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The Helix of Behaviour
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 71]

British Telecom visualises the telecommunications domestic behaviour of their customers by means of a 3D spiral.

When you have abundant information about the behaviour of your customers over the time, you get to the problem of how to represent this data visually in order to extract patterns that could help you to decide on the strategy to follow. We have already seen some examples about the behaviour within web sites in previous issues ( number_65 to number_67)

The increase of the competitiveness in the field of telecommunications has forced the companies to try and better understand the domestic behaviour of their users and their attitude towards the different forms of communications usage at home. For this reason BT began a research program devoted to gathering data about that behaviour and interpreting it. (See the articleFamily Life in the Digital Home”).

Helix.jpg (89371 bytes)
Fig. 1: Helix Visualisation. Frontal view. It represents the total email received in 20 UK households using ADSL. The controls that can be seen underneath correspond to a VRML browser.
Image courtesy of Martin Hicks / BT
(Click on the image to enlarge it)

A large amount of difficult to interpret data has been gathered since the beginning of the study. In order to interpret it, Martin Hicks, from BT, has developed* a visual metaphor to represent the domestic usage of Internet employing broadband ADSL or the normal switched telephone network (PSTN) connections. The database contains, among a lot of other data, the number of transactions of e-mail over time, the number of bytes received by either transmission media along with data that allows you to segment the population by age, sex, type of family, etc.

The metaphor itself is an extension of that of the 2D spiral, a type already used to represent variation over time (see issue 43 of the e-zine). In this case the spiral develops not only rotating onto itself but also “screwing” itself in 3D space.

As you can appreciate in figure 1, each turn of the spiral represents a whole week of time. It’s subdivided into seven parts colour coded in a white-grey-black gradation. The gradation depicts the transition between day (white) and night (black). Midnight occurs at the blackest point and the same applies for noon with the colour white.

So between every two black segments you have a whole day. The parts where red substitutes white correspond to the weekend. Time, then, passes by along the spiral from its origin.

The data itself can be either the average call duration, the number of received bytes or the email transactions, grouped in two-hour segments. Each of these segments is represented by a cylinder (the “spikes” that appear in the figure) that comes out the spiral following the radius at that point. The cylinder length is proportional to the value of the data. This representation is interactive, so you can change the perspective, rotate the spiral, pan, zoom, etc. (Figures 2 and 3)

Information relating to the transaction data i.e., email date and time and number of bytes received, is displayed as text at the bottom of the web browser window whenever the pointing device is positioned over each cylinder (see Figure 3)

Helix2.jpg (77602 bytes) Helix3.jpg (95001 bytes)
Fig. 2: Helix Visualisation. Total emails received over a month by 20 UK households with broadband (ADSL) internet connection (rotated view) 
Image courtesy of Martin Hicks / BT
(Click on the image to enlarge it)
Fig. 3 Helix Visualisation.   A zoom of the helix with text displayed at bottom of web browser.
Image courtesy of Martin Hicks / BT
(Click on the image to enlarge it)

This way you can represent data that evolves cyclically with time and detect patterns, repetitive or not, of usage of the telephony services in a way that allows you to avoid some of the problems that arise when trying to find patterns using 2D linear representations. In those representations the cyclical nature of the phenomenon does not show so evidently.

Will this be yet another among the many visual metaphors that have been emerging recently or maybe it’s here to stay?. Martin Hicks continues working on its improvement.

* Martin Hicks A Helix Metaphor for Customer Behaviour Visualisation. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Information Visualisation IV2001, IEEE Computer Society.

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