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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A R C H 2 0 1 2
off the flow of information altogether.
We can head off such problems by
filtering and managing the flow of in-
formation to make it meaningful, so
we can apply it to making sounder de-
cisions and achieving better outcomes.
In particular, graphic and video images
can make ideas more engaging and
persuasive than text or data alone.
Open Data:
From Graphs to Platforms
Consider the figure French engi-
neer Charles Joseph Minard drew for
his study of Napoleon’s 1812-1813
campaign in Russia (see below). Visu-
alization pioneer Edward Tufte has
called this diagram, which shows the
original size of Napoleon’s army in
beige and its size during the retreat
from Moscow in black, perhaps the
most effective visual diagram ever
constructed. Combining geography,
force size and temperature (on the
separate scale below the map), it ex-
plains in a single picture the disaster
that was the French campaign to in-
vade Russia.
News publications have been using
catchy info graphics for just that pur-
pose for years now. Their widespread
availability helps us see meaning we
might otherwise miss in data on sports,
business, crime and other topics.
While seeing data represented as
images can be helpful, such images —
like prose — often incorporate the in-
terests or biases of those creating
them. Potentially more powerful is
the ability to interact with and manip-
ulate visual representations of data.
Such tools could empower decision-
makers to pull together data reflecting
diverse phenomena and to see com-
plex relationships between and among
geography, finance, politics and other
factors. Platforms could also bring to-
gether multiple applications or sources
into a single interface or “mash-up.”
Platforms that support data inter-
action encourage users to explore and
use the data to extract their own
meaning or conclusions.
The OECD Better Life Initiative is
just such a platform at a multilateral
level, with information about countries
that are members of the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and De-
velopment (see p. 13). This initiative
contributes to numerous U.S. foreign
policy goals, from promoting more
Figure depicting the size of the French Army before and after Napoleon’s Moscow campaign, 1812-1813.
Platforms that support
data interaction
encourage users
to explore and use the
data to extract their own
meaning or conclusions.