Innovation Month 2014 – Policy Visualisation Network event

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

Communicating new ideas and new information can be tricky. Putting data, information and ideas into a visual form can be a powerful way of cutting through noise, of making the pertinent points clear and helping your audience see what is significant.

The Policy Visualisation Network aims to help connect public servants with each other to help achieve greater sophistication in visualising so as to help aid the policy process.

As part of Innovation Month 2014 the Policy Visualisation Network held its fifth event on 10 July, featuring four speakers. Thanks again to our hosts at the Australian Bureau of Statistics for holding and leading the organisation of the event.

Toby Bellwood, Parliamentary Library – ‘Quality, engaging and insightful advice, a Parliamentary perspective’

Toby shared his experience of working with the Parliamentary Library. The Library provides services to Senators, Members, their staff and the staff of Parliamentary Committees. Their research and analysis services areas cover very wide areas, and increasingly include a mapping component to visualise data.

Toby pointed to the growing sophistication of their client base in terms of what sorts of products and data they want and need. This is contributing to a move to greater standardisation of how some information is managed in the Library, as well as the creation of diverse products and use of web-based solutions that can provide answers in multiple forms.

Toby noted that the tools used by the Library are a mix, as no one tool can do everything that is needed.

Toby encouraged audience members to consider the parliamentary audience and their needs when publishing statistics and releasing data, as they are keen consumers.

You can find Toby’s presentation online.

Tim Neal, Department of Communications ‘Policy Visualisation in the Open Data Network’

Tim outlined the collaboration that the Department of Communications has done with Geoscience Australia, NICTA and to produce the National Map. Tim outlined that it was not an attempt to replicate existing maps or map services, but to give a better way of accessing and engaging with government data.

Tim identified a number of ways that geographical analysis might be able to assist with policy development and engagement (e.g. MyBroadband or for instance planning and engagement around upcoming infrastructure projects).

Tim emphasised the power of compiling government data in a form that people can easily access, and that helps them understand the bigger policy aspects through the lens of their local experience.

Pia Waugh, Department of Finance

Pia discussed how visualisation can be used to assist with service design, to identify where resources are needed appropriately, and to assist with understanding trends and relationships.

For instance some of the visualisation tools, particularly around geospatial data, can be used to help understand the current state of services, the demand for those services, and how the demand changes over time. Visualisation can be used as a research tool, and a means to test out theories about causality and relationships.

For informing where resources should be targeted, visualisation can help in identifying where a number of processes may ‘clump’ together and have milestones or resource demands that peak at similar times, and have consequences for work flow management.

Pia advised that when visualising, it is important to consider:

    • What are you trying to do and measure
    • What existing resources/information assets are there that you can leverage
    • Whether you really need to collect new data/information.

Merry Branson, Australian Bureau of Statistics

In her capacity as lead for the Policy Visualisation Network, Merry briefly covered the aims of the Network, and its desire to bring different people, with different skills together, from across the public service.

Merry noted that it seems obvious to make policy based on evidence, but that putting that into practice is another matter altogether. Visualisation is about trying to tap into the power of visual perception – if a picture is worth a thousand words, then clear and effective policy visualisation is worth more than a stack of written briefings. It is about trying to communication complex ideas with clarity, precision and efficiency – but it is not a simple thing to do.

There is a need to balance form and function with visualisations – to ensure that the visualisation assists in interpreting and analysing issues, rather than distracting. There is also a need to take care that the information presented does not inadvertently mislead. Some visualisations can provide true information, but convey misleading interpretations.

Merry advised that in most cases it is probably not a good idea to collect new information, but rather to try and tease the story out of existing information/data assets.

Finally Merry noted that effective visualisation does take time. Instead of looking for efficiency in the design of visualisations, we should look for efficiency in the production of them by taking advantage of emerging technical trends and platforms.

Next event

The next Policy Visualisation Network event will be held later in the year and be a workshop-style event. If you would like to be kept informed about the Network and its events, please subscribe to the mailing list.

(Apologies for the brevity of the post. We are trying to post about many of the Innovation Month events but it can be hard to attend and write about all of them, as well as organise others! We welcome written contributions about Innovation Month events from other attendees or organisers – please get in contact if you would like to do so.)