Sunday, March 25, 2007

IT Managers and Bridging the Gap

If you want to be stimulated intellectually and if you prefer science and technology to a postmodernist, literary rant, then you need go now further than The Edge, a web site dedicated to The Third Culture, consisting of scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world.

IT managers are generally a practical bunch. Sure, we love delving into the frontiers of information technology, reading about the new and the wonderful, planning for a future which is always just around the corner, sometimes even wondering when we can download our consciousness into a cybernetic mechanism so that we can live forever. But, when we wake up from that good night's dreaming, we tend to check things like whether the backup worked last night, how many - if any - viruses were detected across the network, whose printer malfunctioned during the night shift, and so on.

IT manager nightmares, on the other hand, turn on that common phrase, "You just don't know what you just don't know." The meaning is fairly obvious - we manage technology daily, and to do so effectively means that we constantly have to learn. We consistently have to push down the barriers between what we know and what we don't know. We expect that just around the corner there is a small piece of critical information that will pull the entire puzzle into a coherent whole. We might not know what we don't know, but you can be damned sure that we're looking everywhere we can both to find the individual puzzle pieces and to find a way to fit them all together.

Which is why I recommend information technology aficionados read The Edge. The Third Culture promoted there is something with which most of us can immediately identify. We build bridges just like the digerati of The Edge, and in almost identical ways. But instead of building bridges between scientists working in the field of string theory or evolutionary biology and the reasonably well-educated general public, we build bridges between computer scientists and software engineers, on the one hand, and the users of our corporate information systems.

At least that's the way IT should work.

Recently, The Edge published news about one IT professional's initiative to bridge the gap. Danny Hillis has announced a new company called Metaweb and a free database called The "massive, collaboratively-edited database of cross-linked data" will be an "open shared database of the world's knowledge". Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, the data will be available to programmers worldwide to build services to provision the data. Imagine Google, Wikipedia, Blogs, Tags, Trusted Links - all rolled together with data that is understood and readable by computers but presented to users in a format that pleases.

That's the goal. But if you're like me when searching for that single piece of the puzzle, and not sure about what you don't know that you don't know, what is it about this bridging exercise that will make the difference? The short answer is that we don't know yet, but Hillis is banking on some combination of "emergent structure and intelligent design" in which Metaweb architects intelligently design the grammar of specifying relationships among data and the crowd creates the content in Freebase.

Hillis has been able to secure over $15 million in investment funding. The Edge digerati think it credible enough to warrant coverage. Now we wait and see.

No comments: