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M A R C H 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
n the latest installment of the
State Department’s Tech@State
conference series, nearly 300 peo-
ple from a range of technology and
foreign affairs fields converged at the
Kennedy Center on Sept. 22 and 23,
2011, for a discussion of how informa-
tion relevant to foreign affairs may
best be portrayed visually. Organized
by the State Department’s Office of
eDiplomacy, the event brought to-
gether visualization technologists, so-
cial scientists, representatives of
nongovernmental organizations and
foreign affairs professionals.
Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary
of State for oceans and international
environmental and scientific affairs,
who holds a Ph.D. in molecular bio-
physics and biochemistry, opened the
conference by telling the audience
“From the perspective of a scien-
tist, it is important to be able to pres-
ent data and findings to public
audiences and to our peers. Pictures
and charts are, of course, a big help in
this. Data visualization is something
more [that] is being used effectively in
so many arenas already.
“It is being used in disaster re-
sponse and coordination, strengthen-
ing the ability of communities to
respond. It is helping information be-
come more transparent and accessible
to society in general. It is allowing
donors to see how their money is
being used in projects ranging from
disaster relief to climate change. Data
visualization shows progress being
made, bumps along the road and
pledges being fulfilled.”
To meet the challenge of using data
visualization to achieve greater effec-
tiveness in diplomatic work, here are
two important questions for the State
Department to consider: How do we
evolve beyond text-only formats, to be
able to see the world in increasingly
rich and vivid detail? And how can
policymakers process enormous quan-
tities of data in meaningful ways to
better inform policy decisions?
Data Visualization and
Foreign Affairs
To use smart power to advance
U.S. foreign policy interests in a com-
plex world, the State Department
needs to harness technology to pro-
vide greater clarity, detail and focus on
a myriad of difficult questions. In
other words, State must literally see
the world differently.
For this to happen, foreign affairs
professionals must become comfort-
able with new technologies and
methodologies in an information envi-
ronment characterized by a rapidly in-
creasing pace, volume and complexity.
Faced with a deluge of information,
we must not insulate ourselves from
the world, but use technology more
effectively to cope with complexity,
see subjects in new ways, and find bet-
ter solutions to hard problems.
The State Department needs to
jump, and not timidly, from a reliance
on text and documents to an embrace
of a much richer media and informa-
tion world.
It is helpful to realize that the field
of knowledge management is built on
the idea that information is distilled
from raw data, and from information
comes knowledge. That knowledge
then leads to understanding and is the
key element of decision-making.
Historically, information was often
scarce or inadequate, and the primary
challenge was gathering it. Perhaps as
a result, we assume that the greater
the quantity of accurate information,
the better for decision-makers.
But too much information, coming
too fast, can overwhelm cognition and
lead to indecision. As a result, we may
not focus on what matters most, may
skip analysis, or be tempted to choke
How Data Visualization Can Change Diplomacy
To use smart
power to advance
U.S. foreign policy
interests in a
complex world, State
must literally see the
world differently.