Visualizing Relationship Networks
International. Interdisciplinary, Inter-Sectorial
- / -
Exploration of future uses of information currently held in databases for
the production of the
of International Organizations and Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential
[earlier variant presented in searchable PDF version ]
Envisaged products (1992)
This document describes several related needs in the visualization of information
relevant to international organizations and the integration of their inter-sectoral
(or interdisciplinary) activities. The annexes describe the need for network
mapping, using computer graphics. The stress is on the manipulation and
mapping of networks on screen as a representation of a database. Various
products can be envisaged (see below). The value
of producing a hardcopy version, in the form of an Atlas of International
Relationship Networks serves as one focus for the discussion of the software
implications. The conceptual challenge of visualization is also explored
in relation to the need for 'conceptual scaffolding' to facilitate
integration processes in conferences. The challenge of computer-assisted
mapping and display of concept structures in conferences is reviewed. The
related question of the need for a 'structural outliner' is also
clarified in the form of a preliminary set of specifications.
1. Examples: The basic software problem can best be illustrated
succinctly 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 in a network 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.
2. Understanding relationships
: 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. Non-hierarchical relationships
: 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
(1991/92) covering 28,200 entries indicates
71,050 relationships between them -- with the major organizations having
an average of 70 each. Similarly the complementary volume, the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential
(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 the possibility of CD-ROM
versions is being investigated.
4. 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.
5. Beyond text editing
: 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.
6. Graphic examples
: 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.
7. Existing tools
: Computer hardware and software for the construction
and manipulation of such networks of relationships have already been developed
for specific applications as in visualization of complex chemical molecules,
architecture and engineering (CAD), or electronic circuit board design
. 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.
8. Software packages
: A number of software packages 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
9. Map production
: Once such maps can be successfully 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'.
10. Complementary information tools
: As a complement to the Yearbook
of International Organizations, 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. At
a later stage the facilities of Computaprint might be used to generate
maps of higher visual quality.
11. Specialized maps
: Maps would be designed to cover clusters of
organizations and/or problems in a given subject or geographical area.
12. Evocation of new information
: 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
13. Structural outliner programme
: There is a strong case for developing
a computer software package to be used as a structural 'outliner',
namely a structural analogue to the existing text outliners. This would
facilitate visualization of new patterns of relationship which might form
the basis of new organizational structures and agreements.
: The accompanying annexes give further details of different,
and overlapping, 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.
From a computer programming perspective, the following products involve
the development of many modules and functions which are common to several
of the products, if not all.
1.Atlas of International Relationship Networks (see Annex 1 and
Printed volume based on databases for the Yearbook of International Organizations
and the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. The volume
would consist of maps of networks of relationships between organizations,
between social and other problems, and between organizations and problems.
Its purpose would be to provide an overview of large quantities of information
to provide a context for more specific policy decisions.
2.Network mapping software (see Annex 3 to 11)
Software package designed to facilitate collection and display of data
on networks of all kinds. The concern is to facilitate interaction with
information on networks, avoiding the inadequacies and limitations of networks
held in conventional relational databases where any global view of the
network patterns is virtually impossible. The aim is to facilitate a network
action strategy. Specific uses of such a package can be seen in: documenting
complex networks of holding companies; tracking crime networks; mapping
food chains and webs in ecosystems; citation analysis displays; social
network maps; mind-mapping.
3.Concept tracking software (see Annex 12 to 14)
Software package designed to facilitate the collection and display of data
on the evolving concept structure of a conference. The concern is to provide
participants with an overview of the concept structure within ongoing discussions
are embedded and which they are endeavouring to address, to extend, to
challenge and to modify. This is seen as an integrating tool for complex
conferences exploring a wide range of interrelated themes. The package
is seen as providing concept 'scaffolding' to hold conflicting
perspectives in juxtaposition within a turbulent conference environment
until linking concepts can be provided.
4.Structural outliner software (see Annex 15)
Software package designed to facilitate integration of a pattern of concepts.
The emphasis is on providing the user with a thinking aid that can allow
sets of concepts to be held and explored in a mode that stresses visual
structures and comprehensibility. It is to some extent a structural analogue
to the conventional text outliners. It is however much more closely linked
to pattern databases of concept sets, whether pre-supplied or developed
by the user.