Atlas of International Relationship Networks
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Annex 1 of Visualization
of International Relationship Networks
[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
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
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
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
-- 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
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
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
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
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.
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.