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Visualizing knowledge

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Con Ed's mind map was recognized not only as critical artifact coming out of the 9/11 disaster, but one that included an aesthetic component as well. In November 2011, David Hill presented the map to New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), where it now resides in its collection.

Creating context

In visualization tools, hierarchies quickly give rise to networks, and networks give way to meshes that extend into multiple dimensions. Conrad Clyburn, CEO of MedForeSight offers his clients deep research into the state of the medical research market. Clyburn, a former director with the DoD Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), uses TheBrain to capture his knowledge about emerging medical technology. He has devised his own classification scheme, which he calls the "Triple Helix."

The Triple Helix classifies the interaction and involvement of academics, industry and government. Clyburn sees academia as "pioneers," specialists in the discovery of new ideas and techniques. He breaks industry into "colonizers" and "consolidators," or those who fund ideas early and those who reap long-term rewards. As new technology emerges, he starts with its origins and then monitors it over time to see if it gains traction with the investment community, if it fails or if it becomes part of a larger acquisition. As Clyburn builds out his knowledgebase, he can discover things like investment firms that consistently make poor bets, or identify geographical clusters of innovation. Unlike databases or spreadsheets, Clyburn's brain visually reveals convergence as he builds his map. He sees TheBrain as a merging of search (Google), content representation (a wiki) and a drawing tool.

Clyburn's map currently includes 100,000 interlinked nodes that represent the messiness, the promise and the failures of the medical industry. His map sits at the center of his value proposition to clients. Clyburn's digital brain tells a story much more quickly than any traditional presentation. In meetings, Clyburn quickly brings up a context for potential clients and the relevance of his work quickly appears as they see their business linked to a seeming chaos of other items that will influence their future and their fortune.

Clyburn's brain helps accelerate the translation of medical technology from the lab to market. His knowledge of which relationships have worked in the past, which technologies have taken off and which have failed, what government seems interested in and not, as well as many other facts and relationships couldn't be represented appropriately in any other way. The uniqueness of TheBrain's interface and underlying representation allows Clyburn to transform the messiness of his corner of the business world into meaningful insight with a simple search, or a few clicks of the mouse.

The value prop

Knowledge visualization offers many advantages over linear forms of knowledge exchange. Consider these value propositions when evaluating the need for knowledge visualization in your organization:

  • develops consensus and shared mental models;
  • creates immediate context for related concepts and facts, regardless of how they relate;
  • makes complexity perceptible;
  • allows people to quickly orient themselves within a problem space;
  • permits deep dives in the areas of interest without relinquishing context; and
  • uses search, filters and other exploration techniques to reveal relationships clearly.

As I write this, I realize just how limiting the linear narrative can be. The idea of context created by the 9/11 team in New York related directly to the context offered by Conrad Clyburn and his deep research on the medical industry, but it is not until here, at the end of the article, that I explicitly make that connection for the reader. No visual cues offer any guidance about that connection, or even highlight its existence. Even if we encoded the relationship in hypertext links, the meaning of the relationship would not be clear.

As Tony Buzan so eloquently argues in his many books, the world is filled with deep, interconnected relationships drawn in three dimensions, from the symbiotic relationships between trees and fungus and the tangle of related roots and filaments, the human brain itself, and its bundles of neurons and the dendritic connections that reach from a few other cells to tens of thousands.

It is impossible to explore the richness of structures like the brain or an ecosystem in two-dimensions or adequately encode them in a linear narrative. For much of human knowledge, context comes from relationships, feedback loops and multidimensional constructs. Computer software can capture and simulate that complexity but only in applications designed to recognize it, capture it and allow users to explore it. Regardless of the tool one chooses, the richness of the visualization is only available in a computer, or in a 3-D model constructed of string and bubblegum—and physical models of networks aren't searchable, and they don't permit drill-ins or the tracking of changes over time.

As large companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Google and IBM concentrate more and more on analytics and knowledge discovery from big data, they seem to move further and further away from their core customer, the person who wants to make sense of his or her world, to share their knowledge effectively and to collaborate with others in a meaningful way. It is good to see that smaller companies retain the strategic vision to assist the knowledge worker directly by providing them with scalable tools to better organize and better represent the worlds that often exist nowhere but within people's brains.  

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