For the last year, I've been hearing that data visualization is one of the hot technologies to watch. I've gone to some of the sites and played with the capabilities. I've reported on one implementation as a NewsBreak (NewsMaps.com from Cartia). Interesting stuff, I thought, but I'm going to need a faster Internet connection. Now, one of the traditional online services has put up an application that uses this technology in an interactive visual display of data. LEXIS-NEXIS has licensed the Hyperbolic Tree from Inxight Software, and has incorporated the capabilities into the company's Web "Source Locator" (http://www.lexis-nexis.com/lncc/hyperbolic/default.htm).
The goal is to allow users to navigate and grasp the relationships among LEXIS-NEXIS' 22,000 content sources in an interactive visual display. The Hyperbolic Tree displays information in tree-like content pages that animate with additional layers of information as the user clicks an area of interest. Visual folders of subject listings lead a user to an array with source names; clicking then brings up a separate screen with details on a publication, including dates, publisher, and type of content.
According to LEXIS-NEXIS, the Hyperbolic Tree was selected as an interface component of the Source Locator because it is designed for applications that involve accessing, managing, and organizing large hierarchies of data, such as product catalogs, document collections, and the link structure of World Wide Web sites.
The press release announced the enhancement as a way to help customers find information about its content. However, company representatives admitted that it was really of limited value to customers trying to find sources; rather, this was merely a trial balloon using the technology, with serious applications yet to come. The developers want customers to get a look at this, try it, and give them feedback. They also want to gauge how many customers are willing to use an application that loads a Java applet. (Note that a Web browser of version 3.0 or higher is required, along with acceptance of Java applications.)
"This is just the first step for using visualization tools at the LEXIS-NEXIS Group," said Lisa Mitnick, vice president of Strategic Planning and Business Development for the NEXIS business unit. "We plan to apply this technology to data that contains information about relationships and linkages of all kinds."
Judi Schultz, public relations manager at the LEXIS-NEXIS Group, said that the first product being considered for this type of implementation, is the Directory of Corporate Affiliations. She noted that this seemed to be a logical application for showing the relationships among company units. The technology certainly offers a lot of potential, and it is good to see a company with plans to provide better ways of looking at data.
Steve Arnold, information industry consultant and technology guru, said: "Inxight has proven that it can take a fresh approach to complex information problems. Their groundbreaking approach to complex problems in information science points the direction in 2000 and beyond."
"Inxight has done a great deal of user-interface research, so as a result, the Hyperbolic Tree is an easy-to-use, unique visualization tool that could enhance LEXIS-NEXIS' Web products," said Andy Bayer, product manager and human factors engineer for the NEXIS business unit. He acknowledged that the current implementation with the Source Locator involved very large trees with too many listings in the arrays, making it a bit unwieldy. He said that development of future products would certainly include user testing and input.
Sue Feldman, who also monitors new technology, said: "It is the first time I've seen one of the traditionals try out an interactive interface that helps users explore contents and build queries. It's a major step away from time-consuming text toward useful tools that can give an interactive bird's-eye view of a database." She indicated that her main concerns would be about usability and utility, and she hoped that LEXIS-NEXIS would do user tests with both information professionals and end users.
True to LEXIS-NEXIS style, the information in the Source Locator remains library/file- and source-centric, rather than information- or content-centric. Therefore, it will probably prove more useful to information professionals who care about sources than to end users. It will be interesting to see whether LEXIS-NEXIS can make the technology useful in their other products. Inxight has licensed the technology to a number of Web and software companies. In most cases, Inxight leaves the implementation to the licensors.
Inxight's information visualization and knowledge extraction technologies are packaged as portal building blocks. Their open, modular architecture enables combination with other commonly available building blocks, such as databases, search engines, document management applications, and collaboration platforms, to construct portals. Inxight Software is a Xerox New Enterprise Company. More information about Inxight can be found at http://www.inxight.com.