Policy Visualisation Network – December 2014 Workshop

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

The sixth meeting of the Policy Visualisation Network was held on 2 December 2014 with participants in locations across the country.

Like everywhere else, the policy making process is increasingly a visual place. Text is no longer as dominant as it once was.

As Trevor Sutton, Deputy Statistician from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, said when opening the event, visualisation is just one of many tools but it is a powerful one. Visualisation can bring data to life. Visualisation can help get the attention of decision makers, and give them a better feel for the underlying story that the data is trying to tell.

We had two great speakers share their insights about applying visualisation in their work, and then participants were given the opportunity to apply some visualisation techniques to some hypothetical policy cases.

Using visualisation to develop policy and provide advice to Ministers

Nick Morgan from the Project Office of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet began his presentation (PDF 376KB) by noting that the typical visualisation used in the public service is simply a briefing document – a standard word document template. But this is not the limit to how we can bring visualisation in to our practices.

For a number of years the Project Office has been using PowerPoint slide decks to help provide advice. Nick noted that the landscape view, when combined with a single idea per page and supporting graphs and conceptual diagrams that illustrate that idea, can be a great way for telling a clear story.

Using the example of a previous slide deck (“The importance of water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin” 
PDF 1.2MB), Nick outlined some of the factors and considerations that can make this a successful approach:

  • While a 10 page word document can be suitable for some instances, a 46 page slide that can easily be flipped through will be more suitable in other cases. This is particularly so if you are verbally briefing someone about the issue at hand
  • A good deck will start with what the issue is in a nutshell
  • Divider pages should be used to break up chapters/sections
  • Landscape is good for visual timelines showing where the issue has come from and where it is (or might be) heading
  • Putting icons in the corner of pages can help quickly associate pages with particular issues (e.g. a dollar sign to associate with costs)
  • The use of low fidelity (‘dodgy’) diagrams can be useful in conveying complex issues – even though they may not be entirely faithful to the data, such diagrams can often communicate the underlying points or conceptual issues better than a written description.

Underlying all of this, Nick emphasised that the narrative is what tells you what your visualisation should be and how it should flow.

Nick ran through some other visualisation tools that are commonly used in the Project Office. These included:

  • Issue trees – where you start with a focusing question, then think what questions need to be asked in order to answer that question. Each of the questions should be mutually exclusive (e.g. do not overlap) but collectively exhaustive (e.g. if you ask all of these questions, you will get the answer)
  • Mind maps – Nick noted that these are very basic, but the approach can help you think differently
  • Gantt charts – these are very useful for getting a project overview on a single page
  • 2 by 2 matrix – a simple matrix of two factors (such as importance and urgency) can help you group issues and lead to new insights
  • Storyboards – these can help get the whole story of an issue on one page (or whiteboard) and are very helpful in getting across an issue.

Nick noted that while these tools are not as visual as some, they are useful tools for the policy end of the spectrum (and they are a lot more visual than your standard word document).

Nick also mentioned an online resource with free templates that can assist in the preparation of slide docs and decks.

Information design – using design thinking to get your message across

Damian Tobin from the Department of Human Services spoke in his presentation (PDF 786KB) about how design thinking can be used to assist visualisation, and to simply our communication and our messages. Damian noted that the key principle for information design should be “is it clear?”

Damian ran through some of the considerations for good information design:

  • Information design and visualisation is not a science, it is an emerging practice (and really good graphic designers are artists)
  • Information should have a clear purpose, and the presentation of that information should stick to that purpose
  • Increasingly leadership within the public service is looking, and asking, for simplification, and information that is easier to access. We need to consider how we get people across the right information as quickly as possible
  • The design should start with the data (though recognise that there are many forms of data). The data will lead to information, and in turn, to insight
  • If information design does not lead to insight, then it will have failed to answer the question of ‘so what?’ The role of good design is to bring the recipient insight more quickly than either data or information would have
  • Good information design must consider the user – sometimes information design will be complex and really rich in data. That’s okay – if that suits the context and the audience and their need. Other times it should be simple, and other times it will be something in between
  • There is a tendency to get hold of new tools and to find a cool new function – but we should restrain ourselves and leave them out if they do not help convey the message
  • Graphic facilitation/capture can be a great way to engage a group while still producing meaningful insight and record of events and discussions. Sometimes graphic capture can even replace the traditional meeting minutes.

Damian also noted that simplicity in information design only comes from being informed by the data. You need the detail before you can provide the summary of the detail.

That’s a wrap

I found the two speakers really interesting, with some great practical insights into how to apply some of these approaches in our day to day work.

The speakers were followed by a workshop where participants got to apply some of these visualisation approaches to some hypothetical policy issues, and which were then shared back with the wider group.

Thanks to our speakers, to the ABS for hosting the event and for providing many of the event facilitators, and to all those who came to make the workshop a success.

If you would like to be added to the mailing list for the Policy Visualisation Network, you can register from here.

(Please note if you require the presentation documents in an alternate format, please .)