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Executive Summary

Overview Report

Main Report


  Computer Graphics
  The Web


Bibliographic History

Review of Visualization in the Social Sciences: Main Report

World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (or Web) is still a relatively new medium, and its true potential remains unknown, particularly with respect to its use by the social sciences. However, because of its highly graphical nature and its multimedia content, a consensus exists that the Web is an ideal medium for conducting visualization research, and the dissemination of its findings. Many advanced forms of data visualization and graphical interaction can now be used, or at least demonstrated via the Web.

Figure 1

Examples of graphical applications range from computer games and animation, through to advanced Geographic Information Systems (GIS), virtual reality, 3D graphics, and sound. All these applications are simply not available in traditional paper based publication mediums. Moreover, the Web offers accessibility to downloadable software and electronic data stores, which in many instances are available free of charge.

Currently, the use of the Web as a medium for the dissemination of social science visualization research is somewhat obscure. This is due in part to the eclectic and unstructured nature of the Web, and also because the Web is still an unexplored medium with respect to the majority of researches in the social sciences, particularly when compared to its use by the scientific community. At first glance, the Web contains a wealth of information relating to `visualization'. This includes both the research and development of visualization tools and technologies and also the application of these tools and technologies to specific research problems. However, upon detailed inspection, it becomes quickly apparent that the physical and natural sciences dominate this research, with the social sciences being significantly under-represented. Exhaustive use of various standard search engines such as Alta-Vista, Excite, Lycos and InfoSeek on key words and phrases produces surprising little evidence of websites dedicated to visualization in the social sciences. This supports Carver (1997) findings that despite the discussion surrounding the potential use of the Web as a vehicle for social science research, very little has materialised to date.

This relative dearth may partly be explained by the fact that the majority of visualization websites tend to be concerned with the on-going research and development of visualization tools and software (E.g. [28],[45],[64]). Due to historic links with engineering, medicine and computer science, visualization research on the Web has traditionally fallen within the domain of `science', and thus the comparable lack of social science visualization websites. However, this is not to say that these research and development websites are of no value. They are useful in as much as they provide a taster of what is now available in terms of cutting edge visualization technologies. Essentially, these websites represent `show cases' of what the software is capable of, usually with the opportunity to download the software with accompanying tutorials and user manuals. Nevertheless, these technologies have been developed within the context of the physical sciences, using physical science data, and it is arguable that the social sciences and social science data are sufficiently distinct to require quite different techniques and/or technologies. The social science visualization websites that do exist tend to originate from social science disciplines closely affiliated with the physical sciences, notably Geography.

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