Are Taxonomies Dying? Dead? or Just Hitting Their Stride?

Today is the first day of Taxonomy Boot Camp, and Theresa Regli delivered the keynote address: “Taxonomies: Dying? Dead? Or Just Hitting Their Stride?”

Theresa began by asking how we, as taxonomists, remain relevant. There have been a lot of changes in the past few years, and a lot of paradigms that we need to let go of. Taxonomies are still relevant–enterprises still focus on and invest in taxonomies, but in different ways than in the past. There are some situations in which taxonomies aren’t necessary, and we need to acknowledge that, but in most situations technology needs taxonomy to achieve best results.
Some of the signs that taxonomies aren’t dead yet:

  • More people attending Taxonomy Boot Camp this year.
  • Taxonomy COP has around 1000 members
  • Taxonomy COP isn’t limited to taxonomists and information architects; people form different backgrounds are joining, showing that taxonomists aren’t as isolated from other groups as they once were.

Theresa reviewed what she called the “mullets” of taxonomy.

  • Bob Boiko thinks the enterprise taxonomy is outdated. One all-encompassing taxonomy is too much for a large organization and is unmanageable. Smaller, more specific taxonomies are needed.
  • Ron Daniel thinks that people who say they need a 3-level general business taxonomy need to go. The more general a taxonomy is, the less useful it is; targeted, focused taxonomies are more useful. You also can’t decide how a taxonomy should be structured until you understand the business problem.
  • Seth Earley thinks site maps need to go. He also thinks that manual tagging projects are obsolete and we should utilize the improved technology for autocategorization.
  • Theresa thinks that the idea of one classification that fits all needs to go. Taxonomists can’t dictate how people might need to find information later; instead, we need to figure out how the user might need to find something later.
  • Theresa also thinks that definitive categorization is usually obsolete. She gave the example of breakfast. She said to her breakfast means bacon and eggs; to me it means Coke and chocolate.
  • Theresa’s final mullet was bottom-up content analysis by humans. There is just too much content now to analyze. Content analysis software can give us a good starting point for a project because machines are better at finding the information. A human is better at figuring out the context of that information and how people will use it.

After talking about what taxonomists need to leave behind, Theresa focused on the new lifeblood of taxonomies:

  • Application integration
  • Creating smaller, more manageable taxonomies for the enterprise
  • Understanding the context of information
  • Meta data for dynamic navigation and filtered searches. Content has to be metadata rich in order to be found, and this is no longer specific to e-commerce.
  • Taxonomists acknowledging the importance of technology and working to understand that technology.
  • Creating standards and teaching auto-categorization tools to make contextual distinctions.

Theresa then talked about the key ideas behind taxonomy. She doesn’t like to think of taxonomy as hierarchical—it’s more about categories. Because people approach information in different ways, pieces of information should be more fluid. Taxonomies are about enriching content with metadata so that people can find it however they need. She then commented on folksonomies, which can be useful in some cases, but as she pointed out, aren’t really the right path in areas of science, legal, and compliance. When millions of dollars are at stake, letting the masses pick the category isn’t a good idea because they don’t always pick the correct one. Theresa presented Joseph Busch’s three basic principles:

  • Metadata needs to be associated with content
  • Topics should be divided into a few discrete facets
  • Some facets are common to many applications and some need to be specific to each application.

Theresa concluded her talk by relating our work to Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question.” In the story, people ask the computer Multivac, “Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics (used in the story as the increase of the entropy of the universe), be reversed?” The computer is unable to answer, and the question is repeated several times over thousands of years. Finally the computer answers that it is unable to answer the question because all the data relationships for the information aren’t available. Once all humans are gone, the computer is able to answer the question because it knows all the data relationships.

So this relates to us because we are working to define relationships among data, and once we have completed that work (far, far, in the future), taxonomies will be obsolete. As we make computers smarter and technology better, we are working towards the death of taxonomies.

September 2008

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