Touching hands
3.5.3New Information Vistas

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The way we currently gather, read and process information on-line (and on our computers) is far from ideal. In this section, we will have a look at two aspects of this process, and how they can be changed for the better. We will end with a look at MCF, a concept by Xerox which is a clear example of how things could be changed for the better.

The way we interface with information
Although we have to wade through large amounts of information every day (especially when working on-line), we currently have to work with a mainly page-based, two dimensional interface. You feel how tiresome this is, every time when you have to browse or skim through large amounts of information, like a group of reports or the results list of a search query. Why not present the information in a visually more attractive and more ergonomic way? Generally speaking, (3D) graphs, (3D) trees and similar visualisation techniques, are much more suitable to instantly display - or skim through - large amounts of data or information, then our current page-based, linear and 2D view on the world is.
Whatís more, the current way of interfacing with online information and services is not very user-friendly for people who are not technically skilled. Government, companies, and many others are saying that everybody should get on-line, and that the Internet is the (information) medium of the future. But how can it be, if only a minority is able to access the information and services that are available through it?

A lot of research is being done to tackle this problem. An important subject of research is focused on the visualisation aspects of the interface, e.g. providing all kinds of visual cues instead of using words or text to communicate the same information. Visual cues have two important advantages over text: the first being that the human eye can process visual information (such as colours and graphs) much quicker1, and the second one (as a result of this) is that much more information can be conveyed in a way that is less stressing for the reader. The concept of Calm Technology (CT), which will be looked at in more detail in chapter four, is centred entirely around this philosophy. Here, items of (great) interest are moved to the foreground, while less interesting objects (information) are moved toward the rear or to the background (called periphery in CT).
Another enhancement to the interface is adding 3D elements to it. By adding a third dimension, more information can be displayed in the same or less space (enabling such possibilities as real-time delivery of complex information). An additional advantage is that it is easier to preserve a sense of context, i.e. that focus can be given to something without losing the context you were working in2.

"How does anyone find anything among the millions of pages linked together in unpredictable tangles on the World Wide Web? Retrieving certain kinds of popular and crisply defined information, such as telephone numbers and stock prices, is not hard; many Web sites offer these services. What makes the Internet so exciting is its potential to transcend geography to bring information on myriad topics directly to the desktop. Yet without any consistent organization, cyberspace is growing increasingly muddled. [...]

More sophisticated algorithms for ranking the relevance of search results may help, but the answer is more likely to arrive in the form of new user interfaces. [...] True, the page metaphor used by most Web sites is familiar and simple. From the perspective of user interface design, however, the page is unnecessarily restrictive."

from [HEAR97]

This increased awareness of the virtual surroundings can make information access a more exploratory process. People will not have to be afraid that curiously following some information path will make them lose sight of their original goal or destination, thus enable care-free browsing of the information. This browsing may lead them to whole new ways of looking at the information, leading to paths and views they would not have thought about if it had been presented to them the conventional way.

"The potential for innovative user interfaces and text analysis techniques has only begun to be tapped.
[...] In the future, user interfaces may well evolve even beyond two- and three-dimensional displays, drawing on such other senses as hearing, to help [people] find their bearings and explore new vistas on the information frontier."
from [HEAR97]

Information, and how it is tied up to the applications needed to process it
A second, remarkable trait of the way we currently process or deal with information, is the strong focus on applications and techniques while working with information; whereas we should be focusing on the job that needs to be done, we are forced to - and used to - focus on the applications and techniques needed to do so. Large amounts of time are spent on finding out how to do something, such as finding certain information, instead of spending that time on getting the actual job done.
Example: the only thing that should be important is what information you have (access to, collected, etc.), and how you can use this to get your work done, to solve your problem, or whatever it is you wanted to do. Ideally, it should not matter if this information is in a Word file, a mail folder, or on a Web page; however, at this moment it does. It is not easy and sometimes even impossible, to combine information from different formats and sources. "Computers are evolving from word processing devices to windows into the world of information. Consequently, the infrastructures for accessing and organising this information need to be evolved."

