Visualizing Arctic policy actors

Over a decade ago John Allen Paulos, Professor of Mathematics at Temple University and author of multiple books on the intersection of numbers and narratives, published an intriguing article in the New York Times wherein he observed, “In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”

Stories and data are both important of course, and while it may not be surprising that we treat them in different ways it is critical for policy advocates to know that as humans we have evolved to have a preference for stories over data. This was illustrated in a 2007 experiment that showed that a story alone beat both data and a combination of story and data in soliciting donations for a worthy cause.

Another quote from Chip Heath, author of Made to Stick, drives the point home: “In the average one-minute speech, the typical student use 2.5 statistics. Only one student in ten tells a story… When students are asked to recall the speeches, 63% remember the stories. Only 5% remember any individual statistic.” This dynamic is why data storytelling – combining narrative, data, and visualization – has been gaining increasing if lagging prominence as big data gets ever bigger.

The interconnectedness of these narratives, data, and visualisation and their application to policy making is the subject of recent research, including a March 2022 special issue of Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, which explores “how data visualisation matters for policy priorities, processes and outcomes; how it reflects the demands and constraints posed by specific policy problems; and finally, what data visualisations reveal about broader political, social, and cultural shifts and the implications for policy.”

Arctic policy has its own narratives, data, and visualizations, and understanding them begins with understanding the institutions that produce them. To that end, I have been working on a visualization of Arctic policy actors that in its conceptual form looks like this:

It’s a simple visualization that once populated with the names of actors will quickly give policymakers the lay of the land, allowing them to locate actors within both their role (NGO, intergovernmental, or nation-state) and their sphere of interest (security, economic, environmental). Additional layers may be integrated, for example a stakeholder analysis that measures on two axes the interest and the power of individual actors.

The challenge to Arctic policy advocates will be to integrate visualizations like this with the relevant data and narratives to achieve the desired policy impact. This integrated approach may also be a feature of actors advocating oppositional policies, and understanding the dynamics involved will be helpful to deconstruct those policies and present effective rebuttals.