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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006 Supplement
DOI:10.5062/F4B56GPZ

Brain to Web -- Simply

A. Marcus J. Robbins
Independent Forestry Consultant
119 Harefields, Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX2
8NR, UK
marcus.robbins@virgin.net

Abstract

A process is described that uses mind-mapping and web-authoring software for brainstorming, organizing and publishing information on the web. Examples are given of studies that used the process to review tree seed and agroforestry extension resources, and to summarize research results.

Introduction

There is an increasing demand for study/research results to be presented as web pages as well as in paper-based formats. Both types of output require good planning and structuring, but web sites are more demanding. Most authors will be skilled at word-processing to present their work, but less so at web-authoring. New types of creative software can help this process. For example, Tony Buzan's Mind Map® concept has been given new life in the MindManager® program from Mindjet®. This versatile and user-friendly program allows information to be visualised and embedded into maps, which can be continually re-drawn, evolved, and eventually converted into more familiar formats. The outputs can then be edited using standard word-processing or web-authoring programs. Such a process has been used by the writer for several studies carried out for FAO's Forestry Department and the DANIDA Forest Seed Centre (now part of Forest & Landscape, Denmark). The various stages are described below.

Steps in the Use of MindManager

Brainstorming and structuring are the first stages, where all the ideas relating to the study are noted down and grouped together. MindManager is ideal for this. On-screen, a map is gradually built up and organised, having a central image and radiating branches, labelled as appropriate with keywords and phrases, and showing relationships between topics. The branches cover not only technical issues, but also management, administrative, and other general aspects of the study.

A development stage follows, during which more substantial information is embedded into the map, using MindManager's word-processing facility. Branches, text or graphics are hyperlinked to other sources of information (computer files, web sites, e-mail addresses or other maps) as these are identified and needed. At the same time, the map itself is embellished with colour and graphics to make it more of an aide memoire following Buzan's principles.

The aim of two studies that used this technique has been to identify, review and facilitate access to the best tree seed and agroforestry extension resources, mainly via the web. Maps were created that organised information about terms of reference, collaborator contacts and comments, useful web sites, to-do lists, travel plans, general notes, antecedents, methodology, and the resources (over 200) that had been identified by the study. These maps were quite complex, but easily navigated on-screen using various techniques to find, highlight or suppress branches and their embedded information. They thus serve both as a tool to monitor and control progress, and also as an evolving end-product.

Once all the required information has been obtained, the next step is transformation of the map and contents, from a working tool, into a map that represents the structure and content of the final publication. Branches are refined and consolidated so that they provide the headings, sub-headings and content of the required HTML web site or paper report. Those branches with "working" information (such as contacts, web site addresses, notes, comments etc.) are either transferred to another map, or integrated into the text that will form the final document.

The next stage is conversion of the map into a document formatted for paper or Internet publishing. MindManager uses its information-laden maps to automatically create web sites, without the user needing knowledge of HTML. The original map (suitably edited and simplified) can be used as a graphical index page for navigating the site, or a more traditional linear menu can be created within browser frames. In the case of all the studies, simple image maps without frames were used for the final web-based output. Additionally, Word® documents were produced from the same MindManager file.

Final authoring of the web site is the penultimate stage, using a suitable web-authoring program -- in this case MS FrontPage®. The site is checked for layout, spelling, integrity of hyperlinks, and format. Although editing can be carried out by reverting back to the MindManager program, it is best to develop the web site further using a full web-authoring program, leaving the mapping stage behind. In this way, linkages can be tailor made to documents on a parent web site, and search engines and other refinements can be integrated into the site. The use of two programs means that some of the benefits of using the web-authoring program from the start are lost.

The last stage is publishing on the Internet or as a CD. Two contrasting examples of presenting information can be seen on the web:

Both sites show how -- besides facilitating the process - MindManager has influenced the substance of the final output. It helped make the presentation of research results -- both as text and graphics -- more accessible and interesting. It also helped in the design of the extension resource descriptions.

The HTML output of the tree seed and agroforestry extension studies has been made available to potential users as drafts for comments and suggestions. Following feedback, the web pages are now being updated using FrontPage. Note that the opening map of the tree seed extension study, although a colourful example of a mind map, is too ornate for easy use as a navigating tool and is therefore being modified (this has to be done in MindManager), at the same time as the whole site is improved and updated (in FrontPage).

Conclusion

The concept of mind maps has received a mixed response. Some researchers, who could be described as left-brained and logical in thinking, do not find such radial and artistic presentations of information useful. But for other, more right-brained, creative folk, they are the next best thing to sliced bread! The use of a mind-mapping program, such as MindManager, bridges the gap between these types of learning and can satisfy both approaches to generating, understanding, managing and presenting information. At the same time, the program is also an excellent tool for allowing people to work together and share tasks, from the brainstorming stage though to the published product.

MindManager has a range of other uses, since information can be imported from and exported into several other Microsoft® business applications. Examples of how it can be used to present and understand complex information, such as forestry guidelines, analyses of cause and effect, and criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management, are available from the author.

I am very grateful to colleagues in FAO -- in particular Pierre Sigaud and Christine Holding Anyonge -- and at Forest & Landscape, Denmark (formerly staff of the Danida Forest Seed Centre (DFSC)), for the opportunity to carry out the various studies mentioned here, which allowed me to use these tools and processes. I am especially grateful to Eduardo Pantanella at FAO for his support and advice in developing the web pages of the agroforestry extension review. This review will be available in early 2006 on FAO's web site, as well as on a CD.

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