Turning Data into Knowledge

Steve Madsen emailed me a few months ago behalf of the NSW Computer Studies Teachers Association, asking if I’d like to run a workshop at the next CSTA quarterly meeting. He didn’t have any particular theme in mind at the time, and indicated that he was happy for me to pick the topic… anything that might be useful to teachers of computing… and he asked that I get back to him with my idea for a workshop. No problem I said.

I thought about what might be useful to a group of computing teachers. They would be a tech savvy group, so what could I possibly share with them? As much as it might sound like a buzzword, it seems to me that there is still an awful lot about the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon that many teachers are still trying to get their heads around, so I thought something along those lines might be useful. I didn’t want it to be too predictable though, and simply talking about blogs and wikis seemed like just a little too… I don’t know… obvious? I started thinking about ways to explore the ideas behind Web 2.0 in a fundamental yet interesting way. Around the same time, I was struck by a couple of websites that do some very Web 2.0 sorts of things, and when looked at in context with each other it became clear that they were tapping into the same fundamental principles in some very interesting ways.

The three sites that grabbed my attention were www.ilike.com, www.43things.com, and del.icio.us. All of these sites shared the same underlying theme of tagging personal data which could then be viewed as a semantic snapshot of the collective consciousness. That seemed like a cool concept to me; this idea of thousands of people all voluntarily submitting many terabytes of content to the web – a massive collection of text, photos, audio and video. More importantly, they were also submitting their opinions and interpretations about that content, and doing it in a way where it could be collated and organised into a broader meaning. Thinking I was being clever, I decided to call the workshop “I Like 43 Delicious Things”.

I emailed Steve back with the idea and he responded by saying that the DET proxy filters might make it hard to do much with that, since they are locked down pretty tight. A little disappointed, I figured I’d mull it over a bit more and maybe some other idea would come to me. However, the next time I heard from Steve he sent me a copy of the agenda for the meeting and there was my original workshop suggestion, listed as a definite thing. Hmm, now I had to make my clever idea actually work.

I sent a couple of emails to clarify the filter situation and it seemed that I might be able to go ahead with the original idea after all, so I started to gather some resources for the workshop. I kinda sorta knew what I wanted to say, but it was all still a bit nebulous in my head. How could I tie it all together so that it made sense to people? (and me!)

It’s funny how things just fall into place sometimes… a few days before the workshop I was still trying to figure out how to make sense of my original idea, and I stumbled across three items that brought it all together for me… one I’d come across before but completely forgotten about, and the other two I’d never seen. When I put these three resources together with the three original websites, it formed a powerful summary of what I felt was going on behind the Web 2.0 phenomenon.

Del.icio.us’s use of tagging to create semantic taxonomies of knowledge was pretty clear to me. The way the tag clouds formed around large collections of bookmarked resources provided a clear snapshot into their hidden meaning. The same concept seemed to apply to the lists of personal goals submitted by people on 43things.com. Lots of people sharing ideas about life goals and forming patterns of collective thought by contributing those thoughts into one place. By tagging and adding metadata to their goals, it formed a “zeitgeist” picture of what the masses were thinking about. Finally, ilike.com tapped into the large store of metadata collected within thousands of iTunes music libraries and brought it all together online to form a collective community of music lovers that were able to share their tastes and suggestions, linking musical tastes and suggestions from the crowd. Three very different sites that all used a common idea of data sharing, metadata tagging and community building.

The glue that held these ideas together was three more things… Firstly, a website which created dynamic tag clouds based on the past 200+ years of US presidential speeches. Chirag Mehta has cleverly been able to delve into the words of America’s past presidents, analyse the frequency and relative importance of their words, and create an interactive tag cloud concept which gives an amazing insight into the way the issues of their day could be seen as a summary of the culture at the time. It was a powerful example of the way existing data can be easily mined for greater meaning.

The second resource was a video called The Machine is Us/ing Us. Although this video has shown up on many education blogs in the last few months, it really explains well why the web is the way it is right now, and how the contribution of user data, tagging, XML and CSS are increasingly responsible for the new web landscape.

The final resource was a video from the TED Talks series called “The Web’s Secret Stories” by Jonathan Harris. In this video, Harris shows a piece of research work (it was more like conceptual art to me) called We Feel Fine. This incredible piece of work needs to be seen for yourself, but I felt it perfectly tied the loose threads together… it was the closest thing I’ve seen to an IT-based system that constantly analyses the random thoughts of the blogosphere’s collective consciousness in near real-time and massages it into a form that is not only informative and interesting, but utterly compelling. You simply must watch the video, then go have a play with the website. It is amazing.

I think most people got something out of the workshop, at least I hope they did. More to the point, I know that I learnt an enormous amount by preparing to share this information with my colleagues. I felt I came away from it with a much deeper insight in the nature of the new web, and in the process got to grips with tools that I had often used but never truly understood. It’s so true that if you want to really understand something, try teaching it to someone else.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 Turning Data into Knowledge by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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