The essence of an interface is that it's literally in your face, right there in front of you, capturing your attention, triggering your brain. It's the vehicle by which you traverse the oceans of information contained on your computer, within your enterprise, throughout the Web or increasingly from some combination of those sources.
Yet no matter how compelling the view, it's only ever a fraction of the whole, just the tip of the information iceberg. The challenge for today's information architects and designers is to ensure that the surface remains somehow emblematic of the broader mystery underneath - hardly an easy task when one considers the amount of data in any large enterprise, let alone the myriad-million websites now online.
Web 3.0 and Semantics
The new tools of the trade are surfacing with Web 3.0, and its attendant technology, semantics. Though still in their relative infancy, semantic technologies hold promise for unraveling the complex world of unstructured content. The magnitude and challenge of this was made clear to me in a DM Radio show with Jim Ericson of Information Management, Forrester analyst Jim Kobielus, IT analyst Robin Bloor, plus Thomas Tague of Thomson Reuters Company ClearForest and Stefan Andreasen of Kapow Technologies.
Kobielus defines the three pillars of Web 3.0 as semantics, social and SOA, as in service-oriented architecture. And with semantics and SOA, he noted, "It's not just a matter of having these standards, and having them implemented, but having them implemented in enterprises in a way that's consistent with their SOA, in terms of enabling these semantic meanings to be shared out and reused across different application domains."
The third "S," the social side of things, is evident in information consumers tagging content via Twitter, reddit and various other social sites. Kobielus referred to "not just taxonomies, but folksonomies," where groups of people agree upon definitions for various entities. With a form of loose but constructive governance standards, he says, "Everybody will have these rich, social dashboards, where you'll aggregate not only the content, but also the tags into a rich visual paradigm."
Bloor sees more than just data in this semantic equation. Ultimately, he said, with Web searching: "you're looking to find stuff with very few false positives and very few negatives. And that's what we don't do [well] right now." Hadoop, the open source framework that enables the use of vast amounts of data, is the kind of engine that can process an awful lot of stuff very quickly, Bloor says, producing a volume problem of its own.
Bloor views the other half of the problem an an integration challenge that justifies the rise of SOA as a way to link processes together in a reliable way. That's important, he says because the problem isn't just data, it's about data and processes.
That's a problem some software providers, including Kapow, are working on. Andreasen sees companies working though the steps needed to leverage data and processes in 3.0 fashion.
"First, we need the machine-programmatic access to the data and the processes. Then we have to go through a step where we can 'teach' an automation to happen. And then in the longer run, it's going to be built with artificial intelligence and will be aware of what you are doing around the Web," and then suggest something relevant to your needs.
To wit: Google CEO Eric Schmidt was recently reported as saying he thinks many information consumers now look to the search giant to tell them what to do. But you can avoid the Orwellian view of this, Andreasen says. "Think of Web 3.0 as your personal assistant."
While all of this may sound rather sci-fi in nature, Thomas Tague from ClearForest believes we're reaching a scale now where semantically processed information can be used statistically to derive truth. Tague is sitting on enough information that he can apply statistical techniques and deliver facts that are provably accurate, because of diversity of information sources that have been contributed or harvested.
Tague states we now need to get businesspeople to believe in those statistical truths, and allow us to populate databases of record and reference data. "We've only really recently gotten to the scale where we can start to do that in a provable manner. And that's very interesting."
But is it pragmatic? Any system can be gamed, as any Google searcher will tell you. As the old adage cautions: Hear all, believe half. That is a familiar challenge to information designers: deliver enough appropriate information to provide proper perspective.
But always take it with a grain of salt.
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