Topographic Mapping of Information
are one of best examples of information mapping available on the
Web today. They are also among the most map-like of information
maps, borrowing literally and liberally from the cartographer's
toolbox. The attractive and interactive NewsMaps maps provide a
'big picture' summary of large volumes of textual information represented
as hills, valleys and white, snow capped, mountain peaks - a cartographic
form common on topographic maps of the real world. They provide
daily maps of international news, US news and technology news .
NewsMaps was developed as a high profile 'show-and-tell' website
to demonstrate the power of ThemeScape information analysis and
mapping technology developed by Cartia, Inc. .
Information Mountain Peaks
graphical methods to represent the three-dimensional form of terrain
on flat paper maps has long been a challenge in cartography .
Solutions developed for mapping relief include the use of contour
lines and elevation shading. Contour lines trace areas of equal
height and they are drawn at regular elevation intervals. To distinguish
different contours they can be shaded with a appropriate gradation
of colours that give the visual impression of changing elevation.
This elevation colour scheme is widely used and seems to make intuitive
sense . Both contour lines and elevation shading are successfully
employed by NewsMaps to provide a terrain that appears almost three-dimensional
on a flat computer screen. These maps are, of course, using the
hills and valleys metaphorically to represent the volume of textual
spatial properties of location and elevation in the maps are used
to encode key characteristics of the form and structure of the information
space in a single visual snapshot. Firstly, the peaks in NewsMaps
are formed by a large number of news stories discussing the same
topic (which is labelled with keywords for the topic). Intuitively,
the higher the mountain, the greater the number of news stories.
The valleys are the natural transitions between one topic and another.
The spatial concept of 'neighbourhood' is also used, so the closer
together two hills are on the map, the more similar their information
content. Again, this is intuitive, as things that are closer together
in space are usually more closely related. (Similar spatial concepts
were used in the prototype information map ET-Map which featured
in February 2000 Map
of the Month).
produce the daily NewsMaps maps the ThemeScape system applies sophisticated
and proprietary lexical algorithms to analyse and in some senses
'understand' the content of text documents and the relations between
them to distil the key topics and form the map. This complex process
of turning huge volume of text information into a summary graphic
representation like a map is called spatialization.
are delivered over the Web in a fully interactive viewer which allows
you to explore the map on your desktop. By moving the cursor over
the map's surface details on the individual news articles pop-up
and in a couple of mouse clicks you can access the full story in
separate browser window. You can also zoom in on a region of the
map to see greater local detail or browse through a listing of the
topics represented on the map or use a conventional key word search.
The results of both of these techniques are clearly shown on the
map, as the relevant articles are located with blue pin makers.
One can also plant little red flags to mark interesting spots on
the map and thereby identify the underlying article.
Inc. and Cartography
is developed by Cartia, Inc., based in Bellevue, Washington State,
a high-tech spin-off formed by information visualisation researchers
at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in 1996 .
In an email interview for Map of the Month with David B. Lantrip,
one of Cartia's cofounders, I asked him whether he thought maps
were the right approach to the problems of searching and browsing
the Web. His unequivocal answer was, "Yes! Or another yet-to-be
seen visual interface that uses some spatial representation of the
information such that it has many of the advantages we currently
provide via maps." He went to list these potentially powerful
advantages, "… a high-level view of all the data at once showing
patterns and relationships, visual recognition of document content
similarity by spatial cues, scalability to millions of documents
without any change to interface, point and click retrieval, attractive
and visually simple display that encourages exploration, and various
tools to explore map in detail."
has a good grounding in spatial analysis, with degrees in engineering,
planning and architecture, for his wide ranging role at Cartia developing
advanced visualisation techniques, evaluating how people use those
systems and generally 'evangelising the technology' of information
mapping. Lantrip was part of the core team of researchers at PNNL
in the early 1990s who were tasked by US government intelligence
community to develop new visual interfaces to tackle the mounting
problems of information overload. The researchers quickly hit upon
cartography as a potentially powerful representational tool with
a proven history, as Lantrip recounts, "we don't believe that it
is an accident that records of maps predate evidence of written
language." Their prototype solution was called SPIRE - Spatial Paradigm
for Information Retrieval and Exploration  and formed
the groundwork for the development of ThemeScape. Designing information
interfaces that can be used by the casual, untrained user were perhaps
the hardest part of developing NewsMaps, according to Lantrip. This
is not dissimilar to real-world cartography, where designing a map
that can be picked up and quickly and intuitively read by anyone
is incredibly difficult .
of ThemeScape is ongoing and one exciting future avenue is the use
of their mapping as an alternative interface to the conventionally
ranked list output of search engines. Lastly, I asked Lantrip what
his dream map of the Net would be. His well considered response
was for a super-charged NewsMaps style map capable of smoothly handling
the whole Web, which would,
updated every hour to include new pages. At the highest level,
the map will show only very broad thematic categories as peaks
with labels. Zooming into an area will recompute the map in
milliseconds and show a new set of relationships based upon
the themes in the view-closer the zoom, the greater the specificity
of content. Searches will show hits plotted on the map and the
user can recompute the map based on the query results only.
Options will allow the user to constrain the map to exclude
or include only certain themes/content and tools will allow
the user to explore the map by specifying time and relations
among people, places, organizations and things. Map overlays
will show user surfing history, other user behavior, theme growth
rates, geographic information, etc. All this and the interface
will be simple enough for a child to use!"
this would certainly be a useful tool for exploring the topography
of the Web.