Science policy and the web

The challenge of modernizing data visualization.

Posted by on March 26, 2015


On March 18-21, 2015, I attended a workshop to explore challenges around using data visualization in science and science policy. The workshop was the 2nd of a series of workshops and many of the write-ups from both sessions can be found on the EcoViz blog. The workshop this time around was very focused on reporting outputs from IPCC and IPBES. So, taken with a grain of salt, here are my thoughts coming out of the workshop.

Current process

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the workshop going in, but data visualization for science communication has been a core interest of mine for ten years now, so I knew the workshop would be interesting. Particularly, I was curious to see how ideas have evolved in recent years to incorporate community changes and technological advances. Let me start with the first, community changes.

Community changes

There have been a lot of changes to both the communities consuming and those reporting on science policy since the first IPCC report was completed in 1990. The first and most obvious change is the Internet. But more specifically, we are living in a world that has been adapting quickly to broad demands for open access, open data, and open source. Those demands have been specifically focused on governmental reporting agencies and the results can be seen in open data portals at all levels of government.

The workshop touched on some of these concepts, but unfortunately we didn’t spend much time discussing or evaluating solutions directly. One thing I did gain was that IPBES still has very few protocols in place for making data open to the community.

An argument can be made that protocols should be adopted to improve engagement or for the sake of repeatability. Institutions such as, PLOS, and the World Bank all provide slightly different models and rational to evaluate. No matter the reason chosen, IPBES and other organizations should get on board. If there is a third workshop in the series, it would be very valuable to look deeper at this subject. There is no better time than now to implement protocols for environmental reporting agencies to adopt open data strategies.

Changes in technology

There seems to be minimal changes in the visualization generated by IPBES today versus IPCC 25 years ago. This is a shame. Web technologies have changed the field with regards to what is possible using data visualization. Features such as interactivity, responsive visualizations, and live data filtering are just a few of many reasons why the web is often superior to static data visualization.

It seems that IPBES and other organizations would start looking for a “web first” strategy to reporting. While print seems to be a stalwart tool of policy reporting, in the words of another workshop attendee, “the internet seems to be catching on”. Web technologies would give the visualization experts at IPBES an entirely new toolbox to build and design visualizations for policy makers and the public.

The internet is full of successful migrations of policy focused data visualization moved to the web. Global Forest Watch and Climate Policy Interactive are two I am familiar with and would warrant a closer look.

Maps & Conclusion

I couldn’t write a blog post without mentioning maps. As I stated in my presentation, we have entered an era of Pop-maps, where anyone with a browser and an idea can make a map to explore or communicate an idea. Today, the Reddit community, Mapporn has a quarter million “armchair explorers”. Maps have gone nuts.

While the number of map enthusiasts is impressive, it is nothing compared to the greater general visualization community. The Reddit community Dataisbeautiful has over 2.5 million. Science Policy makers need to work fast to shift their thinking toward the web. If the goal is to engage and inform the world’s community, there is no better platform than the web.