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ORLANDO, Fla.—IBM’s ever-vigilant research arm employs the collective power of many of the brightest brains in the business to come up with solutions to hard computer science problems. As part of the company’s continuing effort to deliver social computing software, IBM will launch “Many Eyes,” a service that allows people to explore different visual representations of large amounts of data and share it with others to help them collectively make better sense of the information.

IBM plans to announce the Many Eyes project at the Lotusphere 2007 conference here on Jan. 23.

Irene Greif, an IBM fellow and director of Collaborative User Experience for IBM Research, said Many Eyes builds on new ways to visualize data. Greif said the concept was inspired by a “baby name” wizard that one of IBM’s researchers developed to help his wife with a book about baby names. He built visualization that showed name popularity over 100 years.

“We’d like to have people share data and be able to visualize data, so we needed to develop some type of system,” Greif said.

“Many Eyes is a research project to figure out ways for people to build communities around data,” said Matt McKeon, a research developer in IBM’s Visual Communication Lab in Cambridge, Mass. “We’re trying to take lessons from social software and information visualization. And with Many Eyes you have visualizations anyone can create and post to a Web site.”

Business users’ need to analyze complex data and visualization is well-suited to this task, but it has typically been done in isolation, Greif said. Many Eyes supports collaborative analysis around the visualization of data by drawing on the insight and expertise of users all across the Internet to provide broader and deeper analyses of data.

Created by IBM Research’s Visual Communications Lab, Many Eyes will be available free of charge as a service on IBM’s alphaWorks Services Web site in the afternoon of Jan. 23 at The site, when it goes live, will enable early users to try out the software.

“Many Eyes aims to democratize visualization by providing a forum for any users of the site to explore, discuss, and collaborate on visual content,” Greif said in a statement. “The result is a process of social data analysis beyond just the visualization.”

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At the core, Many Eyes will be a collection of user-generated data visualizations, IBM said. Each visualization will allow for an active discussion to take place and become a common area to share ideas, add insight and understand the visualization in a group setting.

“It’s interactive, so you can move the cursor over a spot on the visualization and see the underlying data,” McKeon said. Users also can look at discussions about the data and get thumbnails that show what commenters were looking at when they made their comments.

As the visualizations are created by people and the data sets come out of the community, some checks and balances can be placed into the system. “People can easily lie about the data they put in to build a visualization, so one of the important things we’ve looked at is how you build trust,” and IBM is looking at adding identity features and audit trails, McKeon said.

Many Eyes supports 14 types of visualizations, including bar charts, bubble charts, block histograms and world maps.

McKeon’s group “tried to make uploading data as easy as possible—we took the least common denominator, which is Microsoft Excel,” he said. “All you have to do to upload a data set is go to the page and paste in the data.” Users can simply upload data from cutting and pasting from their own Excel spreadsheets or tab/comma-delimited text files.

The Many Eyes site will present a set of interactive visualizations that provide insight into a variety of topics—from cereal nutrition data to the fertility rates of countries worldwide.

By offering the data visualization community a collaborative platform for sharing knowledge, Many Eyes will empower users to explore data visualization in new and exciting ways. For example, a government agency could use this tool to help it understand factors that may indicate potential recipients of governmental aid, the company said. Also, by presenting the data in a visual manner, Many Eyes can help individuals and businesses use complex data to make smarter and more accurate decisions.

Next Page: Innovation Day at Lotusphere.

Also at the Lotusphere conference, IBM sponsored an “Innovation Lab,” where two dozen IBM Research and related projects were on display. One project known as Malibu is a personal productivity assistant that provides awareness and peripheral access to activities, tasks, social bookmarks and feeds to help workers manage their activity-centric work, IBM said.

Werner Geyer, a research scientist in the Collaborative User Experience group at IBM Research, said Malibu is a set of Lotus Sametime plug-ins that bring the newly announced Lotus Connection onto a user’s desktop. It features several IBM collaboration technologies and can even automatically recommend actions the user should take based on prior history. Users also can click on “Surf” Malibu to search across data sources.

Lotus Sametime 7.5 interoperates with AIM and Google Talk. Click here to read more.

Malibu is a research project that has more than 500 users within IBM running it every day, Geyer said. However, two pieces of the project have already found their way into IBM products. The feed reader is part of the upcoming Notes 8 product, and the Malibu flag reader is part of Lotus Connections, he said.

IBM also showed a separate project known as IBM Lotus Sametime Integration with Rational Jazz. Jazz is an IBM Rational platform that allows software development teams to collaborate across all phases of the software life cycle.

“Jazz is exploring ways to enhance the future of collaborative software development, and not just for developers, but for requirements, testers, coders, etc.,” said Steven Rohall, a software architect in the CUE Research Group at IBM Research. “This research project also features awareness of team members, so you can see which members of your team are online and you can open chats with them or send them defects you’ve found.”

The underlying technology is Lotus Sametime 7.5.1, Rohall said.

Sametime is key to a few other IBM Research projects on display in the Innovation Lab, including the Desktop Widgets Runtime for IBM Lotus Sametime and the IBM Lotus Sametime Web 2.0 Toolkit. The Desktop Widgets Runtime for IBM Lotus Sametime is a desktop widget run-time integrating Sametime to manage desktop applications using HTML, JavaScript, CSS (cascading stylesheets) and AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). The widgets are reusable, isolated applications that can be aggregated to form desktop portals, said Woody Huang, a software engineer in IBM’s e-Business Frameworks group at the company’s T.J. Watson research Center in Hawthorne, N.Y.

“We’re trying to create a desktop widget run-time where multiple widgets can be used as building blocks for mashups,” said Gegi Thomas, a researcher who works with Huang at IBM Research.

Moreover, the widgets can be used by ISVs “to build domain-specific applications,” Huang said.

The Desktop Widgets Runtime for IBM Lotus Sametime can be loosely compared with what Apple has done with its Apple Dashboard widget library and Yahoo’s Konfabulator, now known as the Yahoo Widget Engine, said Fenil Shah, another software engineer in Huang’s group. John Ponzo rounds out the team of research engineers working on the technology.

The IBM Lotus Sametime Web 2.0 Toolkit is based on Sametime 7.5.1 and provides the infrastructure to build applications on top of Sametime that run on Windows, Linux and the Macintosh, Shah said.

Another project, the ODF (OpenDocument Format) for Situational Applications, involves new mechanisms for integrating ODF documents into Web 2.0 applications and uses DOM (Document Object Model) programming to control office applications, said Hironbu Takagi, a researcher from IBM’s Tokyo Research Laboratory.

“We developed a new type of middleware to integrate standard static documents into Web 2.0 applications,” Takagi said. Takagi’s demo showed how to mash up ODF documents with Yahoo Maps, edit wiki pages using office editors and manage compliance for ODF accessibility.

The Innovation Lab also featured a template-based project for business users. The Activity-centric Computing for Evolving Business Practices, or ACC, supports ad hoc business activities and allows business practices to be encoded in Activity Templates that can be reused and evolved, said Barton Smith, an IBM researcher involved with the project.

“It publishes an Atom feed, and we can make different views of that data and different applications without any change to the service,” Barton said. “We just use the Atom API.”

Other applications in the Innovation Lab at Lotusphere include Sonar, a project for sharing social network data; Pasta, for enterprise presence; and Cattail, a person-centric file sharing system project.

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