Eye-catching Visualizations or Plain Jane Facts: Influencing and Informing Public-Decision Processes

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The field of Science and Technology Studies is a diverse realm that focuses on the sociological, historical, and political (or policy) aspects of science, technology, and society. Over the course of about thirty years, it strives to better understand how sociological processes are affected and affect the development and adoption of technology. The view has evolved from a simplistic, technologically-deterministic view to a much more complex concept that can literally have no bounds if taken from a systems perspective. Imagine trying to integrate technology, sociology, history, and politics in an effective study to understand how a particular system, such as U.S. automobile transportation systems, came to be what it is. The field seems to suffer from a overabundance of information that draws on so many fields that it struggles to define easy terminology through which it can be communicated.

We’ve been thinking about one particular question within this realm: how can new communications and visualizations technologies influence the infusion of scientific and technological knowledge into public decision-making processes. The explosion of widely-used applications such as geospatial mashups and web-based social networks holds great promise, and is indeed already, infusing technological expertise into complicated public policy questions. For instance, groups in support of or opposed to genetically-modified agriculture use networking technologies to organize support, raise funds, and disseminate information regarding their positions. In past times, organizing and communicating amongst such groups would have taken place through other mediums, such as telephone or mail. Even still, it’s not clear that such innovations have made the policy process more informed. In fact, it is more likely that the policy mechanisms are overloaded with knowledge, making it more difficult for complex topics to be communicated and effectively debated in an era of information abundance that necessitates 10-second soundbites.

The use of geospatial data for applications that communicate information on businesses, government services, and mounds of other data has exploded in the past decade. The inclusion of scientific or technological data for these purposes is selective by field. Certainly, geospatial data abounds in studies of wildlife and natural resources, though this data is not always readily consumable by the general public. The extent to which such data is infused into public decision-making processes, however, remains unclear.

This is something we’d like to try to answer systematically. In doing so, though we want to have a historical perspective, as well. We are firm believers in the value of historical knowledge in making today’s decisions. We are exploring the value of historical knowledge in decision-making and thinking about how that knowledge can best be displayed using current technologies that communicate complicated concepts effectively, utilizing so-called “temporal GIS” for policy-making applications. We’re not the only ones, of course. One great site is the GIS for History project, which develops GIS data to show U.S. historical processes such as migration and railroad expansion. A quick survey also found this research paper from the University of Texas at Austin, exploring the use of historical GIS data in urban planning and urban studies. Theoretically, this work falls under many interdisciplinary hats, notably Science and Technology Studies related to the communication of scientific and technical information in the policy-making process.

The practical component of this work is to understand how best to do this. Do eye-popping, high-tech visualizations help in communicating such information? Do more simplistic methods work better? What is the role of “knowing your audience” in the process of deciding what type of information to convey and how to convey it? These are all very relevant questions for those hoping to build a more robust and productive public debate.

Our specific interests in this regard lie in urbanization and environmental systems, certainly a ripe field for the integration of novel analysis techniques that parse complex data sets into more simple and understandable products. Cities and natural systems both have the “where do I stop collecting” problem, depending upon how you structure your questions. As we make some progress in this regard, we’ll be posting some results.

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