Graphic display of complex information: A challenge for both the strategic advocacy and natural history projects

For his Vanderbilt Law School class on advocacy strategies, Roger Conner is having his students work on an event timeline describing the history of Tennessee’s state level health care reform effort, TennCare. It’s complicated. Following Kingdon, Roger segregates events into policy, political and problem streams. The problem stream has many numbers in various categories: how many people enrolled, annual costs, and the like. In the system Roger and I are developing to help advocates understand the situations they’re in, such a complicated story becomes the basis for further analysis using Elinor Ostrom, et al.’s IAD framework, which is complex in itself. For most people, it takes quite a bit of study of explanatory text to understand the basic IAD framework graphic:

Basic Components of the IAD Framework

Activists working in the real world need to apply these concepts and relationships, and more, quickly and effectively. That means it must appear clear and straightforward to them. Figuring out how to teach this system and to provide the tools to use it is a big task for us.

Turns out that common elements in both our strategic advocacy project and my work in the Wrangell-St. Elias natural history project are timelines like this, that tell a complex history with multiple, interacting event streams. And in each, there’s the need to zoom in on details of shorter intervals within a long timespan. Conveying this information is a central challenge for my work overall, and I think for teaching and writing in both areas. This shared attribute of the advocacy and natural history projects is one indication of their similarity, too. The goal is clarity of vision in complex circumstances. Achieving that has moral, aesthetic and political and personal consequences.

Tufte Beautiful Evidence

Yaakov Garb and I talk about the “Van Andel” factor of any piece of written work. Tjeerd H. van Andel’s New Views on an Old Planet has long set the standard for us in clarity of presentation, both text and simple graphics. More recently, I’m appreciating Edward Tufte‘s masterful teachings on using layout and graphics to convey complex data. Yesterday, I enjoyed his Beautiful Evidence, which models great visual design as well as describing it. National Geographic’s large-format graphic displays, which it folds into its magazine, are another outstanding model.

I think it’ll be worth considerable effort to apply these models to explaining our strategic advocacy framework and to presenting the geological-ecological evolution of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. For the Wrangells, I see working on getting the essence into a single large-format sheet, à la National Geographic. Perhaps the same could be the goal for the strategic advocacy framework. Whether or not the required combination of density and clarity of ideas is achievable in this form, its pursuit could help gain clarity of vision, which can also be pursued in other ways.

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