Tech@State Convenes Data Visualization Conference

Posted by Tim Hayes
October 6, 2011
Screenshot of ForeignAssistance.Gov Website on October 6, 2011

"Dudes -- Welcome to Tech at State."

That's how Foreign Service Officer Suzanne Hall welcomed participants to the Tech@State: Data Visualization event. Much like Suzanne's nontraditional greeting, Tech@State identifies creative ways to incorporate new technologies and tools into diplomacy and development.

Hosted by the Office of eDiplomacy in the Bureau of Information Resource Management, the Tech@State: Data Visualization event convened technologists and foreign policy experts at the Kennedy Center on September 23. In her opening remarks, Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, challenged the audience of about 350 to find ways to organize the vast amount of data collected, analyze it, and share it visually. Dr. Jones said:

"From the perspective of a scientist, it is important to be able to present data and findings to public audiences and to our peers. Pictures and charts are, of course, a big help in this. Data visualization is something more.

"Data visualization is being used effectively in so many arenas already. It is being used in disaster response and coordination -- strengthening the ability of communities to respond. It is helping information become more transparent and accessible to society in general. It is allowing donors to see how their money is being used in projects ranging from disaster relief to climate change. Data visualization shows progress being made, bumps along the road and pledges being fulfilled."

Mindful of the involvement of multiple State Department bureaus and participants from other U.S. government agencies, Dr. Jones set the tone for openness and cooperation by calling for collaboration and connectivity to ensure that data visualized are accurate, digestible, and accessible to our audiences.

The keynote speaker, Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Statistics and Computer Science at Yale University and often called the "Da Vinci of data," provided thoughtful insights into the way people perceive and process data. He stressed that the fundamental purpose of data visualization must be to help "make people smarter;" that presentations must provide useful, insightful, intellectually stimulating content facilitating our ability to compare and determine causality.

Following Dr. Tufte's speech, a series of panels explored the various aspects of data visualization. Experts from civil society organizations, academia, government, and the private sector looked at ways visualization is being used to turn information into insight, and how visualization is being connected with mobile technology and new media to increase its overall impact. Attendees heard about new trends in data visualization, new ways to visualize development data, and best practices for visualization interoperability. Other topics included supporting disaster response, visualizing aid transparency, and management, and using climate and health data to monitor food insecurity.

One panel spotlighted several State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) visualization projects. Speaking to a standing room only crowd, panelists demonstrated how visualization is being used on ForeignAssistance.gov and HumanRights.gov. Maurice Kent of USAID's new GeoCenter said, "We can't just put that data up there -- we have to create a story." On ForeignAssistance.gov, for example, the public can see exactly how much foreign aid money is being pledged for the next fiscal year.

In addition, Josh Campbell of the Humanitarian Information Unit announced the release of the Large-Scale International Boundaries for public download. This dataset, maintained by the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues at the State Department, is the official USG-sanctioned international boundaries file.

Data visualization can clearly be applied in a variety of ways. What are other ways data visualization can be used to enhance diplomacy, development, and foreign affairs?

Tech@State, a component of the Secretary's 21st Century Statecraft Initiative, is a series of quarterly conferences, curated and run by eDiplomacy in State's Bureau of Information Resource Management, that brings together technologists and foreign policy experts for a two-day interactive deep-dive to explore ways to incorporate new technologies and tools into diplomacy and development. For more information, see Tech.State.gov.

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