BBC Memoryshare – visualization + history

I have only spent 7 minutes in here, but I am already in love.  From the BBC – Memoryshare, “a place to share and explore memories.”

memoryshare

It’s a totally fun visualization tool – a sliding timeline down the left side of the screen lets you drill down to a year and browse through people’s memories from that year.

From the stuff you read in history textbooks — Queen Victoria’s funeral procession in 1901 (1901!!)

“Well, I was thrilled to the marrow. Because I had never seen troops of soldiers, I had never seen mounted police. Being brought up in the country, I had never seen a crowd.” (Mrs. G.S. Freeman)

To the stuff you don’t – like the day John Ballam met his wife (1987)

Compared to where I grew up the UK seemed terribly crowded and also the university issued very careful guidelines about how to anticipate violence and certain areas to avoid and of course having grown-up in the middle of nowhere this seemed to be very shocking so I got myself a roll of ten pences and carried them in my hand to defend myself.

(via infosthetics.com)

browsing the public discourse

Last spring, I talked about showing a news visualizer from MSNBC called Spectra to a group of advanced composition students. And I talked about how none of the students chose to use that tool when they got to the hands-on portion of the class.  I thought about that again this morning because three sections of that same course came in for library instruction.

An aside – these classes aren’t the typical “how to find a scholarly article” sessions that I do.  The students are being asked to engage with the public discourse in these papers.  Instead of the “find three peer-reviewed journal articles” requirement, these students have to find three editorials or letters to the editor, as well as public conversation on websites like blogs or discussion boards.  So what I show is very different than the things I show in most of my sessionstechnorati authority ratings, advanced searches on Lexis-Nexis and the like.

So we want to encourage some broad exploration of the conversations going on online and in the news media in this class.  Especially this term, because in all 3 classes the students were turning in one paper and just beginning to think about the research paper assignment.  Especially with this kind of find-the-public-conversation topic, it is so much easier when they browse the public conversations and find something that catches their interest and sparks their curiosity than it is when they decide on a specific topic and then have to knock themselves out to find discussion about that.

So this year, I pointed them at Wikipedia, which is an obvious place to browse.  But assuming they all knew that and how to use it, I also showed them newsmap.  This visualization tool has been around for several years now (long enough that they describe themselves as being in need of an upgrade).  The information here is just Google News, but displayed (using flash) as a treemap.  It’s a slice of what’s being highlighted right now (or ten minutes ago, or an hour ago) by Google News.  You can’t search it, you can only browse it.  You can browse by some very broad subjects (health, sports, world news, etc.)

And you can also drill down a bit by geographic location.  Newsmap lets you choose to look at stories from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.  You can also display all countries at once and see them next to each other.

newsmap

So here’s the thing – lots and lots of the students chose to use this tool for browsing.  Even though it can’t be searched.  Part of that, I think, is because of where they were in their process.  Most of them hadn’t even taken the time to think of a general topic area – they JUST finished the previous paper last night or this morning.  So they were more amenable to the idea of browsing broadly.  Part of it, though, is that they obviously found the interface intuitive.  They weren’t just clicking on stories, they were using the tool to browse by country and by subject – everyone I saw was very active in how they used the site.

I don’t know if they were getting the larger ideas about the patterns of the data that the treemap re-presentation of information is designed to provide.  I don’t know if they were seeing how the format “ironically accentuates the bias” of the news, as the site creator claims.  They asked me things like “how did you get to that colorful site,” and “where did you find that really visual thing.”  And in each class, at least a third to half of them were using it for at least part of the time.  So compared to last year, I call that a win for visual browsing.

Gray Lady not so gray, actually

Somewhere, I thought that I had listed some of my favorite news visualizations from the New York Times.  The NYT has really set itself apart among major newspapers with its creative and useful and glanceable visualizations.  It’s the only newspaper I see regularly featured on my favorite infoviz blog – Information Aesthetics.

But I can’t find it.  I still think it’s there, but I can’t remember what I was talking about when I wrote it.   So this isn’t my favorite example – just the most recent one I remember:

New York Times Endorsements Throughout the Ages

So this morning I read (in Information Aesthetics, of course) that the NYT is partnering with Many Eyes to open the visualization lab up to the rest of us.  There are only a few data sets there right now to play with but the topics range from baseball to religion to Sarah Palin. You have to work with them as-is, it’s true.  So like many other projects the ultimate value of this will be determined largely by the quality of the datasets the NYT makes available.

