18 June 2006

Textop: Mashups and Strong Collaboration

Larry Sanger is beginning to emerge as one of the key players in the open content scene. As I've written before, he played an important, if disputed, role in the creation of Wikipedia. Currently, he is one of the driving forces behind the Digital Universe project.

I notice that he now has a blog (subtitle: "Constructing the Digital Universe"), which looks like it could become a must-read for those interested in the world of open content. Take, for example, this post about something called Textop, or the Text Outline Project. There is a summary of the project, as well as a more detailed explanation. This looks fascinating, and consists of several projects:

# The Collation Project, the flagship, will analyze various public domain works studied by scholars (e.g., Classics and history of philosophy) into approximately paragraph-sized chunks, summarize them, and place these chunks into a single outline. Each node of the outline will not have more than, say, a half-dozen chunks, so the outline will be constantly expanding. This will provide a single reference point for comparing the detailed content of scholarly works from throughout history and eventually, it is to be hoped, more recent works as well.

# The Analytical Dictionary Project will sort dictionary definitions and much other lexicographical data not by word but by concept, discussing and distinguishing the senses of words, introducing idioms and jargon, etc., all as part of the Collation Project's outline.

# The Debate Guide Project will describe the dialectical landscape, that is, it will provide fair but in-depth briefs on all sides of controversial issues, perennial and contemporary, academic and popular. The results will be located in the Collation Project's outline.

# The Event Summary Project will provide summaries of events or "stories," aggregating information from news articles and other sources and presenting it in the most neutral possible fashion. Event summaries will be appended to the end of the chronological portion of the Collation Project's outline.

The first of these, the Collation Project, is furthest along. Basically, it seems to be about chunking online texts for the purposes of overlaying extra information - a mashup, in effect. There's a sample screenshot of how this might work in practice.

What's interesting about this Textop project is the attempt to go down a level: that is, to produce not just texts, but a kind of Semantic Web within texts, with information about textual subunits. It's ambitious, but certainly worthwhile.

And I like Sanger's concept of "strong collaboration":

Strong, or radical, collaboration is crucially different from old-fashioned collaboration. Many people who have not worked much with open source software, or with Wikipedia, do not realize this.

Building on this idea, he has a couple of provocative suggestions:

First, speaking to the open source and open content community: I ask you to imagine if the Establishment were to use the methods and principles (including shared ownership and freedom) that you champion. Just imagine what fantastic results would come of that. Imagine that, and then ask yourselves what you can do, perhaps what in your processes and attitudes you can change, to help see to it traditional information producers adopt the really productive parts of your culture. And bear in mind that they love the efficiency collaborative systems display, and they aren't in principle opposed to freedom and openness.

Second, speaking to traditional information producers (including academics): imagine a world, after a new collaborative revolution, in which massive amounts of reliable information, nothing like today's Internet, is available free for all. Isn't that something you would want to use your influence to get behind, if it were possible? If such incredibly useful information resources might very well be created with low overhead, then isn't it worth it, at least as an experiment, to jettison top-down assignment and individual authorship, and to explore the creative possibilities of modest business models necessary to support the modest overhead? It may or may not make you rich; but it might well make the world rich in a way it has never been before.

Well, quite.

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