Forest for the Trees: How Taxonomy Design Is Like Systems Engineering

Thanks to my wife, I’ve been learning a little bit about systems engineering, a form of engineering that addresses the complex interactions of multiple systems. As she says, you need to consider systems engineering when the interrelationships between systems are as complicated as the systems themselves. For example, to reduce automotive traffic you need to research social behavior, road design, business, and the environment. To study ergonomics you need to study the human body, computer design, application design, and user efficiency needs. And don’t get me started on the U.S. healthcare system.

The very first step of systems engineering is to understand the full scope. Ground transportation isn’t about cars and trains, for example, but about the entire surface of the earth: population clusters, topography, climate, and distances. Taxonomy starts this way too, with facets like people, documentation types, product lines, and access levels.

Or at least it should. Sometimes it’s easier to look at a single component of your world and tabulate it in isolation — department offices, account records, HR data — and imagine someday expanding to something larger. But this doesn’t work, not in the long run.

Continue reading

The Popularity Contest: Taxonomy Development in the Petabyte Era

Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.” (1)

Recently Chris Anderson wrote an article for Wired magazine called the The End of Theory. The thesis of the article in a nutshell is that the impending petabyte era of data storage signals the end of the traditional scientific method of discovery. No longer are we bound to the outdated model of observation, hypothesis and measurement. Computers (developed by Google & IBM) “can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.”

Continue reading

Subject Matter Experts and Taxonomy Development

I was recently in a meeting where it was said that a lack of subject matter expertise is a disadvantage in taxonomy development. This is understandable; it makes sense to assume that the more domain expertise a taxonomist has, the better the final information product will be. However, my experience has shown that this is not always the case. So exactly how does the role of subject matter expert (SME) fit into taxonomy development?

Continue reading

Cleaning up the Other Bucket

The Other category: also known as General, Miscellaneous, My Stuff, or, too often, the shared drive.

The Other category is the junk drawer for all those taxonomy terms that just don’t seem to fit anywhere else. Reaching into it is taking a chance as you never know what you may find—the yo-yo you can’t seem to throw away, a pair of rusty scissors threatening to impale you when looking for loose change, batteries, baggy ties, the old cell phone with numbers in it of people you don’t even remember. When it’s time for cleaning up, you can either throw it all away or sort it out and put everything in a more appropriate place. Continue reading