During the last 3 weeks, I've had the pleasure of participating in the first ever MACOSPOL (MApping COntroversies for Science and POLitics) course in Denmark. Very much in the spirit of Latour and STS, the course took place at the Technical University of Denmark, where two brave researchers threw a dozen students head first into the mapping praxis.
In my team, we decided to map the heated debate on tax reform that has been going on in Denmark - especially in this spring. The two main blocks in Danish politics have been pitted against each other in a war of rhetorics and economics. According to the sitting conservative-liberal government, tax cuts and welfare cuts are the only way to keep Denmark competitive and thus fund the welfare system in the long term. To challenge this logic, the centre-left coalition stresses that it would be more in the spirit of the Danish welfare state if everyone helped generate the necessary worth by worked a bit harder. The centre-left opposition has critizised the government intensely for 'destroying' the welfare and the renowned Danish labor market model. The government, on the other hand, has claimed to have the only 'economically responsible' solution.
Our thesis is that this heated controversy has been a defeat for democracy. It has been a war on words, numbers with many zeros and economic arguments that no lay person can possibly understand. By mapping the tax wars and publishing the results on a website, we hope to make it a little bit easier for the averagely informed citizen to find paths through the mess.
So what have we done? First of all, we tried to let data decide the boundaries of the debate instead of our own preconceptions. This proved to be harder than we thought, because although you want to map as openly and inclusively as possible, you still need a vantage point. This is unavoidable and something you need to be clear about.
Thus, we chose 'tax reform' and 'tax cuts' as the absolute core keywords and started our mapping from there. One of our primary strategies was to visualize what the actors in different spheres talk about, when they talk of tax reform and tax cuts. Various spheres on tax reform, that we've mapped, include
human and non-human 'victims' of the tax debate, including fat, meat, cigarettes, alchohol and cars.
The most powerful visualization tool proved to be the IBM-developed Many Eyes and its ability to create e.g. sophisticated word clouds and word trees. This allows the visitor to our site to explore, among many other texts, the full transcript of the final debate in the parliament that took place on the 2nd of June 2010. This was an important battle in the tax wars, which we also illustrate in a short video, based on the original film material from the parliamentary library.
Our mapping efforts also include a mind map overview of some of the central actors in the tax controversy, a few visualizations focusing on the time perspective, a collection of key quotations from the debate, a map of virtual and physical locations in the debate, and even more.
Overall, it's been three intense and exciting weeks, where we've tried to live up to the legacy of the other regular MACOSPOL projects that normally took half a year to make. Although our project was much shorter, we've learned to use a wide range of new tools and put a quite comprehensive website together, not least because of the technical shortcut that the free website editor, Weebly, is.