Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy


Library & Information Science


Sedig, Kamran


Online debates occur frequently and on a wide variety of topics. Particularly, online debates about various public health topics (e.g., vaccines, statins, cannabis, dieting plans) are prevalent in today’s society. These debates are important because of the real-world implications they can have on public health. Therefore, it is important for public health stakeholders (i.e., those with a vested interest in public health) and the general public to have the ability to make sense of these debates quickly and effectively. This dissertation investigates ways of enabling sense-making of these debates with the use of visual analytics systems (VASes). VASes are computational tools that integrate data analytics (e.g., webometrics or natural language processing), data visualization, and human-data interaction.

This dissertation consists of three stages. In the first stage, I describe the design and development of a novel VAS, called VINCENT (VIsual aNalytiCs systEm for investigating the online vacciNe debaTe), for making sense of the online vaccine debate. VINCENT helps users to make sense of data (i.e., online presence, geographic location, sentiments, and focus) from a collection of vaccine focused websites. In the second stage, I discuss the results of a user study of VINCENT. Participants in the study were asked to complete a set of ten sense-making tasks that required investigating a provided set of websites. Based on the positive outcomes of the study, in stage three of the dissertation I generalize the findings from the first two stages and present a framework called ODIN (Online Debate entIty aNalyzer). This framework consists of various attributes that are important to consider when analyzing online public health debates and provides methods of collecting and analyzing that data. Overall, this dissertation provides visual analytics researchers an in-depth analysis on the considerations and challenges for creating VASes to make sense of online public health debates.

Summary for Lay Audience

Many issues in society at this time, especially related to public health, are debated and disputed using various communication forms on the Internet. Furthermore, many of the participants of these debates are not neutral providers of information but are, instead, pushing certain points of view. The slant of these debate participants is often unclear and can be hard to identify by just looking at the information superficially. Professionals and the general public cannot easily find what they need in these debates and can be confused as to the general structure (e.g., are there more participants that support a cause than oppose it). To help with this issue, computational tools can provide people with easy to use means for discerning the overall structure of online debate. It is important to make sense of the structure of these debates because the debates can have real world implications on what people decide to do (e.g., vaccinate or not). The research work explored in this thesis addresses the design of a system to make sense of the online vaccine debate, provides an initial study of this system, and presents methods that can be used for the development of such systems for other online debates.