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.
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.
A NUMBER of people have remarked to me that Dave Snowden’s title for his forthcoming talk to ISKO UK on 23 April 2009 is less than informative. Well, it depends on how well you know his work since he moved on from IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management and the Cynefin Centre to focus on his own company, Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd.
I’m no expert in Cognitive Edge’s pioneering approach, but maybe I can shed some light on themes he might address in his talk by describing the context within which I apprehend it, and making a few other links along the way.
The processes of organizing and sharing knowledge are complex because people are involved in both the input and the output. However much we try to codify and structure both, there is always that residue of ‘fuzziness’ – un-order – which Checkland in his Soft Systems Methodology described as giving rise to ‘ill-defined’ or ‘soft’ problems. Although the computer can help us greatly with codification and structure, it has been virtually useless in the face of soft problems – until perhaps the advent of Web 2.0.
As we are increasingly obliged to acknowledge, organizations are comprised of both formal and informal relationships, and it is often the latter which provide the real channels for knowledge and information flow. But how do we tap into these informal networks, and even if we can, how do we make sense of and derive value from what we find? Major shifts and trends (good and bad) often start as ‘weak signals‘, almost undetectable by conventional means. How can we spot these early enough to be able to discourage bad trends and encourage good ones?
Cognitive Edge addresses these questions within an organization by collecting narrative and organizing and analyzing it for meaningful patterns using its open source methods supported by its proprietary software suite SenseMaker. It should be readily apparent that such early intelligence could prove vital to effective decision-making in many situations where the degree of risk is not clear.
Less readily apparent perhaps, is that knowledge organization has a key role to play in this scenario. As UCL alumnus Patrick Lambe says in his excellent book Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness:
“Categorisation is, of course, fundamental to the management of risk. Different kinds of risk must be identified and grouped together based on origin, severity or remedy. Risk intelligence systems need to identify the signals or clues that would indicate particular categories of risk and put in place monitoring mechanisms (strategic early warning systems) so that these signals are picked up whenever a risk is emerging (Gilad, 2001).”
Moreover, it does not take a huge leap of the imagination to suggest that if software such as SenseMaker can discern patterns and trends even when weakly detectable, then it could presumably be employed in bridging the gap between formal vocabularies and newly emergent terms and concepts. Such tools are needed to help us move beyond the spurious divide between the formal taxonomic ‘elite’ and the folksonomic lumpenproletariat which is advancing the cause of neither party.
Interesting thought: If software like SenseMaker had been deployed at Lloyds, would they still have gone through with the HBOS takeover?