Saturday, 15 December 2012

Moodscope and Homeland Security.

You may not have expected the US Government Department of Homeland Security to have played a hand in the development of Moodscope, but unwittingly it did.

A few summers ago I spent an illuminating week at a Middlesex University residential summer school studying visual analytics: basically how to use images (such as charts, graphs and clever information graphics) to make sense of complicated data. Although I paid a modest amount to attend, I was pleased but puzzled that a big slice of the cost was met by the Department of Homeland Security.

All became clear, though, once the course started. It's a sad fact of life that countries must take the threat of terrorism seriously, and the US government recognises that part of this task involves sifting through mountains of complex data such as intercepted communications, the movement of suspects, and information from borders and airports.

Although the vast majority of this data will be innocuous, it's the odd anomaly that would ring alarm bells: the unusual item that for some reason stands out in a sea of normality. Fortunately, the human brain is staggeringly clever at spotting tiny discrepancies when they're presented in visual form: much better than it is at finding a numerical needle in a list-of-numbers haystack.

A nice way of understanding this is to imagine a table containing three-quarters of a million numbers. You're then asked to find one single entry which is very different from the rest. It would be a difficult and long-winded task.

Now, though, see a computer screen in your mind's eye - and imagine that a single pixel was faulty. Your eye could likely jump straight to it with no hesitation, even though a screen can easily contain 800,000 pixels or more.

Through initiatives such as sponsorship of the summer school, the US federal government hopes to expand the pool of visual analytics knowledge, whether or not this ends up being specifically targeted at fighting terrorism.

Inspired by what I learnt on the course, as well as conversations I had with other students, our team went on to develop the tools you'll find in Moodscope Plus which allow you to gain true insight into your emotional ups and downs.

For example, the Affectogram (remember, 'affect' is broadly how psychologists refer to what we'd call mood) displays your scores for all twenty of the Moodscope adjectives over the past thirty days in the form of one easy-to-understand 'heat map', visually highlighting the fact - for instance - that you may have tended towards general anxiety for the past couple of weeks, or alternatively that you, say, could have been suffering from a lack of interest and zest.

The Triggergrams, referred to yesterday, use explanations you've added as annotations to your graph to form word clouds showing, at a glance, triggers for your better and worse days.

The Moodscope Plus graph enables you to examine your progress over any period, not just one month at a time. For me, this has been an eye-opening way to understand that as well as day-to-day changes (that are like tides) there can also be gradual changes in 'sea level' (both upwards and downwards) over much longer periods - sometimes months even.

We've aimed to keep the subscription to Moodscope Plus modest (USD 9.99, EUR 6.99, GBP 5.99) but it's important to stress that when you subscribe, you're also enabling us to keep Moodscope free for those who cannot afford to pay.

Please let us have your thoughts, comments and suggestions about Moodscope Plus below.