From the About page:

With Visualization Lab, NYTimes.com users will be able to visualize and comment on information and data sets presented by Times editors, share those visualizations with others and create topic hubs where people can discuss specific subjects.

The visualizations that have been done will look familiar if you’ve looked at Many Eyes before – charts, maps, network graphs and more.  There are also tag clouds, and Wordles, though I’m not sure what Wordle’s connection to the project actually is.

The awesomeness of the NYT visualization project isn’t an accident, it’s intentional.  At last year’s InfoVis conference, Matthew Ericson’s keynote on bringing visualizations to the masses underscores this face (this account at the Visuale blog is thorough and interesting, though more focused on maps and mapping than the keynote was.  It also includes a link to the slides).

Bertini, linked above, says at the end of his account that the one thing that remained obscure after Ericson’s keynote was the tools the NYT was using to make these visualizations.  Certainly, the tools from Many Eyes and Wordle have been available to all of us for a while – this doesn’t answer that question.  But it does highlight how powerful some of the tools available to us on the emerging web are.


edupunk — positive, negative, vitriol or faith, what does punk mean?

I actually have no idea what the answer to that question is. I already mentioned the essay about the Clash which was about corporate rock, politics, and the reality of growing up in Canby, Oregon.

But there’s also this short movie that the Willamette Valley Film Collective made last year to compete in the International Documentary Challenge.  The Willamette Valley Film Collective membership varies, but the IDC competition has been a regular feature of hte WVFC’s schedule every year.

Last year we looked at an exhibit of punk rock art at the library at Western Oregon University.  Shaun has put a couple of versions of the final product up on his channel at Blip-TV.

We edited this video between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am.  And there’s a lot about the process I don’t remember that well.  But what I do remember, and what I think is fairly tightly connected to the edupunk ideas that have been so well-discussed online over the last few days is in the description of the DIY aesthetic.  As you can tell, that was a strong theme throughout the discussion of the meaning of punk, and of the meaning of punk rock art.  And I think, *think* – it gets at some of the reason this term is resonating with people, at least a certain subgroup of people, around the web.

Visual Vitriol – Quicktime version

Visual Vitriol — Flash (lower quality) version

good interface + bad metadata =

well, not really bad metadata.  More like the wrong metadata.

Dipity lets you build interactive timelines. You can pull in all kinds of information sources — video, text, images — and display them in a nice, linear timeline. The interface is easy to navigate. Each item in the timeline can be viewed within the timeline, and each item has a handy “next event” button to make navigation easier.

Sample Dipity timeline about the Beatles

Anyway, I have some ideas for how to use this interface and if I ever get time to try them, I’ll post about it more.  But that’s the thing – putting this stuff together does take time.  If you choose the browse timelines option on the dipity site – there are a LOT of timelines with no events, with 2 events, with 4 events.  I’d imagine a fair number of them will never be finished.

So the other day I noticed this – Time Tube – a mashup that puts the Dipity timeline interface together with YouTube.  Same cool interface, but you just have to keyword search a topic and your timeline will be populated with YouTube videos a few minutes later.  It’s created a fair amount of buzz over the last couple of days, most of it positive because it’s fun to use and some of the timelines are pretty interesting.

But – the timelines are based on the date the video was uploaded.  If all you want is a nice browsing interface this is okay – as another way to display the results of a YouTube keyword search.  But as a way of visualizing information, if what you want is to add some kind of meaning or context to the videos, it’s only useful for a very narrow set of topics.

Compare this “Beatles” timeline to the one above -

TimeTube for \"The Beatles\" - 1 year span

It doesn’t look too bad, but there’s no real meaning there.  Not even a spike when Across the Universe was released.

TimeTube lets you pick a longer timespan – here’s fifty years.  This really shows the limitations.

TimeTube for \"The Beatles\" - 50 year span

Everything clustered in the middle because YouTube didn’t exist until a short time ago.  The fact that they let you open out your range to 20, 50, 100 years suggests that the upload date might not always be the way these things are generated?  Or maybe it’s just a holdover from the original Dipity interface.  The timelines created are dynamic and there’s no way to save them.  There’s no account to create so you can’t find timeline buddies either.

