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Our one-page summary provides an overview of our core services—and what sets us apart in the world's most challenging areas.

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Engaging for Enduring Outcomes

Our outcomes are enduring because they are culturally tailored and acceptable from the outset. This approach is effective whether the cultural divide is due to unfamiliarity in the international community or just between domestic regions or business sectors.

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Our Unique Approach

Strategic Social brings a unique, industry-best approach to achieving success in complex environments. Our robust efforts are guided by a simple process: Understand, Empathize, Engage, and Transact.

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Every time someone makes a PowerPoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten

tufte-wallpaper

As we mentioned earlier, Strategic Social attended a data visualization course taught by Edward Tufte a few weeks ago.  Tufte did not sugarcoat his disdain for Microsoft PowerPoint.  In his course, Tufte succinctly explained that the fundamental goal of an information display is to assist thinking about information.  He argued that PowerPoint is a very effective marketing tool but is a fundamentally flawed means for delivering knowledge.  Tufte was especially critical of the packaged charts and templates in PowerPoint, stressing that they cripple presentations.  Microsoft will soon release Office 2010, but Edward Tufte remains unconvinced that Microsoft has fully taken his criticisms to heart.

Anyone who has ever used the software is familiar with the ubiquitous bullets, headers, and 3-row tables.  The blogosphere has long debated whether PowerPoint or its users should held responsible for the epidemic of low-quality presentations.  Websites like Note and Point show that truly gifted designers are not limited by PowerPoint.

ppt as the enemy

The U.S. Marines Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of Joint Forces Command, sounded off against Microsoft’s software product in today’s New York Times, bluntly stating, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster is equally opposed to Microsoft’s presentation: “It’s [PowerPoint’s] dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control … Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Ultimately, both the tool and the user are to blame.  Having sat through countless endless, uninformative PowerPoint presentations themselves, users should know better than to copy techniques that they already know do not work.  Nonetheless, the role of a software tool is to help people; to make them smarter.  Unfortunately, the default settings and pre-programmed templates in PowerPoint do just the opposite.  Microsoft will be doing the world a favor if it pays a little more attention to Edward Tufte’s design fundamentals in building the latest iteration of PowerPoint.

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Visualizing the World

The increased ubiquity of the internet has given more and more people greater access to massive amounts of diverse data.  As the amount of data has steadily increased, so too has the processing power of the machines capable of processing this data.  However, Producing reams and reams of data is not enough – you need people who are capable of analyzing this information and visualizing in ways so that other people can also make sense of it.  Last year, the New York Times foretold that statistics will be the next great emerging field, quoting Google’s chief economist Hal Varian as saying, “The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.  And I’m not kidding.”

Various companies have developed a number of powerful data visualization tools, and the New York Times in particular has been singled out for praise from the blogosphere for its innovative web graphics.  Nevertheless, before descending into the rabbit hole and trying to visualize anything and everything, it’s important to first understand the design principles that make certain data visualizations more or less effective.  The September 1984 edition of the Journal of the American Statistical Association published a paper by William S. Cleveland and Robert McGill that reported on experiments to determine which visualization methods are most easily understood by an audience.  The authors studied what individuals can decode most accurately and ranked the approaches in the following list:

  1. Position along a common scale e.g. scatter plot
  2. Position on identical but nonaligned scales e.g. multiple scatter plots
  3. Length e.g. bar chart
  4. Angle & Slope (tie) e.g. pie chart
  5. Area e.g. bubbles
  6. Volume, density, and color saturation (tie) e.g. heatmap
  7. Color hue e.g. newsmap

It would be very valuable to produce an updated version of this study.  Have things changed in the last 25 years?  Do these trends hold true for all segments of the population?  Perhaps some individuals with special training, such as soldiers, are more attuned to certain visualization methods.   If anyone knows of any additional studies along these lines, please send them our way.  In addition, Strategic Social is going to be attending a data visualization course led by Edward Tufte in Crystal City today; if you’ll also be there, come say ‘hi.’

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Culture is our Weapon

AfroReggae is a Brazilian NGO that empowers destitute youths through cultural empowerment.  The organization was founded in 1993, right after Rio de Janeiro police massacred twenty-one civilians in the Vigario Geral favela (the Portuguese equivalent of slum).  The founders of the organization recognized that young people in these favelas were given no cultural reference points aside from pervasive violence and the drug trade.  Because they are given no alternatives, many of these impoverished Brazilians become tied up in narcotrafficking gangs at a very early age and are unable to ever escape.  AfroReggae’s mission is to promote development by bringing culture to these people who have lost their culture.

The organization’s efforts have been a model of success, as its founders used their connections in the local favela communities, the Rio government, and even the narcotraffickers, to gradually expand AfroReggae’s operations to more of Rio’s impoverished favelas.  At a recent event in Washington D.C., Damien Platt, the author of a recently-published book about AfroReggae called Culture is our Weapon, detailed the full extent of AfroReggae’s efforts in Rio: several bands, five culture centers that offer classes, a samba group, an all-girl percussion group, a theater group, a dance and procussion group, a circus school, a TV program, a magazine, and two to three radio programs.  Damien first encountered AfroReggae while working for Amnesty International in Rio, and later worked as AfroReggae’s International Relations coordinator from 2006 to 2008.

The experience of AfroReggae shows that targeted cultural development programs, carefully tailored to the local environment, can have transformative effects on impoverished communities.  Clearly, AfroReggae’s efforts should be encouraged by the local government in Rio de Janeiro so that they can spread to the city’s other destitute favelas.  However, this organization’s successes raise the question of whether similar efforts can be undertaken elsewhere in Brazil.  For example, Brazil’s Tri-Border Areas, particularly the triple frontier with Paraguay and Argentina, have received considerable international attention in recent years, due to allegations that Middle Eastern terrorist groups have profited enormously from the illegal drug trade in these loosely-governed border areas.  Could Brazil improve its efforts to undermine the drug trade in the southern Tri-Border Area by promoting efforts similar to AfroReggae’s in Rio?

In his talk, Damien Platt highlighted that race relations have played an important role in AfroReggae’s success in Rio: not only are AfroReggae’s Afro-Brazilian clients socioeconomically marginalized, but they are also racially marginalized.   AfroReggae addresses both of these social problems, giving their favela clients specific Afro-Brazilian cultural reference points.  If similarly marginalized minorities exist in the Tri-Border Areas, Indian tribes and Middle Eastern immigrants for example, AfroReggae’s development model could be put to use elsewhere within Brazil.  AfroReggae’s development efforts in Rio have taken over a decade to grow their current stage, and fostering this kind of grassroots development in the Tri-Border Area will take time – all the more reason to get started soon.  If any of you know of any studies indicating whether this model could be successful in Brazil’s TBAs, please send it our way.

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