Introduction

ATLAS.ti is a powerful workbench for the qualitative analysis of large bodies of textual, graphical, audio, and video data. It offers a variety of tools for accomplishing the tasks associated with any systematic approach to unstructured data, i. e., data that cannot be meaningfully analyzed by formal, statistical approaches. In the course of such a qualitative analysis, ATLAS.ti helps you to explore the complex phenomena hidden in your data. For coping with the inherent complexity of the tasks and the data, ATLAS.ti offers a powerful and intuitive environment that keeps you focused on the analyzed materials. It offers tools to manage, extract, compare, explore, and reassemble meaningful pieces from large amounts of data in creative, flexible, yet systematic ways.

The VISE Principle

The main principles of the ATLAS.ti philosophy are best encapsulated by the acronym VISE, which stands for

  • Visualization
  • Immersion
  • Serendipity
  • Exploration

Visualization

The visualization component of the program means directly supports the way human beings (this includes researchers!) think, plan, and approach solutions in creative, yet systematic ways.

Tools are available to visualize complex properties and relations between the entities accumulated during the process of eliciting meaning and structure from the analyzed data.

The process is designed to keep the necessary operations close to the data to which they are applied. The visual approach of the interface keeps you focused on the data, and quite often the functions you need are just a few mouse clicks away.

Visualization

Immersion

Another fundamental design aspect of the software is to offer tools that allow you to become fully immersed in your data. No matter where you are in the software, you always have access to the source data. Reading and re-reading your data, viewing them in different ways and writing down your thoughts and ideas while you are doing it, are important aspects of the analytical process. And, it is through this engagement with the data that you develop creative insights.

Serendipity

Webster's Dictionary defines serendipity as a seeming gift for making fortunate discoveries accidentally. Other meanings are: Fortunate accidents, lucky discoveries. In the context of information systems, one should add: Finding something without having actually searched for it.

The term serendipity can be equated with an intuitive approach to data. A typical operation that relies on the serendipity effect is browsing. This information-seeking method is a genuinely human activity: When you spend a day in the local library (or on the World Wide Web), you often start with searching for particular books (or key words). But after a short while, you typically find yourself increasingly engaged in browsing through books that were not exactly what you originally had in mind - but that lead to interesting discoveries.

Examples of tools and procedures ATLAS.ti offers for exploiting the concept of serendipity are the Search & Code Tools, the Word Clouds and Lists, the Quotation Reader, the interactive margin area, or the hypertext functionality.

Exploration

Exploration is closely related to the above principles. Through an exploratory, yet systematic approach to your data (as opposed to a mere bureaucratic handling), it is assumed that especially constructive activities like theory building will be of great benefit. The entire program's concept, including the process of getting acquainted with its particular idiosyncrasies, is particularly conducive to an exploratory, discovery-oriented approach.

Areas of Application

ATLAS.ti serves as a powerful utility for qualitative analysis of textual, graphical, audio, and video data. The content or subject matter of these materials is in no way limited to any one particular field of scientific or scholarly investigation.

Its emphasis is on qualitative, rather than quantitative, analysis, i. e., determining the elements that comprise the primary data material and interpreting their meaning. A related term would be "knowledge management," which emphasizes the transformation of data into useful knowledge.

ATLAS.ti can be of great help in any field where this kind of soft data analysis is carried out. While ATLAS.ti was originally designed with the social scientist in mind, it is now being put to use in areas that we had not really anticipated. Such areas include psychology, literature, medicine, software engineering, user experience research, quality control, criminology, administration, text linguistics, stylistics, knowledge elicitation, history, geography, theology, and law, to name just some of the more prominent.

Emerging daily are numerous new fields that can also take full advantage of the program's facilities for working with graphical, audio, and video data. A few examples:

  • Anthropology: Micro-gestures, mimics, maps, geographical locations, observations, field notes
  • Architecture: Annotated floor plans
  • Art / Art History: Detailed interpretative descriptions of paintings or educational explanations of style
  • Business Administration: Analysis of interviews, reports, web pages
  • Criminology: Analysis of letters, finger prints, photographs, surveillance data
  • Geography and Cultural Geography: Analysis of maps, locations
  • Graphology: Micro comments to handwriting features.
  • Industrial Quality Assurance: Analyzing video taped user-system interaction
  • Medicine and health care practice: Analysis of X-ray images, CAT scans, microscope samples, video data of patient care, training of health personal using video data
  • Media Studies: Analysis of films, TV shows, online communities
  • Tourism: Maps, locations, visitor reviews

Many more applications from a host of academic and professional fields are the reality. The fundamental design objective in creating ATLAS.ti was to develop a tool that effectively supports the human interpreter, particularly in handling relatively large amounts of research material, notes, and associated theories.

Although ATLAS.ti facilitates many of the activities involved in qualitative data analysis and interpretation (particularly selecting, tagging data, and annotating), its purpose is not to fully automate these processes. Automatic interpretation of text cannot succeed in grasping the complexity, lack of explicitness, or contextuality of everyday or scientific knowledge. In fact, ATLAS.ti was designed to be more than a single tool---think of it as a professional workbench that provides a broad selection of effective tools for a variety of problems and tasks.