Just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it’s useless

Recently, I came across Phrase Nets, a new kind of text visualization, and I thought “wow, this could be really useful to researchers seeking information”. My husband, a researcher seeking information, looked at the same thing and said “wow, this is really useless, it only shows you obvious things”.

A phrase net of Pride and Prejudice with the pattern "X and Y"

A phrase net of Pride and Prejudice with the pattern "X and Y"

The example visualization, reproduced above was a network of the pattern “X and Y” applied to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and yes, the names and clusters that show up are obvious. I didn’t gain any new insight from looking at the picture, so why did I think it would be useful in any way?

Automated tools like this, that pick up on so-called obvious information, are easy to dismiss. We say – oh, it can’t tell us anything more than we already know. What we forget is that sometimes we’re looking for exactly this sort of information: stuff that is obvious… but that we don’t know yet.

Returning to the phrase nets example, suppose that the text wasn’t Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, suppose it was the entire collection of journal papers on Natural Language Processing… or Neurobiology… or North American Archeology.. or 17th Century English Politics — some academic discipline. Now suppose that, while reading some book or paper, you came across a researcher’s name mentioned along wtih some claim or advance of interest to you. e.g. “… the idea, advanced by Hearst in 1989 …” and you wondered “who is this? what did they do?”

I imagine you could use a phrase net with a pattern like “Hearst claimed/showed/demonstrated/argued Y” (or however these things are phrased in your field) to learn something useful. Obvious to anyone who actually knows Hearst, of course, but still useful to you.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Information Seeking, Text Mining, Visualization
One comment on “Just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it’s useless
  1. Marti says:

    Nice post. I do think there is merit to the argument that if a viz only shows information that is easily learned in some other way it might not be contributing much (although showing something that is textual is going to be helpful to people who prefer their insights in a more visual form).

    I think this paper is original and provides breakthrough work. They are
    combining two existing ideas in s novel way. They do a better job of
    showing relationships between textual entities than others before.

    That said, they do not “solve” the problem. and I don’t like that they find the
    missing Darcy to be “interesting” ; rather it is problematic — it
    assumes one knows the key points before starting the analysis. Which is kind of the point your husband was making.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it’s useless"
  1. [...] like the one above, specifically designed for visualizing grammatical relationships (more here), might then make excellent food for [...]