Community Engagement and Dynamic Knowledge Repositories

One of the benefits of working on the Hyperscope is not just working closely with Doug Engelbart, but also with many of his long-time colleagues, not the least of whom includes Christina Engelbart, his daughter and former business partner. Christina and I recently had an off-the-cuff exchange on community engagement and maintaining a Dynamic Knowledge Repository (DKR), and it’s started to evolve into a full-fledged discussion. Rather than continue it over email, I thought I’d post some of my thoughts here, especially since they relate to my recent post on Leave A Trail and stigmergy.    (KDW)

On the surface, maintaining a Dynamic Knowledge Repository and community engagement would seem to be two separate actions. Christina suggests that the former is a more tangible entity, whereas the latter is a process. I agree with this distinction, and I would also note that the artifacts of community engagement are part of a DKR. So you’ve got the engagement itself (process), and you’ve got the artifacts of the engagement (part of a DKR).    (KDX)

The distinction starts to blur when the engagement occurs over a digital medium. If I exchange email with someone, then is that community engagement or is it part of maintaining a Dynamic Knowledge Repository? It’s both, because the act of engagement also results in an artifact!    (KDY)

Why is this important? Because when we think of the two as distinct actions, then doing both means double the work. When we think of the two as having significant overlap (via relatively minor shifts in work practice), then we get (at least) twice the benefit for half as much work.    (KDZ)

This conflation is central to methodologies like Dialogue Mapping. Jeff Conklin talks about the importance of Shared Display as being part of the conversation. When the screen is physically part of the conversation, then participants engage with the screen as if it were another participant. That creates shared ownership over the artifact, which makes the artifact far more valuable than a meeting summary that some guy in the corner scribbled onto his laptop and emailed out afterwards.    (KE0)

The benefits multiply even more when you take into account Leave A Trail and scale. Having a closed DKR for a small team is valuable, but opening that DKR up for the entire world to see increases the potential for serendipity and emergence.    (KE1)

I would argue very strongly for folks to think about community engagement and maintaining a knowledge repository as part of the same bucket, because they should be very closely tied to each other. For example, when I add content or refactor the public Hyperscope Wiki, I consider that part of my community engagement strategy. That said, these two concepts are not identical. This is important to remember also. Simply dumping information into a public repository is not a very effective community engagement strategy. However, proactively reaching out to people and encouraging them to interact in the public repository is a great community engagement strategy.    (KE2)

Jeff’s framing is probably the best way to think about it: Your knowledge repository should be thought of as a participant in your collaborative process, not just something external.    (KE3)

Announcing the Hyperscope Project

One of the new projects I have the joy of being involved with this year is Doug Engelbart‘s Hyperscope. Doug recently got a bit of NSF funding to build an Open Source prototype of his vision for a Hyperscope, and Doug asked me to lead the project.    (KAT)

You can read more about the project on the project blog. In short, we’re replicating the original hypertext system’s (Augment) browsing (jumping) and viewing capabilities in Firefox.    (KAU)

Why is this significant? Because even though most of the world knows that Doug Engelbart built the first hypertext system in the 1960s, very few people have ever seen and experienced the system first-hand. And boy, is it a doozy. Doug continues to use the system every day, and it has capabilities that no other system has today.    (KAV)

We want the world to see these features, and we want the world to have the opportunity to learn from them and to integrate them into their own systems. We also want the world to realize that these are not features for features’ sake, but are part of a much larger vision of how society can (and must) get collectively smarter.    (KAW)

This project — and Doug’s larger vision — is about improving society’s ability to collaborate. And that’s why I’m involved. We’re not building code for code’s sake (although the code will kick ass). We are kicking off a larger community conversation about how we can improve collaboration, and how we can and should improve our tools to augment our capabilities.    (KAX)

Join The Community    (KAY)

We’ve got a fantastic core team in place. Brad Neuberg is our lead developer. I’ve written about Brad’s coworking efforts, but I haven’t written about how he’s a kick-butt developer who’s doing wild things with AJAX. More importantly, he’s also a deep thinker, which is an absolute requirement to be successful in this position, a leader in the Open Source community, and a lifetime Engelbart fan (not a requirement, but it didn’t hurt).    (KAZ)

Also joining us is Jonathan Cheyer. Jon’s a long-time member of the Collaboration Collaboratory, and he’s also the tech lead for the Computer History Museum‘s NLS/Augment Restoration Project. I’m pretty sure he’s the most proficient Augment user under 40, and I’m quite certain he knows more about Augment’s internals than anyone else under 40.    (KB0)

What makes the project even more fun is that we’ve been working with folks from Doug’s original lab. His daughter, Christina Engelbart, is program manager and is also sharing her insights into how the system was used as well as her knowledge of Doug’s larger vision. Jeff Rulifson and Charles Irby, the first software leads in Doug’s lab, have shared a lot of their knowledge with us, as have Harvey Lehtman and Raylene Pak. These gatherings have not only been extremely educational — stories galore — they have been tons of fun, and we want to encourage other ex-ARC folks to touch base with us and be part of this new community.    (KB1)