Where this is useful now is for topics, like “olympic torch protests” where people upload their videos right away after an event happens.  Or to track the zeitgeist when something emerges out of nowhere to become the next big thing.  Or as a fun browsable interface for a YouTube keyword search.

maybe fun isn’t quite enough

So back in this post, I explained why one reason that I don’t like EBSCO’s new visual search is that they didn’t preserve the fun factor of the old interface.  And I stand by that.  So I was intrigued when I saw this in my feeds yesterday.

This is Spectra, part of msnbc’s Newsware suite of tools, applications, games and widgets.  From the site:

Spectra merges the news spectrum and the color spectrum into an expansive news viewing experience. With comprehensive live news coverage, striking design, complete customization, dynamic browsing, human body interaction and many other unique features, Spectra brings A Fuller Spectrum of News to life in our most immersive extension yet.

A wee bit hyperbolic?  Yes, maybe.  But it looked swirly and fun, so I thought I’d check it out.  I showed it to a class of students this morning (advanced rhetoric and composition) and I definitely got some interest in the fun swirly interface.  What do I mean by “swirly?”

Well, you choose from a variety of news channels – by subject (sports, science, etc.) or by format (videos, blogs, etc.) and items from those channels fly up into this swirly looking thing – kind of a tornado of news:

msnbc Specta swirl screengrab

After you watch it swirl around for a while, you can start looking at the articles.  They display like this:

article view on msnbc\'s spectra

You can save articles you like to a newsreader as you pick them out of the swirl.  You can also search your swirl, and then all of the articles that don’t have your search term will drop out, which looks kind of cool, and which is kind of useful.  And you can re-order the items in your swirl so that they’re grouped by subject, or displayed in date-time order.

What’s not as useful – you can’t click on an item as it swirls by and skip to that item.  I don’t know, this seems like a deal-breaker for me.  I kept wanting to do it even after I knew that I couldn’t and intuitively, I think I can’t be the only person who might want to do that.

Also not as useful, under the option “Change View,” Spectra will apparently tap into your webcam and see what color you are, or what color you’re wearing, or what color your walls are or something and then feed you news that goes with those colors.  Seriously.  It took me like an hour to figure out that part was supposed to be doing because I just kept saying, “no, that can’t be what they mean by that.”

And finally not as useful is the fact that the only news is msnbc news.  While not surprising, this is disappointing and probably makes this a tool I won’t come back to again.

The Newsware package includes games (some integrate with Facebook) that I didn’t play.  It also includes widgets, screensavers, feeds and more.  All in all, I think there is a lot of good work going on here – but I don’t really think they’re there yet.

Back to Spectra, the headline reader, and fun.  It’s a little fun to watch, and when I demonstrated it the students were interested.  But I don’t think it’s interactive enough or that it gives the user enough control to really be fun to use.  And fun to use is what’s really important, at least to me.  I’m excited about the potential of dynamic information visualization because I think it fits into the whole idea of research as part of a learning process, based on exploration and discovery.  Just watching doesn’t get you to that point.

After the demonstration, when students had the option to use any of the tools I’d demonstrated, I did notice that none of them picked Spectra.  I may not have been as clear on what kind of tool it was or how they might use it as I could have been.  But I also think that it might be a situation of what’s fun to watch in a demonstration isn’t fun in the hands-on if all it really lets you do is watch.

More news meta…

…still thinking about last week’s conversation about the corporate media and what that means for information literacy instruction and the broader idea of library users as informed citizens. A couple of things have come across my screen that seem to fit into this conversation.

First, continuing the theme of cool and awesome visualizations is Muckety, with the tagline “exploring the paths of power and influence.” The site is a simple blog like presentation of news stories, focusing on the connections between people, corporate entities, topics and more. But the stories are accompanied by these interactive maps that let you explore those connections on your own. I like how easy and responsive it is – do a search, choose a result and generate a map around that result. The visualizations seem to be based on an in-house database, so it’s not as easy as it could be to follow the sources and explore the relationships further.

The first thing I thought of was using this tool to look at some of the corporate relationships I talked about last week – someone’s already done it. And that’s great because the resulting map is a bit chaotic and crazy and probably took forever to put together -

Big 8 + Sony Muckety Map

And in a nice bit of synchonicity – today’s top story on Muckety is the other thing I was going to talk about here. Jason Mittell and Barbara Fister both talked about this yesterday and got me thinking about the connections between all of these conversations. Barbara got a comment when she cross-posted the story on ACRLog that suggested the commenter saw the story as an attack on the Bush administration and nothing more.

