Judi's Blog

  • 6 Jan 2022 4:09 AM | Judi Vernau

    I usually call myself an information architect, but at other times I’m a taxonomist or even an ontologist. What’s in a name?

    As far as I know, it was Richard Saul Wurman who coined the term ‘information architect’ and used it for his book Information Architects (Graphis, 1997). Three years later I went for an interview for a job with a major publisher that required analysing the text and data that they published and suggesting how that could be structured and linked for further exploitation. The person interviewing me knew what he was trying to achieve but he admitted that he wasn’t sure what the role would be called. ‘I do’, I said, ‘You need an information architect.’ So that’s what I became, though I can’t remember how I’d come to know the term. When Wurman came up with it, one of his definitions was ‘A person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge’. The field he was actually referring to was what some of us might call knowledge representation these days, but the idea of structures and maps is very relevant.

    Morville & Rosenfeld in the famous ‘polar bear book’ (Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, O’Reilly, 1st ed 1998) say that ‘structuring, organizing and labelling [are] what information architects do best.’ They’re thinking about it in the context of web sites, and the people who do web design often call themselves information architects. For me, the underlying structures, metadata and vocabularies are part of the information architecture, and the actual layout and functionality is part of user experience (UX) design, a very closely related but different field of expertise.

    There again, some say that just the navigation on a web site is the information architecture. Now that, to me, is part of the taxonomy. Oh no, another tricky term! What do we mean by taxonomy? ISO 25964 says it’s ‘A scheme of categories and subcategories that can be used to sort and otherwise organize items of knowledge or information’, which could mean pretty much any kind of categorisation of content. I won’t go into the history of categorisation of information here (try good old Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_classification for a brief overview): suffice it to say in the 1960s to 1980s there were primarily  classification schemes (eg the Dewey Decimal System or the British Catalogue of Music Classification) or thesauri (eg CABI Thesaurus or the UK Department of Health Thesaurus), the classes (for the former) or terms (for the latter) of which were applied to content by specialists, called librarians, cataloguers or information scientists, in order to support information retrieval.

    By the 1990s, the ubiquity of office computers and the rise of the world-wide web had started the information explosion, and organisations – at least the smart ones – recognised the need to attempt to corral their knowledge and information to make it findable, usable and manageable. One tool in the armoury was the enterprise taxonomy, and I duly became a Taxonomist. But what did we mean by taxonomy?  In an organisational context it meant a vocabulary, or set of vocabularies, that could be used across the business to provide consistent meaning, as well as standard vocabularies for tagging, searching and navigating documents. That’s clearly different from a classification scheme, which generally uses some form of code, perhaps numbers or a combination of numbers and letters, to represent a domain - although you could argue that the ISO definition of taxonomy given above fits that description perfectly. But if classifications are about representational codes, and taxonomies are about terminology, how does a taxonomy differ from a thesaurus? Another time, perhaps!

    For the purposes, of this blog, let’s stick with the idea that taxonomy represents the language, labels, vocabularies, within a given domain, whether that’s an organisation, a web site, or a specific set of content. It can manifest as individual alphabetical lists of terms and/or hierarchical structures; its job is to support some or all of the goals of findability, usability and management of content. Yes, a thesaurus can do that too. The key difference is probably that a thesaurus will most likely conform to the standard properties and relationships described in ISO 25964, whereas a taxonomy could be somewhat looser in its relationships, for example in the construction of a navigation tree.

    So what about ontology? It seems to have taken over from taxonomy as the semantic tool du jour. Again it’s based on semantics, and very importantly with much more emphasis on the concept itself (which may have many labels) and its relationships to other concepts, as well as on technical standards for representation and querying. I sometimes call myself an ontologist now, and have indeed built formal ontologies for a number of government departments in New Zealand, but is this really just a fancy taxonomy? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) helpfully says ‘There is no clear division between what is referred to as “vocabularies” and “ontologies”. The trend is to use the word “ontology” for more complex, and possibly quite formal collection of terms, whereas “vocabulary” is used when such strict formalism is not necessarily used or only in a very loose sense.”’ (https://www.w3.org/standards/semanticweb/ontology.html). So if an organisation thinks it needs an ontology, does it actually want to do the kinds of sophisticated things that such a structure can support (autocategorisation, interoperability, inferencing, knowledge graphs…..) or does it just need a metadata scheme designed to support the appropriate level of granularity of content through all stages of its lifecycle, with supporting controlled vocabularies (or thesaurus? or taxonomy?) and possibly a navigation hierarchy? Or to put it another way, an information architecture?

