The NFAIS 2011 Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture

Ben Shneiderman Receives the Miles Conrad Award from Judy Russell, NFAIS President

One of the highlights of the annual NFAIS conference is the Miles Conrad Lecture.  Given in honor of  G. Miles Conrad, one of the founders of NFAIS, the award honoring excellence in information science and the accompanying lecture is NFAIS’s highest honor.

The NFAIS 2011 Miles Conrad Award recipient was Professor Ben Shneiderman, Founding Director of the Human-Computer Instruction Laboratory (HCIL) and Member of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland.  Shneiderman is highly deserving of this award.  He developed links between text passages in 1983 (well before the Web), and did pioneering work in information visualization, which was used in the Spotfire system, which is used for pharmaceutical drug discovery, business analytics, process improvements, and similar tasks.  He is also the author of several books, including Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies (MIT Press, 2003), which won the IEEE Award for Distinguished Literary Contribution in 2004.  His most recent book is Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL.

Shneiderman’s Lecture, “Social Discovery in an Information Abundant World” was the first Miles Conrad Lecture to focus on social media.  He noted that the first generation of the Web succeeded in providing users with access to an enormous amount of information on almost any subject imaginable, but we have shifted from content to community.  People are now using their links in social networks to obtain their information, which is a huge change in behavior.  The graph below, from a study by SearchEngineWatch quoted data showing that in many cases, referrals from social media to many websites are far outstripping those from Google.

Aggregate Facebook usage now exceeds that of Google.

Social discovery has become a new media lifestyle, and such activities as tagging, voting, or generating tree maps (see a selection of them on the Hive Group website)  for some interesting examples) are a significant part of it.  Schneiderman also said that a significant part of social media revolves around apps, and a number of app search engines such as Chomp, which provide advanced searching capabilities for both the iPhone and Android markets, have appeared.

The rise of question and answer services is another evidence of the popularity of social media.  For example, Yahoo! Answers receives 50 million visits a month, and Quora says that it is “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”  All of these services emphasize the importance of community, rather than simple access to information.

Communities often have surprising characteristics: in the healthcare area, long marked with many strong controls to protect one’s privacy, the PatientsLikeMe service has countered this trend with an openness policy. Users are encouraged to share their medical histories, find information, and learn from the experiences of other users.  The policy page of the site illustrates the power and potential of communities built on social media:

PatientsLikeMe enables you to affect a sea change in the healthcare system. We believe that the Internet can democratize patient data and accelerate research like never before. Furthermore, we believe data belongs to you the patient to share with other patients, caregivers, physicians, researchers, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, and anyone else that can help make patients’ lives better.

Over 50,000 people have registered on the site, and a number of articles based on the data have been published in professional journals.  Other similar communities include AmazonMechanicalTurk which seeks people to do “human intelligence tasks”, Innocentive and where companies or government organizations can recruit people with expertise to help them solve problems, and TopCoder, a software development community.

Fifteen years ago, a published paper on social searching might be based on the experiences of perhaps 5 to 10 people.  Now we can speak of communities of thousands.  How can raise the quality of community participation?  Wikipedia provides insight into a number of ways, such as discussion pages (there are more of them than the main subject pages) and a hierarchy of contributors.  Only 0.1% of the estimated 500 million Wikipedia readers register to be contributors, and their mean contribution is 1 edit.  Above contributors are 1,600 administrators who are the site leaders.  In designing a community, one must think about how to arrange the hierarchy and how to reward people for their efforts.

Shneiderman has been instrumental in the development of NodeXL, which was developed by the Social Media Research Foundation, a community of researchers working on mapping, measuring and understanding the social media field and supporting projects to develop tools for these efforts.  NodeXL is a template for Excel that facilitates the display and analysis of social network graphs Graphs can be constructed based on a number of criteria, such as number of followers, and they can also be clustered to show the communities and the connections between them.

Several of the attendees at the NFAIS conference posted tweets about it as it occurred, and as an example of the use of NodeXL, Shneiderman prepared this graph of connections between the attendees, based on their tweets:

Shneiderman closed his lecture with an invitation to attend HCIL’s 28th Anniversary Symposium on May 25-26.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor


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