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Constraints and Possibilities

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Annex 7 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks (1992)


(a) Conventional approach: 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.

(b) Hypertext approach: 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 (1990/91) covering 26,656 entries indicates 65,175 relationships between them (with the major organizations having an average of 70 each) and with a further 192,552 links to membership countries. Similarly the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potantial (1991), covers 13,167 world problems with 80,394 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 with the possibility of CD/ROM versions.

(c) User need for "maps": 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.

(d) Editorial need for a graphic inrterface: 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.

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 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.

(e) Existing techniques: 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. 

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 wor 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.

(f) Atlas production: 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".

Maps would be designed to cover clusters of organizations and/or problems in a given subject or geographical area. They 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 distributed as wall-charts.

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