It seems to me that our minds organize things in hierarchies, or “graphs”. Not “graphs” like a chart, but graph as in an organized matrix of data. I think that because: I’m constantly drawn to software that represents graphs in a useful way. In my travels I’ve run across and use a few different products. Each has pros and cons, but I thought I’d enumerate what I use and see if you have recommendations for this topic. In this post I’ll cover:
- Microsoft OneNote
- Neo4J graph database
- Freeplane mind mapping software
What is mind mapping?
This is basically just the concept of organizing information in a drill-down style format. You can organize just about anything with a mind map. For example, here is a draft of a mind map for this very post (done with Freeplane):
As you can see, you can organize, roll-up, and drill-into whatever level of detail that you want. This is a pretty cool visualization, but how can this be used? Here are some ideas:
- Study – when you read a book, create a mind map for it. Start with chapters as one level, then sections as the next level, then the key items and links beyond that.
- Business Owner – organize the structure of your business including vendors you use, contact information, etc.
- Problem Solving – when you have some problem to solve, start breaking down the major obstacles, then drill into each and expand them. You can “map out” your problem domain – which will make it easier to solve.
The point is, there is no real limitation, here. This software and concept allow you to “map” your thoughts in a way that is more intuitive for our brains. However, since we are in the year 2017 currently – there is really good, powerful software that can now help us!
This is the product most people are familiar with and most people use. I was blown-away when I was first exposed to it (www.onenote.com).
I now use this heavily in my person and work life. OneNote lets you organize things by:
- Notebook – one notebook per major category. For example, “Personal”, “Work”, “Company X”, etc.
- Section Groups – a container for related sections.
- Sections – a category or topic.
- Pages – where you actual put your content.
- Sub-pages – these are regular pages, but they are nested as children under other pages.
This gives you a general set of levels to store whatever kind of information you need to store:
OneNote is an outstanding tool for organizing information, your life, your business, your study, or whatever. It’s FREE to use, there are native apps for all platforms (including mobile):
- Web browser (for Linux clients)
There is no native Linux application for this. So, if you use Linux as your workstation OS, you have to use OneNote in the browser via their web app, and your notebooks need to be stored in OneDrive.
If there is any other downside to OneNote, it’s that it doesn’t give you any other way to visually walk through your data. You can browse by notebook, section, and page – and search through all of your notebooks, but it doesn’t graphically show you a mind map.
I ran across this website a couple of years ago – www.workflowy.com. It’s a VERY cool mind-map, web-based tool and it’s very well-done. It’s FREE to use and you can try it out here:
There is one big downside to this though: you have to create an account and store your data on their website. The app (and the database) is available via this companies website. I feel things like mind maps should be offline, and there should be very high security around them. This particular tool doesn’t seem to have the same goals. If they ever made an offline version or made it so you could stand up your own local Workflowy site on-prem, then this would be an amazing contender in this market.
This is also in a somewhat awkward space: you don’t have the rich editing that you have with OneNote, but you also don’t have a visual graph or mind map of your data. Despite that, I have found Workflowy to be an excellent tool to brainstorm ideas or organize my thoughts.
Neo4J Graph Database:
I came across graph database last year when I had a ton of disparate, but similar data that I needed to keep track of. A traditional RDBMS wasn’t a good fit, and a NoSQL database was OK, but I’d have to write an app for the front-end.
Neo4J (www.neo4j.com) is a graph database with a built-in web UI. This stores hierarchical data AND gives you a really powerful web UI to add/edit/and query the data in the graph. To get a sense of how cool and powerful this product is, check out this online sandbox:
What I REALLY like about Neo4J is that I can store my data in a “Cypher” text file and bring up my graph whenever I want. You can also just leave your data in a permanent database if you want. However, I think the power of this is that you can download the client, and just start up a database engine whenever you need to work with your data.
So, the Neo4J web UI lets you graphically see the connections between your data elements. You can see John Doe and a “WORKS_FOR” connection to WalMart for example, and drill-down or roll-up the data that you don’t want to see right now.
This makes a great tool for mapping relationships between data elements, but is way to cumbersome and has no features to replace OneNote or Workflowy. Neo4J is a great map to store a map/graph of data elements (similar to a regular database), but it is NOT suited for storing rich content.
I was re-installing my workstation and ran across this “mind mapping” software. Don’t let the Netscape Navigator 1.0-compliant website fool you – this is pretty amazing tool!
Better, is it does have a native client for Windows, macOS, and Linux. Which leads me to why I started writing this blog post – check out this video about the potential of using Freeplane. It’s really quite an amazing tool and an interesting video! See this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCfGAuHJk0s (:19 mins)
Despite how cool this is, this too is not the Holy Grail or the ultimate answer.
First, if you aren’t using some sort of mind mapping software right now, the options above give you a place to start. Unfortunately, there is no one tool that does everything that I want. In my mind, the ideal scenario would be:
- Rich content and formatting, like OneNote
- Organazing content, like OneNote
- An additional quick data-entry mode, like Workflowy
- A quick platform to stand up your data, like Ne04J
- A UI that lets your see the relationships beween disparate data elements, like Neo4J
- An additional UI to OneNote that lets you walk down into your related data, and lets your view it like a “mind map”, since that’s technically what OneNote is!
So, until that exists, I continue to use some of each of these. I did a quick search and see there are now several new mind map software products around which run on Windows, macOS, and Linux. Can you recommend a good software product for this?