How do you Visualise a Conversation?

By Chris McDowall 24/06/2011


Over the next couple of days I am helping run an online event called Magnetic South – an online game about the long term future of Christchurch. It is part of Christchurch City Council’s Share an Idea suite of initiatives and will input to the development of the Central City Plan. The game is being run on the ‘Foresight Engine’, a platform created by the Institute for the Future to support people thinking together about issues that are important to them in a way that is both productive and fun. If you want to explore possible futures for Christchurch then please create a player and get started!

A big challenge for the Magnetic South team involves making sense of the many micro-forecasts people contribute during the event. Previous Foresight Engine events have produced thousands of individual contributions. The nature of the game is such that these snippets of texts should not be read in isolation. Most player contributions build off earlier forecasts and, in turn, prompt additional responses. To unpack what happened during the Magnetic South event the various micro-forecasts need to be contextualised.

To assist our analysts I have written some code to visualise the structure of the many conversations that occur. My initial design represented each conversation as a sideways tree constructed from squares and lines. Each square represents a contribution someone made to the conversation. Filled squares represent contributions from the person who started the conversation. Unfilled squares represent contributions made by other participants. Lines connect related contributions — the square on the right being a response to the square on the left.

Here is a very simple example based on data created during an earlier Foresight Engine event that explored a future where water is as expensive as energy. The example conversation consists of just three comments. Read from left to right, someone kicks off the conversation with a Dark Imagination forecast. The unfilled square represents someone else responding to the original forecast at some point in the event. The rightmost square signifies original forecaster replying. There were no further contributions to this conversation.

A simple conversation

Below is a slightly more complex example. Someone makes a micro-forecast concerning Capturing all sources of energy that are currently not very considered: e.g. muscle power at gyms (rowers etc.), heat from car engines…’ This prompts two responses, one of which (‘They are here and now. The Piezoelectric powered Disco in London is my favourite example’) leads to an extended back and forward exploration of the idea.

A slightly more complex conversation

Although they showed the scale of the conversation, there was no way to know how many people took part. Yesterday afternoon I added some new code to add numeric codes into the boxes. Each time a new person enters a conversation they get a number. The person who started the conversation is number 1. The first person to respond is number 2… and so on. This makes it possible to see things like “how many people were involved in the conversation” or “was this conversation dominated by a couple of people, or are there are a whole heap of folks chipping in”? Here is the same conversation rendered with the new code.

A coded conversation.

It is now possible to see that that five people took part in the conversation. Most of the exchanges actually occurred between the second and the third participants. A couple of other people (numbers 4 and 5) made a single contribution.

I want to emphasise that these figures are not intended to be read in isolation from text generated during the game. Instead they are tools to provide researchers with an overview of the structure of the many conversations that occur to help them navigate and contextualise the raw text. Specifically, I am attempting to convey the scale, complexity and rhythm of the various exchanges that happen inside the event. Throughout today’s Magnetic South event I will create similar diagrams and combine them with textual descriptions and share them through the game blog. Please get involved  we would love to hear your ideas on the future of Christchurch!

Here are some more diagrams that I created from the E=H20 event data. Even in the absence of text, they convey a sense of what happened.

A conversation

A conversation

A conversation

0 Responses to “How do you Visualise a Conversation?”

  • You could assign everyone who is involved more than once, an individual colour, spaced around a colour wheel with spacing between colours determined by the proportion of contributions made by each person.

  • @Stephen : That is an interesting idea. I will have a play and see what comes out the other side.