The future of knowledge

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/ nl/ article /future_nl.phpOnderwerpen: contextual information, knowledge management, semantic, standards, technology

The world is definitely in motion with respect to information- and knowledge management. The awareness of the importance of managing and (re-)using information becomes more and more apparent. Not in the least with regard to findability of the appropriate information in the appropriate time.

As for looking into the crystal ball for future evolvements it is clear that this is not possible without making some questionable assumptions. However, if we regard the progress of time as a chain of events where there is always some connection with past events and the ‘now’ present, we can sketch a likely scenario. If you know what I mean.

Where information comes from

Loosing the focus on technology

For the last decade the emphasis was strongly on the processing of information with a primal focus on using technology. For that purpose a number of standards evolved that allows for defining precise structure to the information, either on create time or as added meta data on stored information. The most important changes in this field was on information in the form of documents. In the past this type of information was created and maintained in a very random and ad-hoc manner. The reason why this has had to change becomes apparent when looking at it in the perspective of knowledge management as it is understood now.

Chain of history

Information contained in documents is specially interesting in this field because it is only in documents that the information receives a ‘context’ that is required in order to understand what the information is about. At least for as much human readers are concerned. However there was no reliable way to provide the same level of understanding to automated processes in order to make the information both retrievable and allowing for quick distribution to the target audience a document is intended for.

The success of open standards

This is the main reason for the success of the open standards for structuring information. These standards, like XML and many other standards that are related to it, provided the ability to add semantic information to the documents ion the form of tagging in a fashion that made the document interpretable my both humans and machines (computers are still just machines, not magic wands). Adding meaningful contextual information makes the chances for reliable automation much better then it was ever before. These standards gave sufficient proof that adding information and defining contexts, also known as meta data, is very useful and beneficial. Because the findability was improved greatly and automation of the processes became more advanced, an information resource can be used in more than one way: publishing on multiple media like the web, paper, cell phones and PDA’s became everyday practise. The costs for creating and maintaining the information reduced considerably and the benefits from a source of information increased at least as much.

Why information should be a source of knowledge

today and not tomorrow

Today, based on the experience from the last decade, it is widely acknowledged that this revolution also had a downside. The availability of vast amounts of information accessible from all over the globe - called WWW - has caused a vast indigestion known as the ‘info glut’. That is despite the advancements made in information management. There are several reasons we can point at for this effect happening:

  1. Well structured information is still primarily aimed at internal systems, as soon as information is published on the Internet most of the added value is lost;

  2. Well structured information does provide context that allows for better interpretation, but only within the information resource itself. For effective retrieval and understanding of a, randomly grouped, collection of information this does not provide the level of precision that is actually required.

Some people opportunistically predict that the advancement of technology, specially the language technology, will provide a solution for this core problem. Looking at the state we’re in today it is not very likely that this will happen in reality. Not in any short term anyhow. Most likely the real solution is to be found in the combination of that type of technology and well prepared standardised information resources.

What can be done now

It makes a lot of sense to put effort in capturing the precise subject and the purpose of an information resource explicitly directly from the source of the information (e.g. the author or editor). Allowing creators of information for adding contextual information in a structured and reliable fashion is likely to provide at least a more reliable and feasible solution that could pay-off right away. It’s always better to progress in the desired direction step by step than sit and wait for technological miracles to occur.

Extract what is known already

It is never very useful to ignore what is already there. There is quite a number of resources that can be used as a source for a knowledge based system and that can be incorporated without too much trouble, even in an (semi-) automated fashion. If in previous situations controlled lists of keywords, taxonomies or thesauri were in use, these can be re-used without to much struggle. Other sources could be existing database schema's, XML definitions for documents, or even publicly available standardised sets of subjects on the Internet.

Since ‘knowledge’ will always represent a specific domain of expertise (your domain) and designing and maintaining this knowledge is actually an investment, a reliable format for storage and reuse is of importance. In order to guarantee that there is no dependency with software used and that the environment is protected from ageing in a technical sense using a well defined open standard for storage and maintenance is clearly a good strategy.

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