I think the commenter was primed to see things that way and wouldn’t have been open to any other interpretation, but I also think Mittell’s JustTV post raises another important issue that has particular significance for us when we’re trying to think about the question of how to teach information literacy – the kind of information literacy that supports informed citizenry and lifelong learning:

The biggest gap in Barstow’s article is an explanation for why the media allows its “experts” to hold forth unchecked, whether due to conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, or demonstrated ineptitude for actually displaying expertise. The end of the article tries to address this, but the networks stonewall Barstow in a range of ways, from ABC saying it’s the responsibility of analysts to report their own conflicts of interest, to Fox’s outright refusal to participate in the article. Of course looking too closely at these issues would force the Times to justify why it publishes its own discredited “expert,” William Kristol, despite nearly every claim he’s made for the last 7 years having been proven wrong.

So yay for the Times for pulling back the curtain – but to some extent this little glimpse just shows how much more pushing at the curtain still needs to be done.

cool stuff that’s fun to look at!

For reasons I won’t go into, I recently spent way too much time on the internet looking for magazine scans. (Anyone going to Online NW might soon be able to piece together why). Looking for those I ran across some other things I thought were awesome, even if I’m not always clear on what to do with them.

The Book Scans database

  • I’m linking to the main page – the database page is on the left. I probably lost an hour going through these. The site design is a little old-school, and navigating can be kind of clunky. The site is also intended for the collector community, so it might be perfectly organized for their needs and only clunky for non-collectors. Oddly there’s no notes anywhere about what one can do with these images, or actually anything at all intellectual property-related.

Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page

  • Again, more a browsing space than a searching one, and initially I was like “why would I want to browse this.” Thirty minutes later I still wasn’t sure but I couldn’t stop. These are screengrabs of the title shots from a whole lot of movies. I almost didn’t include this one when I couldn’t find All About Eve, but this one from The Awful Truth was entirely charming so I left it in –

Title shot from The Awful Truth

Vintage Vanguard

  • A big collection of scans of old Vanguard record albums. Both front and back material, which is awesome. I love these because you can see how old they are.

And I also found magazine scans galore — these were my two favorite sites:

MagazineArt.org

The Conde Nast Store

And finally this – cute mid-century French stuff. I’m not sure how to categorize this, but how could I not include it?

Lefor-Openo

Why I don’t like Ebsco’s visual search interface, part 2 of 2

(Go here for part 1)

Because it isn’t any fun.

The old interface, with the circles and the squares, let you zip around and zoom in on an idea and then when that didn’t work, zoom out on the idea and try something new. I know that for some people, it didn’t work. For some people it was slow, and jerked around. And I get that. But for us, in our classrooms and on the computers in the Commons, it was fast, and kind of fun.

Here’s the column view of the new interface.

There’s a little bit of zipping around to be done there, but really, it’s just not as cool. It’s too hierarchical – it gives the sense that there is just one direction to explore – from the narrow to the broad and back again.

I was teaching a class a while ago and before we got started I was listening in on the small talk in the room and this one guy said to another one, “dude, I spent a couple of hours last night on Wikipedia so I didn’t get my math done.” That kind of blew me away. I mean, Wikipedia. It’s almost all text, with limited graphics. It’s written in boring, neutral encyclopedia style (at least it’s supposed to be), at least I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the prose sucking people in. And on top of it all it’s only mostly right (a description lifted almost verbatim from one of Jessamyn West’s talks).

But for all that, we all know it can be a bit of a time-suck. I think it’s the hyperlinks and the flattened browse that it facilitates that does it.

Here’s a visualization of the linked structure.

You go in, you click some links, and pretty soon you’re looking at a list of everything that happened on October 18. You’re not necessarily drilling down in a traditional sense, though you can do that, but you’re bouncing around a lateral plane of topics — and checking out connections you might not have even considered yourself. If it wasn’t fun, you wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t easy, you wouldn’t do it. But it’s both.

