Yesterday morning I had a chat with Matt Kennedy, one of the folks behind TrailBlazer, a browser addon which creates a visual navigation trail as you search and browse the web, which got some coverage in Wired a few months ago, and is currently being piloted in some New Zealand schools with students working on applying information they find to a minecraft environment.
I’ve had a reasonably long running interest in tools/activities to support (educational) information seeking, and this idea of visual search trails is certainly interesting for that. I know Rob Capra at University of North Carolina is working on some search-trail research, and (an unusual alumni magazine find!) I noticed Leeds released a MyWebSteps (firefox addon here) tool to visualise your browser history. There are a whole host of other tools to visualise elements of a navigation path, but many of them are closed into research projects, or/and provide slightly different functionality (E.g. instagrok maps conceptual links, rather than navigation links). So Trailblazer is a welcome addition to the market, and I think fits a nice niche (and it’s great to hear they have education-based interests!).
When I first saw the tool I immediately thought of a nice article about a Microsoft Research paper on ‘distributed sensemaking’ – using other people’s attempts to sensemake to resource your own sensemaking. So in this case, we can imagine giving searchers someone else’s TrailBlazer map on a particular problem, and seeing whether or not it supported their own information seeking or not, and if such resourcing was more useful at the beginning, mid-point, or end of a search process.
I can also see research potential in opening up to other research teams – perhaps especially qualitative research – a kind of visual representation of a navigation process, to explore how different people look for the same information, and think about things like website redesign, lesson/task planning, etc. Certainly a lot of scope here to explore individual-differences in infoseeking-paths, how people make sense of them to develop their own info seeking, and perhaps how people evaluate them (this might, e.g. impact how representations are constructed for teacher assessment), how maps might be ‘overlayed’, etc.. The potential will expand a lot once (as I think is in the pipeline) the tool can support annotation of nodes/trails, especially if that includes any kind of ‘credibility assessment’ cues. Once that kind of process is explicit, we can say “why haven’t you looked at this topic”, “why are you sticking to this domain [e.g. wikipedia]”, “you’ve done a lot of searches, but you’re using the same words a lot – maybe you should try new terms”, etc. As Matt said, it’s not just what the maps tell us, but the kinds of conversations the maps can resource.