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Atlas of International Relationship Networks

Summary of a project of the Union of International Associations

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Annex 1 of Reordering Networks of Incommensurable Concepts in Phased Cycles and their comprehension through metaphor
[project presented in searchable PDF version and a later form: Visualizing Relationshp Networks International. Interdisciplinary, Inter-Sectorial, 1992]


1. This document is concerned with presentations of information which will be possible once a particular computer software problem has been adequately solved. The problem can be illustrated by two examples:

(a) Traffic network mapping: If a database contained entries on 300 subway stations (or airports, or bus stops) and their direct route links to one another, what is required is a software package to construct one or more possible maps of the resulting network. The important point is to be able to optimize the comprehensibility of such maps with minimum manual intervention in the construction process.

(b) Hypercard stack mapping: With the widely acclaimed introduction of the Apple hypercard, whereby complex networks of relationships between database records can be handled, the problem remains of mapping the pattern of relationships in the resulting hypercard stack. The individual entries may be said to constitute 'data', but it is the pattern of relationships between them which constitutes 'knowledge' and 'intelligence'

2. The conventional approach to databases, and to the reference books produced from them, is to focus on individual entries. The user is not assisted in understanding the relationships between entries, other than by fairly crude grouping of entries into categories.

3. With the development of interactive databases, hypertext (plus the new hypercard approach of Apple) and CD/ROM, data entries can be organized so that they cross-reference one another to a high degree and in a non-hierarchical manner.

For example, the current Yearbook of International Organizations (1987/88) covering 27145 entries indicates 32692 relationships between them -- with the major organizations having an average of 70 each. Similarly the complemetary volume, the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1986), covers 10233 world problems with 17636 relationships between them. Users can move from entry to entry without going via an index. In database terms this is a major step towards what is being called hypertext. Both publications are maintained on a computer network and the possibility of CD/ROM versions is being investigated.

4. Because of the overwhelming volume of data, users need 'maps' of the pathway between entries, especially in complex subject areas. Such maps provide a sense of context which is lost in many hierarchical presentations of data in linear text form. It is only from such maps that users can quickly obtain an adequate overview of data in an unfamiliar area to guide their efficient use of conventional information tools. Such maps are of value precisely because they are richer than simple hierarchically structured thesauri.

5. Interesting examples of such graph displays are presented as annexes to this document. They include the route maps of the ABC World Airways Guide, the concept maps in the Encyclopedia Universalis and the graphics displays used in the UNESCO SPINES Thesaurus for science policy and management. These are all hand drawn and based on relatively limited data sets. As such they are costly and difficult to modify. They do however illustrate different responses to a need felt by information users. The same may be said of networks of corporations grouped by holding companies -- as they are occasionally, and painstakingly, presented in the financial press.

6. Computer hardware and sofware for the construction and manipulation of such networks of relationships have only been developed for specific applications such as in chemistry, architecture and engineering (CAD), or electronic circuit board design (PCB). It would be possible to develop similar software to display relationships between database entries, but this would involve investments in excess of $100,000. This is presumably excessive before the nature and advantages of the final product can be demonstrated.

7. Once such maps can be succesfully produced and manipulated, computer tapes can be made to drive photocomposition machines (with vector generators). These make high quality maps. Alternatively such maps could be generated by standard graph plotters into camera-ready form. A series of such maps, with facing explanatory text and/or mini-index, may then be bound together as an 'atlas'.

8. As a complement to the Yearbook of International Organizations and the Encyclopedia, such an atlas might take the form of a 600 page A4 publication: 250 maps, 250 facing explanatory pages, 100 pages general index, prelims and comments. The cost of producing the first version might be reduced by generating the maps in-house as has been done in the case of organization charts in the current edition of the Yearbook.

9. Maps would be designed to cover clusters of organizations and/or problems in a given subject or geographical area.

10. Such maps would have the advantage of provoking input of new organizations and/or relationships when used in the form of proofs. They also have important didactic uses. Enlargements of the maps could also be sold as wall-charts which would be of value for promotional purposes.

11. The accompanying annexes give further details of different approaches to this problem. However at this stage it should be stressed that the most effective approach would be through the use of pre-existing software with whatever constraints that implies.

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