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Patterning problems: Computer representation of problem networks
World Problems Project |
Since the inception of this project in 1972, efforts have been made
to bring together the resources, hardware and expertise to permit networks
of problems to be portrayed as networks in graphic form. The data is organized
to that end. Ideally this technique would be used to communicate with international
organizations concerning the networks of problems within their area of
concern. By representing networks to organizations, they would be encouraged
to identify weaknesses in the pattern of relationships indicated and would
be able to make suggestions for specific additions or deletions. Similarly
the editorial work on networks of problems would be considerably facilitated.
And of course a set of network maps would be an extremely valuable tool
as a complement to the text information displayed in this volume.
Despite efforts following the 1976 edition, it was not possible to achieve
this for earlier editions. And despite efforts since then, no graphic representations
have been possible for this edition. However as will be seen from the inside
covers of this volume, it has been possible to experiment with a new software
package using the entierty of the problems database. The approach is discussed
in Section TZ, with an indication
of progress to date. Aside from the technical issues discussed in Section
TZ, the concern here is with new ways of exploring information on complex
networks of problems. The point has been repeatedly made that information
on problems is now overwhelming. Conventional ways of exploring that information
are totally inadequate to any insightful overview. Some possibilities are
It should be noted that the emphasis here is not on the dynamic approach
favoured by "global modellers" in order to represent complex systems. Extensive
resources have been allocated to this approach for nearly 20 years without
any major breakthroughs of policy significance. Such modelling totally
ignores the question of the comprehensibility of any output to those who
have to make decisions, even though it concentrates on a small sub-set
of quantifiable problems.
The concern here is with the larger challenge of representing the extensive
network of problems, whether tangible or "fuzzy", in ways which give a
sense of context. The intent is therefore both less ambitious from a theoretical
point of view and more ambitious in terms of encompassing the full range
of issues with which people are concerned -- whether or not they can be
reflected in any systems model. From a mathematical point of view, in contrast
with conventional modelling the tools used are those of graph theory, topology
and work on partially ordered sets. But the intent is to use these to design
appropriate algorithms to simplify the user's understanding of the patterns
of problems. The following facilities acquire greater significance with
the increasing use of CD-ROM to hold information on large databases and
to facilitate access to them.
2. Representation of problem "hierarchies"
There is a need to be able to portray a problem hierarchy fully for
inspection. Whilst this can be done in a non-graphic mode (as is currently
the case in editorial work), the approach is cumbersome. Ideally users
should be able to view the whole hierarchy or zoom into parts of it, accessing
the descriptive data when required. This facility is of special interest
given that problem hierarchies are not simple. A single problem may be
part of several tree structures.
3. Representation of sets of problems
Although relationships between problems may not be known, it should
be possible to view those in related subject domains. Again this can be
done in a non-graphic mode, but users need the facility of looking at the
problems in any domain at different levels of detail, whether the tops
of hierarchies only or at any of a succession of levels below. The need
for this facility is obvious in the case of geographic information, where
the need may be for more or less detail (eg including or excluding towns
of smaller size). Increasing detail would thus include in the graphic display
the hierarchical links to more specific problems, just as minor roads to
smaller towns are included when a more detail geographical map is used.
4. Vicious and serendipitous cycles linking problems
There are two patterns of functional relationships between problems
in the database at present: aggravated by/aggravating and reduced by/reducing.
Again these can be explored in non-graphic mode but this becomes especially
difficult when combined with the question of hierarchical level. Specifically
the difficulty lies in determining to which hierarchical level a functional
relationship should point. Much greater flexibility is required by users
in navigating through the networks in order to get a sense of the pattern
of relationships at the appropriate level of detail. Preliminary work has
been done on identifying vicious loops linking 3 or more problems in cycles.
This is discussed in Section
5. Configuring patterns of problems
In the features discussed above the emphasis is placed on holding the
data in a form which respects its inherent complexity. The user is obliged
to navigate through it using the new manoeuvring possibilities. This only
responds partially to the user's needs to obtain an integrative overview
of the data. Other approaches are possible if the user is allowed to experiment
with various distorted presentations of the data (analogous to the need
of map-makers to use various "projections" when presenting data on the
globe on the surface of a sheet of paper). Some possibilities include:
(a) Grid representation: Forcing the problems onto a 2-dimensional
grid, possibly zoned by subject, and allowing problem hierarchies to project
vertically according to the number of levels required. Many-levelled hierarchies
in a particular zone would then be represented like sky-scrapers compared
to "single-story" problems elsewhere. This would trigger an understanding
of the "urban" organization of the set of problems, distinguishing between
the "built-up, down-town" area and "suburbia". A modified version of this
approach could also be used by treating different subject areas as distinct
"towns" and providing maps for them, each with its own "down-town" area.
In both versions the grid lines can be treated as "roads" with "traffic"
of a certain frequency corresponding to the intensity of the relationship
between problems. Use of the visual "town" metaphor may evoke new approaches
to problems in the light of the well-developed skills of "town management"
and "traffic management".
6. Experimental emphasis
(b) Other two-dimensional projections: As the map-making analogy
suggests, there are many other "projections" in two dimensions onto which
problem network information might usefully be projected. In each case the
emphasis is on using the geometry of the projection to provide an artificially
integrated overview and a way of articulating the detail of the networks.
(c) Spherical projections: The complete pattern of problem networks
could be projected onto the surface of a sphere as a way of emphasizing
the bounded nature of the system within which the problems occur. This
may have advantages in rendering explicit symmetry and other features which
might render the whole more comprehensible. Approximations to such a spherical
representation may be more practical, along the lines suggested by Buckminster
(d) Unconventional surfaces: Computer environments increasingly
permit the projection of data onto surfaces which do not need to correspond
to conventional rules of geometry. This may be especially fruitful to encompass
contradictory patterns of information which can best be embedded on dynamic
surfaces, or shifting patterns, where some of the integrative power comes
from the periodicity or rhythm with which data is portrayed in a particular
Given the present conceptual bankruptcy in the face of the complexities
of the problematique, there is a strong case for experimenting with unusual
ways of portraying networks of problems. There is little hope that major
breakthroughs can emerge from agendas formulated in terms of a linear sequence
of points, as remains standard practice in policy-making discussions. The
hardware and software skills to engage in such experiments are readily
available and widely used outside the policy environment.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential