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Data Portraits: Gardens of Users
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 46]

Visualisation of messages in interactive environments and of the social behaviour of their participants isn't an easy task. PeopleGarden constitutes an attractive solution.

On-line interactive environments, like chats, forums or newsgroups, where a certain amount of people gather virtually to exchange messages offers a very interesting space where you can visualise communication.

Rebecca Xiong and Judith Donath, from the MIT Media Lab, proposed in 1999 with their artícle "PeopleGarden : Creating Data Portraits for Users" the "Data Portrait" as a graphical medium for the visualisation of information related to individual users of interactive media. The consideration of a set of data portraits allows you to get an insight into their social behaviour too.

A data portrait is an abstract representation of the history of the interaction of each user with the environment. The visual metaphor that PeopleGarden uses is that of the flowers in a garden. (see the attached graphics adapted from the article). Each data portrait is the trace of the user's activities and takes the shape of a flower.

The stem represents the time that the user has been connected, and it gets longer the more time the user has been interacting. At the end of the stem you find the calyx, made up of petals each of which represents single interactions with other users.

The petals are disposed like a fan that goes clockwise. Older interactions are placed leftwards. New petals are added to the right and they displace the existing ones to the left in order to maintain the flower's symmetry.

PeopGrdn4.gif (70553 bytes)
A garden of Users, Each flower represents one individual. From the article PeopleGarden : Creating Data Portraits for Users by Rebecca Xiong and Judith Donath
As a petal moves to the left its color fades in order to denote the elapsed time: recent petals are the most saturated and brilliant ones. 

The more a user has interacted the more petals his flower has. A marked difference in saturation of the petals indicates a gap without interaction, a pause. Flowers can have pistiles of different colours to indicate received messages.

From PeopleGarden : Creating Data Portraits for Users by Rebecca Xiong and Judith Donath

This way PeopleGarden allows you to know the basic parameters of individual user's interactions, only looking at the aspect of their flowers. 

The most prolific users have taller flowers (they have been more time in the environment) and with more petals.

The set of flowers present in an interactive environment constitutes a Garden. 

The garden metaphor allows the authors to detect an active and stimulating environment just by seeing that there are a lot of flowers with bright colours and many petals. 

On the contrary, in a languishing environment the flowers have faded colours and few petals.

Other aspects that Xiong and Donath enphasize about PeopleGarden is the ease with which you can compare groups of users. 

For example a group in which you find a flower with a great number of petals and pistiles while the others don't show such a blossom is quickly identified as a group with a dominating voice which the others interact with. 

A more democratic group is usually composed of a more numerous group of flowers with a balanced amount of petals.

PeopGrdn2.gif (109503 bytes) PeopGrdn1.gif (17955 bytes)
Different types of gardens: to the left a well balanced group. To the right: a group with a dominant voice.
From  PeopleGarden : Creating Data Portraits for Users by Rebecca Xiong and Judith Donath

PeopleGarden is an imaginative but above all very intuitive and understandable way to visualise complex information about interactive environments.

Although it doesn't seem to have become widespread it illustrates clearly the fact that the selection of a powerful visual metaphor helps to understand what's happening and modifies our perception of the subjects of our interest.

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