Saturday, July 29, 2006

I'm preparing a new version of the Composite Gospel Index pages, to standardize around the ESV text, and hopefully provide both more usability and more visual appeal. Designing an interface for this data poses some interesting challenges. There's a wealth of different attributes available, and while some (like traditional verse references) are familiar to most Bible students, i'm hoping to get outside the box a bit and do some novel things.

The whole point of the Composite Gospel is to provide a different way to look at the story of Jesus' life, in particular one that is more oriented around stories, many of which are common to multiple Gospels, and to show how they fit into the whole. So i'm hoping to reinforce this in the new interface. Right now there are two ways to access the Composite Gospel, the typical entry point being the Pericope Index, a traditional single static page listing the pericope ID, title, and references, with hyperlinks to the content pages. It's got a number of faults:

  • as soon as you click through to an individual pericope (here's Pericope 118, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples), you're back to looking through a keyhole, without the view of the whole sequence. It would be better to have a view of the whole index alongside the content for a selected pericope.
  • there's no help for finding pericopes with specific titles or Scriptural references (other than browser search)
  • while you can easily see how many sources are behind a given pericope (it's just a matter of how many columns are filled in its row in the table), the significance (as evidenced by size) is buried. Pericope 153: Jesus teaches about forgiving othersis only two verses: the next one, Pericope 154: Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving debtor, has 13 verses. But there's no visual clues to this in the index.
  • let's face it, it's just ugly :-/

The individual pages themselves have different navigational elements: next/previous pericope, and also next/previous for a given Gospel author. These are okay as far as they go: my major complaint is they don't go far enough. I'm also hoping to add more supplemental information:

  • other pericopes with similar topics or content. For example, though i consider the cleansing of temple early in John (Pericope 031: Jesus clears the template) to be different from the one during the Passion Week (Pericope 249: Jesus clears the template again), clearly one ought to have a "see also" link to the other.
  • a list of names in the pericope in view, with navigation to other pericopes which mention the same name

It will be a while before i can do all this, though!

I've been searching for some time for the right visual metaphor (and corresponding interface code) to provide a much more visual index to replace the current text-heavy index. It would be great if you could scan a clear visualization of which authors covered a particular story, and how much content there is for it (number of tokens). Likewise, when you've selected an individual pericope, you should have a clear view of where it fits into the entire sequence.

A picture named pericopes-sources-by-token-count.jpg

In preparing for this, i got interested in the distribution of sources (an individual author's version) by their size. This graph shows that, binned in groups of 10: the black trend line smooths this a little further with a moving average (window of 3).  There's quite a bit of variety (no surprise), ranging from a single source with just 9 tokens (Luke's description of the beginning of Jesus' Galilean preaching ministry, " And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.", Pericope 048: Jesus preaches throughout Galilee), to a single source with 566 tokens (Pericope 119: Jesus prepares the disciples for persecution, found in Matthew). But there's some approximation of a normal distribution (with an elongated tail on the high side), and clearly the bulk have from 30 to perhaps 270 tokens, with values near the median of around 30-40 instances (since i'm binning, this number itself isn't very meaningful). This suggests the cases i need to optimize for: i should be able to fit up to about 270 token displays on something close to a single page view (these days that really means 1024 x 768 pixels, though surprisingly i still get 15-20% of my visits from people with 800x600 displays).

 Ultimately, i'd love to have a rich treemap interface to support exploring the data in a variety of different ways (this was the substance of my presentation at the Society for Biblical Literature last year). As publisher Tim O'Reilly notes in a recent post, treemaps are really made to be interfaces, not graphs: their power lies in your ability to interact with them to explore the data. Unfortunately, i don't know how to do this live on my website: i don't have permission to host the Treemap software i use myself from the University of Maryland, and i don't know of a good substitute (O'Reilly's post is about a Rails implentation, but that's outside my current scope).

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