Maps not lists: network graphs for data exploration

Preview of upcoming Strata session on data exploration

Amy Heineike is Director of Mathematics for Quid Inc, where she has been since its inception, prototyping and launching the company’s technology for analyzing document sets. Below is the teaser for her upcoming talk at Strata Santa Clara.

I recently discovered that my favorite map is online. It used to hang on my housemate’s wall in our little house in London back in 2005. At the time I was working to understand how London was evolving and changing, and how different policy or infrastructure changes (a new tube line, land use policy changes) would impact that.

The map was originally published as a center-page pull out from the Guardian, showing the ethnic groups that dominate different neighborhoods across the city. The legend was as long as the image, and the small print labels necessitated standing up close, peering and reading, tracing your finger to discover the Congolese on the West Green Road, our neighbors the Portuguese on the Stockwell Road, or the Tamils in Chessington in the distant south west.

It was always a visceral reminder of the complexity and richness of our city for me. That my view of it was only ever this small snapshot of the whole – even though I lived it, studied it and researched it every day. For something as vibrant and alive as a major city of 8 million people, maps give us an exhilarating zoom out from the singular to the collective.

Many of our best tools for navigating big datasets – search engines and recommender algorithms – are a lot like the Google street view of data. We drop the little yellow man in at our query, and look at the photo view of what’s next door, but we don’t have the option to zoom out to the map view and experience the bigger whole. The one-dimensional result list tells us what is nearest, but not how it fits together.

Google Street View © Google

Google Street View © Google

At Strata Santa Clara, I’ll be showing you how maps can be more valuable than lists for non-spatial data too. At Quid, we’ve discovered the power of networks as maps of unstructured text. In an era of richer and bigger data, we enable strategic thinking through powerful visualizations and interactivity, giving our clients a complete look at the bigger picture.

So how does the network fit in? We take all of those data points that we’d normally navigate as the next item on a long list, and determine how they each relate to each other. Shown in an interactive network visualization tool the links determine meaningful layouts that allow us to see clusters, and the links between and across those. By zooming in and out you can see the local connections, but also the global patterns.

Exploring Synthetic Biology using Quid  © 2013 Quid Inc.

Exploring Synthetic Biology using Quid © 2013 Quid Inc.

This opens up the ability to ask all the questions you would of a map. What does the patenting landscape of my competitor look like? What are the most unique companies working on the next big technology? Who occupies the key connections in an exploding conversation about a product launch? Like a map too, the analysis becomes an addictive visual for browsing, exploring and learning, giving us a way to expand our view of the complex world in which we live.

To find out more join me on Thursday, February 28th in person or over the LiveStream. I’ll be digging deeper into the power of networks, taking you through some detailed examples and showing what it takes to make this work well.

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