University of Calgary

Urban explorer

May 31, 2011

Let curiosity be your search engine

Submitted by the Faculty of Science

PhD candidate Marian Doerk is looking at ways to make information seeking more enjoyable. Photo by Matthew TobiaszPhD candidate Marian Doerk is looking at ways to make information seeking more enjoyable.
Photo by Matthew Tobiasz
Given the amount of time each of us spends searching for information on the Internet, any attempt to improve the process is welcome. Marian Doerk is doing just that: taking a fresh looking at information seeking with the hopes of making the online world a more satisfying and pleasurable place.

Doerk, PhD candidate in computer science, built his model around the information flaneur—an information seeker who is curious, creative and critical when online. The information flaneur is inspired by the metaphor of the urban flaneur, someone who explores a city landscape with no set goal, observing and collecting information. The urban flaneur became popular in Paris in the late 19th century and had some influence on city planning and architecture. By using the information flaneur as a sort of muse, Doerk hopes that he’ll have the same effect on the information landscape.

“With the information flaneur we are examining how information seekers can interact with information spaces at different levels. In particular, we are interested in looking at positive information practices that can be characterized by curiosity, reflection, and creativity,” says Doerk who presented a paper, “The Information Flaneur: A Fresh Look at Information Seeking,” at a conference earlier this month.

It’s easiest to illustrate the concept with an example. Doerk built a website called VisGets in which you can search through different sets of information, such as Wikipedia pages of people born after 1900. There are sliders to adjust the time frame of your search, a world map with the locations of the people within the search and a tag cloud to show the weighting of certain terms on the various Wikipedia entries. It’s the kind of website you can get lost in for hours. “You aren’t limited by a search term,” says Doerk, “Your results are very visual and you’re able to interact with them.”

Doerk sees lots of opportunities for this human-centred type of information seeking, with libraries being a prime example. “The physical layout of a library allows for wandering around varying genres of books,” says Doerk.

“This way it is possible to gain a general sense of what a library's collection is about, get inspired by a pleasant environment, and serendipitously encounter interesting books.”

However, Doerk adds: “Most interfaces for library catalogues only support the retrieval of specific items using search queries, which makes it difficult to follow a general curiosity. “Considering that information spaces like library collections are continually growing, the challenge is to provide visual overviews that are inspiring for the information seeker and inviting for exploration.”

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