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Atlas of International Relationship Networks


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Annex 1 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks (1992)
[earlier variant presented in searchable PDF version]


The Union of International Associations, based in Belgium, maintains a comprehensive database on international organizations, the issues with which they are concerned and the relationships between them. This information is output in the form of reference books, especially the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations and the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. The production chain involves a UK-based photocomposition service and a German-based publisher and distribution service. The books and information are sold world-wide, primarily to government agencies, research libraries and the travel industry. The principle product is experiencing increasing competition from a major USA publisher which also offers online access to its data.

The UIA seeks to exploit its advantage in data quality by developing a new type of information product which would map the networks of relationships between issues and between organizations. This product requires investment in the development of a particular kind of software which would transfer the existing relational data into graphically representable form -- emphasizing comprehensibility.

The hardcopy product would provide users with new ways of understanding the complex networks of issues with which the international community of organizations is concerned -- both as a guide to policy formulation and as a guide to accessing information in more conventional forms. The software would offer additional advantages, as a mapping product in its own right, in addition to permitting researchers to manage data on complex networks of bodies and issues in new ways.

The Union of International Associations, founded in Brussels in 1910, is an international non-profit research institute, serving as a clearing house for information on international organizations and their preoccupations. It is funded by sale of publications and related information services. Work has been computerized since 1974. Data management is now based on a 16-station local area network accessing a 300 megabyte data base for which software was specially developed to permit hybrid text database operations. In 1986 the publication production portion of the system received the first Printing World Award for "the most innovative application of computers in typesetting".

The information challenge of the 1990s, as recently highlighted in a report on the plans of Dun and Bradstreet for the development of their own information policies (International Herald Tribune, 18 Feb 1989) is that, despite computerization and telecommunications, organizations are suffering more from information overload than from information capacity. "Thus the successful information companies of the 1990s may not be those that gather new data, but those that get existing facts to customers in the most useful form." The Union of International Associations has itself contributed to research on these issues through its participation in the programme of the Tokyo-based United Nations University on Information Overload and Information Underuse.

Software problem summarized

1. 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 pattern of relationships between entries, other than by fairly crude grouping of entries into categories. There is thus a vital distinction between the capacity to "look up" information, as typified by use of a telephone directory, and portraying the pattern of relationships between bodies, concepts or issues, as typified by systems charts, PERT charts, subway maps and mind maps.

2. This project 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 three 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"

(c) Mind-mapping: This is a technique currently being strongly promoted in management training and time-management courses. It consists of manually drawing circles to represent key ideas, objectives or activities and then interlinking them in networks of relationships. There is a clear need for a software package to facilitate this process. This could take the form of a non-hierarchical form of the standard outline package to manage chapter headings of a report, in which the graphic element is emphasized. There are some resemblances to project scheduling software except that here the emphasis is on relating concepts.

Relevance to existing database

The database currently maintained by the UIA includes the following interlinked clusters of data (see Annex I for details of in-house computer system):

-- International organizations: 30,000 organization-type records (covering intergovernmental, and international non-governmental bodies and multilateral treaties). Relational data includes 45,000 links between bodies and 105,000 organization-country links. Data is published annually in the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations.

-- "World problems": 12,500 problem descriptions (covering problems in every sector, from environment to social and political issues). Relational data includes 20,000 links between problems. Organization-problem links are in process of being included. Data is published irregularly (3rd edition, Spring 1990) in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.

-- International meetings: 7,000 future international meetings (in every subject area). Relational data includes links to international organizations responsible for the meetings. Data is published quarterly in the International Congress Calendar.

Because of the overwhelming volume of data, it is becoming increasingly clear that conventional means of presenting such data do not respond adequately to the needs of an important category of users. Users associated with the policy elaboration process need new information tools which help them to get an overview of the maze of data. Options need to be presented for discussion in terms of a context of explicitly interrelated issues -- in contrast with the present tendency to disguise this complexity by reducing it to a linear agenda of issues.

One approach is to conclude that users need "maps" of the pathways between text 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.

The UIA seeks funds to develop the software to generate such maps. The immediate product would be an Atlas of International Relationship Networks, which the UIA publisher has already agreed to publish.

Future products will include CD/ROM and CD/ED versions of the database. In this form uses will be able to interact more effectively with the data as do those currently using the LAN through which the data is updated and managed. At this time, it is already possible to navigate through the data in a hypertext mode. The missing component is the mapping facility through which the patterns of relationships can be comprehended and reordered more effectively.

Technical precedents

Map designs: Interesting examples of such graph displays, prepared manually, do exist. 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 drawnand 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.

Hardware/Software: 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), electronic circuit board design (PCB), or computer-aided structural engineering (CASE). 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.

A number of software pacakges have been developed, especially for Apple machines, which go some of the way towards the product required. These include MORE and INSPIRATION. The disadvantage of these products is that they have primarily been designed to work around a core concept (a "main idea") which is the point of departure for a hierarchical structure. This does not correspond to the essentially non-hierarchical presentation required.

Another range of packages exist for the analysis of social networks. But these emphasize the mathematical characteristics of the network and tend not to facilitate their graphical presentation.

Relevance to immediate product

1. In preparing such publications, editorial researchers need to be able to graphically represent the networks of relationships they are endeavouring to clarify. This is in part strongly related to mind-mapping. Without such a tool, editors have to produce extensive mind maps in manual form before building up or modifying the network of relationships. Ideally it should be possible to communicate such maps to key resource people to obtain insights which are not so easily indicated in normal text presentations.

2. 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".

3. As a complement to the Yearbook of International Organizations and to the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, the atlas might take the form of a 600 page A4 publication: 250 maps, 250 facing 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. At a later stage external facilities might be used to generate maps of higher visual quality.

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

5. 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.

Short-term strategy

Estimates for the development of fully interactive software are in excess of $60,000. However it should be possible to produce a non-interactive package which can take information fro a database (possibly via a simple reformatting package) and present it in map form. The challenge is to determine the cost options in relation to the comprehensibility of the output.

There is also the possibility of forcing the data through a package designed for other purposes such as for modelling chemical molecules or printed circuit board design. This would have the advantage of making available the interactive facilities of a complex package. It would introduce restrictions on the future marketing of the package. It is also questionable whether such packages emphasize comprehensibility to the extent required.

Given the availability of the data, and the difficulty of persuading funding sources of the general value of such a package, it might be more appropriate to aim for a modest package, despite the sacrifice in comprehensibility of the output.

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