Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Are we there yet?

How well does the current set of Iraq trend charts & tables serve our needs?

Answer: I think we are a little better off than we were 10 days ago when I began this series of posts on Iraq, but we certainly are not where we need to be. We can look at the charts that are currently available from multiple sources much more quickly now than we could before by skimming these two pdf files: Combine-Iraq-Trends and vizualizing-trends-ohanlon-testimony.pdf. But each of these documents has it's own and weaknesses as discussed below. And there are a growing number of important missing metrics that as yet have no publicly available trend chart or trend table.

What are the weaknesses of the Combine-Iraq-Trends document?

Answer: This combined report consisting of trend charts drawn from 4 different sources covers a lot of important ground and shares the trend behavior of many factors that appear quite important. On the downside, the big weaknesses of this set of trend charts are numerous:
  1. There is a wide variation in formats - This reduces overall understandability and slows down the process of viewing the entire set of charts. Each chart must be examined individually with careful checks to make sure that the range of the X and Y axes are are clear and to locate the legend information that tells you what kind of factor you are looking at. This is in clear violation of the Edward Tufte's idea of small multiples that we discussed in a previous post. Applying small multiple thinking to a set of trend charts means that for the viewer, once understanding is reached regarding how a single chart in a series is laid out and what graphing conventions have been used, succeeding charts can be grasped with much reduced time and effort.
  2. Time frames of the individual charts are widely different. Some cover the period from the start of the War in 2003 right up to the present moment. Others, cover much shorter periods. For example, the IED chart covers only from January 2006-June 2006. Some charts show monthly data, others show weekly data. This is another violation of the small multiple idea and the consequence for the viewer is that it is more difficult and more time-consuming to make any comparisons between different factors.
  3. Stale Data: Violation of the "Near Real Time" Principle In many charts such as the IED chart mentioned above, the most recent sample is many, many months ago. If something is rated as an important factor, then it won't do us any good unless we measure and report on it often and that we make the most recent sample data available as quickly as possible. A 7 month old data point of a key trend factor can substantially frustrate our ability to understand what's going on, to determine whether interventions we have taken are working, or to decide what to do next.
  4. Overly short time frames. Charts such as the State Dept's Crude Oil Production chart cover an amazingly short time frame - in this case from October 30th, 2006 to January 7th, 2007. While this chart is both interesting, useful, and clear, the viewer is seriously short-changed by not being able to look at what has happened to this key trend factor for the entire period since the war began.
  5. Unavailability of the Underlying Data. In many cases with these charts, the underlying trend data is unavailable for further review or analysis. This means that the viewer of the chart is sharply impeded from discovering different angles to examine the data (e.g. by combining several factors together in a single chart, or calculating new previously invisible factors as a combination of an original set of factors.) If the original analyst who selected the chart for presentation did not create one chart for each important view, then without the data, these new views are simply unattainable. And of course, it's never possible for the original analyst to provide all the views.
  6. Data that is provided is Not Readily Reusable (RR). In the relatively small number of cases where the raw trend data is provided, it is painful and time-consuming to transform these data into an RR format. This slows down the effort of understanding and because of the time involved, only a small percentage of potentially interested parties ever actually make these transformations.
  7. Missing Metrics, Quality of Metrics. Many of these sources mention other metrics specifically (presumably because they are considered important) but do not provide trend tables or charts. And all metrics, those that are charted and those that are not, must be evaluated against the quality criteria outlined by Anthony Cordesman as noted in
The Quarterly Report on “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq:” Fact, Fallacy, and an Overall Grade of “F”

What are the weaknesses of the Combine-Iraq-Trends document?


  1. Stale Data: Violation of the "Near Real Time" Principle - the most recent data point in all of these charts is November 2006 so the trend series displayed is not as up to date (on January 10th when this data was presented) as one might wish.
  2. Overly long time frame between samples. Way too few samples. Having a total four samples, one year apart creates a trend table that is quite readable on an 8 by 11 sheet of paper. The price is dramatic loss of vital detail and can lead to seriously misleading conclusions.
  3. Data that was originally provided was Not Readily Reusable (RR). We were able to work our way around this barrier and create trend charts from the data, but it was costly in time and will serve as an impediment to further analysis of the data for most people most of the time.
  4. Missing Metrics, As we noted in an earlier post, there were many Iraq trend factors that Michael O'Hanlon considered important enough to include is his verbal testimony and in the logic of thinking through what those factors meant, but which did not appear in the attached table of 30 factors. Our view is that if a metric is important enough to mention and use for logical argument, it is imperative that the details of how that factor varies over time are provided for further review and analysis by interested parties.
  5. Quality of Metrics. As for the case of evaluating the Combine-Iraq-Trends document, all metrics, those that are in the table (and therefore charted) and those that are in the text must be evaluated against the quality criteria outlined by Anthony Cordesman as noted in:
    The Quarterly Report on “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq:” Fact, Fallacy, and an Overall Grade of “F”How

What next steps could help things along and help us move closer to our goal of helping both ordinary citizens and decision makers gain a better understanding of the trends at work on the ground in Iraq?

Answer: We've made some progress, but in many ways we have only just begun. Below, I outline some steps I am planning to take with the goal of taking this up to the next level. If you can assist in any way, I would be pleased to hear from you.

  1. Continue to harvest and grow our list of missing metrics and invisible indicators, for example by close examination of Dept of Defense quarterly report or the many writings of Anthony Cordesman on the subject.
  2. Create a single composite list of all the factors for which we do not yet have trend data or trend charts but which we think would further aid our understanding if they were to be made available.
  3. Make inquiries to the original sources to see if the raw trend data for the key factors that have been identified can be made available for further use, ideally in a readily-reusable form to begin with.

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