Information Aggregators

Quick definition for you before I dive into this article. By Information Aggregator I do not mean just a Feed Aggregator, I mean all types of information, and I’ll explain more of that later.

My role involves keeping an eye on the whole external world of e-based learning, what’s new in the marketplace, what other organisations are up to, etc. While I’ve been doing that I’ve realised that we’re really suffering from a bad case of information overload, much more than we were with just email alone.


We’ve all been suffering this for years through email alone but now we’re getting information delivered to us from all over the place, and frankly some of us just can’t cope. Blogs, websites, searches, news, our own computer, etc.

As these new methods of delivering content become more widely taken on within organisations we’re going to find that our email inbox explodes in next to no time. If you can’t cope with email already, you’re soon going to be drowning.

What we need is no longer just a filestore for email, we need a way to manage all this information we’re being thrown. We’re going to need Information Aggregators and Managers.

Already I’ve seen some systems out there. IBM’s offering in development looks really good, and Omea seem to have an offering of a nice product (although I haven’t had a chance to have a play with it). Both cover this area quite well, but where are all the others?

So what is an Information Aggregator? It’s something that will pull together all these diverse and dispersed forms of information, present them in a common, understandable and intuitive way, allowing you to store, search and manage everything together.

First you have to look at what information you receive on a regular basis, for me that’s quite a bit.

Atom/RSS Feeds – From categories like e-learning and technical to movies, friends and photography.

Email – Work and personal, and to complicate it I get personal email from three different mailboxes.

Discussion and News Groups – Luckily most of these have RSS\Atom Feeds, but some don’t.

Podcasts – Again, these use the same feeds, but are another source of information.

XML Applications – Whether these be web based, widgets on your desktop, or other computer based systems, XML information is becoming available from more and more locations.

Instant Messaging – Again this is complicated by multiple clients, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, Corporate IM, etc. However they still represent a major communication channel.

Other Websites\Searches – Then there’s a gap that everything else falls into! These tend to have some form of feed as well, but represent another distinctly different information type.

I took these information sources and jotted them down on a piece of paper, looking at the types of categorisation and indexation that they provided, and there were some common themes that came through.

Date – Obviously all this information shares an arrival or sent date, is that a good enough reason to group them all together though?

Folder\Location\Person\Site – The identifier of the originator of the information.

Yet neither of these really promotes a logical way of storing the information within a relevant context.

So now we’re looking at gathering all these information sources in one place with a common look, feel and a relevant and contextually informative organisation. Yet apart from a search facility there’s nothing really bringing these sources together.

Something I’ve seen in a number of places, both written about and in demonstrations, is the organisation of information by Topic or by Project. This makes much more sense than picking a field whose only relevance is that it is used between these sources. This idea of gathering by topic or project is much more relevant to everyone.

So now we’re getting to the idea of an area that allows you to create Topics or Projects, perhaps similar to categories within Outlook Calendar, that can be assigned to and item from one of the Information Sources and then persistently follows it through it’s various uses.

This would give us the ability to drop any item from any of the Information Sources into a newly created Topic and for it to be referenced there. Then any time it is forwarded, replied to, appears as a shortcut, the subject appears elsewhere, etc. then that use is also referenced within the Topic\Project heading.

Email – Tracked by subject\category\ID. The original email and any in the following chain(s) is automatically added to the Topic.

News – Tracked by subject\ID. The original post and any in the followup chain(s) are automatically added to the Topic.

RSS\Atom – Tracked by subject\original post – comments, trackbacks\site. Additions to the Topic can come directly from these feeds.

Explorer – Tracked by name\type\shortcut. Used throughout the other information sources, if a shortcut or copy is identified then the item in the information source can be cross-referenced in the Topic.

XML – Tracked by name\type\shortcut. Used throughout the other information sources. As above with Explorer.

Instant Messaging – Tracked by subject\originator. Persistent storage of conversations.

Other Websites\Searches – Tracked by subject\site.

