Alek Tabarrok posts this beautiful graph that was prepared for the ultimate in bureaucratic institutions:
The comments at the blog are an interesting mix of agreement with Alex (people taking the tangled graph as a symbol of the difficulty, possibly hopelessness of the U.S. military effort in the Middle East) and disagreement (people pointing out that large-scale operations are inherently complicated, and the graph is capturing this complexity).
I’ve never been involved in any planning more complicated than setting up a M.A. program, and that had a budget approximately one-zillionth that of the Afghan war. Without any experience in large projects, I will limit my comments to the graph itself.
To start with, I think the graph would be improved by making the arrows lighter–gray rather than black–and maybe by reducing the number of arrows overall. I understand the goals of showing the connections between the nodes, but as it is, the graph is dominated by the tangle of lines.
A larger problem is that the picture gives no sense of priorities. All the items are the same size and it’s not clear where the focus to be. I looked at the original powerpoint presentation, which puts all the nodes in context. It looks like a good presentation. But I can’t really see what’s gained from the super-complicated picture. I can understand the value of a complicated graph showing suppliers and contractors and purchasers and so forth, but I don’t see what you get out of this sort of map where most of the nodes are vaguely-defined concepts.
As I noted above, I’m a complete stranger to the world of military planning. I’m reacting based on my understanding of graphical display: I’m suspicious of the combination of a complex display and lack of precision in the details.
This connects, I think, to my debate with Nathan Yau on the topic of pretty but impossible-to-read data visualizations. I didn’t like the pretty visualizations because, judging them as statistical graphics, they didn’t do a good job of displaying information; Yau liked the visualizations because they grab your interest and motivate you to explore the topic further. The “data visualizations of the year” really are impressive if you think of them as super-cool illustrations (replacements for the usual photos or drawings that might accompany a newspaper or magazine article) rather than as visual displays of quantitative information.
Similarly, I suspect the graph displayed above does not do much to directly help the planning for Afghanistan, but it certainly does a good job at conveying the complexity of the situation! Maybe that was the point.
P.S. I looked carefully at the graph and could only find one nodes that is an orphans (that is, with no arrows pointing toward it). That node: “Media Sensationalism Bias.” Shouldn’t there be another node leading to it, labeled “Pay $$ to friendly journalists”? There are two slides at the end on “Claim the Information Initiative” but I don’t see any discussion there of “Media Sensationalism Bias.”
P.P.S. Full disclosure: some of my own research is military funded. But it’s not related to this project.