Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Broadbanding Information

I've been holding onto this idea for a while now. Have decided to jot it down here in the hope of some feedback.

About 2 years ago I was watching a weather report on TV when I realised just how under appreciated such a presentation is. If you are a keen watcher of TV News Weather then you're probably aware that such presentations have developed many new methods over the past 10 years, including loud and stupid surfer guys somehow getting the job, naked weather, and the good old, tried-and-true, Mike Bailey method...

When I watch Mike, I get transported to a time when I was about 8. Sitting next to my grandad in a homely museum of a lounge room filled with the faint smell of pipe tobacco. Both of us warming our feet by the heater, grandad in his chair having his evening beer, me in mine having my apple juice, we both sharing beer nuts. It was a time when I could pretend to watch the evening news with grandad. It was the weather I looked forward to. The only thing I understood just a little, the only thing I could share with grandad in this evening ritual.

But actually, meteorological information can be quite complex, the craziness behind the Bureau's website is testament to that! TV News Weather presenters like Mike have managed to take all that complexity and dish it up to us in a nightly couple of minutes of calm and informative audio visual information. Add the smell of pipe tobacco and the scene is complete for me.

2 years ago, I asked myself the question, what is the method behind this TV News Weather? What is it that makes it comprehendible to an 8 year old, and at the same time informative to a 60 year old. I wanted to find a template that could be applied to all information so that 8 year olds could comprehend and 60 year olds could consider. I came up with broadbanding information.

I could see that the news weather had a somewhat unintentional format in its delivery. The information was being served up in layers, with the iconic, graphically enhanced and dramatically simplified information being presented first. A map of Australia, little pictures of suns, clouds, rain clouds and thunder clouds, numbers - high numbers hot, low numbers cold. Then the map would turn into a photo, with clouds all over it, Mike would point and weave the direction of the cloud movements, and finally the pressure systems, fronts and wind directions. These 3 layers each hold information, with the first layer being comprehendible to an 8 year old. The second layer adds value to the first, and leads into the third layer. The third and final layer is complex and detailed, but with practice and perhaps a layer in between layer 2 and 3, the viewer will learn how to consider it. All layers together give an over all picture.

It was also 2 years ago that some friends of mine where completing PHDs. They were painfully going through the edit and rewrite stages before their peer review. Towards the end of their gruelling process, the information that my friends were about to 'publish' was finally beyond comprehension to the public. Their papers had been reworked into such a verbose and specific language that only specialist in their field could consider it.

I put my weather analogy to one of my friends who was writing on research he and his colleagues had done looking at the long term effects that computer screens may have on eye sight. With a little massaging of the analogy he began to see that what I was trying to get out of him was a way in which he could write his paper in layers of complexity, for various levels of reading and cognitive abilities. I suggested that the first layer might be a children's book, the second maybe a text for young people, the third an article for general readership, and the forth an expert reading for specialists. I suggested that many of the initial drafts and concept sketches could be used to develop each layer, but the important thing is that each layer should offer as seamless as possible transition into the next.

He saw the concept, and appreciated the worth of such an effort, but disappointingly considered that it would be a considerable effort on his part, and that his research would not be interesting to anyone but specialists in his field!

I've sat on the idea since then, trying it out with different people in academia, testing their responses and getting a general feeling for how possible the idea is. Unfortunately almost every one politely sees the idea as worthy, and even go so far as to agree that it would be possible, but then finish by saying that it would require a complete overhaul of the current way of doing things, such as the peer review process...

Enter blogging. A renaissance in the democratisation of communications where the average person can now both read and write to the internet easily and reasonably freely. An era where everyone can develop an internet identity, and continue developing that identity, reshaping it, re emerging it over time. Blogging will eventually challenge the academic peer review process, and what is considered publishing. It is already disrupting the journalistic traditions, research will be next.

Enter wikis. The re emergence of the Internet's original intent. The ability to collaborate in the development of information, where the only constant is change. A new form of writing where everyone and no one can be authors. Wikipedia is the best example of a successful collaborative writing space that connects multiple authors for the continual co development of encyclopaedic information resources. Wikispaces makes such a co-authoring relationship possible to anyone online.

Broadbanding information is possible through wikis. Consider these scenarios.
  1. A school group is given an assignment on Australian Birds. A quick search of wikipedia turns up very little information on Australian birds. The school group is encouraged to start the wikipedia entry. The teacher contacts the Australian Birds Society and gains support from its members to contribute edits. The school group is tasked with editing the experts contributions into readable language, the experts are encouraged to start developing a second layer of detailed information, and so on...
  2. A group of hobbyists start a wiki on a topic with broadband information in mind. They start writing in their own discourse, and set up draft pages for other levels of readership. Then they invite writers from the various levels of reading and writing to interpret their content and develop pages for their own readership level. These levels might include younger readers, ESL readers, academic experts, even other languages...
Collaborative writing enabled through wiki technology makes it possible to broadband information. Working relationships can be set up between people of varying experience and ability with the common goal of writing content that is accessible and usable to all.

In many ways it is already happening. Imaging if ThinkQuest met WikiPedia or WikiSpaces

Thanks to Jock Grady for his valuable contributions to this ieda

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


Jude said...

Good bed time read - will mull this over night - an extraordinary concept. I remember my 6 year old daughter reading Herman Hesse novels some years ago, what you are describing is exactly what occured, she digested as a six year.

Adam said...

Really interesting Leigh. I like the idea that wikis and such tools can help an audience influence a piece of work so that it becomes more accessible to them rather than less. This kind of thing is the reason we started Wikispaces so we will keep an eye out for further discussion.

sharon said...

For a while now I have been wondering how to present information to participants in my management courses. Some want only practical how tos, some want case studies and examples of others like them and the occasional person wants the full background research. I like your ideas, it gives me more perspectives as I play with the idea of layers of hyperlinks behind a surface mindmap.