Visualizing knowledge

This article appears in the issue October 2013, [Vol 22 Issue 9]
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Traditionally knowledge was linear. Stored on tablets, scrolls or books in an explicitly linear fashion. The writer or writers of the "book" translated something they claimed as knowledge so that others could learn it and apply it in new situations.

Much has been made recently of knowledge discovery through visualization. As databases get connected and one database becomes a correlated data set or even metadata for another set of data, relationships, even meaning, can be found through visualizations that would take many lines of code and endless SQL queries.

But not all knowledge fits neatly into rows and columns. Knowledge includes metadata, contexts, relationships and other attributes that may be difficult to represent in columns, or even text. Even the richness of video fails because it is really but an enhanced narrative. In any narrative, the writer may make references, generate allusions and link to other ideas. But in most forms, connecting the dots back to the mental model falls to the person receiving the experience. Visual knowledge representation attempts to make those connections part of the experience, to explicitly, and visually, connect ideas. And with software, those links can be dynamically explored unlike any linear narrative.

Modern knowledge visualization tools may have started as simple drawing tools, but they have evolved into collaborative environments that help teams share information effectively, develop shared mental models and provide context in a way no other tool can.

Your brain on a computer

If you want to be a heart surgeon, you need to be a good physician first, then a good surgeon, then a good heart surgeon. At least that is how it used to be. Up to 16 years could be spent learning the art and science of medicine, followed by training in a specialty, before reaching the level of board certified practitioner.

The Millennials are coming, however, and they are telling the medical establishment that they don't want to learn things they don't need to learn—and what they do need to learn, they want delivered in a timely, efficient way that will help them achieve their goal in the shortest time possible. This view of medicine parallels efforts to confer a bachelor's degree in three years or less, and other production-oriented views of learning. Don't cater to them, however, and you will see, as cardiothoracic surgery did in the 90s, a huge drop in top student interest for entering into the field. On top of that, new labor laws are keeping young doctors who do choose cardiothoracic as a discipline, out of the hospital much more than in the past, making learning anywhere, anytime a necessity.

The history for establishing medical standards for heart surgery began in 1917 with the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS) and has gone through several complementary and parallel efforts to establish a core curriculum over the years. The problem is that all the various approaches end up becoming manifest in a number of textbooks and journals, and more recently, in videos and on websites developed by physicians for physicians. The explosion of information has made it harder than ever before to discover the best, most concise-or the best, most thorough, examination of a topic or example of a practice.

The brain has an answer—both TheBrain Technologies and the brain of Dr. Craig Baker, chief of cardiac surgery LAC+USC and vice chair of surgical education at USC's Keck School of Medicine. Baker's virtual brain resides in what TheBrain Technologies calls a "plex"—a complex set of nodes related in multiple dimensions. TheBrain is not new, but its decade-and-a-half development journey was always slightly ahead of all but the most forward-thinking stewards of knowledge.

Through Baker and others, TheBrain software is finding its niche in complex representations of knowledge that span thousands upon thousands of nodes, each one storing a reference, a construct, a video or something to read. Baker asked himself what a person would need to know to be an outstanding cardiothoracic surgeon, and the myriad answers that popped into his mind and those of his colleagues have been meticulously captured in what he refers to as his "personal brain," not because that is the name of a product, but because he has spent thousands of hours of his personal and professional time creating a visual representation of his field's knowledge.

Ambitious goals

Unlike efforts to capture topics of similar breadth and depth in text or documents managed within a content management system, which had been tried before and found rather frail and anemic while also being complex, representing material in TheBrain adds vital information such as which of many readings is actually the most recommended, how ideas and techniques are related and which topics are core to the curriculum. Although that information could be encoded into a relational database or content management system, it would not offer the immediacy of a visual representation where all of those factors appear simultaneously within a view.

Like all information, Baker's inputs exist outside of any container. Knowledge visualization makes the container important because it graphically consolidates seemingly disparate information into an easily groked representation. Tags are used to create dynamic groupings around material levels, and to tag content to curriculum. The expectation is that people can spend time learning and reading when off the clock.

Baker works intimately with the Joint Council on Thoracic Surgery Education (JCTSE, jtcse.org), a group charged in 2008 with the mission to advance thoracic surgery education. Led by Dr. Edward Verrier who serves as the surgical director of education, Baker and his colleagues Dr. Jim Fann, Dr. Ara Vaporciyan and Dr. Steve Yang have worked tireless hours to reshape the educational paradigm in thoracic surgery through integration and consolidation. Verrier and his team have spent time not just developing the relationship within the "personal brain" but also negotiating with content providers, consolidating open source information and integrating external curricula and tagging content. All of that has resulted in a knowledge representation nearing 100,000 nodes, with gigabytes of information accessible through it.

The JCTSE goals were ambitious: Put everything you need to know into one place, provide guidelines on when and how to operate and organize all of the content and mirror the mental categorization and access methods of a trained physician.

Baker and his colleagues are in the process of rolling out the cardiothoracic surgery brain to doctors throughout the United States. Because of the licensed content, the tool requires logging in to gain access. Baker believes every physician who needs access to the tool will get it. As the project goes forward, Baker will be giving up some control to editorial boards and others who will take on portions of the curation processes required to keep the knowledgebase current.

The art of the visual

The date 9/11 has been etched into collective memory. For the multiple agencies responsible for recovery and reconstruction in New York, it wasn't the only date that mattered. Several teams quickly started using Mindjet's MindManager to visualize the huge number of tasks, agencies and individuals involved in bringing New York back, an effort that continues today. Key to the effort was Con Edison, major supplier of electric, gas and steam to over 3 million New York customers. Con Ed's compliance and environment, and health and safety teams created an action plan using a visual map that led to real-time environmental monitoring, medical van deployment, personal showers and vehicle wash-down facilities to remediate the impact of asbestos and other dangerous chemicals unleashed by the near total annihilation of the World Trade Center site.

What happened on 9/11, of course, required resources well beyond those within the purview of the utility. The visualization capabilities created by Con Ed, however, were recognized as an important way to communicate through the complexity of the event.

Con Edison's David Hill, who had introduced mind mapping to the company, brought order to the chaos after 9/11 by helping build a map that explicitly detailed all of the stakeholders involved in the project. Hill worked with Lisa Frigand, a project specialist in economic development, to create a map that would help everyone better navigate the complex relationships involved in the rebuilding effort. That was crucial because dozens of parties, from state and local government, business owners, victims, property owners, emergent memorial non-profits and a host of others needed to be included, and kept apprised of the work being done. A mind map captured all of those stakeholders in a single image that could easily be accessed and understood by anyone. (Download 9/11 map.)

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