Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A rose by any other name

"Doctors often exude an air of omniscience, but in truth they are surprisingly ignorant."
Thus began an article in this week’s Economist. Harsh language, but many a doctor, or other professional, including scientists, will recognize himself or herself in these words. The article in The Economist isn’t specifically about that, but the sense of information overload is surely a major contributory factor to this 'surprising ignorance'. After all, a lot of the information one gets to digest is ambiguous, redundant, fragmented, inconsistent, to name a few problems. As Herbert Simon, an American political scientist once observed: “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes attention. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The problem of the information glut in a nutshell.

Today saw the launch of an attempt to combat this abundance, redundancy, fragmentation and inconsistency: WikiProfessional.

The idea is that the combined efforts of a ‘million minds’ would be able, in a collaborative intelligence exercise, to refine a system that 'distills' the essence of established knowledge as well as points to new knowledge that has a high likelihood of being established soon. What it all entails is explained in an open access article in Genome Biology.

The concept (so to speak) is so far optimized for the life sciences and medicine, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t work in other areas as well. And in languages other than English. It is based on concepts, and those are of course valid in any language. It’s just the words or descriptions used for them are different. As Shakespeare already noted in Romeo and Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Just imagine what that means. One of the beauties of the concept approach (as opposed to the keyword approach) is that search terms in one language could, for instance, yield search results in another. Think of Chinese researchers searching with Chinese terms for English literature (they can read English, but may find it more difficult to come up with search terms in English, in the same way that I find it sometimes easier to search with Dutch terms), yet getting served up with English search results. Things like that. Wonderful.

(I have to declare an interest: I’m running Knewco, the company behind WikiProfessional).

Jan Velterop

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