Fortunately, things are changing. An area where these changes are most apparent, is that of Web browsers. The leading browser makers, Netscape and Microsoft, are more and more changing the browser from an application that simply fetches and displays Web pages into either a complete layer on top of a computerís operating system (Netscape) or a integral part of a computerís operating system (Microsoft);

"The browser becomes invisible by becoming ubiquitous. It submerges inside other programs, removing itself from our consciousness. The browser becomes the intellectual equivalent of a telephone switchboard. The operator who once connected your long distance call was a selection device to find the right person at the other end. Now, when your modem dials an ISP, phone company switches are still selecting, but the switchboard - once the defining experience of telephony - is gone. It becomes a historical legacy. Just as in the new networked media, the browser - now the Net's defining metaphor - is dying as the main event, to be reborn as a subsumed function and occasional option."
from Wired

A different approach is taken with the Meta Content Format as developed by Apple. Here, the goal to remove the boundaries between the different kinds of information is not reached by continuously extending the application (e.g. the Web browser) so it can handle more and new types of information, but rather by standardising the representation of the structures used for organising the information. Apple describes MCF as...

"a rich, open, extensible language for describing information organisation structures. Information management systems that use MCF can provide many useful and interesting functionalities such as the integration of information from an open-ended list of sources (desktop, web, email, etc.) that can be viewed using different metaphors (tree views, web views, flythroughs, etc.).

[...] Organizational structures for content, such as file systems, emailbox hierarchies, WWW subject categories, people directories, etc. are almost as important as content itself. The goal of the Meta Content Framework (MCF) is to provide the same benefits for these structures as HTML provided for content."

from [GUHA]

Thus, the central concept of MCF is the use of rich3, standard4, structured5, extensible6, compositable7 descriptions of information organisation structures as the core of information management systems.
Information, in this way, comes first, not the application needed to process and handle it. Currently, we are working in the latter way, where each collection or type of information is linked to a certain application. Here, each application has its own methods of structuring this information. Structures which do not say much about the information itself (the content) but rather about the skeleton for the organization of the information (the "meta content"), and are usually neither very elaborate nor very expressive (they donít allow us to represent much about the content itself).

"We claim that the lack of an expressive, open standard for representing these structures is at the root of many of our information management problems. In fact, we have become so accustomed to these problems that we hardly even regard them as problems any more."
from [GUHA]

The goal of MCF is to abstract and standardise the representation of the structures that are used for organising information (i.e. the meta content structures)8. In addition to the usual benefits of open standards, this will also make it possible to use information utilities (e.g. viewers) that work across different types of information.
Note that MCF is not some kind of technique or application that needs to be installed on a desktop or a server: it is purely an architecture and does not require specific software or hardware before it can be implemented. Unlike the adoption of (component) architectures (such as OLE), where an application is either compliant or not, (information managing) applications can incrementally adopt and implement MCF.

MCF opens up roads to all kinds of possibilities;

"Today we use many different viewers to view different kinds of structures. [...] Ideally, the viewer used should be a function of the users preferences and properties of the data (such as the density of the graph being viewed) and not of whether one is viewing files or email messages. Furthermore, the user should be able to use multiple metaphors for viewing the data, flipping between different viewers to get a better feel for it.
MCF Viewers are viewers for MCF structures. The entities in the structure might denote any kind of information object. The viewer does not care about this. When the user want to perform some action on the content, such as edit it, the viewer asks the
[underlying information managing application] to perform it."
from [GUHA]

Such an architecture, where there are multiple types of information viewers available (e.g. HTML based viewers, domain specific viewers) a user is no longer forced to exclusively chose one viewer over an other. Instead, he or she will have the option of using the viewer that is best for that moment or on that occasion. This could very well lead to the same kind of explosion in tools and utilities that HTML created. MCF, then, acts as a lingua-franca that enables integrating different information sources.
Another area where MCF could open up many interesting possibilities, is that of (information) storage. When you use MCF to decouple information and information managing applications, there is no reason anymore to store information into a format and on a location that is (partially or entirely) based on the application that is used to process and manage it. It makes much more sense to divide and store information based on content, the task(s) it is used for, and so on.

