Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension

Mapping Possibilities in Response to Information Needs of Science Policy-making for Development

Anthony Judge

Outline proposal for a data collection project on "world problems"

Report prepared for the Science Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretary General. In partial fulfillment of a consultancy assignment under Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC/APL/13.3, CFTC/CSC/8, 19 May 1978). Presented to the 6th Conference of the World Future Studies Federation (Cairo, 1978) with the kind permission of Christiande Laet, Secretary, Commonwealth Science Council.


The purpose of this document is to report briefly on a preliminary investigation into the problems of mapping satisfactorily for policy purposes the domains of science and technology as applied to development (1). The matter in question is clearly of ever increasing concern within the international community as a whole, as indicated by a number of initiatives, many of them now being timed to focus discussion in anticipation of the United Nations Conference on the Application of Science and Technology to Development in 1979.

Nature of the problem

The problem of information in the field of science and technology as applied to development processes is reviewed in Annex 1 under the following headings :

A. Quantitative aspects B. Logical aspects ; classication
  • Multiplicity of classification schemes
  • Failure to indicate functional relevance
  • Unspecified omissions and partial inclusions
  • Macro-level definition
  • Interdisciplinarity
C. Operational aspects ; organizations and information systems
  • Multiplicity of organizations
  • Unrelated information systems
D. Comprehensibility
  • Comprehension overload
  • Issue reductionism
  • Communication mode preferences
E. Behavioural aspects
  • Interorganizational antipathy
  • Interorganizational terrtoriality
  • Interorganizational rivalry
  • Pre-logical biases
F. "Mythical" aspects G. Ignorance and lack of systematically ordered information on :
  • Scientific disciplines
  • Development processes
  • Technologies
  • Application processes

The first three of the above points are those most frequently discussed when examining the question, since they also tend to be those most susceptible to solution by modifying institutions or their policies and through appropriate use of information science and technology. The last four are those which are much less frequantly discussed, partly because they include factors which undermine or oppose conventional solutions to the information problem.

This review shows that there are many severe obstacles, themselves intimately interrelated, which prevent a significant improvement in the accessibility of such informationfor policy-related purposes. It is not the purpose of this report to comment on conventional efforts to improve the situation or their relationship to the UNESCO/ICSU World Science Information System (UNISIST), SPINES, or the various development information systems. Whilst these may or may not achieve their respective objectives, in the light of the points in Annex 1,it would appear to be useful to investigate completely new approaches which may result in information tools which respond to the problem at a more fundamental level.

Information selection and presentation

The heart of the problem seems to lie in the general attitude to information selection and presentation. This is reviewed in Annex 2 where it is argued that much of the problem results from the reliance on word-oriented information systems. However in reviewing the alternatives, including computer manipulation of diagrams it is shown that existing approaches fail to respond to the basic difficulty of how to improve the relevance of the questions asked to the problem complex faced by the policy-making process. How is the policy-maker, and those with whom he must communicate, to acquire a better "grasp" of the problem complex and the opportunities for improved application of science and technology to development?

Some criteria for a desirable solution

The kind of information assistance required could usefully have the following characteristics ( 2) :

  • contain a large number of elements relevant to science, techno- logy and development
  • elements well-packed for comprehensibility
  • presentable in different (but integrated) forms corresponding to the tolerance of complexity of the expert, the non-expert and the general public
  • disposition and presentation of elements should have a mnemonic value such that familiarity with the whole pattern may be gradually acquired and not immediately forgotten
  • disposition of elements should reflect the knowledge of experts and not a superficial, "glossy",media-oriented impression of aspects of it
  • disposition of elements should reflect in a dynamic manner the processes in which they are involved and any evolution in those processes over time.
  • presentation should be complete, covering the whole range of elements, and not partial ; although partial extracts from that whole could be made if required, maintain their relationships to it
  • disposition and presentation of elements should reflect alternative perspectives and the behavioural dynamics to which they give rise
  • preparation and construction should lend itself to computer assistance (exploiting a data base) but constrained from a perspective of communicability and aesthetics.

Happing: possibilities offered for a solution

The procedure known as "mapping" suggests a number of possibilities for incorporating the features identified above.

"Mapping" for policy purposes has been used very loosely, even to include a compilation of national science policy surveys in which the "integration" accomplished is limited to the physical assembly of the statements within the same document (3 ). This usage will not be considered here since it is precisely this type of approach which is of such limited value in the light of the points in Annex 1 and 2.

Before outlining the approach suggested here, it is noteworthy that the senior editor of one of the largest scientific publishing houses advocates the use of a spherical representation of the body of knowledge in discussing information transfer implications (see Annex 3).

The question is therefore whether a mapping technique can be used in conjunction with this spherical representation as a basis for incorporating the desirable features identified. The model identified in Annex 3 does not attempt to do this although a number of pointers are included explicitly or implicitly. It does not consider the implications of the large amount of quantitative detail which need to be represented, or how they are to be represented.

Approaching the question from another angle, there is much to be learnt from cartography and the history of geographical map production. The first two-dimensional maps were extremely sketchy and are not too different from the primitive sketches that are produced in graphic models (see Annex 2 ). Of great interest are the "terminological graphic displays" and sub-displays produced as a user guide to the UNESCO SPINES Thesaurus ("a controlled and structured vocabulary of science and technology for policy-making, management and development") of which the overall display is reproduced as Annex 4. These lack many of the features indicated above (as well as being subject to other weaknesses identified in Annex 1 and 2 ) as does the courageous series of concept diagrams included as an anonymous addendum to the integrating volume of the new French-language Encyclopaedia Universalis.

What all these efforts lack is what might be termed a "topographical richness" onto which the massive amount of detail to be incorporated may be "hung" - including logical continuities and distinctions, as well as behavioural indications arising from territoriality. But this topographical richness must be so represented as to facilitate comprehension at whatever level of detail is appropriate, and the mnemonic features must be preserved.

The radical approach advocated here is therefore to investigate the possibility of abandoning the schematic graphics (such as in SPINES) in favour of mapping the conceptual territory on a spherical surface with conventional topographical features. On the basis of a preliminary investigation, it seems to be possible to incorporate most of the features indicated above.

A further question is whether this approach can satisfactorily reflect the four aspects of the application of science and technology to development. Again, preliminary investigation indicates that this is possible by using four separate spherical representations. Each would contain cross-referencing co-ordinates to the others where relevant. In other words the relationship between a particular scientific discipline, a particular technology and a particular development process would be either explicit or implicit from the context. Clearly conventional projections onto plane surfaces could be used as well as transparent overlays, if required. But the relationship to the overall representation would be preserved.


A number of different approaches to selecting and presenting information can be interpreted as indicating a convergence on a solution which could offer many more satisfactory features to assist policy-makers in their comprehension of the domains of science and technology in relation to development processes.

The approach advocated requires further exploration to determine in detail exactly how the different features could be incorporated and the limits imposed by this approach.