IBM social networking site looking for Many Eyes

Many Eyes lets uses create visual representations of data and share those representations as a starting point for discussions

IBM/Lotus Tuesday launched a social networking Web site that combines information analysis and discussion features that let users slice, dice and talk about data they upload themselves from spreadsheets or other files.

IBM's Many Eyes lets uses create visual representations of data, such as graphs, and share those representations as a starting point for discussions. IBM says the service can harness "collective intelligence" by having many users look at data and contribute their insights to a discussion forum.

The service, which is now live at IBM's alphaWorks Services Web site, is part of IBM's efforts to create social networking software for corporate users. It can be thought of as a next-generation business intelligence tool, according to IBM

On Monday, IBM unveiled Lotus Connections, a collection of social networking tools that will ship later this year. But the company also has another round of tools under development in its research labs and in testing on its own corporate network that are likely to emerge as future products.

Many Eyes, which is being offered as an online service, is the first out of the gate.

IBM researcher Matt McKeon, who works in the Visual Communications Lab within IBM's Collaborative User Experience Group, showed off the Many Eyes site Tuesday for a group of press and analysts using data on U.S. government expenses from 1962 to 2004. The data was loaded from an Excel spreadsheet, but data from any tab/comma delimited text file can be uploaded.

The service lets users represent data in one of 14 ways including pie charts and tree maps. (See example. )

McKeon showed how users could click on certain parts of a graph and extract data, say on a certain spike in spending, and then pose questions or comments about what they found. When users comment on certain pieces of data, Many Eyes saves a snapshot of the data in question, which is then posted along with the user's comment in a blog-like format.

"We want insight to come from the social activity," McKeon said. "What we emphasize is interactive visualization."

IBM said, for example, that a government agency could use Many Eyes to understand factors that may indicate potential recipients of government aid. By using data visualization, the company said the government could upload data and produce charts to determine how certain factors such as living in areas where natural disasters often happen, income range, or possible layoffs in a certain job field could come together to provide predictive analysis.

McKeon said start-ups such as Data360 and Swivel are developing similar tools for data visualization.

"We are all taking a different approach to this," he said. "Our emphasis is on the community [collaboration]."

For now, Many Eyes is a public service, but IBM is looking into adding access control features so groups could use Many Eyes to analyze their data in private. The company also is examining data integrity tools because users have access to the uploaded data.

IBM has had Many Eyes under development for about a year, according to McKeon.

The software is further proof how fast IBM is bringing its social networking research to market as usable tools. Monday's unveiling of Lotus Connections included an application called Dogear, which was being shown in the Lotusphere IBM Innovations Lab just last year.

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