Monday, February 11, 2008



Via infosthetics this morning I discovered what looks like a very promising new news aggregator/search site called Silobreaker.

These guys are basically mining a very hefty set of news outlets (supposedly over 10,000 (!!!) from around the globe) to build relational models between events, people, etc., and give context to any particular news item (hence the name, I guess). In other words, “semantic web” type stuff. Of particular interest is their use of various visualization tools, front and center, to organize all this information. There is a “hotspot” map showing the locations of popular stories, a network graph indicating relationships between people and places mentioned in any particular news item, and a bunch of trend graphs measuring various interesting metrics.

Obviously, what I find most compelling about the site is that it presents a perfect application of information visualization in a context (ie. reading the news) that is relevant to almost everyone who surfs the web. In this case, the particular types of visualizations being used really seem critical to exploration of the site's content, rather than functioning as a side-bar novelty item. And, from my admittedly quick investigation, they appear to work well as exploratory tools -- I'm curious to see how users respond to them. From the design perspective, I think they are, for the most part, simple, effective, and informative; very reminscent of the graphics on Many Eyes. The filtering interface for the network graph could be more user friendly, and I can't find a "help" button anywhere that explains how to read a network graph (which I would argue is pretty important, especially given their potential complexity and that their layout can change depending on filtering options), but it offers a nice overview of relationships with more info to "drill down" in to via mouse-over. One element I particularly like (maybe because I'm writing about it in my thesis right now!) is the use of icons to identify the categories of nodes in the graph. With a quick glance you can easily digest the relationships between people, organizations, cities, etc.. It would be really nice, although I don't know if it is "semantically" possible, if there was way to similarly identify categories in the connections between nodes, to suggest the nature of the relationship without having to drill down and try to extract that from the detailed data.

Visualizations aside, what I find promising about this site from a more "high-concept" perspective is what they describe on their "About" page: the notion of presenting specific news stories within a larger contextual web. News media bias and the "echo-chamber effect" have been hot issues the last few years, and the sort of approach Silobreaker is attempting is, at least on the surface, a great way to deal with it. Particularly when using the visualizations, what you get from a story that you read on Silobreaker is potentially more than just the perpective of the media outlet that contributed the article. This is something that strikes me as tremendously important; as we become more deluged with information, we run the risk of walling ourselves in to "silos" without a clear understanding of the big picture (for a related take on this issue also involving visualization, see Ethan Zuckerman's Global Attention Profiles project at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School from a few years back).

This is definitely a visualization site to keep an eye on. Are any readers already using Silobreaker? What do you think about it? Will it prove useful and compelling, or will it go the way of CNET's similar attempt at incorporating a semantic network graph in to their news reporting?

PS. Please excuse my lack of posts lately on account of my being deep in the thesis writing process!


Darius Kazemi said...

How did you come up with the Dave Rejeski-based web in the pic? I know him... we worked on a serious game together back in 2003 for the Woodrow Wilson Center.

mike_d said...

Hi Darius,

I just grabbed that screenshot from a graph of some article about nanotechnology yesterday. You can reproduce it by searching on "nanotechnology" and including some "People" in the graph. He comes up in the following context:

"According to Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) Director David Rejeski, 'The information obtained under the stewardship program could help government officials ... "

Different Dave Rejeski?



Darius Kazemi said...

No, same Dave:

Visual Think Map said...

great post. graphs are similiar to Laurent Baleydier's Kartoo search engine. Visit his site