To illustrate the use of MCF as a schema translation middleware, a prototype program called BabelFish has been developed. It enables a user to request data from multiple heterogeneous information sources (such as a database). Normally, to do this, a user would have to be familiar with the semantics and formats of the sources (databases) that need to be accessed to answer a question. The user needs to spend much more time on how to formulate a correct query then he or she spends on thinking about exactly what questions needs to be answered.
BabelFish uses a machine understandable language (e.g. MCF) for describing the semantics and data formats of the database tables9. "BabelFish accepts MCF Queries, which state what the user wants, but not where or how to look (i.e., the MCF query does not contain any information about which tables to look in or what joins need to be done) and translates them into the appropriate SQL queries that contain the where and how. It does this by using a combination of background domain knowledge and the MCF descriptions of the tables available."

Babelfish offers two important benefits. Firstly, it can provide dynamic and distributed integration (two databases that were designed and built independently can exchange information, without any human intervention). And secondly, as the MCF Query does not contain any data source or data schema specific information, the schemes of the back end data sources can be changed without affecting the MCF Query.
(For further information on Babelfish, see [GUHA].)

1= Processing visual information is a more natural activity than is reading text; we canít process text at the blink of an eye. For instance, compare the speed with which the information in a pie chart can be read with the time needed to get that same information from a table or list.
Additionally, the human brain has a much wider array of senses and skills to process visual information than it has for processing text.

2= Currently, when browsing a Web site, links are followed to get to the information you are looking for. After a while, especially if one of the links linked to a different (new) Web site, you usually will have lost sense of your original context (e.g. what question was I trying to find an answer to?). This is in part caused by the fact that the current Web browsers are page-based. Usually, the only means of getting an overview of your path of context is the "back" button. By using three dimensional techniques, e.g. a tree or a 3-D Hyperbolic Tree (an invention of InXight), you can preserve context.
3= MCF allows for semantically rich descriptions of content and its relationship to objects such as people, organisations and events.
4= MCF descriptions are standardised at two levels. MCF provides a standard language for accessing and manipulating meta content descriptions just like SQL provides a standard query language for relational databases. In addition, MCF also provides a standardised vocabulary so that different sources/programs use the same terms (such as "author", "fileSize", etc.) to refer to the same concepts.
5= The distinction between structured and unstructured descriptions is the same as the distinction between a relational database and a text file. Structured descriptions take more work in creating, but support sophisticated queries and analysis; "This is not to say that tools such as text search engines have no role to play in MCF. Quite the contrary. These engines often serve as Ďsense making toolsí that induce structure amongst unstructured content. MCF is an ideal target language for this structure. MCF does not care about how the structure was generated, manually or automatically."
6= In addition to the standard terms, programs can introduce new terms to express new kinds of meta content. This extension can happen dynamically and apply to older objects as well.
7= It is possible to have multiple layers of descriptions, each adding to or modifying lower layers.
8= Note that no assumptions are made about the encoding of the content itself. The actual files, email messages, etc. can be in HTML, Word or any other content encoding; the focus is on the meta content.
9= There are some important points to note about these descriptions. Firstly, they capture not just format information (e.g. field A1 is an integer) but the semantics of the table (e.g. "field A1 has the social security number of the person whose address is in field A2"). Secondly, the descriptions have to be provided only once per table and not once per query, thus they have to be changed only when the schema of the table changes. Thirdly, the MCF descriptions of different tables can be generated independently, without any central co-ordination. The central co-ordination is provided in effect by the use of a common vocabulary.
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by Björn Hermans