‘Data’ is not synonymous with ‘meaning’. Although in all the recent fuss about Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s attempt to overturn the UK Civil Service’s ingrained culture of secrecy, this might easily be overlooked.
The announcement of data.gov.uk is to be welcomed, but it is only the first step on a long and complex road. The fears expressed by the data custodians, that data might be interpreted differently from the way intended, just shows how much we are still governed by vested interests who act ‘in our own good’. Sorry, give us the data, and let us make our own interpretations, good or bad.
So, data.gov.uk is a good thing. But it could turn into the veritable Pandora’s Box without some kind of agreed framework within which data are interpreted and evaluated. I am indebted to the KIDMM community for flagging-up the fact that a European focus group has been working on this very problem for some time.
The all-Europe Comité Européen de Normalisation (CEN), is a rather shadowy organisation which seems to work on standards issues in the background, and then suddenly spring into the limelight with a proposal for a new ISO standard. One of their workshops – Discovery of and Access to eGovernment Resources (CEN/ISSS WS/eGov-Share) – appears to have done precisely this with (I assume) a proposal to the SC34 working group (ISO/IEC JTC1/SC34/WG3). This working group is concerned with producing standard architectures for information management and interchange based on SGML, and their current focus is the Topic Maps standard Topic Maps (ISO/IEC 13250).
Well, you know me. Any mention of Topic Maps and I’m anybody’s. So when I hear of an initiative which has developed a proposal which specifies a protocol for the exchange of information about semantic descriptions which conforms to the Atom Syndication Format and the Topic Maps Data Model, and moreover, which works with semantic descriptions represented in XTM 1.0, XTM 2.0 and RDF/XML, then, well, Nirvana!
Thanks to KIDMM, if you’re interested (and you should be!), then this is where you can find the full specification of the protocol SDShare: Protocol for the Syndication of Semantic Descriptions.
Let us know what you think of it, and of its potential in making sense of the vast amounts of data due to be released on the Web.
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.
KM World recently ran a short but spot-on article entitled The Future of the The Future: An opportunity for real change by Art Murray. A couple of short excerpts should suffice to convey the flavour:
“In today’s economic climate, it’s clear more than ever—traditional business models no longer work. They are too slow and impede the flow of knowledge—the exact opposite of what is needed to succeed in a turbulent, high-risk economy.”
“At the very least, we need to momentarily halt the process, introduce some serious changes and reboot. Here’s a partial list of specific transformations, any one of which will introduce a new way of doing business that will help propel you forward.”
Murray’s five transformations (on which he elaborates) are:
- Make the move from hierarchies to networks once and for all
- Make the cultural shift from silos and knowledge hoarding to openness and knowledge sharing
- Move from slow, random learning to a systemized approach for fast learning
- Become fixated on systemic improvements rather than point solutions
- Move from saying, “That’ll never work here,” to “Let’s find a way to make it work.”
A better checklist of survival initiatives I cannot imagine. Similar sentiments are being expressed elsewhere, from Clay Shirky’s Ontology is Overrated a few years ago, to the challenge posed by Web 2.0 to structured information management disciplines like Records Management (see e.g. Steve Dale’s recent blog entry EDRM and Web 2.0 – where two worlds collide).
The question is, where does this relentless drift towards the informal, the unstructured and the ‘wisdom of crowds’ leave the highly structured world of KO?
Different organizations handle the complexity of the knowledge and information they need in different ways, according to their structure and authority relationships. This results in different degrees of codification and abstraction (KO) which in turn determine the type of dissemination mechanism employed.
That’s the interesting theme of an article in Information World Review (Bizmedia, March 2009, Issue 253) available online and entitled Shrink or Swallow?. It’s a very good article and I recommend you to read it, but it fails in one important respect: it mentions nowhere that the theory expounded was developed by Prof. Max Boisot and colleagues and described in their book Explorations in Information Space: Knowledge, Agents and Organization (OUP, 2007).
My advice: read the article, then buy the book. It’s a classic.