Thinking More Effectively And Strategically About the Long Term Management of Radioactive Waste-A Visual Analytics Approach, 2004

The Challenge
Nirex, the British regulatory agency responsible for long term management of radioactive waste, asked the International Futures Forum and MacroVU Analytics to develop a new way of addressing the question:

How shall we (our society) think together about the responsibility for radioactive material that will deteriorate over a 300,000 year period, when human beings have only existed for less than 75,000 years, have had language and the ability to reason in an advanced way for less than 50,000 years, and when the oldest continuous human organizations are less then 3,000 years old?

This way of thinking is extremely complex and involves an entire society thinking in concert in novel and complex ways. It is a serious, long-term issue on which there are multiple perspectives, and which requires many actors, publics, and processes to reach a working consensus in order to make decisions and implement legitimate actions. Until now human societies have relied upon their political processes to “think through” these issues. This is almost certainly an inadequate way of proceeding - a lesson that Nirex learned from past experience.

The different publics and communities involved start from very different framings of the challenge, speak different 'languages', hold different standards of proof, etc. For example, take the question 'Is deep disposal safe?' The criteria for answering that question in the affirmative at a political level (e.g., in the House of Commons), at the scientific level (e.g. in a refereed journal) and at a psychological level will be different. Nirex strategy relies on all of these communities arriving at compatible answers to this and other questions.

The strategic info-mural project
Visual analytics provides a tool for addressing these aims. Our project produced a 3 x 15 foot information mural that enables Nirex to view its history, current decision making environment, and plans in one sweeping panorama. It made visible the complex layers of this issue and provides a clear diagrammatic description of previous and foreseeable deliberations that will be necessary to bring all of the stakeholder communities into as much consensus as possible. It made more visible Nirex' thinking about its own thinking process. One outcome of this project was to enable Nirex to become more explicit in “thinking about the thinking process” so that these insights be embedded into the overall Nirex management structure. It enabled the Nirex's strategy and thinking to be more visible and transparent both within the boundaries of the organization and outside it for conversations with stakeholders.

The Nirex strategic mural
When you download this PDF you will see is a big picture of the history, the current decisions that need to be made, and Nirex's plan for the future stretching out to one million years.

Information design and visualization aspects
Information analysis challenge was: How can an organization view its ideas all at once with the big picture as well as detail available? How can it show itself to its various stakeholders? How can the executives of a complex, socio-technical organization represent their issues and plans in a way that aids decision making? How can such an organization explain and communicate its view of the world to others?

The large violet arrows represent the major trajectories of Nirex itself. You will notice that there are layers of small chunks of text that describe the history, challenges, decisions, and plans. These are divided into major themes that run in parallel horizontally across the timeline from you left to right. When you get up closer you'll be able to see that they represent governance, ethics, the radioactive waste itself, growing scientific understanding of the waste problem, and society' s reaction to the waste issues. All this is arranged on a landscape looking a bit like the English countryside. Important events in the history of Nirex are depicted by small newspaper headlines arranged among the themes and connected by these yellow arrows. Significant on the ground events-like the Chernobyl disaster-are visually represented on the horizon.

4 x 14 feet
Approx. 400 text elements
Approx. 100 visual elements

Nirex, the U.K. company in charge of the disposal of radioactive waste.

Project team
Robert E. Horn, visiting scholar, Stanford University and President, MacroVU, Inc. and Graham Leicester, President, International Futures Forum, St. Andrews, UK.

Our substantial experience developing and using visual analytics shows that visual methods have substantially affected public policy analysis, formulation, and implementation in four principal ways:
(1) rendering concepts and relationships visually often reveals that vital data has been overlooked, inadequately correlated, or never collected in the first place;
(2) large displays (even mural-size displays) enable problem solvers to see both the detail and the big picture simultaneously, thereby improving the evaluation of policy implications and consequences tradeoffs;
(3) diverse groups, including remote groups, have been able to reach a working consensus faster using visual analytics to record meetings rather than traditional text-based minutes. This has also aided international working because visual language is often more effective than text in at least calling attention to, if not helping to resolve, cross-language ambiguities;
(4) visual representation of group processes and thinking regarding complex issues enables whole pictures to be shared relatively easily with others outside the group, e.g., with other issue stakeholder. Together with structured group processes, visualizations can be a powerful option identification, negotiation and consensus building tool.


Copyright 2007 R. E. Horn

Horn - Home page

To view this mural:

1. Download by clicking here.

NOTE: This is a large PDF file. It may take a few minutes to download.

2. Open the mural in Adobe Acrobat Reader.
If you don't have Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can download the Adobe Acrobat Reader FREE.

Zoom. You can zoom to any part of this map by using the icon with the number and percent (125%) in the lower left hand corner of the Adobe Acrobat page and click the up arrow to zoom in and down arrow to zoom out.