Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
University of Earth

1992

Network Mapping: Development of an Operational Relationship Technique

General description of problem

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Annex 4 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks


Documents in linear text form are at present the main vehicle for communicating insights on conditions and problems of many kinds, whether social, scientific, environmental, philosophic, cultural or administrative. No comment is necessary on the difficulties created by the information explosion as reflected in the proliferation of documents "relevant" to meeting, programme or policy concerns. At the same time, it is increasingly difficult to communicate key insights and concerns and the nature of their inter-relationship. They are too easily ignored or lost in the flood of information. Documents tend to be indigestible even if available in the appropriate language. Each person is necessarily protected by strategies to avoid "unnecessary" reading. The value of new "insightful" papers and reports is thus relatively limited. The insights are effectively entombed in documents despite efforts by documentalists to provide sophisticated systems of access. Abstracting systems and reviews of the state of the art do not respond to the condition. Reading/attention time is an increasingly scarce resource, particularly amongst those in a position to act on the insights. Too often such systems provide answers to less significant questions, whilst failing to assist users to formulate questions more appropriate to their concerns.

Mapping possibilities

"Mapping" has been used in the sense of compilations of relevant texts into a macro-document. It has also been used as a synonym for certain mathematical modelling techniques. Many attempts have been made to represent system and network relationships in different types of diagram - from the blackboard sketch to the sophisticated flow chart (1, 3) and the glossy artwork presentation (2); All these have obscured the possibility of a different approach whose advantages have not been fully explored.

A simple technique is required for visually recording "entities" of any kind (concepts, problems, organizations, animal species, etc) and the relationships between them; The initial problem does not lie in the conception of such displays. Indeed network displays of concepts ("arrow diagrams"), molecules ("metabolic pathways"), groups/people ("social networks", "organization charts"), species ("food webs"), etc have already been produced.

The initial problem lies in the fact that so much effort is required to display the information in that form, that there is very little incentive to experiment with improvements and complementary information aids. In their present form they are classed as relatively expensive "artwork", involving difficult decisions of positioning and balance. The design process is very time-consuming and any feedback concerning modifications means the process must recommenced. Feedback and experiments with alternative are therefore not encouraged and the technique lacks the dynamism and immediacy it might otherwise have. The maps are quickly out-dated and become indicative rather than significant.

Proposal

It is proposed that:

1. Appropriate steps be taken to design and test a sequence of three computer programs: The above programs should, to the extent possible, not be hardware bound. They should be written in a common language such as FORTRAN.

2. Efforts should be made to test the above system on large tape-based data sets (e.g. that arising from the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential).

3. Particular attention should be given to the user's perspective: 4. Efforts should be made to test the above system as an aid to clarifying the areas of concern, agreement and disagreement, whether for meetings, programme elaboration, or general information (well charts, etc). It is important to know how well people can use such maps as a means of communicating their own perceptions of the complexity of a situation and comprehending how it is reinforced or negated by other perceptions. Whether it is possible to use such maps as a sort of questionnaire to provoke a series of feedback/modification iterations (a mapping analogue to the Delphi method), remains to be determined.

Further work

Whilst the emphasis should be on production of a simple operational system, possibilities (and costs) of extending and improving the system should be investigated.

Whilst there are many attractive possibilities for hand-drawn maps, it is strongly recommended that the investigation focus on the means whereby such work can be facilitated through dynamic interaction with data bases or displays extracted from them. Otherwise it will not be possible to breakout of the inertia of the present dependence on scarce, costly and time-consuming graphic stills.

Conclusion

This project should provide (groups of) users with a means of portraying an overview of their area of concern with whatever detail is required on its underlying structure.

Clearly such displays could condense and "pack" information present in a multiplicity of reports; The displays themselves could be presented in an interlinked pattern exploring detail reflected in a "large scale" display (on the "atlas" principle). They would be easy to reproduce and convenient to use either as a focus for meeting discussions, for educational purposes or as "memory aids" on an office wall. Transparent overlays are also an interesting possibility.

There are a multitude of uses for such a technique. A good example is the ability to input several hundred species, their food chain relationships, and entry points for accumulating pollutants (e.g. mercury). The technique would be available just as home-computers reached the point of accessibility at which people could make use of an associating aid to "sort out" their mental maps as a basis for a more adequate response to complex situations. Information in this form is more effective than an abstract or a verbal summary and as such appropriate maps could provide the first "non-linear" meeting agendas.
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