Tech@State Data Visualization Event

Kerri-Ann Jones
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Atrium and Foyers at the Kennedy Center
Washington, DC
September 23, 2011

Good morning and welcome to Tech@State.

Over the next two days you will explore the dynamic world of data visualization and how it is being used, and how it could be used to inform and communicate policy development and strengthen the interface between science and policy. There is no question that data visualization is a powerful tool.

We live in an exciting time for the dissemination of information and data. New technologies, ideas and lines of communication allow us to make knowledge more accessible and easier for professionals to digest and use in their work. At the same time, we need these new technologies to enable us to manage rapidly increasing volumes of data.

The State Department has traditionally relied upon written and spoken narratives, but we will benefit going forward from a richer tool kit to inform decision-making and to communicate for our positions.

The technologies available to us now mean that we can reach new audiences and build relationships between communities around the world. They also allow us to gather, analyze and use data in new and exciting ways. They allow us to communicate our information to wider audiences and solicit feedback from them.

My Bureau at State – the Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs – is charged with the lead on science innovation and diplomacy, international health, climate change, oceans, and environment. Part of our job is to use the best science available to inform our decision-making, to make that science accessible to decision-makers around the world, and to do our best to arrive at informed decisions.

From the perspective of a scientist, it is important to be able to present data and findings to public audiences and to our peers. Pictures and charts are, of course, a big help in this. Data visualization is something more.

Data visualization is being used effectively in so many arenas already. It is being used in disaster response and coordination – strengthening the ability of communities to respond. It is helping information become more transparent and accessible to society in general. It is allowing donors to see how their money is being used in projects ranging from disaster relief to climate change. Data visualization shows progress being made, bumps along the road and pledges being fulfilled.

Today there are more than 5 billion handsets on the planet, and with them, unprecedented access to information. This access has had a great effect, particularly in the developing world where it is transforming societies.

The explosion of technology has changed the way we at the State Department engage the world. Secretary Clinton has made it a priority to embrace these new tools in our 21st Century Statecraft. These tools are allowing us to better engage the world around us while allowing American citizens to interact and engage with their government like never before.

Here at the State Department and at USAID, we are employing data visualization to present information on agency activities: for example, the public can go to and can see exactly how much foreign aid money is being pledged for the next fiscal year. This information is presented online on a user-friendly, easily understood and engaging map. It’s a simple, yet effective idea that allows us to be more transparent and accessible to the U.S. taxpayers and the public. We are also using it to track trends in human rights violations and in our public diplomacy efforts. Data visualization is helping to provide clarity and focus in an age where the amount of information available can be overwhelming.

We are also continuing to make progress in the operational use of geospatial information science and technologies for both internal and external communication. This includes the use of digital maps, satellite images, geographic information systems, GPS data, and web-based mapping tools. Two examples of this are the well-established Humanitarian Information Unit in State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the newly established Geospatial / Geographic Information Systems Center at USAID. These centers conduct analysis of geo-referenced data and information, and produce maps and reports that improve the way we communicate internally between offices and bureaus, and externally in our work with international partners. the Famine Early Warning System, FEWSNET, integrates diverse sets of data, such as weather and climate data with economic and market trends, to predict the potential for famine, and thereby extend the time available to prepare and mitigate the impacts. USAID’s Geo-Management Information System Website is another excellent example of our work with international partners which allows users to review, query and generate reports and simple maps of USAID’s humanitarian and infrastructure-building activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These examples show how we can improve the internal efficiency of our work. They also point the way for future enhancements: geo-referencing databases of development assistance programs could soon improve the way we analyze and visualize our current programs, and assist in identifying gaps or redundancies for our future programs. This is not possible yet….but it soon could be.

My Bureau has also begun to use data visualization tools in public outreach. At the two most recent climate ministerials in Copenhagen and Cancun, the U.S. Centers showcased NOAA’s “Science on a Sphere” -- a room sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a six foot diameter sphere – a giant animated globe. It displays animated images, for example, of atmospheric storms, climate change, and ocean temperature in order to help explain complex environmental processes, and to demonstrate the science that underpins our policy objectives.

As we prepare for the upcoming Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development next June in Brazil, we are looking to highlight some of the low-cost, easy-to-implement data visualization and mapping tools to, for example, support sustainable development to mitigate and adapt to the effects of natural disasters.

While these new tools and trends are extremely useful in what we do, there is work to be done to ensure that we can realize the benefits, and at the same time, protect access, data integrity, intellectual property and privacy. We must continue to work, through the Group on Earth Observations and others, to ensure that the standards by which we exchange and share data are the right ones. By this I mean that the data we rely on for weather forecasting, for example, is shared freely, openly and in real time, but without compromising national interests. Different standards would be required for proprietary data, but with the same aspirations to share and ensure the best science and informed decision-making. Further, we must encourage collaboration and connectivity to ensure that data visualized are accurate, digestible and accessible to our audiences.

At the same time, we must find ways to organize the vast amount of data collected, analyze it and share it to help us in our work. This will allow us new perspectives through which to view the challenges we face as we advance our objectives in development, disaster relief, and policy development.

Enjoy the next two days. You are here because you are passionate about what you do. These Tech@State events showcase how we continue to lean forward to meet the challenges that will face us in the future. I look forward to seeing the work that this collaboration produces, and to helping you implement your ideas.

Thank you.