April26, 1999—Cartia, Inc. is a privately held company in Bellevue, Washington,that, since its founding in 1996, has been developing Relational Topic Mapping (RTM) software, a technology that "automatically extracts the content of unstructured text and organizes it onto interactive maps of information."But as of this month, it has expanded from specialized software producer into a portal for managing content with the debut of its new site thatfeatures its proprietary visualization technology.
NewsMaps.com, a free site aimed at "business users with too much to read," shows thousands of news articles or discussion postings visually organized by content marked on topographical style maps. If you have trouble visualizing how this might work, you're not alone. According to Mike New, vice president of marketing for Cartia, it takes most people a while to grasp the concept, and it takes a bit of digging and learning the software to understand the potential uses. Here's Cartia's description of the concept behind a NewsMap and the operation:
"The greater the similarity between any two documents, the closer together they appear on the map. Peaks appear on the map where there is a high concentration of documents about the same topic. The distance between peaks shows how closely the topics are related. Individual documents appear as dots on the map, and users can zoom in to reveal greater detail. For any region on the map, a click of the mouse button pops up a list of documents with related content, a result of NewsMaps' organization. Pointing to any document title displays a short summary. A mouse click links directly to the original document at its source on the Web."
At launch, the NewsMaps.com site offers several slices of content in individual NewsMaps. Users can view "News Landscapes" for National News (daily national news updates from Reuters, the Associated Press, Fox News, Yahoo, The Washington Post, and ABC News), International News, Business News (sources not identified), Technology News (from CMP and C/NET), and Technology & Business Newswires (from BusinessWire and PR Newswire). In addition, "Discussion Landscapes" are available, mapped from public discussion forums. Currently there are maps for Y2K issues and Palm Pilot computing, with others to be added.
"NewsMaps.com can show you in 15 seconds what could take hours of reading," said Mark Goros, CEOof Cartia. "Everything is graphically organized by topic. You can look at a NewsMap of 500 news articles and pick out the hot spots with almost no reading. You can see a discussion forum of 10,000 postings and immediately know what people are talking about. NewsMaps are fully interactive so you can search, zoom in, read individual documents, and even respond to newsgroup postings."
Like an Internet search engine, NewsMaps.com searches only publicly available free Internet newssites, so Cartia has no content deals to negotiate. Unlike conventional search engines, NewsMaps does not return multiple pages of search results,but ranks and highlights documents on the map itself. The NewsMap functions as a "visual table of contents," showing users what information is available. Users are then linked directly to the originating Web site to read the article or posting. In addition to selecting articles from the NewsMap,users can also search for specific topics by entering keywords or by selecting from a Topics List, which includes important words found in that collection.
The underlying software,ThemeScape, uses advanced algorithms to examine and extract informational content from unstructured text. Mike New emphasized the benefits of using it as an analytical tool. He noted, "NewsMaps shows the exceptions to the rule that become interesting." He also pointed out that by examining a visual map of a collection of documents, users might spot something they may not have included in search terminology. It is not meant to replace other news feeds, but to provide another tool for, as he termed it, "harvesting information." Cartia does plan to add an alerting feature to NewsMaps.com, as well as a steady stream of usability enhancements.
A note on the NewsMaps.com site states that it works best at 56 KB and faster. For most corporate or academic users with fast connections, this would not be a problem, However, I tested the site with a 28.8 modem connection and found it very slow and frustrating. Access requires Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, version 3 or higher, though version 4 browsers are recommended. The browser must support JAVA since a small Java applet provides interactive control and is downloaded when the first map is selected.
The foundation of ThemeScape technology began in 1994 when the U.S. intelligence community sought new ways to handle massive amounts of data and asked Pacific Northwest National Laboratories to help solve the problem of information overload. Several visualization products resulted and over the years have been used in a number of government agencies and bureaus, including NASA. Following a company spin-off joint venture and other changes, the resultant company evolved into Cartia. More details of the interesting technology history and products can be found on the Cartia site.
Some slices of content are more amenable to data visualization than others. Mike New noted, for example, that the newswires were more difficult for the software to map because of so many company announcements. I found it easier to see topics and relationships in the NewsMap for the U.S. News section than in Newswires. When I searched in Newswires I found two on a topic for that day only. This compared to a search I did in the Yahoo! Internet News for the day that found 47, including the same two, plus others from that day and many from the previous days in that week. I found some quirky results in the Topic List for the NewsMap. New admitted that there were some glitches in the software phrase algorithms, and said engineers were working on it. New said the site has received an excellent response. Over half of the visitors to the site are now return users.
There are a few advertisers 'links on the NewsMaps.com home page, but not enough to bring in significant revenue. Using their software for this free site serves to showcase the capabilities, introduce the concept of data visualization to more people, and, hopefully, sell the software for corporate applications. The company as about 20 very large companies as customers, including Texaco, British Petroleum, and Lucent. It is most often used as an analytical tool for market intelligence. In another application, an oil company is using ThemeScape to analyze oil drilling data.
Cartia may be reached at 425/468-9020 or at http://www.cartia.com. Try the portal at http://www.NewsMaps.com.