Editor’s note: This brief Q&A series
will feature IBM researchers making presentations at the 2012 South-by-Southwest
Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas.
Join the conversation: #sxswibm #timeMap
Research Scientist Dr. Jennifer Thom, a member
of IBM’s Visual Communications Lab, is part of the Maps of Time: Data As Narrative panel –
a discussion about understanding and visualizing data over time – on Monday,
Q: What are the kinds of thing you work
on as a researcher at IBM's Visual Communications Lab?
I study online social behavior and focus on how social media can
influence and create new opportunities for collaboration. I’m especially
interested in how these tools can help distributed groups – who speak different
languages and work in different time zones – work together more effectively.
Q: What's an example of a data visualization project you've worked
Social media is incredibly multilingual, and the systems within IBM are no
exception. Many IBMers contribute to our social tools in many native languages,
which is helpful for creating community for a global enterprise. At the same
time, there are multilingual IBMers who have varying levels of fluency between
the different languages they speak, yet they encounter and consume content in
their non-native languages in their daily work.
I was interested in improving the reading experience for
multilingual IBMers – especially since an increasing amount of information is
shared in these spaces as our business becomes more social.
In collaboration with a graduate student at MIT, we’ve worked on
visually transforming online blogs to improve the reading experience for IBMers
who consume content in their non-native language. From user data that we
gathered, we developed a set of design criteria to reduce visual distractions
in order to improve scanning and skimming of social software content.
Initial evaluations of this approach are promising, as global
IBMers have indicated that this approach has made the reading experience of
this content more enjoyable.
Q: At this year's SXSW, you're on a
panel about "Data as a narrative." How does this idea go beyond
something like Facebook's timeline?
I’m interested in using the past to help predict the future and
looking at how we can learn from the data that we share on these social media
systems to solve problems.
For instance, one recent project that I completed looked at the
#stuffibmerssay meme that emerged on Twitter at the end of 2011. A small number
of IBMers spontaneously created this hashtag to append to humorous tweets that
commented on different aspects of life as an IBMer.
The number quickly grew over a period of few days, where different
IBMers contributed their perspectives and experiences and created a shared
experience for IBMers who often work in diverse environments around the globe.
When we looked at the content of the tweets more closely, we realized that
collectively they helped expose aspects of our organizational culture.
Since then, we’ve been thinking about ways that we can use these
tweets as a barometer of sorts: whether about IBMers, or the systems we
maintain, develop and deliver. We’ve also thought about using memes as an
elicitation tool to get a sense of what people are working on or thinking
*Note: this research will be presented at ICWSM 2012 in Dublin in June.
Q: How might the idea of cobbling
together all of a person's (or company's) online data look? Would this have to
be a new social network?
So, I think the project that I just described is one approach in
where we can leverage people’s existing behavior. The challenge is in
aggregating multiple feeds over multiple systems and helping users make sense
of the fire hose.
One approach would be to create better visualizations of this data
so that people can make sense of what’s being put out there.
Q: How could a person -- or a business
-- use a timeline of their online lives, while maintaining security and
That’s a huge challenge since the same aggregation can help us
become more predictive can uncover patterns.
I suspect the best answer to this
is a combination of policy and design – helping individuals better opt-out of
this aggregation, and trying to figure out what the right amount of noise so
that the aggregation of data and timelines doesn’t make individuals so
Q: What's a favorite data visualization
of yours? What makes it a good example?
recently came across Yanni Loukissas’s
visualization of the Apollo 11 moon landing
and thought it was a great example of storytelling through disparate types of
data linked by time.
In particular, I thought the
combination of the audio channel with the output from the different computer
systems involved in managing the launch was a nice integration of the social
and technical aspects of complex coordination.
Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Visualization, 1969 (2011) from Yanni Loukissas on Vimeo.
Labels: big data, communications, sxsw, visualization