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?

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