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The State Department's Brand-New Opinion-Driven Global Data Visualization Thingy

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 11 2010

Credit: State.gov

This morning, the U.S. State Department rolled a new project that they developed in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for New Media. They're calling it Opinion Space, and I'll admit that I don't yet understand the "why" bit of it (or even the "how" necessarily), but there's no reason for you not to play with it in the meantime.

The gist is that that Opinion Space is a data visualization tool that collects opinions from people, and then bunches them together into hotspots. There's a good chance that you'll find that you're a lot like people living in other places around the globe. At this point, Opinion Space looks very much proof-of-concept. But what's striking is that it seems a lot more like something that you expect coming out of the MIT Media Lab than the United States State Department. It's a redefinition -- or, really, one more tweak in a continuing redefinition -- of the mission and means of U.S. development and diplomacy, and it's been happening under the purview of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a pretty quick pace.

Back to this particular tool thingy. According the FAQs, the goal of Opinion Space's interface and architecture is to combat three things that are bad about modern "participatory culture." The first is that the data produced in online discussions can be unmanageably large. The second is that people tend to cluster with like-minded folks (see, blogospheres), which leads to "cyberpolarization." The third is that moderate opinions tend to be drowned out by more extreme ones. The hope is that by going the visual, statistical route here, the effect will be to "'depolarize' discussions by including all participants on a level playing field." Plus, people like to look at maps, especially ones with glowy dots.

[MORE] Some initial notes upon playing with Opinion Space: In this iteration, there are two means by which to input opinions. The first is by rating five statements on a sliding scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree; the topics: nuclear weapons, proactive diplomacy, climate change, investment in food, and empowering women.

Neat enough. But it's the second that's particularly interesting. That option is an open "Ideas for Secretary of State Clinton" text field. You can see how that way of getting information in the interface could lead to an interesting clustering of opinions about the role and perception of U.S. diplomacy and development in the world.

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