Policy visualisation network – February 2014 Meeting

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

How is government a social machine? What’s involved in the National Flood Risk Information Project? How do we communicate Australia’s brand overseas?

These were some of the questions addressed in four presentations at the first 2014 Policy Visualisation Network meeting, held at the offices of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (in Canberra and by video-conference to the other capital cities).

My attempt at a quick recap of each of the four speakers follows, with links to their presentations[1. Please note that the presentations here are graciously provided by the speakers and ownership remains with the speaker. Copies of the presentation are provided in the format they were provided – if you require an alternate version please contact the public sector innovation team.].

‘Government as a Social Machine’ – Anni Rowland-Campbell from Web Science Australia

Anni began by talking about how the Internet is the largest information construct in human history, with a central feature of the immediacy by which information is created, published and shared. This has led to a new web science that looks at the theory and practice of ‘social machines’ – “an emerging discipline which aims to understand the deeper structure of the social Web and how people are using it, not only now, but in the future.”

It is a cross-disciplinary field that has been growing, with now 15 web science centres around the world.

Social machines are the combination of large computing power and machines on the administrative side with large numbers of people involved on the creative side. The characteristics of social machines include:

    1. “problems are beginning to be solved by very large scale human participation via the Web;
    2. there is access to, or the ability to generate, large amounts of relevant data using open data standards;
    3. there is increasing confidence in the quality of the data; and
    4. human-computer interfaces are becoming far more intuitive and seamless.”

There is an evolving ecosystem including early social machines such as Facebook, LinkedIn and FixMyStreet.

In this environment, government is moving from a role of ‘rowing’ the boat, to one of ‘steering’ it.

Anni outlined a number of social machines directly relevant to government, including the Christchurch Recovery MapFixMyStreet, and crime mapping in the City of London – all of which have a strong visual element to them.

Other examples were of community businesses such as the ‘Casserole Club’ (which links neighbours who have made home cooked meals with other neighbours).

Government itself is a social machine – but in a changing ecosystem of other social machines, what does that mean for how government interacts with citizens?

Anni noted the rise of the ‘Internet of everything’ where increasingly everything will provide data. The Web Observatory has been established by the Web Science Trust to catalogue data sets from around the world, to identify and gather new data sets, and to identify tools to analyse and visualise data sets.

It was a very interesting presentation and there was a lot of material covered. It raised questions about what the rise of the social machine might mean for governments and government agencies. It wasn’t about visualisation per se, but it strongly pointed to the need for visualisation. With increasing amounts of data, increasing cross-disciplinary work, and new global ‘social machines’, it is likely that visualisation is going to be a vital tool in helping understand, advise and communicate this new state of affairs.

The presentation slides are provided for reference (PowerPoint 11MB) in addition to a copy of the paper ‘Web Science and the Rise of the Social Machine’ (PDF 2MB).

‘Historical Flood Mapping from Satellite Imagery” Norman Mueller from GeoScience Australia Near Earth Observation Group

In the second presentation, Norman told us about the National Flood Risk Information Project. After the Natural Disaster Insurance Review of 2011, Geoscience Australia was tasked with providing a portal including flood studies and satellite information about where water has been. The Project analyses the whole continent for the past 25 years to understand water patterns.

The data has been provided by 3 satellites, which only pass over the same spot every 16 days (and can only provide data if there was not cloud cover when they were passing). The satellites provide 25m by 25m a pixel and their regional coverage is a 185km wide path.

Norman showed how this data could be analysed to give an instant understanding of where water has gone, where permanent water features are, and how well flood protection has worked. The analysis can give an idea of where there will be floods and thereby help with flood planning and mitigation. It can also help with managing water resources and environmental management and planning.

Norman noted that different applications across different industries keep popping up and that the team is working with statisticians to develop learning algorithms to further help analysis.

The presentation provided a powerful demonstration of how huge data sets matched with simple visualisations can communicate so much, so quickly.

The presentation slides are provided for reference (PowerPoint 7.9MB).

‘Building Australia’s overseas reputation’ Renee Williams & Lisa Carter from the Australian Trade Commission

Renee and Lisa gave the audience an overview of the ‘Australia Unlimited’ brand which has been developed to provide a consistent image and perception about Australia across the target audiences of expatriates, global influencers and relevant domestic agents.

Renee shared with us a couple of videos about the brand and some of the campaign elements, which, being for a cross-country and cross-cultural audience, had strong visual elements. The videos were:

Lisa then shared with us some of the messages that have been developed around attracting investment into Australia. Again, many of these messages had strong visual elements to help focus on the key aspects.

The presentation materials can be found here and here.

‘Bureau of Meteorology data and visualisation’ Marissa Byrnes from the Bureau of Meteorology, Water Data Modelling Unit

Marissa spoke about the linked data project being undertaken by the Bureau of Meteorology which allows users to ‘slice and dice’ 100 years of climate data according to their interest. Some of the features include the Water Data Transfer Visualisation Tool which lets you compare water storage levels and volume for 300 locations.

Like Norman’s presentation, this was a great demonstration of the power of visualisation when matched with data. It was also very visual! So take a look at the tools or the presentation (slides are provided for reference – PowerPoint 3.3MB).

The Policy Visualisation Network

The network is open to employees of the Commonwealth, State and Territory government agencies as well as the tertiary education sector and is likely to be of interest to people from an infographic, data science, and public policy backgrounds.

If you would like to be added to the Policy Visualisation Network mailing list for events, you can sign up through MailChimp.