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Minn. Gov. Walz Prioritizes Communicating Data Visually

Tim Walz’s background as a high school geography teacher has led to a visually driven approach to Minnesota leadership, from how the state communicated its COVID-19 response to how it's approaching climate change.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz
Flickr/Lorie Shaull
High school geography teacher to state governor might not be a traditional career route. Yet as I sat next to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz one day in August and listened to Esri CEO Jack Dangermond on the strategic use of maps to create common ground, I wondered what the governor thought. No one else in the room of 10,000 people had his unique credentials: a high school geography teacher who now occupies a top elected executive job.

I caught up with the governor later that day to find out what spatial common ground meant to him and what he applies from his high school teaching experience to his current office.

Both as a candidate and as governor, he has emphasized the need to create a vision of one Minnesota, while at the same time recognizing that the state is diverse in its culture, economy and geography. Walz described the importance of visualization as a leadership communication tool. Visualizing common problems, which persist even with geographic differences, helps individuals appreciate the needs of others.

Walz explained how to develop trust through communication from the perspective of a teacher, not a politician. He said that “as a teacher, if the majority of children weren’t understanding the lesson, that meant more about me than them. It meant I was not teaching it correctly.” His time in education also gave him insight into why using different communication forms is important. “People possess different learning styles,” he said. “We have become very visual and interactive learners, with shorter attention spans, and therefore officials need to be able to visually display complex data when communicating about important issues.”

Minnesota’s COVID-19 response provided an excellent example of how the state utilized layered, place-based data to inform the public conversation and the government response. Both public and internal communications included overlaying testing and vaccination sites, positivity rates, outbreaks near schools and schools closing, plus transit options for children. Individual data users could quickly see the conditions relevant to their family’s safety and make decisions based on transparent data and shared understanding. Presenting information in that fashion meant that people couldn’t simply dismiss the data as some headline they read and didn’t agree with.

Walz has used maps to pull state agencies together around other cross-cutting issues besides the pandemic. Data maps are the foundation for his Subcabinet and Advisory Council on Climate Change. Through executive order, Walz brought together state agencies, boards and departments to work on climate issues. By creating maps, officials could understand how the factors under review of one agency affect the actions of another. Walz emphasized that the communicative power of maps goes beyond interagency collaboration and helps rally public support for addressing climate change.

This opportunity to use maps to broaden understanding and develop more consensus came up at the Esri event, where we saw a story map that showed how weather changes were moving the center of the nation’s Corn Belt north toward Wisconsin. In Minnesota, the governor used similar visualizations to demonstrate how extreme weather and temperature shifts are negatively affecting farms, communities and industry. And he utilizes the maps to show disparities in effect by race, gender, geography and economic status, helping the various agencies organize their responses. Maps help with implementation strategies as well. Examples of climate-related GIS work across the subcabinet include the Metropolitan Council Extreme Heat Map, the Department of Transportation Electric Vehicle Dashboard and the Department of Natural Resources Climate Trends Tool.

Walz closed our interview by explaining that a leader needs to be prepared to accept that maps show performance, and not every action succeeds. He is ready to use the results, especially if they do not produce promised outcomes, as a teaching moment. Pulling data into maps helps the state measure, visualize and iterate.

“If you want to build people’s trust in government and deliver the services they expect, we have got to do a better job of making sure that they’re able to see what we are doing, how we are moving and how we are measuring it,” Walz said. “And we need to use technology so that folks can actually see what government is doing.”

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.