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Mind maps have been used for many years as a way of structuring information in a visual way.
Spark Space was set up to create mind map technology that would help people with dyslexia create complex documents.
What people have not realised is that it could and I believe should be used by everyone. This is just another example of technology that has been created for a niche user group but has the potential to help a much wider audience.
1. When did I see it?
I went to BETT, a vast exhibition specifically for the education sector, and went to the special education needs (SEN) area to see if there were any products that could be useful to people with disabilities outside the education arena.
It was in fact a good place to go see a large range of assistive technologies and related products.
2. What is it?
Spark-Space is a mind-mapping tool with a difference. It has a word processor built into it and it can be used to create complete documents. I have used it to produce this short report. The mind map you can see should be read in clockwise fashion. So this report is structured:
- When did I see it?
- What is it? (this section)
- What is it designed for?
- Why is it great?
The text you are reading now sits behind the ‘What is it?” node.
2.1. What was it designed for?
The Spark-Space founder has dyslexia and found it very difficult at school to write good essays or reports. She was later diagnosed with severe dyslexia alongside a high IQ.
To help others overcome similar situations she designed and developed, with her husband, a 3D Mind mapping tool. The idea is that many dyslexics can brainstorm a concept come up with lots of ideas but cannot then structure them in a meaningful linear fashion. The mind map allows the visual grouping and reordering of ideas. Colours, shapes and icons can be used to further illustrate and clarify the concept.
The individual ideas in the concept can then be described by short sections of text using the built-in document processor. These bite-size chunks of text are manageable by many people with dyslexia.
When each of the ideas has been expanded with the text the whole concept can be viewed as a single document or report, with each idea being a heading or sub-heading. The complete report can then be exported to Microsoft Word or a web format.
It has been shown that people with dyslexia find it much easier to produce document in this manner than trying to write in a linear fashion. It is also true that they find it easier to read a document if they can see its structure as a mind map.
2.2. Why is it great?
For anyone with dyslexia the ability to map ideas visually has been shown to be a real help. But Spark-Space has much more:
- It automatically creates a structured document based on the map.
- It enables text to be written in bite/idea size chunks.
- It allows the easy restructuring of the document. For example I could decide that the idea ‘What it needs?’ should be moved to just before the conclusion, I could do that by a few mouse clicks on the map rather than a laborious process of cut and paste in the document.
- It enables very quick navigation to parts of the document. Whilst I was writing this document I had some thoughts on the product, so I added another idea for them, so anytime I had another thought I just double-clicked on the idea and added the thought.
- Text to voice is built-in. A single mouse click reads the text back. Important for dyslexia but convenient for all.
- Having developed the ideas the document can be exported to Microsoft Word or similar word processors for wider distribution.
- Complex maps with many ideas on them can be hard to view. Space-Spark enables sub-trees to be hidden, and also has a facility to turn the map in three dimensions so bringing area of immediate interest to the fore.
- A mind map is a very good technique for presenting to a group, people can see it and discuss it very easily. The ability then to dive into the text of an idea makes it a very powerful tool for a team to develop and review a document.
2.3. What it still needs?
When I see a novel idea my mind immediately starts thinking how it could be improved or extended, this is especially true when the idea has been designed for a niche market but has value to a much wider audience.
The word processor built-in to the product is adequate for most processes but does not have the scope of a full function word processor such as Microsoft Word or Open Office. When Spark-Space was originally developed in 2001 it would have been very difficult to integrate Word into it because of the internal document format. However, now that both Word and Open Office have XML formats, as does Spark-Space, a tighter integration would be very interesting. The ideas map could become an alternative view of the document like a very powerful version of the outline view.
3. Why should everyone have it?
Most people, unless they have severe vision impairment, find visual representations quick and easy to absorb. Spark-Space is an extra tool for developing documents that provides:
- A fast method of documenting a brainstorm.
- An easy way to structure ideas.
- A quick method of navigation and filling in the ideas.
- A way to present the document to a team.
As I research accessibility I keep coming across products that have been developed for a special user group but could have a much wider market. Spark-Space is such a product, it is undoubtedly useful to people with dyslexia but it could also be used to improve the productive of people who create documents, whilst at the same time creating higher quality documents.
I look forward to it being integrated into standard word processors and becoming a pervasive tool.