Thinkmap reveals the big data picture
TODAY'S INFORMATION consumer faces the daunting task of slogging through complex corporate and e-commerce databases. Whether they are employees searching a knowledge base for an expert on internal subject matter or consumers browsing an e-commerce site for the right digital camera, users frequently must rely on page-based navigation systems.
Such systems are inherently limiting. A user typically navigates from a category to a subcategory to a specific item in a silo without the benefit of a map outlining the relationships among various categories and items. Without such a map, the information consumer is liable to miss some relevant information during his or her search.
Thinkmap Studio 1.5 seeks to provide a more intuitive and effective means for database navigation. The solution provides a development environment for creating and deploying Java-based Thinkmap applications that display data in highly interactive, animated visual maps.
Thinkmap Studio adds value by encouraging end-users to interact with and explore educational, e-commerce, and knowledge management databases, thereby increasing the chance users will discover useful information. This may result in cross-selling opportunities for e-commerce companies, quicker retrieval of pertinent information for knowledge management users, and greater interest and retention of information for educational users.
Once created, a Thinkmap application can be compiled and stored on a Web server. Any end-user with a Java-compatible browser may then access the Thinkmap application, which requires little or no training to begin working with it.
As a user clicks on data objects within an application, the application interacts with the Thinkmap Application Server (TAS) via HTTP or HTTPS (secure HTTP). The TAS, which deploys a Thinkmap to end-users, sends queries to any Java Database Connectivity (JDBC)-compliant database. The Thinkmap application is then returned for display to the end-user.
Companies working in non-Windows environments will have to wait to use Thinkmap Studio, because Version 1.5 works with only Windows 9x/2000/Me and Windows NT 4. Despite the OS limitations, applications created with Thinkmap Studio can be rolled out to any Java 1.1-compatible browser, and the TAS works with Netscape/iPlanet, Microsoft IIS, and Apache Web servers.
Following the well-structured tutorial, we started creating our first Thinkmap application by connecting to and defining our data source: a relational database containing information on movies, directors, actors, and genres. With a few mouse clicks, we used the visual Relationship Builder to define primary data tables, or nodes, and relation tables, or edges, for our application.
Next, we started assigning display properties to the data objects, controlling how they would appear and how they would interact with other objects. We accessed these properties via the intuitive Thinkmap Studio Property Manager, a grid displaying data entities and application objects along the top edge and properties available for these entities and objects along the left edge.
For example, we set the Label property to display the Title field of the movie entities from our movie database. As a result, a movie entity retrieved from the database was represented in our Thinkmap application by the movie's title. Had we set the Label property to display the Release Date field, the movie The Birds would be displayed in our application as 1963.
Thinkmap Studio allows a developper to tie a database field to a display object property, such as the movie title property. This feature also could be used to link the size of a circle representing a sales region to the total sales for that region. The circle could be set to appear larger or smaller, depending on the region's sales figures. Moreover, the sales region's circle could be displayed in red if sales for the region fell below a certain number.
As we worked through the tutorial, we viewed the results of changes to our Thinkmap application in real time using Thinkmap Studio's preview window. This feature saves developers the time and hassle of redeploying an application every time they make a change.
Combined with the easy-to-navigate Property Manager, the preview window enables developers to create, test, and deploy applications to users relatively quickly; prototype applications can be created in a matter of days and complete implementation time can be as little as three weeks.
Thinkmap Studio provides three different Thinkmap display types: spider, bubble, and chronology. A spider Thinkmap displays data objects with radiating lines connected to related objects; a bubble Thinkmap displays objects as a formatted list. The chronology Thinkmap displays objects on a time line; using slider controls, the end-user controls what time period is displayed.
For example, a customer navigating through a Thinkmap application displaying the online catalogue of an outdoor-gear store may click on a certain backpack. This single click can simultaneously center the display on the backpack and show related outdoor items, open an Adobe Acrobat file describing the item in another browser frame, and store the item number for inclusion in a shopping cart.
TheBrain Technologies and Inxight both offer software with visual content-navigation interfaces similar to a spider Thinkmap. Whereas Thinkmap offers developers greater control over the final appearance of an application and increased data interactivity compared with its competitors, the competing products currently offer better access to unstructured, or nondatabase, content.
Thinkmap Studio relies on the value derived from providing information consumers with increased access to relevant data to justify the $20,000 TAS price tag. E-commerce sites seeking increased cross-selling opportunities and companies looking to put a dynamic, engaging interface on their existing knowledge management applications should take a look at the unique data-visualization capabilities offered by Thinkmap Studio.