Hide ‘n Seek: What to do with empty data fields?

We’ve been working on a fundamental website redesign for a hefty biological database.

One design dilemma has been what to do with empty data fields. For example, on a Gene Summary we might have a “Variation” field listing variations found in the gene. Obviously, not all genes have variations.

Displaying field labels with empty contents clearly delineates the limits of our knowledge or curation, but at the same time leads to more visually confusing pages.

Current options we’re considering are:

1. Omit the field entirely.

Known unknowns (apologies to D. Rumsfeld), if you don’t know what you might know, you don’t know how much you do know. Or something like that.

2. Display the field label, but with empty contents.


3. Display the field label with a string:

Variations: no data available

This offers the same advantage as above, namely that gaps in our knowledge or curation are clearly indicated. But sparse entries become visually thick very fast.

We’re currently experimenting with other design patterns for handling this situation, too, including using color to de-emphasize empty fields or allowing users to turn off their display as a configuration option.

What do you prefer? Would you rather see all available data fields on a report page even if they’re empty? Or are you a minimalist and prefer that empty field be hidden?

Web-based time tracking solutions

I’ve used pretty much every time tracking, billing, and invoicing tool available for the Mac.

But hey, enough with the desktop apps already. I’m an on-the-go guy and need a mobile, web-based solution. With rounded corners, too, please.

Here are two options that I’ve discovered.


Goofy name, but feature rich. Gratis and paid plans available, restricted by the number of projects you can maintain at once and the types of reports that are available. Looks helluva lot like 37 Signal’s project management tool Basecamp. Intuitive interface with appropriate (albeit sometimes flakey) ajax. Generates simple and generic invoices. Export to PDF and CSV available with paid plans, which start at a reasonable 5 bucks a month.


They’ve got the name sans final “e”. That’s a good start. Again, both free and paid plans. I found the free plans to be nearly useless since reports don’t calculate a sum for billable hours unless you upgrade to a paid plan. And at 19 smackers a month, it ain’t cheap. Still, looks promising.

Know of other good (free) web-based time-tracking tools?

Visualizing intellectual lineages


Several years ago, WormBase began collecting detailed intellectual pedigrees for members of the community. To display the large degree of collaboration within the community, I created a directed acyclic graph for the 2005 C. elegans meeting that displays the following relationships:

  • PI <-> Post doc
  • PI <-> Grad student
  • PI <-> Masters
  • PI <-> Undergraduate
  • Worked with
  • Collaborated with

About the image

The Y-axis displays years, with the apex of the graph positioned at 1970. Only individuals that have bibliographic or lineage data contained in WormBase as of 5/2005 are displayed on the graph. Individuals are placed on the Y-axis according to the year the first entered the community. This is determined as the earliest year of either the first paper or meeting abstract published or drawn from
lineage data, if it exists. The position on the X-axis is arbitrary, calculated using an energy minimization algorithm to restrict the number of intersecting lines.


Viewing the image

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