Michael Thompson: TerraEncognito

“Terra EnCognito is a realtime data visualization of online discussions as they unfold on the social news site digg.com . The project’s primary goal is to enable quick, accurate, comparative, and qualitative assessments of individual story discussions across the entire site. By exploiting our instinctual response to organic form, movement, and behavior, I increased the number of data axes and overall complexity in the visualization without increasing the amount of learning or abstraction required by the viewer to understand it. The result is a visualization that embodies unique, dynamic, on-line discussions as a population of unique, dynamic, living creatures—with corresponding form and traits.

Discussions are scored according to a set of metrics designed to reveal more of the discussion’s nature rather than its quantitative attributes. Those scores are normalized and mapped to variables in Johan Gielis’ Superformula–creating organic forms, with added behavioral traits and lifecycles. The entire visualization is rendered in realtime using the Unity game engine.

There are nine metrics used to derive discussion qualities. For example, the Polarization Index describes the level of accord or discord within a discussion by looking at the spread and distribution of comment ratings and the ratio of uppercase to lowercase characters; Dialogical Balance describes how well the discussion is fostering dialogue by looking at the spread and distribution of comment nesting depth, occurrences of multiple comments by individual users, and the ratio between the number of first level comments and nested comments.

The rendered color palate is purposely muted to emphasize spatial, shape, and behavior attributes. Juveniles, or stories not yet promoted to the front page, are smaller, shapeless, flocking black orbs. Once promoted, they morph into adults and move to a category/topic based region defined by a treemap. At death, objects fall to the ground where their accumulated numbers provide a historical record. Shapes and behaviors are complex, and never identical, but are intuitive and consistent in their expression of the metrics–number of arms, thin/fat, long/short, docile/aggressive, slow/fast, spiked/rounded–so that one can immediately grasp the nature of a discussion, and over time can begin to recognize species.

A summary of the entire site’s state of discussions is expressed in a separate scene of weather and water surface roughness.”

Michael Thompson

(Content provided by Michael Thompson. All rights reserved, © Michael Thompson 2007)

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