Visual Camping – visualisation and opendata at LocalGovCamp (#localgovcamp #visualcamp #opendata)

The session I led at LocalGovCamp together, with fellow Barnet resident Paul Evans (who’d pitched for a session that was closely related), explored ways to make policy and data more visual and therefore more accessible. It built on ideas that I’ve been working on with Noel Hatch and others, including Louise Kidney and Ant Clay, who I was delighted to be able to join me in the session.

For me the starting point was a simple question…

If we are asking communities to get more involved in decision making and what happens in their area (à la Big Society), then how can we make public policy more accessible to enable people to get involved? Making things more visual – that is using images instead of, or as well as, words – is one method of achieving this.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ve seen from my own experience of working at Urban Forum, that more visual ways of communicating information are extremely powerful. Some time ago, we took a decision to move to a ‘mostly pictures’ approach to our presentations. The feedback from this has been universally positive. Building on that, we began to explore how we might encourage a more visual approach more widely – leading to a Policy in Pictures ‘competition’ that we held on the DotGovLabs Innovation Hub [as an aside…if you would like an invite to join the innovation hub, get in touch and I’ll gladly send you one]. There was a great deal of interest in this and a variety of interesting approaches that people used – ranging from my own rather limp effort to Ant Clay’s use of a business model canvas.

Noel’s idea of VisualCamp built on this, bringing together designers, policy makers and practitioners to explore how visuals could help public services and civil society better articulate the issues people face. You can see what happened next at the beautifully curated WeDoWhatWeSee website.

The session at LocalGovCamp covered a lot of ground (which was far more familiar to me than some other sessions) and interesting discussion. [nb quick disclaimer…this post is completely useless in accurately describing the discussion we had, it’s simply my ‘takeaway’ from it]. I found the discussion really helped me to crystallise my thinking on some important issues, as well as posing further questions to grapple with…

Data visualisation is very different to policy visualisation – using data presents all sorts of particular issues and challenges, relating to how you collect and manage data, design and communication skills, corporate culture and practice and purpose.

Policy visualisation – that is, presenting policy in a more visual and accessible way – is, I think, simpler to do. It’s about communicating potentially complex information in a friendlier and more inclusive way. It is helpful to bring good quality design skills to the process, but it’s not essential (at least my experience suggests this is the case – given the positive feedback I’ve had, despite being a design novice).

As important as the end product (ie the visualisation) is the deliberative process of exploring the issues and ideas, reflecting different perspectives and ultimately increasing understanding of the issue. This is consistent with the learning from Visualcamp – that bringing together designers, policy makers and practitioners (or ‘users’) and arming them simply with pieces of paper and pens, the process of developing a visualisation led to a rich and open discussion about the policy in question. The end point of that part of the process, was really more of an issues map than a policy visualisation and further work would be needed subsequently to identify appropriate technique to use to and develop the actual visualisation.

I threw in a question that I’ve been asking myself ; how do we get from where we are in terms of data/policy visualisation, to where we might aspire to be? It seems inconceivable that we can expect to change in one great leap – but rather expect change to come in a series of incremental steps. Helen Jeffrey suggested a rather nice idea of visual media surgeries – building on the social media surgery model.

I’ve been thinking about how things have changed over the last 15 years or so with how we use images in documents (like Word). When clip art was first released as part MS Word in the mid-1990s (I know that Apple were on the case some time before that!) I can still remember the excitement of suddenly being able to insert images into documents. Since then it has become ubiquitous – to the point that most IT literate people wouldn’t be seen dead using stock images to be found in the standard clip art libraries. Our aspirations and expectations for using images in this way have greatly increased as a result of the introduction of a fairly basic tool. I wonder whether something similar might be feasible for data visualisation.

There was widespread recognition that the skills required to develop policy and data visualisation are different to those needed for traditional policy development and performance reporting. However these skills are present in different bits of local government (and beyond) and that there is considerable scope to draw in the appropriate people if we see value in the approach and are sufficiently agile to do so. [For an excellent reflection on agile public sector working I highly recommend Catherine Howe’s recent post].

What it all boils down to, for me, is finding creative ways to equip citizens and voluntary and community groups with the information and support they require to have influence over what happens in their area.

If you’ve got this far, you might also be interested in the following:

The VisualCamp discussion continues at http://www.wedowhatwesee.org/?p=787

Paul Evans’ slides from the session – http://www.slideshare.net/pauliewaulie/notes-on-the-schools-data-visualisation-localgovcamp-session

Gavin Wray, from Podnosh posted this short video clip of me explaining the VisualCamp idea – thanks Gavin 🙂



And I’d also strongly recommend the subsequent blog he posted, arising (in part) from the visualization session – http://podnosh.com/blog/2011/06/21/stop-pretending-data-visualisation-is-easy-bring-distributed-skills-together/   

And (if that wasn’t enough!) Gavin’s also shared an extremely useful Google Spreadsheet with a great list of available visualization tools.

There is also a VisualCamp group on the Our Society website that you might like to join – http://oursociety.org.uk/group/visualcamp

 

Toby Blume
Chief Executive
Urban Forum 

Twitter:  http://twitter.com/tobyblume/ 

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