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Interesting thoughts around the Information Continuum

by alexandra on maj 16th, 2010

In a blog post called ”The Information Continuum and the Three Types of Subtly Semi-Structured Information” Mark Kellogg discusses what we really mean with unstructured, semi-structured and structured information. In my project we have constant discussions around this and how to look upon the whole aspect of chunking down content into reusable pieces that in itself needs some structured in order to be just that – reusable. At first we were ecstatic over the metadata capabilities in our Documentum platform because we have made our unstructured content semi-structured which in itself is a huge improvement. However, it is important to see this as some kind of continuum instead of three fixed positions.

One example is of course the PowerPoint/Keynote/Impress-presentation which actually is not one piece. Mark Kellogg reminded me of the discussions we have had around those slides being bits of content in a composite document structure. It is easy to focus on the more traditional text-based editing that you see in Technical Publications and forget that presentations have that aspect in them already. To be honest when we first got Documentum Digital Asset Manager (DAM) in 2006 and saw the Powerpoint Assembly tool we became very enthusiastic about content reuse. However, we found that feature a little bit too hard to use and it never really took off. What we see in Documentum MediaWorkSpace now is a very much remamped version of that which I look forward to play around with. I guess the whole thing comes back to the semi-structured aspect of those slides because in order to facilitate reuse they somehow need to get some additional metadata and tags. Otherwise it is easy the sheer number of slides available will be too much if you can’t filter it down based on how it categories but who has created them.

Last year we decided to take another stab at composite document management to be able to construct templates referring to both static and dynamic (queries) pieces of content. We have made ourselves a rather cool dynamic document compsotion tool on top of our SOA-platform with Documentum in it. It is based on DITA and we use XMetaL Author Enterprise as the authoring tool to construct the templates, the service bus will resolve the dynamic queries and Documentum will store and transform the large DITA-file into a PDF. What we quickly saw was yet another aspect of semi-structured information since we need a large team to be able to work in parallell to ”connect” information into the finished product. Again, there is a need for context in terms of metadata around these pieces of reusable content that will end up in the finished product based on the template. Since we depend of using a lot of information coming in from outside the organisation we can’t have strict enforcement of the structure of the content. It will arrive in Word, PDF, Text, HTML, PPT etc. So there is a need to transform content into XML, chunk it up in reusable pieces and tag it so we can refer to it in the template or use queries to include content with a particular set of tags.

This of course bring up the whole problem with the editing/authoring client. The whole concept of a document is be questioned as it in itself is part of this Continuum. Collaborative writing in the same document has been offered by CoWord, TextFlow and the recently open source Google tool Etherpad and will now be part of the next version of Microsoft Office. Google Wave is a little bit of a disrupting force here since it merges the concept of instant messaging, asynchronous messaging (email) and collaborative document editing. Based on the Google Wave Federation protocol it is also being implemented in Enterprise Applications such as Novell Pulse.

So why don’t just use a wiki then? Well, the layout tools is nowhere as rich as what you will find in Word processors and presentation software and since we are dependent on being able to handle real documents in these common format it becomes a hassle to convert them into wiki format or even worse try to attach them to a wiki page. More importantly a wiki is asynchronous in nature and that is probably not that user friendly compared to live updates. The XML Vendors have also went into this market with tools like XMetaL Reviewer which leverages the XML infrastructure in a web-based tool that almost in real-time allow users to see changes made and review them collaboratively.

This lead us into the importance of the format we choose as the baseline for both collaborative writing and the chunk-based reusable content handling that we like to leverage. Everybody I talk to are please with the new Office XML-formats but say in their next breath that the format is complex and a bit nasty. So do we choose OpenOffice, DITA or what? What we choose as some real impact on the tool-end of our solutions because You probably get most out of a tool when it is handling its native format or at least the one it is certified to support. Since it is all XML when can always transform back and forth using XSLT or XProc.

Ok, we have the toolset and some infrastructure in place for that. Now comes my desire to not stove-pipe this information in some close system only used to store ”collaborative content”. Somehow we need to be able to ”commit” those ”snapshots” of XML-content that to some degree consitutes a document. Maybe we want to ”lock it” down so we know what version of all of that has been sent externally or just to know what we knew at a specific time. Very important in military business. That means that it must be integrated into our Enterprise Content Management-infrastructure where it in fact can move on the continuum into being more unstructured since it could even be stored as a single binary document file. Some we need to be able to keep the tracability so you know what versions of specific chunks was used and who connected them into the ”document”. Again, just choosing something like Textflow or Etherpad will not provide that integration. MS Office will of course be integrated with Sharepoint but I am afraid that implementation will not support all the capabilities in terms of tracability and visualisation that I think you need to make the solution complete. Also XML-content actually like to live in XML-databases such as Mark Logic Server and Documentum XML Store so that integration is very much need more or less out of the box in order to make it possible to craft a solution.

We will definitely look into Documentum XML Technologies more deeply to see if we can design an integrated solutions on top of that. It looks promising especially since a XProc Pipeline for DITA is around the corner.

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  1. Alexandra,

    I wrote an article for ARMA recently with Microsoft’s help that focused on ‘semi-structured data’. It might be of interest…


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