I’ve spent the better part of the last 6 years dealing with state government systems that manage information about citizens receiving government services. As creative as state government can be in some areas, presenting new and interesting visual metaphors for the management of citizen and case (i.e. collections of citizens) information is certainly not a forte. This problem is not solely the fault of state governments. Rather, it’s the product of state government business leaders’ lack of knowledge of the available options, educational obligation complacency on part of government’s IT partners, and the real or perceived difficulty of being visually creative in an environment where accessibility compliance is not an option.
There are ways around the accessibility compliance constraints; up to and including parallel functionality with both accessibility compliant and non-accessibility compliant versions. Education, however, is not always as easy to come by. With the technology supporting rich Internet applications, we can do so much more than could be done with an old 3270 mainframe terminal. Yet, across a broad swathe of in-house, outsourced, and packaged case management solutions, you’ll rarely find anything beyond some minimalistic styling and obligatory “smiling citizen” pictures that could not have been done 20 years ago. There are many new metaphors that we could use to make the data presented by case management applications more meaningful to workers. I present three of the more radical concepts below:
Geospatial – Use a geographic metaphor to allow the discovery of relationships between individuals, cases, caseloads, or entire programs. With the advent of map mashups, this has surely become one of the more popular new visuals for creatively displaying data on the Web. For publicly accessible examples of what is possible, check out Chicago Crime and Citystat. These two examples represent visualizations of publicly available data in Chicago and Wasington D.C. , respectively. Also, these were built on top of relatively garden variety two dimensional maps. More recently, things are moving more in the direction of quasi 3 dimensional (a.k.a. “Bird’s Eye Views”) and fully navigable three dimensional models. If you haven’t seen Microsoft’s maps at all (or as of late), I strongly encourage you to give them a look. Right from your browser you get fully scrollable 2 dimensional maps and bird’s eye views of many major and non-major (check out the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg, as an example) US cities. As a bonus, if you’re using Internet Explorer, you can get fully virtual reality tours of several major cities. Firefox users, don’t despair, support is supposedly being added soon for Firefox too.
Temporal – Use a timeline metaphor to show a longitudinal time scale relationship between various events. These events could be various transactions within a case or across multiple cases. Simile Timelines are an exciting new way to model such relationships. Check out the example timeline for the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Notice especially how the top and bottom timelines interact together as you drag them independently. For bonus credit, check out how the scale of time changes in the most critical moments surrounding Kennedy’s assassination from months to days to hours to 15 minute intervals. Timline, much like the maps that support the geographic metaphor, has a fully API against which one can program. This leaves the possibilities for state government based uses of the timeline metaphor wide open.
Network Graphs – Using the network metaphor enables the discovery of complex relationships between people and other entities. With a deep network of relationships in most case management systems, this is potentially one of the most useful new metaphors. Given the graphic and data intensive nature of displaying these relationships, it’s also one of the most difficult ones to implement technically. There are some great examples of this being done on the open Internet though, most of them using Flash. Check out Tracking the Threat’s terrorist network navigator. Imagine using the same thing to expand the network relationships in a case management system. Moritz Stephaner’s Relation Browser is also a great example of what can be done in this space. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of standard tools to build these types of models. The one tool that I know of (Prefuse) uses Java and Java Applets instead of Flash. Hopefully, we’ll see some key players recognize the opportunity and create standard tools to support this metaphor in the near future.
These really are the more radical of the changes that I can think of. There are, of course, more rudimentary changes that can be made that could have just as profound of an impact. The use of pictures with personal profiles or the ability to perform full text searches on the system’s case notes (the unstructured data lifeblood of many systems) immediately come to mind. As much of a challenge as it seems to implement these suggestions for existing case management systems, the far greater challenge lies in adjusting users’ approach to leveraging these new features. A genuine knowledge worker approach is required to get the most out of these features. This is a proposition bound to be a very exciting opportunity for some and a very scary change for others.