Thursday, January 22, 2009

Visual Short Form Analytic Reports And Resources For Producing Them (Teaching Intelligence/Link List)

One of the exercises we routinely assign in our Intelligence Communications and Intelligence Writing And Presentation classes is a "visual" short form analytic report. The task here is to translate a primarily text-based report (in this case the classic "one-pager" or SFAR as it is known around here) into another primarily non-text-based medium (video, audio, interpretative dance...).

The fundamental intent of the exercise is to engage students' creativity and to get them to think about other -- primarily visual -- ways to produce an intelligence report. Decisionmakers have always wanted their intelligence packaged in ways that were most accessible to them (consider Kennedy's PICL or Reagan's videos of foreign leaders). In the future, however, they are going to expect it.
  • For more on this, see Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. For examples of how good design makes a real difference, check out some of the projects at the Art Center of LA.
It is our belief that analysts need to think about how to do this in a way that maintains the standards of a good, text-based intelligence product. It is fairly easy to abandon traditonal notions of objectivity and transparency, for example, in favor of a intelligence product that "sells" itself well when using some of these tools and techniques.

Why should analysts have to think about this? Don't most intel agencies have personnel tasked to do this kind of stuff? Maybe, but how many analysts today are required to make their own PowerPoint slides? Back when PowerPoint was new, a specialist made the slides and we analysts fed them the information. Today, everyone makes slides -- and many of them are awful. Grappling with these issues seems appropriate for students trying to better understand how to communicate the results of their analysis to the decisionmakers they support.

To get the students started, I point them towards a number of resources. The first are some general sites about visual thinking or visualizing data such as:

The History Of Visual Communication
Thinking Visually (slideshow of concepts)
The Periodic Table Of Visualizations
Visual Complexity (Examples of how to display data visually)
Information Aesthetics (the last three links are to excellent blogs that focus on visualization)
Eager Eyes
Flowing Data

I also point them towards a number of readily available but under-used tools (such as Windows Movie Maker which comes with every Microsoft Windows machine) as well as some of the more interesting and useful online tools I have run across or which have been used by other students:

Programmable Web (massive list of available tools)
Animoto (automated, sophisiticated slide show production)
Comiqs (See an example here)
Just Leap In (customizable, web-based virtual world)
Community Walk (Customizable mapping software based on Google Earth)
Dipity (amazing timeline generation product)
MapWing (Simple tool for virtual tours)
Issuu (Sleek online document viewer)

These are obviously just a few of the tools and sites available for this kind of project (Don't believe me? Just check out MakeUseOf's List of Tools...). Do not hesitate to add your favorites to the comments!


Anonymous said...

Hi Kristan,
Here are three more tools, critical, I believe to helping produce the PowerPoints:

1) IBM's ManyEyes
This is an online tool for visualizing data. It can be used for creating TextClouds, TreeMaps, Bubble Charts, Country and World Maps, etc.

2) MindMeister
This is much like Visio on the web. The free version works very well, and you can invite others to contribute as well, as members of a team.

3) ScreenPrint32 for Windows
This is an excellent, free, screenprint application. After you have made your visualizations, you'll want to copy just the parts you care about. ScreenPrint32 is an great tool for the job.

Krishna Mungur
Open Source Intelligence Analyst

Anonymous said...

Prof. Wheaton-

Great post--right up my alley! I recommend Daniel Pink's book to everyone with even the slightest hint of a design interest - and even those who are reluctant to accept the importance of design!

As an addition to your reference to Windows MovieMaker...don't forget about us Mac users. iMovie is also a great, easy-to-use application!