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Raising the quality of insight: visualization and sonification

Enhancing community imagination and vision
Raising the quality of insight: visualization and sonification

It must be stressed that the visual experiments already made available over the web by the UIA as registry services are designed to find ways of representing, comprehending and exploring complexity – as templates or scaffolding for new forms of coalition building. The purpose is to provide sophisticated techniques which generate structures that are visually interesting in their own right but raise interesting questions about what they are able to represent and how they might be developed. The user is deliberately given as much control as possible in exploring these structures creatively. The intention is also to make this process equally as interesting to academic researchers, students, the media, and to those concerned with formulating more appropriate policies in a complex society.

Progress in developing these facilities is described in a separate note: Interactive Hyperlink Map: Auto-generated, Self-organizing Link Visualization. For further discussion see: Envisaging the art of navigating conceptual complexity: in search of software combining artistic and conceptual insights . Current experiments are enabling users to generate many maps in SVG format for viewing over the web.


Other experiments explored the possibility of attaching simple sound files to nodes in generated maps, allowing the user to trigger them individually by mouse operations as a basis for developing an acoustic mnemonic code for structures.

An extensive bibliography of items providing the rationale for this sonification approach was provided by the International Community for Auditory Display. Selected items have been incorporated into the references to the UIA study on Knowledge Gardening through Music: patterns of coherence for future African management as an alternative to Project Logic.

The use of sound is seen as a way of enhancing the capacities of those more responsive to soundscapes than to visual or text displays. This is seen as a vital mechanism where the digital divide is compounded by illiteracy or language barriers.

Shifting the level of insight

Registries tend to focus on organizational and other entities in isolation at a time when community building and initiatives depend on working with networks of bodies, using networks of strategies against networks of problems.

The UIA with funding from the European Commission, has explored methods of developing, refining and dynamically displaying the self-sustaining, interlocking loops of problems, issues and solutions as a means of shifting the level of analysis beyond seemingly isolated entities. Loop detection and other algorithms have been developed in support of visualization tools to assist mapping and navigation of complex organizational environments.

The significance of this work is that there has long been recognition of how one problem can aggravate another and of how several problems can reinforce each other. The UIA data registers many relationships between problems in complex networks. Clearly such relationships may form chains or pathways linking many problems. But hidden in the data as presented is also the existence of chains that loop back on themselves.

A loop represents a description of a chain of consequences that produces a dynamic outcome by feeding off itself (positive feedback = “vicious” or “virtuous” loops), or by controlling itself (negative feedback). Typically a feedback loop will be an important strategic issue in its own right. The purpose of detecting feedback loops is to raise the level of analysis of individual issues to a higher, systemic level – whether with respect to organizations, problems or strategies. It is a technique which has the potential to add extra meaning to basic data, particularly relevant for policy makers and others concerned with understanding the interrelationships and root causes of problems.

This initiative seeks to enhance the capacity of the organizational community in ways that are not possible by a focus on isolated organizations and their relationships.

Enhancing community imagination and vision

The UIA has been actively exploring ways of integrating its registry and profiling functions with the kinds of virtual interactive environment in which imagination can be enhanced to enable the emergence of new styles of organization.

These possibilities are seen as potentially vital at a time when conventional structures have proven inadequate under many circumstances. As envisaged by Douglas Engelbart and Ivan Sutherland in the early 1970s, there is every possibility that radically different styles of virtual organization, configurations of concepts, and community may be possible with structural devices whose credibility, coherence and viability can exist only within a virtual environment.

There is much creative experiment with virtual environments. The challenge to date is that no databases are adapted to rapidly populate them to enable widespread access using web technology. The UIA data is held in ways that has already lent itself readily to such experiments with immediate payoffs for web users of its data. The significance of such work was recently acknowledged at an international symposium of AI specialists of the Global Brain Group (Brussels, 2000). Further experimentation over the web has been curtailed by lack of resources.

With the shift towards a “semantic web”, the question is whether the pathways through the .org community can be imaginatively reframed from the “information highway” metaphor into what has been termed in a UIA study as the “songlines of the noosphere” (From information highways to songlines of the noosphere: global configuration of hypertext pathways as a prerequisite for meaningful collective transformation, 1998). Related possibilities envisaged by the UIA include the Sacralization of hyperlink geometry (1997). Diversitas proposes to catalyze further work in this direction with consequences in practice for the .org community.