    Those of us working in knowledge organisation care about providing clarity on what terms mean and how they relate to other terms, about controlling language to support findability, and helping to make knowledge discoverable, usable and manageable, but if we can’t be clear on what our own jargon means, it’s definitely not a good look!

    Happy New Year!

  • 21 Oct 2021 10:27 PM | Judi Vernau

    Following on from my first blog, here are some thoughts around a project I'm currently involved in relating to ontology.

    The idea for a New Zealand all-of-government ontology first came up – as far as I am aware – in 2018. At this time Archives New Zealand (Archives NZ) was grappling with how to improve access to its holdings, reform of the State Sector Act was encouraging cross-agency work, and other departments, notably Statistics NZ and the Department of Internal Affairs, were working hard on standards and models to improve information sharing. The stars were aligning, but first we had to be clear about a few things. Like what did we mean by ontology, and come to that, what did we mean by all-of-government? And assuming we can agree on definitions, how is this thing even going to help?

    In the last few years the word ‘ontology’ seems to have started occupying the conceptual space that ‘taxonomy’ did in the 1990s and 2000s, in that to some people it simply means a set of vocabularies relating to a specific domain or organisation (see https://www.w3.org/standards/semanticweb/ontology for more on this). As far as I’m concerned, that’s not wrong, it’s just half the story, and it’s the missing half that turns it into a best-seller. Vocabularies, yes, but in an ontology the terms in those vocabularies will belong to designated categories (classes or entities) which support the creation of rich relationships between them. So, as a basic example, we have a list of musical works, and we have a list of artists, and we can relate the works to the artists by creating explicit relationships to show who wrote what, and who performed what. The vocabularies in the ontology can be used as authoritative term sets and a means to interoperability, and the ontology as a whole can be used to support findability, autocategorisation and classification, inferencing, knowledge graphs, and more besides.

    As for ‘all-of-government’, that could refer to an ontology which focuses just on the structure of government, or which covers all government activities, or one that is used by all government agencies, or all three. In New Zealand there are already three ontologies which were designed to cover all the activities of their respective agencies (Inland Revenue, Ministry of Justice and the Department of Conservation), plus ontologies developed for specific initiatives in at least another three agencies. Almost all of them use the same classes as their backbone or upper ontology (for example Party, Activity, Event, Authority), so in theory there should be scope for harmonisation and cross-walks (and in most areas I would say that’s true, but there are always gotchas, of course, of which more another time).

    So what then is the most useful interpretation of ‘all-of-government’? Which brings us back to: how could ontology help New Zealand government, and therefore benefit New Zealanders?

    As I said at the start, Archives NZ needs to provide easy, intuitive access to the digital content it receives (or will receive) from government departments, who of course all have their own way of describing their records. This diversity of description may work for each agency, but is unlikely to be helpful to someone trying to search across the archives. Is there a way to offer standardised terminology for agencies to build on, ie useful lists that all or several agencies might incorporate in their own systems? Such pre-existing lists would save them time and make searching across documents and data so much easier. There’s already a lot of work being done in this area: could that be incorporated into an ontology? Or is it better to try to standardise language as records are received by Archives New Zealand? And how could that happen?

    One particular area that has caused increasing concern here is the difficulty of tracing the ‘family tree’ of government: to find out which agency was responsible for what at any given time. This is crucial for individuals trying to establish where records might be kept, whose responsibility a particular outcome was, or what the legal situation was in a given situation. How can you find the records when you don’t even know the name of the relevant department? A solution to this would be an all-of-government ontology which lists all agencies and links them to their predecessors, to their parent or child organisations, to their portfolios, and even to their ministers.

