Interactive diagrams – obesity dynamics

Food-nutrition-health-exercise-energy interactions are an amazing nest of positive feedbacks, with many win-win opportunities, but more on that another time.

Instead, I’m hoisting an interesting influence diagram about obesity from the comments. At first glance, it’s just another plate of spaghetti.


But when you follow the link (do it now), there’s an interesting innovation: the diagram is interactive. You can zoom, scroll, and highlight particular sectors and dynamics. There’s some narrative here and here. (Update: the interactive link seems to be down, but the diagram is still here:

It took me a while to decide whether I’d call this a causal loop diagram or not. I think the primary distinction between a CLD and other kinds of mindmaps or process diagrams is the use of variables. On a CLD, each label represents a quantity that can vary, with a definite direction – TV Watching, Stress, Use of Medicines. Items on other kinds of diagrams might represent events or fuzzier constellations of concepts. This diagram doesn’t have link polarities (too bad) or loop polarities (which would be pretty incomprehensible anyway), but many other CLDs also avoid such labels for simplicity.

I think there’s a lot of potential for further exploration of this idea. There’s a lot you could do to relate structure to behavior, or at least to explain the rationale for structure (both shortcomings of the diagram). Each link, for example, could have its tale revealed when clicked, and key loops could be animated individually, with stories told. Drill-down could be extended to provide links between top-level subsystem relationships and more microscopic views.

I think huge diagrams like the one above are always going to be overwhelming to a layperson. Also, it’s hard to make even a small CLD good, so making a big one really accurate is tough. Therefore, I’d rather see advanced CLD presentations used to improve the communication of simpler stories, with a few loops. However, big or small, there might be many common technological benefits from dedicated diagramming software.

You are what you eat

I’m on my way home from the 29th meeting of the Balaton Group, held in Iceland. Iceland seems to be rising gracefully from it’s financial crisis, with introspection into the values that led to it and a renewed interest in sustainability. Author Andri Magnason visited us at dinner, and talked a bit about Iceland and his wonderful book, Dreamland – A Self-help Manual for a Frightened Nation. I picked up a copy in the airport (can’t get it at amazon yet) and got halfway through on the plane – I highly recommend it.

Another Magnason project is a book of Bonus Poetry, named for and spoofing the Icelandic Walmart.

You are what you eat
My grandfather was 70% water
He was 70% the stream
that trickled past his farm
he was the 30%
the sheep that grazed on his mountain
he was the fish swimming in his lake
he was the cow eating
in his field
he was the stream, he was the grass,
the mountain and the lake
I am not 70% water
perhaps 15% mineral water
the rest is beer and coca cola
I am italian pasta, swiss cheese
danish pork and chinese rice
american ketchup
runs through my veins
you are what you eat
I am a miniature of the world
I am a miniature of Bonus