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Literature Review

Case Studies

  Technical requirements
  Future Roles
  New Tools
  Social Questions




Case Studies Index

Review of graphical environments on the WWW as a means of widening public participation in social science research

5.3 Need for new web-based visualisation tools and approaches

The past couple of years has seen the extension of most existing computer graphics tools and interfaces into web-based applications. Many advanced forms of data visualisation and interaction can now be used or at least demonstrated via the WWW. Examples of graphical applications range from computer games and animation through to GIS, virtual reality and artificial life. In some case specialist programming languages such as VRML have been developed specifically to facilitate the generation of computer graphics across a WWW interface.Within the context of participatory systems within social science, a number of important areas may be identified as requiring research and development.

Interface design

GUI design is fundamental to the development of effective participatory systems. Most web-based interfaces are mouse-driven and based around standard graphical interface devices or 'widgets' such as check-boxes, menus and buttons. Text input from the keyboard is limited. All the main web browsers support this form of interface. Rather, the key problem is user understanding. Whether the system in question is a simple on-line questionnaire or an interactive 3D virtual world, the user must be able to understand and be able to interact with the interface. This becomes problematic when designing GUI for public use due to the wide range of computer experience; from absolute novice to expert. If a GUI is too simple, it may not offer the flexibility and functionality required to address complex visualisation problems. Alternatively, if the GUI is too complex, then new and novice users may not understand.

The substantive information being presented also needs careful thought. Too many assumptions about the user's knowledge of the subject area can lead to incomplete understanding of the problem or issue and produce misleading results. Too much basic background information can, on the other hand, seem condescending to more informed users and may they loose interest. Future developments in GUIs need to focus on adaptive user-centred interfaces (AUI) that can profile new users, 'learn' from their responses and alter the level at which information is presented, both in terms of detail and style, and adapt the complexity of GUIs used to present it. For example, a novice user with little or no knowledge of the subject area requires a simple GUI and comprehensive background information, whereas an experienced user with a good knowledge of the subject area requires a more complex (and flexible) GUI with much less background information. Depending on the educational status of the user, the presentation of the GUI and the style in which the background information is written needs to be adapted accordingly. Simple user profile questionnaires including questions such as postcode, profession, age, familiarity with computers, newspaper preferred (i.e. Sun or Guardian) could be used to channel users to a particular style of GUI and information presentation in a multi-level system. Alternatively, more advanced techniques, perhaps employing artificial intelligence, could be employed to analyse each user's successive responses and adapt the GUI and information in real time.

One possible area for research is the development of on-screen 'concept keyboards'. These are based more around physical methods of working and represent a move away from typical menu or command lines modes of human computer interface (HCI). Here the HCI is built up of graphical elements representing real-life work spaces. For example, the digital office is represented as a photo-real graphic showing computer, printer, desk, filing cabinets, telephone, fax machine, copier, etc. rather than the standard MS Windows or Windows 95/Mac type interface. Non-computer users are much more able to interact with this kind of environment than a series of obscure icons and menus. Of course, there is a heavy graphics overhead with any such interface that is web-based.

Exploratory decision-making

Perhaps one of the key areas of potential for participatory systems is in the development of exploratory decision-making. Both the third and fourth case studies involve an element of exploration of a particular problem. In the case of the landscape preference survey, the aim is to determine what elements of the landscape are attractive and to explore what might be the likely effect of a new development in the landscape. In the case of the nuclear waste disposal siting example, the user is encouraged to explore the geographical aspects of the siting problem and arrive at their own informed decisions.

Developing visualisation tools that can help in users explore social science type problems or issues and, if appropriate, arrive at informed decisions is a potentially fruitful area for further R&D. For spatial decision problems, web-based GIS, such as used in the nuclear waste disposal example, are probably the most obvious answer. However, not everyone understands a map (and those produced by a GIS can easily confuse most). Research is required into alternative forms of presenting map-based information to assist in public understanding of spatial data and models. Again, concept keyboards might present a way-forward in assisting public understanding of GIS-based material. Cognitive maps, photo-real aerial views and VR may each present workable solutions to this problem. For non-spatial problems emphasis should be on clear and concise forms of visualisation. Only where very complex datasets are being presented such advanced graphics such as 3D views and linked displays, be employed.

Computer supported collaborative working

Computer supported collaborative working (CSCW) has been the focus of research attention in the computing sciences for some time and is an area that deserves attention from the social science research community as an approach to local community-based research projects. The increased availability of web-connected PC in the community and the availability of appropriate GUI and visualisation software generates numerous possibilities for social science research projects into a various community level topics such as education, housing, health, crime reduction, environmental enhancement and design, etc. The emphasis in CSCW is on the use of computer environments to support democratic community level decision-making, conflict resolution and compromise planning. The development of participatory CSCW environments or 'community decision spaces' on the WWW is now possible and represents perhaps the most practical means of ensuring future maximum outreach and participation among community members.

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