Connecting the Dots: Information Visualization and Text Analysis of the Searchlight Project Newsletters

Predicting what will happen in the future is always a perilous endeavor. No one can know with absolute certainty what will happen tomorrow.
Yet in the increasingly connected and globalized world, decisions made and actions taken today have implications for the future that need to be considered. We can see clearly how decisions and actions from the past 20, 50 and even 100 years are affecting the societal, economic and environmental challenges that confront the leaders and citizens of the world today. And there is keen awareness that how we address those challenges will have significant impacts on the lives of today’s children and the generations that follow.

The work of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future for the Searchlight Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, is an effort to flag certain issues and areas where today’s decisions and actions may be particularly salient to the direction of
the future. With a clear understanding of the limitations inherent in our approach, we attempted to identify the signals of relevance for tomorrow out of the noise of today.

The Pardee Center team was charged with developing visual
representations of the emerging trends from the Searchlight
newsletters, which provide on-the-ground analysis of a variety of
development issues in particular regions of the world. The key word
here is emerging trends. Trend analysis exercises typically review the
data, discount the weak signals and focus on the strong ones. But
in looking at emerging trends, the Pardee Center team focused not
just on the strongest signals or the loudest, but took note of weak
signals that have the potential to become strong and thus evolve into
significant levers of change. We looked for trends with significant
amplification, suggesting the potential to trigger a possible future
shift in direction.

Based on its interdisciplinary expertise, the Pardee Center team
also made note of signals that were anticipated but absent from
discussion in the newsletters (for example, external development
assistance) and signals that came from a direction that was not
expected (for example, climate change). The team felt these surprises are important to note
because possible futures may be determined as much by what topics are not considered in decisions
and actions as by those topics that are.

Ultimately, the Pardee Center’s task came down to “connecting the dots” as they became apparent
from the Searchlight newsletters. We connected the dots on both the regional and global scales,
but always mindful of the context surrounding the issues as they were presented in the newsletters.
We recognize that there are subjective aspects to this analysis, but some degree of subjectivity was
necessary and appropriate.
In the pages that follow, we describe the mechanics of our work and tell the stories that emerged from our findings. The section immediately following details the methodology we used, which began with a careful reading by two team members of more than 300 articles in 99 Searchlight newsletters. We describe how the issue categories were developed and how information found in the newsletters was translated into data that could be visually mapped in different ways.

The third section presents regional analyses and syntheses, highlighting issues of significance identified in the newsletters from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Next, we discuss the apparent sentiment of the authors of various newsletters to discern the overall outlook for the future regarding selected issues. Are the authors optimistic or pessimistic, or neither? What can their outlook tell us about the direction we appear to be headed? In lieu of attempting to “predict” the future, the Pardee Center team chose to use author sentiment as a knowledge-based indicator of the directions we appear to be headed.

Finally, the last section of the report identifies “Trends Worth Watching” stemming from what we learned from the Searchlight newsletters. We discuss three issues — climate change, urbanization, and social resiliency or “motors of change”— from a global perspective while still acknowledging the significance of regional differences.

The trends selected for this section speak to the salience of these issues, in terms of their importance in bringing about major change. As discussed in more detail later in this report, combining the salience and sentiment of particular issues gleaned from the newsletters offers a powerful tool for determining where time, effort and resources might best be focused to support positive directions for the future.

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