FOID: Federal Office of Information Design

Through one of Al Gore’s “We” campaign emails I stumbled upon the good old NREL today, and it got me thinking. I almost did an internship there in my junior year of college; my choice NOT to do it is still one of my big regrets. But anyway, the NREL would seem to be one of the federal “good guys” in the war on global warming (how about “War on Warmth?”, or, just “WARmth?”).

Among other things (e.g. technical research of various kinds*), NREL maintains data about publicly available energy sources like wind. This leads me to the topic of the post; it seems to me that NREL could really benefit from some good, ambitious information design. They have all this data which could, if properly handled, actually inspire and influence the public, instead of just sitting in a database waiting for the right query from an individual with a specific need. Or even just sitting in a beautiful-but-static map which was clearly intended for print — and actually scanned from print for the web.

I feel similarly about the weather. In fact I think there’s a HUGE private opportunity for a really good weather site. It’s a big drawing and information design challenge, of course.

But anyway, I imagine other federal agencies besides the NREL could benefit from a FOID. In some ways, I really like federal webpages because they tend to be ‘ugly’ but full of information. I think the web probably should be ugly, but at the same time some information needs to be given its due articulation, or people will never engage with it.

Without having looked into which information designers actually do work for the federal government, I would like to call for the formation of a Federal Office of Information Design or something similar. Rather than contracting info-design out to the lowest bidders, federal agencies could call on the support of a dedicated team of publicly-minded (since, presumably, underfunded) information designers. In return, these people would, of course, have a major influence on American political (as in, action among citizens) life, shaping the overall interface between citizens and their government, and between citizens and the physical sciences/world that their government strives to model and understand. And if the FOID were to hire contractors to do some of its work, at least they would be under the oversight of federal information designers who had already thought through the issues from a public service point of view.

Of course we do have the GPO:

The U.S. Government Printing Office’s core mission, Keeping America Informed, dates to 1813 when Congress determined the need to make information regarding the work of the three branches of Government available to all Americans.

But they have a lot of other things on their hands, and they do a ton of grunt work. The FOID would be called in on projects, rather than be given an all-embracing mission.

These are but the wanderings of an ignorant mind. If anybody out there actually knows how the feds contract their information design, or can think of examples of good federal information design, please pipe up!

* My internship in ’98 would have been to work on modeling heat flow through houses. They do this to set industry standards, I suppose. Basically I decided not to go because it sounded like I would just be working with depressing (at the time I found all computer work depressing) finite element analysis software, and because I would have had to live and DRIVE in Boulder, CO. I guess if I *had* gone I would now be some uber-connected energy guru.

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