Places of Importance

What makes a place important to you? Is it because of the past? The time you spent there, the important work you did or persons that you met who forever made an impression on you? Or is it because of the present? Where you live and experience here and now, anchored in everyday life and enjoying unexpected, small pleasures.

Can it be because of the future? Places you desperately want to go to. Big and important in your mind because of what goes on there. Perhaps merely because of the associations they bring to you and to others. Places with power. Where you can create interesting stories.

In the new issue of The Holmberg Gazette I have gathered some places of importance to me. Places I hope to visit during 2009. Most of them are places I’ve already been to, but don’t expect to stay the same. It was a difficult choice, because I have visited so many exciting places, met so many interesting people.

A totally different kind of place is the Internet. For me, that is one of the most important places. Right now and probably even more so in the future. That is why I try to explore it in many ways. Why you can find me at LinkedIn, Facebook, Plaxo, ResearchGATE...


Indigenous Knowledge

Last week I made a great decision. My friend Agneta and I went to see the film Australia. And what a wonderful movie it was! A real adventure story of the old and good kind, with damsels in distress, a hero who can both shoot and cry, wild children and animals, beautiful scenery, unexpected friendship and love, faint popular music, and enemies defeated at the end.

This is a very much Australian production: supported by the government through Screen Australia, with an Australian director (Baz Luhrmann) and all leading actors native (including Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman). Although Kidman’s shoes are made by the Italian company Ferragamo and her clothes were made especially for her, you can get the same gorgeous look and feel by popping into RM Williams, the famous Australian brand that delivered the rest of the gear for the crew.

And there are several more very good reasons to see the film. One of the messages in the film is the importance of making change happen when necessary. “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.” Another reason is the strong emphasis on storytelling and the indigenous Australians use of storytelling as a means to create memories and individuals. “The only thing you own is your story”. Well, better make it a good one. But why somebody would need a reason to see a film about Australia featuring Hugh Jackman is beyond me…

Another form of indigenous knowledge is used in user-driven development. According to research at the MIT by Eric von Hippel but also at Karlstad University by Per Kristensson, users are very apt in supporting product development and are likely to come up with more original, more valuable and to some extent more realizable ideas. These two collaborate, although Hippel is more of the “eating his own dog food” kind of a guy since very much of the material he has produced in terms of articles, books and videos are downloadable from his site.

Apparently Baz Luhrmann made use of user-driven development, because he changed the film after a preview. Or rumor has it 20th Century Fox made him. I must say I prefer the user-driven one, but then again I am a true romantic.


Meaningful Search

I subscribe to the AI mailinglist, and yesterday something caught my eye namely the referral to a website with only good news. This is actually a collection of sites, and the compilation is done, not by computers, but by three people in the small company Nononina.

Although I really appreciate the talents that must be involved in keeping such collections alive, I’m also very intrigued by the technology behind semantic search. With by background in computational linguistics, I can’t help but wonder about how we can move from the kind of very rudimentary search most of use, typing a word or two into the search field at Google and then browsing through the first of the 235.366 documents, towards something more meaningful.

According to the researchers who recently gathered at the ESWC08 conference, there are several challenges that semantic search systems try to address such as how semantic technologies can be used to capture the information need of the user or how what the users wants to know more about can be translated into language the computer understands without forcing him or her to use weird symbols? With so many documents produced, it is no wonder that the EU Commission has spent some money on semantic search projects, Alvis being one of them. And it comes as no surprise that the Finns are really good at semantic computing, since almost nobody (or at least less than 6 million people) can understand their language. This means that it probably will not be included in the semantic search engine Hakia, since they “plan to cover all languages spoken by significant number of people”.

Another big challenge is the increasing move from text to pictures, audio and movies. The Horizon Report from The New Media Consortium talks about trends in use of technology in education and one of their observations is that “grass root video” is really catching on. Of course, already some applications try to address this such as the Media Mill. It would be really interesting if it could be applied to user generated material such as the stuff presented by Al Gore’s Current TV. Again, this is something the EU addresses. Audio and visual search is the topic of the CHORUS coordination action and there is even some hope for disruptive innovation, something that is always delightful from an investment perspective.

Now, if you are really into semantic search what do you do? A semantic search engine searching for semantic web documents, of course. It is called Swoogle. If you are a researcher and want to try semantic search features in order to find colleagues (or potential competitors), you can try the ResearchGate. See the video below on how to use it.

However, even with the help of semantic search engines, how are we going to find things that are relevant for us? How on earth can we navigate in the ecology of attention, described so accurately by Davenport and Beck in “The attention economy” and in “The Economics of Attention” by Lanham?

Dewitt Jones, a photographer often working for National Geographic, emphasizes that we should look for what is right with the world. This philosophy has made him a great photographer, but has also provided him with personal direction. Something he has captured in a beautiful and pedagogical way in his video. If you want to know what Appreciative Inquiry is all about in plain language, this is an excellent way to get all the basic concepts together with some really beautiful pictures.

Of course, the EU Commission is on top of this issue and provides research success stories where some of them have even reached stardom. But what can we do in our daily lives? Could search research find ways for us to become more aware of what is good, beautiful and right? To make us search for and find things that build on our strengths? Instead of “I feel lucky” maybe Google could have a button called “Make me happy”.

One way of increasing the relevance in results from search engines is to make use of the features provided by WordsCloseTogether. They make sure that you get only results where the words you are looking for are written less than 100 words apart. Sprung from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, it is no wonder that the company mission is to serve people. I do like their comment on Google’s mission statement:
With all due respect to Google Inc., "Don't be evil" is a negative theme. Google's nineteen thousand plus employees would be better directed by servant marketing themes that are fully respectful of key human values.

Now, isn’t that something meaningful to search for?