Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tufte, Faces, and Afghanistan Casualties

If everything goes as expected, in the next week or so the New York Times will publish the latest update in its annual map/graph/chart of casulties in Iraq and Afghanistan - an "Op-Chart" entitled "A Year in Iraq and Afghanistan".

See discussion on the Information Aesthetics website.

The New York Times "Op-Chart" has been described by various commentators -- and it certainly is eye-popping. For anyone even vaguely interested in what the United States is doing in places like Afghanistan, the "Op-Chart" invites your eye to dart back and forth between different Afghan regions, icons of human figures (representing casualties), and a key that details the subtle variations in shape and color of those icons to represent different populations (e.g. U.S. vs. coalition troops) and causes (e.g. bomb vs. hostile fire).

The tremendous contribution of the "Op-Chart" is the way it reminds us that there are actual people -- many, many people -- behind the statistics in the news we read each day about Afghanistan, and that the events are happening in a real, physical place that you can relate to via a map, and that the events that are occurring on our authority are cumulative -- they add up to a large number of people.

Beyond that, however, there is a problem with the "Op-Chart": it doesn't actually do a very good job helping us detect the patterns in the assembled information. Perhaps that is because there is no pattern to discern -- the violence in Afghanistan is essentially random with respect to location, development over time, identity of troops, and type of event. Before I am convinced of that fact, however, I would like to see the design of the "Op-Chart" better reflect the possibility that there are, in fact patterns to detect. A good place to start would be the precepts of Edward Tufte about the "visual display of quantitative information" - it seems to me that there is a tremendous opportunity here to mash up time series, map, and categorization ... but that the icons currently employed are un-parsable and verge on the dreaded "chartjunk".

More at Cabrera Research

Certainly we need ways to make the human connection to what's happening in Afghanistan. Compare the "Op-Chart" with the high-tech "Casualty Map" provided by CNN: the CNN tool can tell you just about anything you want to know, but do you lose your connection to the fact that these are people we're talking about? Showing a human figure takes us part of the way there. One wonders what could be accomplished by going the next step and using the power of the human face. (Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg.)

A second critique of the "Op-Chart" is ... at this stage in the game, is it really addressing the right question? Do we really stand to learn anything from another summary of the year just passed, particularly one that is narrowly from the standpoint of U.S. and coalition troops? Isn't the real question that we want to ask: do we have any reason to believe that the way in which the U.S. is engaged in Afghanistan is progressing toward less violence? An obvious place to start is to ask about the situation with civilian casualties: is it getting better? or worse? Are we part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Related posts

MAPPING DATA: After a call to resist U.S. war moves against Iran went out in early 2012, the list of February 4 rallies to say "No Iran War!" grew FAST.

(See No Iran War Rallies EVERYWHERE! )

DATA-BASED DISCOURSE: A new U.N. report makes it clear that the U.S. has to report fully on all its drone attacks.

Until the U.S. "comes clean" with all the facts, we're groping in the dark.

(See 2014: The Year of Transparency (for U.S. Drone Use)?)

INFORMATION DEMOCRACY: Rep. Thomas Massie (R, KY) gives a convincing explanation of why Congress always ends up supporting the President's wars. It's a four step process that starts with pressure, and continues with arm-twisting, gets topped off with a dash of "secret briefings" . . . and then . . .

(See Zombie Alert! (How Government Secrecy Seduces Congress to Support War) )

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Arts & Media 2010 Responses to #Guantanamo

Diverse artists and media kept the question of Guantanamo alive during 2010. Here's my list of "Arts and Media 2010 Responses to #Guantanamo" favorites -- tweeted during December, 2010.

Nadir Omowale sings "Guantanamo"

#20 Nadir Omowale's song "Guantanamo" - "Stand up and do the right thing!" - I've been mesmerized by this song since the first time I saw it a year ago!

#19 Illinois says NIMBY! - If you live in Chicago -- like me -- or elsewhere in Illinois, you would have been flabbergasted to see the way people panicked when the facility at Thomson was nominated to house detainees after the closure of Guantanamo.

#18 "What We So Quietly Saw" - Greg Cook's powerful comics treatment of the issue.

#17 "The Guantanamo Lawyers" - Jonathan Hafetz and Mark Denbeaux's careful documentation of how the U.S. constitutional bar has stepped up to the plate is truly inspiring.

#16 Petition to #FreeFayiz - @tosfm and a cast of thousands tweet to get Kuwait to accept the return of Guantanamo detainee Fayiz al-Kandari. (Did u sign?)

#15 Daily Updates from Detainee063 - Daily Twitter updates from the interrogation log of Mohammed Al-Qahtani.

#14 London Guantanamo Justice Center - What happens when detention in Guantanamo is over? Is it ever over for ex-detainees?

#13 "Gone Gitmo" in Second Life - If virtual reality can be used to wage war ... maybe it can also be used to wage peace?

#12 Educators' package for "The Response" from Street Law - What would happen if kids all over the country studied Guantanamo in their civics classes?

#11 Close Guantanamo Bay group on Facebook - 22,899 People can't be wrong!

#10 "The Response" goes to Washington - screened for Members and the public in a House committee room at the invitation of Rep. Jan Schakowski and Rep. John Conyers . . . .

#9 Chicago attorney H. Candace Gorman - on dealing with the government defending Guantanamo detainees: "Yes, I Am Pissed Off"!

#8 Dahlia Lithwick - made sure the mainstream media couldn't squirm away from Guantanamo!

#7 Amnesty International + Cage Prisoners - AI sticks to its guns in the face of heat over a tough stance on Guantanamo.

#6 Amnesty International + "The Response" - screenings in hundreds of homes throughout the country in June, 2010 as part of AI's "Counter Terror With Justice" campaign.

#5 One day a year, the whole country talks about Guantanamo - (Comedy Central's Xmas Eve broadcast of Harold and Kumar)

#4 Carol Rosenberg - Day in day out getting the story, getting it out there!

#3 Witness Against Torture - Demonstrations at the White House in January 2010 -- and again in 2011 (1.11.11)!

Stay tuned for updates!

Related posts

January 11, 2012, marks the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility ("Gitmo"). People from across the country will converge on Washington, D.C., to protest U.S. detention policies and its abandonment of due process. Actions will take place locally in Chicago and many, many other cities. Between now and then, we'll be getting the message out on Twitter.

(See #gitmoFAIL! )

My most prominent memory of my first viewing of the Guantanamo film, The Response, is of one of the stars of the film -- Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek fame -- participating in a panel after the screening. I was blown away when she said, "I did this because our civil liberties in our country have been gravely damaged and we all need to contribute to repairing them."

(See Understanding What Guantanamo Means)

For the next three months, people will be talking about the film 12 Years a Slave and its Oscar prospects. And well they should. The film is about the experiences of the free man, Solomon Northrup, who was seized and enslaved for twelve years, and it may be the best thing ever to come along for enabling us to confront the true meaning of our history of oppression and racism in America. But it's not just about history. 

(See 12 Years a Detainee)

Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )