INVOLV is a research project that combines cutting-edge interactive technology with emerging information visualization techniques to create innovative explorations for large hierarchical data sets. Through this approach our goal is to create new possibilities for science and education. Involv is being developed at the Scientists’ Discovery Room (SDR) at Harvard University in the Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC) and School Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

Project details

Project name: Involv
Project members: Michael Horn, Chia ShenLaurence Muller*
Partners: Encyclopedia of Life (EoL), Tree of Life (ToL), Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH), Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) and BioVisions
Published paper(s): Horn, M.S., Tobiasz, M., Shen, C., “Visualizing Biodiversity with Voronoi Treemaps

Employer: Harvard University (SEAS) / SDR Lab
Date: 2009
Used technologies: Java

* Improved datawall component of Involv. Did not contributed to the published paper.

Project description

Immense data sets, available from a variety of online services, are proliferating. In the domain of life sciences, organizations such as the Encyclopedia of Life ( and Tree of Life ( are attempting to catalog and describe all life on earth. In the general knowledge realm, Wikipedia ( represents one of the fastest growing and most accessed repositories of knowledge in human history. The objective of Involv is to help people understand these massive data spaces and to explore both familiar and unfamiliar realms of knowledge. The combination of effective interactions with lucid visualizations of data can serve as cognitive aids to help people learn, answer questions, and contribute. Involv embodies three interrelated research areas:

1. Visualization and Multiple Representations

As a first case study for INVOLV, we are creating an interactive visualization of life on earth based on the Encyclopedia of Life and Tree of Life. We address the challenge of allowing free-form exploration of more than 1.8 million named species while communicating themes of biodiversity and evolution. We are experimenting with a dynamic Voronoi Treemap tessellation, representing the morphological classification of species at each taxonomic level. At the same time, we are creating multiple representations of phylogenetic trees to be superimposed on the primary Voronoi visualization, or to provide side by side interactive comparisons.

2. Natural and Playful Human-Computer Interaction

Interaction is crucial for understanding and exploring large data set visualizations. Here we explore interaction techniques based on a variiety of input modalities, including multi-touch (on Microsoft’s Surface and MERL’s DiamondTouch), tangible interactive objects, and hand-held devices. We are also investigating the potential of a multi-touch table in conjunction with a high-resolution data wall to create an interactive information space where multiple representations of the same data can be displayed and manipulated.

3. Application and Evaluation

We are working closely with biologists, phylogeneticists, educators, museums and outreach programs. In collaboration with our sponsors and partners, an initial propotype of INVOLV will have pilot deployments in informal learning environments. Evaluations on information discovery, visualization effectiveness, tree-thinking and domain learning objectives will be carried out in these settings. Other potential application domains include visualizing collections of art and historical scientific instruments for learning, and visualizing molecular and cellular data.



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