Now, the old visual search was hierarchical too, and most librarians I know didn’t really like to use it themselves in part because they didn’t like the categories that the database generated for subtopics. But it didn’t feel hierarchical in the same way. To use it, you didn’t have to go back up and down the hierarchy – you could jump from one subtopic to the other and explore it non-hierarchically within a topic, even if you couldn’t jump from topic to topic easily.

Here’s the other view of the new interface – the blocks.

This one seems more active and fun to watch, but you don’t feel like you’re controlling the movement. It’s not intuitive (at least not to me). I’m moving around between topics, which are still hierarchically arranged, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not controlling my browsing, not controlling the display, in the same way.

So why do I care if it’s fun or not? Well, because I want to encourage students to take the time to explore topics broadly before they make up their minds. I want them to put themselves in a position to find some new things out about their topic before they start to write. I mostly work with first- and second- year students doing cross-disciplinary gen ed type work. They do a lot of current events or similar type topics for their papers. They frequently have some idea of what they’re going to write about and what they’re going to argue, and it’s very tempting in a 10 week term to just jump in and gather together the kinds of articles that will support their preconceived idea of a thesis. I totally get that. I mean, seriously, I’ve done it.

But we know that deep learning is supported by authentic discovery. And because of Carol Kuhlthau, we know that taking the time to explore supports focus formation – the most important part of a research process that supports learning. And we know that when we ask students to explore before making up their minds about what they’re going to write we’re asking them to open themselves up to anxiety and uncertainty. We’re asking them to explore broadly, to consider sources and ideas they might not use when they are facing deadlines and anxious that they won’t figure out what they want to write about in time. And beyond this, we’re asking them to open themselves up to the possibility that they’re going to encounter some new idea that will force them to rethink some of their beliefs. This is scary stuff.

So – I say, let’s build them tools that make exploration fun. Wikipedia does this, and we encourage all of our beginning composition students to use it in this way. Ebsco’s visual search used to do it too.

Let me say one thing at the top – I am decidedly not saying “these kids today with their video games and their cell phones, everything has to be fun or they can’t learn.” I don’t believe that’s true, and my chapter in this book uses a lot of words to say why I don’t think that’s true. I’m not saying that the graphics alone made the Ebsco visual search fun.

No, I’m talking about the ways that learning, just plain old learning, not tricked out or dressed up as anything else, is fun. Remember what it was like when you were a little kid? When you’d check out books on bugs or the pioneers or maps from the library just because you were interested in bugs or the pioneers or maps?

When you’re a little kid you’re adding facts, and you’re learning about things for the first time, and that’s fun. And it’s more complex cognitively than we thought, and even little kids have to be willing to let go their preconceptions to learn, but learning then for a lot of us felt simple and easy. Then you get older and you start learning about harder stuff, and you start re-learning stuff. And for some of us, that leads to the little thrill you get when you read something or hear something or see some result in the lab that suggests everything you used to know about a topic was wrong and that what you’ve just learn will have a ripple effect – it’s going to make you think about things in an entirely new way.

I think this is one of the gaps that tends to crop up between those of us in academia on purpose as teachers and researchers and our students — our students don’t come to us with the idea that research and learning is supposed to make you rethink what you know, and that you’re supposed to engage in a process of constructing new knowledge. How College Affects Students reminds us that most people get to college just when they’re beginning to reach the developmental stage that lets them see knowledge itself as something constructed, not revealed.

I think this is crucial for us in libraries, and especially for those of us interested in information literacy to remember. What we do gives our students the tools and the understanding they need to find the information they need to build new knowledge and meaning for themselves. And when they come to us, most of them aren’t even thinking about knowledge in that way.

I think a lot of people who go on to get Ph.D’s can think back and point to formative experiences where they first realized how much fun research and learning and scholarship could be. Some of us have had that thrill for so long that we forget it’s entirely new to our students. And that it’s scary. And that it’s not that they want to be closed minded or that they’re refusing to learn – but that what we’re asking them to do is scary.

So that’s a really long way away from Ebsco’s visual search. Alone, did the little boxes and circles lead to seismic shifts in our students’ epistemological understanding? Of course not. But it was fun, and now it’s not. And the basis for authentic discovery is exploration. It’s looking at stuff that might be new to you, with an open enough mind that those new ideas might affect you. And anything we can do to encourage students to take that time, to explore, to learn, is well worth it. The visual search is less fun now, and I think it will be less useful for my students because of that.