Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Map Bigger than the Territory

I was going to call this entry "Darfur for Dummies," but I thought better of it after actually having dinner with Dennis J. King of the U.S. State Department. King faced tough questions from the largely European audience at ISCRAM about the granularity of his data visualizations from the U.S. government's Humanitarian Information Unit that represent situations on the ground in Darfur, the Horn of Africa, and potentially other sites of large-scale crisis around the world. At the conference, King demonstrated how his program converts Microsoft Excel spreadsheets into visual images in order to make complicated humanitarian problems more comprehensible to policy makers and grassroots activists, while also preserving the user's ability to disseminate large data sets with the actual numbers still preserved in spreadsheet form.

As readers of this blog may know, there have been a number of attempts to make the crisis in Darfur more visible to mainstream America by using digital media, from the online game Darfur is Dying to the new Darfur initiative at Google Earth. As someone who studies digital discourse, I wondered if it was advisable to base a government-sanctioned interface on a proprietary, closed-source software package and how much King would be able to capitalize on existing social media practices when the thing being shared was a spreadsheet, a file rarely disseminated outside business settings that doesn't have much of a reputation for generating Internet sociality (unlike songs, videos, photos, or blog entries). And I tend to agree with King's European critics, that the current administration relies on overly simple representations of information, as I've argued here before.

That said, it turns out that the self-effacing King has played a part in a number of interesting examples of digital rhetoric playing out on the world stage. For example, King had a role in helping the United Nations create its official website in 1997, which is still preserved here in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Labels: , , , , ,


Blogger Dennis King said...

I must confess that I came across this post while i was "vanity surfing"...something I rarely do...honest.

But nice to see myself mentioned in the blogisphere. The tool I demontrated at the ISCRAM conference is slowly developing...I hope it addresses some of your concerns by providing the user with the data and meta-data for verification and linking to narrative analysis to provide context to the simplistic visualizations. It is still in its prototype phase...

On 22 - 26 October, I am attending the UN Global Symposium on Information for Humanitarian Action in Geneva and one of the things that will be discussed and examined is how new media - blogs, YouTube, Flikr, Second Life, etc have applications for the humanitarian community.


1:45 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home