The National Academies

NCHRP 08-36/Task 051 [Completed]

Information Design for Effective Decision Making and Communication
[ NCHRP 08-36 (Research for the AASHTO Standing Committee on Planning) ]

  Project Data
Funds: 75000
Research Agency: ICF Consulting, Inc.
Effective Date: 12/16/2004
Completion Date: 1/31/2006
Comments: Completed---Final report sent to AASHTO

Information design has been defined as the practice of systematically presenting data -- and sometimes visually displaying quantitative data -- to maximize its value and accessibility to the reader. Examples include displaying complex road-condition information in a visually intuitive format like a color-coded map; breaking highway maintenance expenditures down into a per-car basis, as Washington State does; and using design techniques to ensure that a chart's content -- rather than its design -- is highlighted.

Such practices are valuable in effectively communicating with top decision makers and with the public, and for making performance measures and other data speak to top managers and front-line workers. Managers at many transportation agencies are looking to bring new CEO's up-to-speed as rapidly as possible, explain the value of their organization's efforts and the wisdom of their choices to their legislatures, and ensure that they're using the data they have to maximize the public's substantive investment in transportation assets. Information design is a powerful tool for accomplishing these objectives.

Transportation agencies have no shortage of data. They collect information on highway conditions, operations, and construction and maintenance activities. They have information on soil conditions, wetlands, drainage, flood planes, land use, neighboring communities and applicable regulations, and area weather patterns. Sometimes they layer pieces of these data in GIS; sometimes they slice and combine them in decision-support systems; both of these help transform data into information. But how effective are the products created by these efforts? Certainly, they are far more effective than they were a generation ago. But are they demonstrating this information in ways that are most likely to make the important information jump out, without distortion, and that are helpful and intuitive to technical experts, decision makers, and the general public? Are we getting the most out of our investments in GIS and decision-support systems and the vast efforts that go into populating their databases?

The field of information design, pioneered by Yale Statistics and Graphic Design Professor Emeritus Edward Tufte, offers transportation agencies a powerful and practical set of ideas for ensuring that information is presented in a clear and effective format. But there is widespread concern that transportation agencies' use of this field is inconsistent and that available resources are difficult to locate. This is especially true where these agencies are attempting to initiate performance reporting to support management, policy decisions, and public understanding and support for transportation needs and priorities.

The objective of this study is to provide guidance to transportation agencies on employing effective information design by doing three steps:
    1. Defining the information-design needs of transportation agencies, the barriers that need to be overcome to address these needs, and what strategies might be employed to overcome those barriers.
    2. Identifying centers of expertise and resources on information design available to transportation agencies. If such resources do not exist, the next task includes determining the most effective strategies for creating them.
    3. Determining and illustrating critical information-design principles for transportation data.

Note that the first two steps are primarily organizational concerns in accessing the expertise of this field, while the third looks at direct applications of the field.

This research will be accomplished by the following tasks:
    1. Surveying transportation agencies to see how, if at all, they are effectively deploying principles of information design to make decisions and communicate information. There is likely not a common vocabulary for these tools, so finding examples may require some trial and error.
    2. Working with universities and other sources to locate centers of expertise in this field.
    3. Benchmarking other, relevant industries to see how they are using information design. This will likely rely on an understanding of transportation data that already exist, or was identified in earlier subtasks of this study.
    4. Working with transportation agencies to determine needs, barriers, and strategies for overcoming such barriers. Identifying next steps.
    5. Applying information-design principles to common challenges faced by transportation agencies.
    6. Creating a primer of such techniques useful to people with various levels of design expertise within a transportation agency.
The contractor's final report was sent to AASHTO and is posted at

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