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October 28, 2005

Mind maps and Gantt Charts

FreeMind mind map
A simple example of a FreeMind mind map

My thesis project is shifting into high gear now--hurray! But all the ideas that keep popping up, and all the leads I want to chase down, are in serious danger of being lost. I need a place to collect all the various aspects of my work, but in a way that the information is readily accessible, easy to organize, and will give me the ability to see the whole project at once, but also to focus in on a particular point.

The answer to all of this, I believe, is FreeMind. FreeMind is free (open source) concept mapping software that allows you to construct mind maps -- diagrams that depict the aspects of a topic as nodes, and the interrelatedness of the nodes with branches (called "edges") and arrows. Mind maps have a central topic node, with all other nodes radiating out from it. (Note: FreeMind isn't strictly in the Tony Buzan sense of Mind Maps®, but the concept is similar.)

My husband has been using FreeMind for quite a while now and finds it very useful. He uses it to plan projects, to plan meetings, and even to take meeting notes. And we've used it quite a bit at home for planning trips--especially camping trips where there's a lot of gear to keep track of. But I've not really thought about using for my work until now.

FreeMind has recently launched a new version with lots of great features. You have more choices and control over how things look, can add internal and external (web page) links for easy jumping, add notes to any node, and there lots of choices for exporting and publishing your map. There are several HTML and XHTML options, including one with clickable links. I like the "export as Adobe PDF" option for sharing with my committee members. Printing out these maps can be unwieldy, though. I had to print one out recently and wound up printing it on multiple pages in Adobe Acrobat, then cutting and taping the pieces together.

But printing isn't really the point of it all for me anyway. The beauty of FreeMind is that you aren't constrained by a page style, or an outline format, or margins. I can open it up and just start adding things without immediately trying forcing things into a hierarchy. Then when I'm ready to group items, FreeMind makes it easy.

As an aside, when I was talking with my advisor about mind maps, he asked if they were similar to Gantt charts. That was a term I didn't know, so I did a little research. It turns out that I had seen many Gantt charts before without knowing what they were. Gantt charts are used primarily in creating project timelines, something else that might be useful to keep me on track and finishing on time. Perhaps I can use it to create a reverse calendar for my dissertation. If you're interested, there is also a free open source Gantt chart software called GanttProject. Check out their demo--it's pretty good.

Posted by rigd0003 at October 28, 2005 2:47 PM | Cool web stuff | Me | PhD Process