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January 1992

Visualizing Relationship Networks

International. Interdisciplinary, Inter-Sectorial

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Exploration of future uses of information currently held in databases for the production of the
Yearbook of International Organizations and Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential
[earlier variant presented in searchable PDF version ]

Summary (1992)
Envisaged products (1992)

SUMMARY (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:

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 (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.

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 presentation required.

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 promotional purposes.

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.

14. Annexes: 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 2)

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.

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