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Archive for the ‘Information Access’ Category

Beyond Search is REAP
Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

… I’m sure I’m repeating myself and plenty of others by now, but it’s time to resurface “the vision” of Information Flow. It’s easy with long days and a real and full life with varied encounters with strangers, friends, and family to fall back on the crutch of calling what I do, “Beyond Search stuff.” But here in my open conversations with you it’s time to remint the concept, especially in the fresh dirt as the sprout of a new company labors to push its head out.

Beyond Search is not the same thing as Search getting better. Search can get better. Boy, can it?! However, Beyond Search is something else. Not just the litany of algorithms and technologies i.e. linguistics, statistics, extraction, categorization, clustering, personalization, visualization, social this that and the other. There is a holistically different experience to be had! And it will be at least as valuable as Search to some people, and that some is a huge many. It’s everybody that has a long term stake in subject matters and that utilizes such knowledge to get things done in the world. It’s poets, priests and politicians; it’s lawyers, doctors, and professors; journalist, analysts, and researchers; and it’s business professionals, financiers, and even thoroughbred horse rearers.

At PARC as we saw a future shift from document creation to information access coming, we, speaking Academicese called it Intelligent Information Access. And at Inxight, in Marketingese, we called it Discovery. And in the idiolect (and that doesn’t mean a language spoken by an idiot) of Ramanese, it’s the difference between “Users Chasing Documents,” and Information Flow enabled by “Statistics over Statements.” How we utilize information available over the Internet in professional activities is still fundamentally challenged. I think everybody can tell their own version of the story.

In throwaway lines, I’ve said to many, “you could called our new venture, a Vertical Search play, but it ain’t vertical, and it ain’t search.” That line is a disservice in its aint-i-ness, because things worth doing should be expressed in the positive (hmm, maybe). Now, the drum roll … we are building a REAP system (now you got it, huh?), but REAP is much bigger than us, much, and so I’m going to start talking about the bigger.

Beyond Search is REAP. REAP acro-expands into Retrieve, Extract, Arrange, Present. And REAP systems help people support that full process using those technologies mentioned above. Certainly, any of these verbs can be picked on, and many alternatives like Collect, Analyze, Organize, Keep, Share, hey even Remix, so fly to mind. But in aggregate, the point without niggling, is that we’re still not there with the deeper tools and the whole experience we desire for truly reaping the value from all that’s available to us on the Internet. Consider the typical information work flow of a professional:

  • Retrieve — collect information from a variety of sources
  • Extract — extract data, facts, examples
  • Arrange — arrange documents and facts for use now or later
  • Present — compose information into artifacts of value

Search is just about the retrieve and the -eaping is pretty much left to the person. Does knowledge worker come to mind? My all time favorite word for the human process (hat tip of fifteen years back to friends Dan Russell and Mark Stefik) is sensemaking because it reaches to even the deepest levels and the broadest extent of what we are after. Some of my friends, especially these two—actually pretty much all of my friends and yours too—are incredible sensemaking machines.

We all use the aggregate of tools and means at our disposal to make sense of subjects and the world and to guide our actions. However, I’m sensing a widespread frustration with a great deal of wasteful manual labor as we die, gently reaping. And though I am a huge believer that doing things by hand often gives you a depth of understanding, there’s a lot I don’t do because of the effort required. The difference between productivity and new capability isn’t always in kind, but often in degree. If you can take many more steps, you arrive at places you’d never get. And I’ll continue to invest my time on the bet that huge social opportunity lies ahead in making us all smarter by mainstreaming REAP systems.

Speak up, come along …

Eyes for Text
Tuesday, May 11th, 2004

After years of explaining “Beyond Search” ideas, I’ve found no more evocative a phrase than “Eyes for Text”. Radiating from the phrase are a half dozen ideas.

  • Humans have Eyes for Text. Handed a document, a person can quickly scan the document and extract all kinds of useful information. The key word is useful. It’s human magic that makes that assessment work in such a broad range of conditions.
  • Machines have generally lacked Eyes for Text. They see the same document as a sequence of bytes, when in fact to us it’s really made of words organized in sentences organized in passages, not to mention all kinds of other structure related to conventions, forms, genres, and so on.
  • Humans are blind in the face of large numbers of documents, while machines are blind to what’s in one document. Our human blindness limits our ability to, well, see patterns and anomalies across the whole and connections across elements. While machine blindness means they can’t help us much. It would be a case of the blind leading the blind.
  • Eyes for Text also suggest steps up toward understanding that aren’t necessarily all the way up, say to Brains for Text. So before we solve all the scientific problems of artificial intelligence and cognitive science, we can master a useful set of primitives that certainly must lay on the path in any case.
  • Would we be able to understand what’s in a kitchen, not to mention navigate around it, or make dinner there, if our eyes didn’t pull out useful features like edges, surfaces, corners?
  • And the edges, corners, and surfaces within documents? They are the entities mentioned, the statements made about them, whether they state relationships, events, or facts. And the sequence of these statements tell us about the topics, authority, applicability, and so on of the text.

The first uses of Eyes for Text software engines will still leave humans to perform their magic of knowing what might be useful. However, now aided by machines that can pull out bits of information well enough to deliver them as the human searches or browses, and to create mostly correct, rough sketches of all whats in there. And out there.