Where Classification can Make-or-Break

April 16, 2009


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.


Developing a common metalanguage: The Community rules

September 29, 2007

Now the wider world is about to discover what has been more or less the private domain of coterie of experts (see Tags! and Categories below), the opportunity presents itself for us to show how classification can be used as a community building tool by doing it ourselves. The process starts with a community agreeing about the questions it must address using at very least an agreed vocabulary.

I propose that we could / should go much further and develop a common metalanguage to keep track of our communication. By metalanguage, I mean a faceted classification system which uses an agreed syntax to produce meaningful and generative threads of communication.

As a rough stab, I would like to propose the following facets (with apologies to Ranganathan purists). Group – our community interest e.g. classification, Activity – what we are doing / talking about e.g. design, Stage – How far we have got e.g proposal.

The syntax is simple starting on left Group, Activity, State. Each facet is separated by a hyphen.

So here is where we discuss Classification-design-proposal. The previous post would generate a discussion about Classification-design-opportunity. Note how overviews can be posted under, for instance, Classification-design. Another thread might be Classification-implementation-challenges, for example. (One of the current challenges is to be able to put hierarchies inside facets, but one step at a time. In the beginning things need to be simple, easy, and practical.)

Other KO Kommunities would, I presume, develop their own metalanguages, perhaps, following a common set of facets?

It’s all open to discussion. Right here. The community rules!

Tags! and categories

September 29, 2007

Here is the ‘State of the Art’ at WordPress. Better late than never. It means that a whole world of millions of bloggers is about to discover the opportunities and dangers of first categorising and then classifying information. There should be lot of work for this community to do, starting with being exemplars. (Jan)

Not long after WordPress.com began we started calling categories “tags” in some places, most notably our global tags system.

However while our interface made it easy to add categories on the fly, many people were vocal in telling us that categories and tags were not the same thing, and eventually we figured out they were right. (Forgive us, we can be slow sometimes.)

What’s the difference between categories and tags, you ask?

As best as I can explain it, categories are things you create ahead of time and only have a few of. Imagine them like sections of your site. The signs on aisles of grocery stores. Tags are one-off keywords attached to a post. You may add a tag to a post that you’ll never use ever again. Categories are meant to be permanent, tags are ephemeral.

Of course that’s just the accepted usage, you don’t have to change a thing and are welcome to continue using categories as you have since you started your blog.

Before WordPress.com just supported categories, even though we called them tags sometimes, but some people used them as tags, including ourselves.

We’ve added real tagging now.

The new tags interface

Now, at long last, there are separate interfaces for categories and tags so you can use either or both as you see fit based on your personal tagging philosophy. Categories are where they’ve always been to the right of the text box, and you can add tags below the post as a comma-separated list.

This is just the first step, we have some pretty exciting tag-related things coming in the future, so stay tuned.

Faceted directory of Clipmark clips

September 22, 2007

I have just posted a faceted directory of my Clipmarks posts on http://www.trendmonitor2.wordpress.com. I did this by making up a faceted “meta-language” to describe each clip which produced a kind of abstract in the most general terms. I tried to be as consistent as I could from just memory. I then analysed my tags into facets. It is now possible to see quickly what I am following (for better or worse). It also gives a small taste of what much bigger faceted directories of this kind of material might look like.