State and USAID embrace data visualization to promote missions

By graphically portraying a range of data sets, officials hope to tell compelling stories about global crises.

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are expanding data visualization projects in an effort to promote greater understanding of -- and foster solutions for -- global challenges ranging from hunger to anti-Semitism. Several officials discussed the effort during Tech@State, the department's event series on the use of technology.

In one example, officials want to make the data that's available at, part of President Obama's Open Government Initiative that provides an overview of U.S. foreign assistance funds, more valuable to users by allowing them to generate their own charts based on the information they need.

The site now struggles with bringing together into a single system data from 24 agencies that provide foreign aid, said Jessica Klein, special assistant to the chief operating officer in State's Office of the Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance.

Classifying every agency's needs and determining its ability to provide data is an ongoing process, she said. During the next few months State plans to introduce the information of additional agencies onto the site's dashboard. The entire process of getting detailed information from the Defense, Labor and Transportation departments, among others, will take much longer, however.

Once interagency cooperation is achieved, adding subnational data will be possible, Klein said. State currently is working with the Army's Geospatial Center to make that data available on the site's dashboard.

Another website,, also relatively new and part of the Open Government Initiative, already has the comprehensive detail that lacks. Its priority now is portraying the data in a way that creates a more meaningful and compelling picture than numbers alone can do, said Scott Jones, managing editor of the site.

Several projects have recently been launched, including a map of sexual orientation and gender identity issues in South and Central Asia and another map charting specific incidents of anti-Semitism in Europe by country. Since the site is part of the Open Government Initiative, all data is in the public domain and made embeddable for easier sharing.

These projects inject an element of story and narrative that Jones sees as essential to the future of State's work.

"Some of the senior editors wouldn't see it as a story," Jones said. "There's definitely a tension between what the Human Rights report has been and where it's going -- something that Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor is going to have to reconcile."

He currently is working to improve the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights practices, from which the site draws much of its data.

Jones believes they are two years from writing the human rights reports in a meaningful and different way. "The future of is mapping the reports to make them more open, democratic and accessible," he said.

Officials also expect USAID's GeoCenter, currently in the early stages of development, to incorporate more narrative into the raw data they collect.

"We can't just put that data up there -- we have to create a story," said Maurice Kent, a policy analyst at USAID's Office of Science and Technology. "It's not just good for the public, it's good for business."

Kent says right now his office's focus is on visualizing missions where the data creates a narrative.

Meanwhile, State's humanitarian information unit is set to launch several initiatives this week, including a Horn of Africa famine data viewer, with the entire database behind it available for user download and the latest large-scale international boundaries.