Some additional acknowledgements: Mark Finnern is one of Doug’s biggest supporters, and he has given Doug a valuable forum at Future Salon. He also hooked us up with Blake Ross and Joe Hewitt of Firefox fame, two very cool guys who spent some time with Doug and whom we hope will continually engage with this community. A big shout out also to Philip Gust, also of the NLS/Augment Restoration Project, Dorai Thodla, who experimented with an early prototype of the Hyperscope in Java, and Dave Thomas and his OpenAugment team.    (KB2)

Please join us! Subscribe to our mailing lists and blog (and weekly podcasts), and participate on our Wiki. I’ll mostly blog about the project on the project blog, but I’ll also occasionally discuss stuff here. Brad is also blogging about the project. We’ll also be at SuperHappyDevHouse this Saturday doing an Augment jam session.    (KB3)

Blue Oxen Associates    (KB4)

I’m involved with this project for personal and professional reasons. As I said earlier, this is not just about building a piece of code. It’s about engaging with the community at large and building a movement that falls squarely within the mission of my company. The Hyperscope project will help ground larger conversations about how we can and should improve tool interoperability and usability. More importantly, it will ground larger conversations about process and the bigger picture.    (KB5)

At a very concrete level, the Hyperscope falls well within our goal to bring these deeper ideas into existing tools. Not surprisingly, the Hyperscope should integrate very easily with PurpleWiki (as well as other Wikis), providing a new, slick and useful browsing capability. As the project progresses, I’m looking forward to evolving our tools, as well as seeing other folks evolve theirs.    (KB6)

On a personal level, Doug is why I’m in this business. I’ve never been happier with my work than I’ve been in the past three and a half years at Blue Oxen Associates. I bring people doing meaningful work together, I help them collaborate better, and I do it in an open way that hopefully has a much larger societal impact. It’s intellectually satisfying and emotionally fulfilling. And I wouldn’t be doing any of this had it not been for Doug, who’s been a mentor, a friend, and a cheerleader.    (KB7)

In a way, starting Blue Oxen Associates was my gift to him — a commitment on my part to carry out his larger vision. But working on the Hyperscope is a much more concrete way of returning the favor, and I look forward to doing this for him and for the community at large.    (KB8)

Purple Numbers: Optimized for Synthesis

Chris Dent has been having some good exchanges about Purple Numbers with Adina Levin and Phil Jones. I don’t have much to add, as I think Chris is spot on. Two comments struck me, though.    (IQV)

First, Phil claims that Purple Numbers are optimized for reading at the expense of writing. His point is that Purple Numbers, as currently implemented, add overhead to the writing process, whereas the pay-off comes for the reader. I emphasize as currently implemented, because we just haven’t gotten around to making them mostly transparent in the writing process. Hacking one of the WYSIWYG JavaScript text editors to support Purple Numbers should do the trick.    (IQW)

However, I really liked Chris’s response:    (IQX)

Yes, purple numbers do try to favor the reader and the act of reading, but not just for reading. They favor the reader so the reader may more easily do more writing. The whole point is for purple numbers and tools like it to be a generative force in the synthesis of new understandings.    (IQY)

Phil can write all he wants, and I can read all I want, but until I write down something that builds on what Phil says, while making chains of reference back through the many layers of context, there’s been no synthesis, at least not any that is available outside the confines of my own mind.    (IQZ)

Granular Addressability enables synthesis. Wanna know what makes blogs conversational? Permalinks, which are a form of Granular Addressability.    (IR0)

A lot of people don’t get this. I read The Sports Guy over at all the time (despite the fact that I hate all Boston sports teams with a passion), and at the past two Super Bowls, he wrote what called a “blog.” It sure looked like a blog, but in reality, it was just one-way publishing. Folks couldn’t comment on his entries, because they couldn’t link to any of them. I see this all the time with other major media outlets trying to jump on the blog bandwagon.    (IR1)

Which brings me to the second comment that jumped out at me. In his response to Adina, Chris wrote:    (IR2)

Clearly I am in far too deep with purple stuff: I need a translator. The above can be so much meaningless noise and I find little time to make things cogent.    (IR3)

I’m not the best proselytizer of Purple Numbers, not because I’m not proud of them (I am), not because I don’t value them (I do), and not because I can’t explain their value clearly (I can). There’s a tremendous amount of deep thinking underlying these little purple critters, and the implications are fascinating. But before you can understand any of this, you’ve got to care. And unless you’re one of those strange individuals who just gets it, you’ve got to try them before you’ll buy them.    (IR4)

A lot of folks think I invented Purple Numbers. Not true at all. I was one of those folks who didn’t care, one of the first in fact. Purple Numbers are an HTML manifestation of Augment’s granular addressability scheme, invented by Doug Engelbart and made purple years later by his daughter, Christina Engelbart. When I first started working with Doug, he kept insisting that all of our knowledge products on the Web have Purple Numbers. I didn’t think it was a priority, but I knew I could easily whip up a tool to generate them, so I wrote Purple to humor him. Then a funny thing happened. Once I had them, I used them, simply because they were there. Then I started missing them when they weren’t there. Then it dawned on me: These little purple thingies sure were darn useful. And I started thinking about why.    (IR5)

The point of my story is this: I’m perfectly happy to have a deep, convoluted discussion about some esoteric aspect of Purple Numbers. If you don’t believe me, try me. Or read my blog entries on the matter. But if you really want to understand why they’re so important, just give them a try for a month, then try living without them.    (IR6)