visual topic exploration – for reals?

Remember back when I was sad about the demise of Ebsco’s visual search?  I got over it, but I never replaced it with the beginning composition students.  They still explore in Wikipedia, and a lot of them have fun with that, and I still talk about news browsing tools like newsmap in the advanced composition classes, but I haven’t had something to show that gets at that general idea of visual browse and topic exploration since the old visual search went away.

Until now?

Well, I don’t actually know.  But I know the answer is “maybe” which is something.  I was pointed to this tool this morning (still in beta, first area of concern is that I can’t tell if its going to stay free) — eyePlorer.com.

It’s a way to visualize Wikipedia information, which is something we’ve seen before.  But there’s something kind of fun and compelling about how it works.  And there are some add-on tools within the interface that could be really, really useful in the topic exploration phase of the research process.  Still, there are a couple of things that are giving me pause – I’ll get to those at the end.

First, the good.  It’s got circles.  No, seriously, I mean it.  It’s a fun interface to browse around in.

When you start the tool, you get an empty circle with a search box.  It does okay at figuring out the topic you want.  My first try was the topic of a student paper from a while ago.  I remembered this one because I had been pleased at the time that Wikipedia had a page for this student, specifically on their topic – orcas san juan.

EyePlorer wasn’t able to figure out what I meant by that search, but when I backtracked broader to just orcas, it did.  And better yet, one of the clusters of additional information was about places – and I was able to click and connect to information on the specific topic.

There’s a tool at the bottom of the screen that lets you zoom in to see more connections:

or out to see fewer:

If you click on the topics, you get a snippet from Wikipedia, and the option to get a little more.  The snippet is a link which will take you to the wikipedia page.  You can drag these snippets over to a notebook space, and move them around.

(Note – you have to have popups enabled for these things to work)

The note book thing in particular seems really potentially useful during topic exploration.

So why am I hesitant?  Two things.  First, I don’t really get the being able to click through to the Wikipedia page thing, because all of these subtopics and broader topics took me to the same page – the killer whale page from which they were all drawn.  It didn’t even take me to the part of the page the snippet was on, which would have put me closer to being able to click to another page — but I kept expecting to do that, to switch topics, within the tool and as far as I could tell in 10 minutes, I couldn’t.

This connects to the notebook as well – unless you do another search on another set of keywords, the notes that you pull over and rearrange are really just rearranging an existing Wikipedia article.  That’s not very useful.  Your notes do stay on the notebook from search to search, so that’s good – but I think you would need to build in specific guidance about research as an iterative, back and forth process, and make it clear that to use this tool to its fullest they should expect to search on multiple keywords.

That’s fine – research is like that and they should be prepared for back and forth and trying different things.  But when the term you want is right there, and you know that it is a hyperlink in the initial article, it is a little frustrating to have to re-search to get it.

The other, and more important hesitation is the clustering.  Much of the informational material on the site is in German, which I don’t read, or in the form of videos, which I don’t use.  So the answers to this might be there and I was too ignorant/lazy to figure them out.  But I don’t really understand how these different clusters (like slices of pie – color coded?  These areas are representing some kind of clustering) work.  If you mouse over the edge of the pie, you get a label – and some of those made sense (like “place”) but others – not so much.

Check this one out -

That refers to the little blue snippet – mean of transportation.  The Hudson Strait, that I can understand (though I’m not sure how it is different than the other bodies of water which go under “infrastructure”) – but Squid?  If you click on the dot, the snippet tells you that squid are a food source, so it seems like they should be below, in purple, with “milk.”

This might be a beta issue, right now it looks like the same categories attach no matter what the topic – at least I saw the same ones for peak oil and orcas.  And it also might be a language issue.  But I think this is worth keeping an eye on as a tool to encourage broad topic exploration.

One thought on “visual topic exploration – for reals?

  1. Thanks for this discussion of a new tool, Anne-Marie, and for sharing your questions about it. Your research topic caught my interest because I am on sabbatical in Canada–sometimes even watching orcas in Haro Strait off of San Juan Island, which is out my livingroom window. No squid to speak of, at least from my view. I’ve been reading Collin Brooke’s blog, Collin vs Blog, tracking back to a discussion of how he uses concept maps in a graduate research course. Search his site for concept map. Several interesting entries.

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