contributions to data visualization for policy and planning.

Developing Measures of Social Progress
STPI is engaged in a study at the time of the social and behavioral factors contributing to trends in violent crime in the United States.  The study of crime quantitatively has led to the integration of interesting visual mapping strategies into crime analysis geographically within cities, regions, nationally and internationally.

Numerous analysts are today generating city-level crime maps for use by planners and policymakers. STPI is contributing to these exciting developments by examining the potential role of key social indicators to provide a contextual understanding of violent crime patterns observed at the city level. We anticipate generating a useful array of measures for policy and planning, but presented in a visually dynamic and informative mode. 

It is as a result of our interactions with statisticians, graphic designers, and planners and policy makers internationally that our work has benefitted from these interactions and that we, in turn, have contributed to the advancement of indicators research. Ψ