Folksonotaxonomies

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I’ve recently had fascinating conversations with two professional taxonomists – one at EDS and one at the BBC – and both use very different but imaginative and innovative combinations of folksonomic and traditional taxonomic procedures.

All the best taxonomists advocate consulting as much as possible with your users, which is obvious, and a folksonomy is pretty much a glorified mass user consultation exercise. But why stop with the consultation stage?

You still get an awful lot of noise to your signal in folksonomies and the best way to clear that is still to apply some trained thoughtful evaluation – the principles of taxonomy. The combined approach gives you the best of both worlds – gather the tags as a folksonomy (you still need a critical mass of taggers), and then do a bit of pruning and tidying to make them work properly. Ideal!

Folksonomy backlash

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First person: ‘Folksonomy’ takes power from expert librarians, an article by David Bowen of Bowen Craggs & Co in the Financial Times‘s Digital Business section on November 7th highlights some of the advantages of having a well-crafted carefully structured taxonomy instead of relying on folksonomies. He says that folksonomies are great in some cases, but that really valuable information is by definition specialised and therefore doesn’t get read by enough people for mass social tagging to be helpful.

I think there are two key limitations to the usefulness of the folksonomic approach. Firstly, you need loads of people. If you don’t have a huge number of people actively tagging – and only huge mass market websites do – you don’t generate a large enough data set to get a decent signal-to-noise ratio. Secondly, it has to be of no consequence if chunks of your content are never found due to weird or bad tagging. This is fine for Flickr, say, where people just want any old picture, not to see all the pictures. It’s not so great if you want to make sure you have checked every one – that you’ve looked at all the relevant legislation, for example, not just the first couple of laws that happened to pop up.

ISKO UK

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I went to the ISKO UK conference Ranganathan Revisited on Monday sponsored by Factiva, which was very interesting indeed. There were 5 presentations – two on classification theory, a fascinating insight into how Factiva sort and output the thousands of news reports they process every day, an introduction to a very interesting new meta-analysis energy portal for monitoring trends in reporting, and a demonstration of Aduna’s Autofocus software that gives a visual representation of searches. One of the interesting and perennial themes that came up in conversations was the difference in approach of computer scientists from people with an information and library skills background. Some people seem to think of this as a battleground, but I like to think the best ideas emerge at the confluence of different paths.

Taxonomies: start here

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No taxonomy blog would be complete without a link to this:
Understanding information taxonomy helps build better apps.

It seems to be the article that everyone comes back to (or starts off with). A clear and simple explanation of how taxonomies form the backbone of most information architecture. I also noted a couple of good points about how the semantic web won’t run without them – a topic I intend to return to!

Practical Information Architecture

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I have just read Eric L Reiss’ s book Practical Information Architecture (Addison Wesley; 2000). It seemed like a decent and sensible introduction to the subject, but it’s such a fast-moving area something written 7 years ago seems desperately old already. I picked up a few useful tips – for example it’s a bad idea to string several single word hyperlinks together, as people ignore the spaces and punctuation and assume it’s all just one big link and they also tend to ignore very short single-word hyperlinks, presumably because it is hard to guess what extra information the link will provide. Not something I’d thought too much about in an online context, probably because it’s not something you see so much now. In the early days of the web, people went a bit hyperlink crazy and it is very frustrating to click a link to find the only extra information you get is a dictionary-style definition or reams of related but not relevant information. As a reference editor, I was trained to include only relevant and helpful cross reference links and to think about the extra value following each link would provide to the reader. With a printed product, it is (comparatively) hard work to look up an article on a different page, so editors try very hard not to send people off on wild goose chases. My impression is that web editors are a lot less gung-ho with links now than they used to be.

Reiss sets out some useful project management guidelines for big web projects as a series of ‘a’s: allocate (resources); analyse (goals, audiences, etc); architect; accumulate; assemble; adjust, etc. which seemed a little contrived, but the basic stages are probably a reasonable starting point if you have never handled a big project before. Establishing clear goals for what the site is trying to achieve is probably the most important task and one that can easily get lost if lots of different “stakeholders” or departments are all throwing their two penn’orth into the mix. Managing the politics of conflicting desires and demands seem to me to be a bigger problem than handling the technical aspects of the project, but then I am usually more at home with logic than power gaming!

Just read the headlines

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At UCL David Nicholas gave an interesting lecture on The Virtual Scholar. He pointed out that people are apparently now happy to make major life decisions based on the results they get from typing 1.8 words into Google (the average for a search).

The information society is not much good if no-one is actually gaining any real knowledge. Do diminishing attention spans mean that we are happy just to flick through a few headlines that confirm our existing prejudices? It’s an Eddie Izzard joke about being “thinly read” but don’t we still need some people to read more than just the summary? I’m as guilty as everyone else of saving a pdf to read later, while feeling that I have somehow become better informed in the process.

Welcome to Vocab Control

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Welcome to my new blog. I am just starting a Master of Research degree at University College London studying taxonomies. I am now getting pretty good at explaining what they are but I’m not going to do that here. Suffice it to say that if you think I am going to write about stuffed animals or the Inland Revenue, you’re in the wrong place!

My first real encounter with taxonomical systems was during the 1990s when I worked as an editor of reference books, working on such titles as the Collins English Dictionary, the Macmillan Encyclopedia, and the Hutchinson Encyclopedia and Almanac. In between learning when to use “which” and “that” and spot a typo at 40 paces, I was assigned to the thesaurus team. Eventually, I was given the wonderful task of devising the structure for a new edition of the UK’s first fully electronically compiled general language thesaurus, for Bloomsbury. Creating a hierarchy of everything was an incredible project and left me fascinated by the grey areas and the concepts that ooze like slime moulds from one category to another.