Therefore, if a Topic had been running for some time in your Information Aggregator, it would have an expandable list of all of these types of information logged against it. Most would have been added automatically via these rules after you had added one item, and others would have been added by yourself, or others who had used details that were identified by the Aggregator as belonging to that Topic.

As with most applications you would be able to order and sort these in various ways under the Topic, grouping by information type, date, originators, alphabetically, etc.

Now we have a quite robust method of gathering all these Information Sources together in one place, in a logical and relevant structure.

Of course I understand that there are many technical issues, but XML and Feeds in general solve most of these, so why can’t we just do it? Well I know IBM are, and now we have this firm Omea. Getting these products out there and used isn’t the biggest hurdle to tackle, after all this kind of system will be adopted by Internet users quite easily.

I think the real problem will be the one that such things as Blogs, Wikis and Feeds are facing right now, the stagnation of Corporate Technology. They are behind in technology, not Business facing, ill equipped for the devolving of information storage and control, generally they’re behind the times and they don’t want to, or know how to move forward. They can’t see the benefits of the tools and just become hung up on their Internet uses – Blogs are peoples online diaries, Wikis are plagued with control issues, etc.

Anyway, that’s another rant. What I want is an Information Aggregator. I can see it being of great use in our organisation, I just have to win key people over to the idea, and that’s now my new job. One of me to one hundred and thirty thousand employees. Easy task.

What do you think? Do you use an Information Aggregator, what is it and how is it? Have you used or do you use Omea, and how do you use it and does it help? Do you work for Omea and want to give me a longer evaluation license? Could you use this if it existed? Anything I’ve missed from this list?

4 comments on “Information Aggregators”

  1. Brad Reply

    Richard,

    Mozilla has an email tool Thunderbird which has begun doing this very thing. You can add your RSS feeds, News groups, multi email account and so on. All the info is organized in a clean fasion and you can use the search to dig deeper and faster.

    I use Thunderbird for my personal email at home. I think it’s great.

    But you are absolutly right about the Information Management application. Businesses are adopting these new technologies, slowly but none the less.

    It also depends on the business. Banks and financial institutions tend to move into new technology first, followed by the others who don’t need the new tech until it’s about 4 to 5 years old. I work for a manufacturing company and we are just getting into .Net tech, and our Intranet is only 2 years old – I built the dam thing and I struggled to get them to use new technology.

    So even though this is all very true, how do you convince other types of businesses that they should begin utilizing all these great outlets of information?

  2. Richard Reply

    Hey Brad.

    Yeah, I’ve used Thunderbird before, but as with so many of the applications out there it doesn’t do everything, so it’s not a true Information Aggregator.

    Interesting you think Financials are the quickest to take on new technology. We’re not (I work for a very large Financial Organisation), and we really have fallen behind the times now. My role is about innovation with existing learning systems and new, as well as the external marketplace, and we’re way behind. Not only that we’re scared of new technology and change.

    Once we had the largest PC based virtual classroom\web collaboration system in Europe at one time and it was used to superb effect, great praise, and huge cost reductions. Now it’s decommissioned and we haven’t replaced it.

    I’m struggling to get our organisation to look at Blogs, Corporate Wikis, Social Networking, even Discussion Boards.

    I think e-learning organisations are much faster than the Financials.

  3. Brian Schneeberg Reply

    Hi Richard,

    I’d be interested to get your take on the “personal intelligence agent” that I am developing called Mentations over at http://www.mentations.com. While perhaps not your *ideal* information aggregator, I think it does go a long way towards helping you monitor whether you are current with the things that matter to you including feeds, interests, and friends. Any feedback/ideas for improvement would be greatly appreciated! While help documentation is sparse currently, right-click on things to see what options you have.

    Regards,

    Brian

    P.S. – You might also want to check out various “sidebar” software that is out there including http://www.desktopsidebar.com and http://desktop.google.com. Fyi, the main difference between them and me is that Mentations is much more pictorially-oriented (i.e., dashboard format).

  4. Richard Reply

    Hey Brian, had a look at the site and I am confused, but I’ll download it and give it a go.

    Sidebars just don’t do it for me either, they don’t address the organisational requirements I have from a tool like this.

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