I am increasingly impressed by what open source (OS) software communities are offering. Not just in terms of the sheer range of applications, but by their quality too. That’s an observation vindicated by the recent award of DoD 5015.02 Records Management Certification to Alfresco, according it the kudos of being the first open source product to demonstrate compliance with the strict DoD 5015.02 STD specification for records management. That’s a significant achievement even Microsoft can’t match.
If you visit the Mecca of OS developers, Sourceforge, you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of little niche applications of the sort often found on computing magazine cover-CDs, which will be of great use to some, but of no interest to most. But bear with them. Like any jumble sale or bric-a-brac market, you have to plough through the dross to find the jewels. One particular jewel I am playing with at the moment is VirtueMart.
VirtueMart is an OS online e-commerce application, allowing anyone to set up an online sales presence at an incredible level of detail and functionality. It runs under the OS Joomla! CMS, which in itself is a jewel. Although one has to give an equal plug to Mambo, the original OS CMS project from which Joomla! forked some five years ago. Both VirtueMart and Mambo utilise the LAMP development and deployment environment – Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP – although I’m using the Windows variant WAMP.
Why is this relevant to those interested in KO? Well, because I can’t think of any more complex real-world application requiring solid KO expertise than an e-commerce site. VirtueMart has to support and integrate:
- vendor indentity and brand
- product classes, categories, instances and descriptions
- manufacturer information
- site visitors
- existing customers
- product reviews by customers
- multiple payment methods
- discount & coupon schemes
- ordering & order status reporting
- multiple tax regimes
- shipping methods & rates
All of these entities (if that’s the right term) have numerous attributes which need to be configurable, depending on what you’re selling. The VirtueMart developers, all of whom have given of their time and expertise freely, have done a really impressive job. Might they have done even better, I wonder, if KO professionals had been prepared to donate their expertise?
In the course of sifting through Sourceforge, I discovered a number of applications relevant to KO. I shall be featuring these over the next few weeks in our KOOLTools section, as and when I have the time to test them. Bookmark it.
One of the enduring attractions of our profession (that’s information management, knowledge management, records management, information science, knowledge organization – whatever you want to call it) for me, is that it impacts upon everything. Yes, literally, everything. When we build a taxonomy, relate descriptors in a thesaurus or assign keywords, we are mediators among a multiplicity of points-of-view, creeds and catechisms. But while that heterogeneity, that multicultural dimension, is often the root of our sense of fulfilment, contention can lie just below the surface.
To focus on one problem in particular, how can we know whether a taxonomy we build is ‘true’ – or perhaps ‘authoritative’? Is there such a thing as ‘universal truth’? Do we all see things the same way? Or, to put it another way, how do we distinguish between – and accommodate – the subjective and the objective?
For instance, when we build a taxonomy, or a navigation scheme for a web site, how can we capture the viewpoint of the majority, whilst also allowing for the individual – even idiosyncratic – point-of-view? Thus do philosophy and politics enter an otherwise cosy world.
It’s a problem addressed recently by Fran Alexander of the Department of Information Studies, University College London, who mounted a highly stimulating poster at ISKO UK’s conference on 22-23 June 2009. The poster provides an interesting first-sight of the complex nexus among business sector objectives, attendant socio-economic-environmental constraints, and the influence exerted by the relative subjectivity/objectivity of the domain.
The degree to which a conceptual framework is held in common, the coherence of interpretation of that framework among its stakeholders, and the terminological system designed to represent it, all depend upon a process of intersubjective creation of shared meaning within a defined socio-cultural context. In other words, politics. Taxonomy is therefore partly political, partly individual and partly pragmatic.
Melville Dewey deserves his place in the history of KO for his balanced accommodation of all three dimensions at the time he devised the DDC. But we’re over 130 years further on now, and the mix of political, personal and practical elements required to reflect current understanding of the world (or organization) has changed immensely. Dewey’s innocent assumptions drawn from the Weltanschauung of his time, appear at least inappropriate, sometimes biased and often incorrect in a 21st century context.
In a rather adept (and certainly persuasive) essay in the latest issue of Knowledge Organization*, Richard Davies asks ‘Should Philosophy Books Be Treated As Fiction?’. He makes the point that, in the terms used here, the intersubjective creation of meaning in the domain of philosophy has barely occurred; rather the opposite in fact, each philosopher seeming bent upon distinguishing his/her approach from predecessors. This occurs, although to a lesser degree, in most other domains as well, amongst them the 15 or so covered by Fran Alexander’s research.
Fran’s conclusion is that “The mediation of subjectivity/objectivity is becoming increasingly relevant in a ‘user-centric’ age.”. So, an awareness of the degree of ‘objectivity’ of a taxonomy project is becoming vital to its functional effectiveness, and this is inevitably governed to some extent by political considerations and the degree to which the role of the taxonomist is perceived to have a political dimension by those who provide the support for such projects.
This is an interesting piece of research and I urge you to take closer look at Fran’s poster, and to allow it to stimulate your own thoughts on the issues involved.
* Davies, Richard. Should Philosophy Books Be Treated As Fiction? Knowledge Organization, 36(2/3), 121-129.
XTM Topic Maps (ISO 13250) is a Semantic Web-related technology using XML to describe knowledge structures. A number of start-up companies in Europe and the US in the early 2000s initiated programmes to develop applications supporting the creation and navigation of Topic Maps. Of them, only Ontopia in Norway seems to have survived in any commercial sense, with its Ontopia Knowledge Suite (OKS) incorporating the Omnigator Topic Map navigator and Ontopoly Topic Map editor. Despite a committed cadre of enthusiasts across the globe (including myself), Topic Maps as a knowledge organization technology proved difficult to promote outside of Norway. As a result, Ontopia was acquired by Norwegian IT consultancy Bouvet ASA in March 2007.
Bouvet themselves have now acknowledged that Topic Maps does not appear to be a technology with any conventional commercial potential. They have therefore announced that the Ontopia suite of Topic Maps applications is to be made open-source. In my view, this is the best decision they could have made. Topics Maps is an XML mark-up standard with more readily understandable semantics and far greater flexibility for describing the widest variety of knowledge structures than is RDF, as adopted by the Semantic Web developers.
Visit the Ontopia site for further information.
Seemingly simple acts of classification can have enormous consequences.
Last year, James May – a co-presenter with Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear – took a spin in an unusual vehicle developed by the Russians called an Ekranoplan (see the BBC video).
What’s unusual about the Ekranoplan is that it’s a hybrid between a boat and an aircraft, a class of vehicle known as a Ground Effect Vehicle or GEV.
GEVs rely on aerodynamics in combination with the ground effect. ‘Ground’ has to be defined loosely here, because GEVs are mainly confined to water surfaces, these being more consistently flat than most terra firma. That poses a problem for KO: is a GEV to be classified as an aircraft or a boat? Does it matter?
Well, in the scheme of things, it appears that classification can make or break a technology. A previous GEV – the hovercraft – was classified as essentially an aircraft, making it subject to the same stringent regulations applicable to true aircraft. That proved to consign the hovercraft as a public transportation vehicle to the scrap heap (although I made a very comfortable crossing to France on one in the 1980s). Hovercraft are now mainly confined to the domain of hobbyists. But, I suppose we ought to be grateful at least that we don’t need a pilot’s licence to use a hover mower on our lawns.
The Ekranoplan and its ilk on the other hand, have been classified by the International Marine Organization as a ship, and are therefore subject to far less stringent regulations. So hovercraft technology is detained indefinitely whilst other GEVs are released without charge – all through an act of classification.
Thanks to Max Boisot on the Cognitive Edge blog as the source and inspiration for this post.