    But this is just some of what an all-of-government ontology could be. In order to dig into this more concretely, explore the benefits, and come up with some recommendations, my colleague Liz Wilson and I were charged with writing an options paper for Archives NZ. It was focused on New Zealand needs and activities, but we looked briefly at what other countries are doing and at key international standards. Most importantly, we interviewed people working in NZ government, research and the public sector to gather their views and pain points in relation to information findability, sharing and management, and were impressed time and again by our interviewees’ insights and willingness to share them. The more we talked to them, the more it really did feel that the time is right. And what we mean by ‘ontology’ and ‘all-of-government’ is a lot clearer, as you can see for yourselves (I hope!) in the options paper, which is available here https://archives.govt.nz/publications/all-of-government-ontology-options-paper. The next step now is to put together the development plan. Fun times, as they say here!


  • 2 Sep 2021 10:47 PM | Judi Vernau

    I’m writing this from a very wet and windy New Zealand that, at midnight last night at the time of writing (late August), went into full lockdown (Level 4 for us) after the COVID Delta variant was discovered in Auckland. So, unwilling to go out because of bad weather, and unable to keep various appointments, it seemed the perfect time to settle down and embark on the series of blogs I’ve agreed to write for ISKO UK. I’m planning to cover a fairly wide range of topics within the general field of knowledge organization, and I’m hoping that others will feel moved to join in the discussion.

    This first piece is really just scene-setting. I’ve worked in information architecture  for a very long time (although that’s not what I would have called it for most of that period), and in Metataxis Ltd I’ve worked with all sorts of clients, big and small, public and private, in the UK and abroad. In 2013 I was offered the chance to create an ontology for the New Zealand government’s Department of Conservation (DOC) in Wellington. It wasn’t my first – that was back in the mid 1990s, when I designed an art ontology for the publisher I worked for, but then again, I wouldn’t have called it an ontology then, probably more of a topic map (does anyone talk about topic maps these days?).

    Anyway, developing the DOC ontology was the most fun I’d had in a long time (professionally speaking!). And not only was the work fun, but the country was beautiful, the people were friendly, the coffee – even the decaf – was rich and fruity, and the wine was worth all the exploration time I was willing to put into it. In that first stay, amongst many varied social and cultural activities, I went to a concert in a vineyard (Fat Freddy’s Drop, since you ask, at the Neudorf vineyard), and thought I was in heaven: music, warm weather, friends, wine – oh, yes, and whitebait fritters (very much an NZ thing, and not as weird as they sound). Luckily I was invited back to do some more work on the ontology (of which more in another blog), and from the following year, there seemed to be a constant stream of work, culminating in an offer of a two-year contract to work on ontologies for two other government departments.

    At that point both my husband and I had been flying backwards and forwards between the UK and NZ, trying to maintain our life in both places as well as actually spend time together. The offer of the long contract was a turning point: we decided to make NZ our main home. The intention was to spend two thirds of the year in NZ, and one third in the UK. COVID has put paid to that for now, and we’re very much missing friends and family ‘back home’.

    We set up Metataxis NZ Ltd in 2014, a sister to the UK company, with two well-respected information management practitioners here, and have been involved in all kinds of knowledge organization work. For me that has primarily been around metadata, taxonomy and ontology: there aren’t too many taxonomists out here (or whatever we’re calling ourselves this week – probably ontologists now – also the subject of a later blog), so there’s a lot to be done, and I’m really enjoying teaching information architecture fundamentals at Victoria University of Wellington, a two-day course which has been running since 2014.

    Other topics I’m intending to cover in this blog are the research into an all-of-government ontology that Liz Wilson and I did at the beginning of this year, and the need for indigenous metadata (another research project). Plus general thoughts about the role of information architecture, how to involve users without taking up too much of their time, and IA governance.

    As I write that last paragraph, the weather has behaved in typical NZ fashion, meaning that the sun’s come out and it’s time for the permitted ‘exercise’, so it’s a swift walk down to the harbour for me to admire the view, and pray that we’ll be out of lockdown by next week. [Postscript: we weren't.]

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