Mandala Software Evaluation

Jessica Coons and Rafid Kasir

Mandala—“a rich prospect browsing concept that allows users to explore a data set using multiple criteria.” This software is basically a search engine, but unlike Google, it searches only through a marked up XML file. It creates visual representations of queries based on how often the search term appears in the file and how it is related to other search terms. Mandala has many strengths based on its ease of use and vast range of audiences. This software fulfills all of Unsworth’s ideas of scholarly primitives and is a great addition to literary scholarship.

This software can quickly and easily create simple or complex visual representations of text based on XML files. The Mandala project is a much more concise and visually appealing way to create word counts than large volumes of books that count every time a word appears in a certain body of work. It not only counts words, but can show relationships between any words the user chooses to search. The software is fairly easy to use and a comprehensive user’s manual is readily available. All that is required for the software to run is a java plug-in and an internet browser. XML files come with the program so that users can learn how to use the software by following along with the user manual. All of these strengths are important to the utilization of this software.

The main weakness of Mandala is that it requires an XML file in order to analyze text. XML files are extremely complex and require a human to input all of the information. The provided XML files include Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The XML file has a specific language and requires the person creating it to input each speaker, the person to whom they are speaking, and the codes to begin and end the line of text:
      <speech speaker=”Nurse to Juliet“>What’s tis? what’s tis?</speech>
For a play with over three thousand lines, there is a significant amount of time required to input the information.

Of course, the software can analyze other pieces of literature (or any text for that matter). The main preparation (marking up the XML text) is the key piece of labor that determines how the text will be analyzed. Not only is marking up the text laborious, it requires foresight into what the researcher feels will be useful to mark up. For example, in the XML file that comes with the software (a marked up version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), the researcher divided the magnets (the key pieces of information that will be analyzed) into speeches. This may not be appropriate for all types of literature (although it may be appropriate for plays).

Even though the XML file is very complicated (and is where the majority of the work happens once the software has been fully developed), the fact that this is not the only software that analyzes XML files is a great advantage in the scholarly field. Universalizing a format that can be analyzed by multiple tools is essential to fast and widespread scholarship.

Mandala utilizes all of Unsworth’s scholarly primitives (discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating, and representing) in a single software browser. Discovery is fairly simple with this software—the user enters a search term, and the results are instantly displayed. Users can see new patterns and analyze new information based on what the Mandala displays. Unsworth defines annotation as, “creating operative associations between, among, and within digital objects,” and discusses comparing and annotating as similar primitives. The software can compare queries by creating a new magnet of search results that are common to both original magnets. This software clearly creates associations between digital objects by making common results multiple colors.  Referring is also readily available in this software. The user can click on a magnet and see the specific references to the search term in the text pane of the browser. Unsworth equates sampling with selection; in this software, sampling is simply the search term the user enters. The Mandala software creates a visual representation of text based on queries the user inputs. This software obviously utilizes Unsworth’s ideas of illustrating and representing because it searches the XML file the user is interested in for the search term then creates a picture based on the search results.  Each magnet represents a query and appears as a large circle (a magnet); each time the query appears in the text, a smaller dot appears around the magnet. The wide usage of this program illustrates Unsworth’s notion that all scholarship uses the same basic techniques.

The audience of this piece of software is unlimited. The Mandala homepage lists a few of the other uses of the program: “population research data, university course descriptions, email systems, and image browsing.” Although the website goes into no detail at all about the history of the software and its uses in detail, it can be imagined that using the program to visualize relationships between courses or even images in a different format can be helpful. The user does not require serious expertise to run the program. The user’s manual (which can be found online) is a very quick read and is only 20 pages long. Therefore it seems that anyone can use the program, but the expertise and experience come into play when one has to mark up text and convert it to an XML format (which is not overly complex in itself).

The benefits of this program to the digital humanities community are vast. As with any other digital humanities’ tool, the benefits are measured by whether or not unique conclusions (or faster ones) can be made about literature. At first, it seems like a huge time investment to get conclusions that may have initially been easier to come up with by simply reading the text and doing the mathematical comparisons by hand. However, as with any technology, as time goes on, this initial time investment (the time spent developing the program and converting the text to XML) will pay off many times over. Only one person has to develop the software and share it for anyone to use. This globalization of scholarship allows for the development of new ideas at the fastest pace in history.

In conclusion, the Mandala browser is a piece of software that is master to use and has limitless uses. The literary uses alone are invaluable; this is not simply a word counter, but also counts connections between any words a user chooses. The downside of this software is the requirement for somebody to know XML formatting and mark up an entire piece of literature. The time spent doing this, however, pays off in the long run with the amount of new knowledge that can be found from finding connections within a piece of literature. The audience and uses for this software are widespread and could easily become an integral part of scholarship in the twenty-first century.



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