Proposal:Visualization methods

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Summary

At present, the Wikimedia projects convey information mainly through text peppered with images (usually static). This approach is economical, since text conveys much information with relatively few bits stored in the database. However, novel types of visualization — especially interactive ones — could make a quantum leap in educating readers, which is part of the WMF's mission, and in searching/navigating through related articles.

Proposal

The proposal is to develop novel methods for visualization for the WMF projects (especially interactive ones), and to encourage novel uses for the visualization methods we already have, such as imagemaps. The interactive elements could be done client-side (e.g., with JavaScript) to minimize the load on the servers.

Three-dimensional interactive visualization is an important special case. In molecular topics (e.g., chemistry, biochemistry and pharmaceuticals) and in geometry (e.g., in visualizing conic sections), the ability to rotate a complex object and see it from different sides can make the difference between understanding something and not. Coordinating eyes and hands is a powerful way to convey a spatial concept to the brain, as research has shown. At present, contributors try to use animations for the same effect, e.g., this animation of human glyoxalase I and this animation of a partial Soddy's hexlet. But animations are inferior as educational tools to interactive visualization, and are inefficient (too many bits per information conveyed). More generally, the ability to change an image (or even an animation) interactively by "tuning" a few parameters could be a powerful instructional tool.

Two-dimensional and three-dimensional plots of mathematical functions are another example. Since a mathematical function can be described economically in a few symbols, producing an image of the function is wasteful. Nevertheless, contributors must resort to that to explain scientific ideas, e.g., commons:File:Schwarzschild effective potential.svg. Plotting tools is an essential first step in producing better Wikimedia software for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

As a special case of plots, the Foundation should consider investing in improved visualization of maps. We have the WikiMiniAtlas, which is good but limited in scope and (forgive me) amateurish in look. Geographical information is so fundamental to so many topics that it deserves special "glossy" treatment. I recommend that we allow for visualization of densities on maps (e.g., population densities) and for movements across maps (e.g., migratory patterns or oceanic currents). We should allow for interactive changes, e.g., zooming and changes in map projection. Maps that can be adapted for place and time/season, especially star charts (ideally with clickable stars and constellations!), could be excellent. Animations of maps (e.g., being able to create a smooth movie by interpolating separate population density maps from a few centuries) would be a major advance.

Another example of two-dimensional visualization is that of timelines. With great respect for Erik Zachte, the present EasyTimeline could be improved significantly. This might be an area in which professional graphic-design and human-computer-interface help should be sought, to make the timelines more powerful, legible, easier to create and "cool" looking. However, I believe that timelines are less pressing to the WMF's educational mission than the other visualization tools mentioned here.

To complement the present <gallery> tag, we should also allow for slideshows, in which a sequence of images are shown in succession, perhaps with each fading to the next with a variable time delay and cycling indefinitely. I drafted such a tool in JavaScript as part of the preparations for the July 2009 Academy for the National Institutes of Health, but it was rudimentary.

Similarly, we should allow for GIF animations that are still images until a button is clicked or the mouse is placed over the image. A significant fraction of readers find GIF animations distracting; on the other hand, such animations can be powerful instructional tools. The present workaround in which the animation is hidden until summoned — seen for instance in the lead of the "Euclidean algorithm" article — is inadequate.

With upcoming means of providing near universal browser coverage, SVG should eventually supplant GIF for most animations.

Imagemap are a powerful existing feature that, in my opinion, have not been developed to their full potential. In one novel application, they could be used for visual navigation, search and categorization. For illustration, one could create an imagemap of a category, that in turn would link to other imagemap subcategories, etc. That could be a more natural way for readers to navigate through Wikipedia and the other projects than the current text-based category system. At a more basic level, imagemaps can show context and illustrate how elements work together, similar in concept to a poster describing an ecosystem, a large tank at an aquarium, or a tableau at a museum.

A cooler version of imagemaps would be a clickable three-dimensional navigable space. For example, imagine a three-dimensional house, and being able to walk through it and click on the items within to learn more about them. That's a very natural approach to learning, especially for children.

Tying some of these ideas together, being able to carry out virtual science experiments would be a powerful way for students to learn online, especially for students who don't have access to multi-million dollar laboratories found at research universities in wealthy nations.

We should also develop easy-to-use graphic design tools to allow the volunteers to produce better educational materials, such as printed posters for the classroom. The ability to change fonts, rotate and arrange text and images, etc. could allow for exciting and professional-looking materials.

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