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The digital magazine of InfoVis.net

by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 80]

“Visualization” and “WebTango” are two examples of projects included in the group of projects called BAILANDO, an attempt at simplifying access and recovery of information. 

The School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS) of the University of California at Berkeley was founded in 1995 with the mission to “advance, through teaching and research, the organization, management and use of information and information technology, and enhance our understanding of the impact of information on individuals, institutions, and society.”

Among their initiatives you can find a set of research projects grouped under the name of BAILANDO. The individual projects have suggestive names such as WebTango, Flamenco, Conga or Chacha, along with more prosaic ones like Visualization, Lindi or T-sqaire

The philosophy that lies behind this set of projects is “to make access to information seem as graceful and effortless as the dances” that lend their name to them. In order for this to happen, the projects are devoted to key topics to information retrieval and management. Speaking about all of them goes beyond the scope of this message. The interested reader can consult the BAILANDO. Nevertheless, among them you can find two that I would like to speak about.

Visualization” groups several interesting projects related to the visualisation of abstract data. Some of them, like Cat Cone or TileBars, are devoted to the visual representation of the search engine results. 

The goal of projects like these is to join the retrieval information techniques with visualisation in order to better find the relevant information when we are using a search engine. Haven’t you ever felt overwhelmed by the several thousand results that Google, one the best search engines in this moment, throws at your feet?. 

On the other hand WebTango led, like “Visualization”, by Marti Hearst is devoted to providing tools for the automatic evaluation of the usability of web sites in order for professionals and newcomers alike to offer an objective way to assess the usability of a whole web site by comparing it with the statistical models derived from the study of 5,346 pages of 639 web sites evaluated for the 2000 edition of the Webby awards

At this moment you can freely use 2 tools. “SiteCrawler” gathers information on a complete web site and produces a file that serves as input for the second tool called "Analysis" that treats the information and gets 157 different quantitative assessments about the site as a whole and about the pages in particular.

Nowadays WebTango only analyses English speaking sites. The results of the analysis are sent by e-mail in a g-zipped tar formatted file. Paradoxically the ASCII files are not easy to read and interpret. The authors appear to be working on an interactive version of the software in order to make it more usable.

Apart from the problems associated with a non mature tool, the WebTango initiative seems particularly interesting since it attempts to settle a set of objective criteria in order to evaluate a web site in a cheap and automatic way. This is especially relevant in a moment when many of the guidelines of usability are based on asserts well aligned with common sense, but most of the times based on anecdotic or statistically insufficient observations.

In any case, tools like this represent (or they will when matured enough) a step forward in order to bring usability evaluation and objectivity closer together. Something that is more than arguable nowadays. 

Marti Hearst specialises in the visualisation of Information retrieval results. Those interested in the topic can freely consult chapter 10 of the book “Modern Information Retrieval”, written by Hearst about user interfaces and visualisation related to information retrieval.

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