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Personal Toolkit: Context for non-text

This article appears in the issue May 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 5]


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By Steve Barth

Quick, connect actor Kevin Bacon to personal knowledge management in six steps or less. Hmm …

In 1995, Brian Turtle, Craig Fass and Mike Gianelli get snowed in somewhere in Pennsylvania. Stuck watching "Footloose" on TV, they invent a game that says you can link Bacon to anyone else in Hollywood based on whom they have starred with. The game becomes a cult phenomenon because it works for anyone except Bacon himself, who can’t remember half the movies he’s starred in.

The game’s premise is an example of the “Small Worlds” theory developed in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram, which posited there are no more than “six degrees of separation” between any two people in America.

I have never met Bacon, but when I was in high school I worked at a camera store frequented by Hollywood types such as Paul Henreid ("Casablanca"), Lorne Greene ("Bonanza") and Bob Dylan ("The Last Waltz"). I looked all three up on the University of Virginia's "Oracle of Bacon" (cs.virginia.edu/oracle) and unlikely as it may sound, each had “Bacon Numbers” of only 2. That means my Bacon Number is 3.

A few years ago, Cornell grad student Duncan Watts, wondering why crickets can harmonize, creates computer models that not only validate Milgrams small-world effect on human relationships, but suggest that aspects of the phenomenon also explain why the human cortex can perform so many tasks with so little wiring, why the global economy is so susceptible to regional trends, and why I just got the flu even though everyone I know got a flu shot this year.

You think you know where I’m going with this, but you’re wrong. This is not a column about your social network, which is the natural application of this perspective. But what’s true about the relationships between your human contacts is also true about the artifacts of your knowledge work.

Mapping artifacts of ideas and information

Developed by a company that specializes in serving graphic artists, Creo’s Six Degrees ($149) is a desktop application that works for either Windows 2000/XP or Macintosh OSX and connects to Microsoft Outlook or Entourage to map the relationships between your messages, files and contacts.

Like other products, Six Degrees crawls your system after installation, automatically creating and maintaining a database of links to everything. But unlike tools that index material based on the content of data, documents and messages, Six Degrees works from the context. That’s because graphic artists work with a lot of files that don’t have text content to index.

Six Degrees bases its structure on file names, folder locations, e-mail threads and contacts, deriving relationships between items based on their names and locations. Select a document or message and Six Degrees shows you related items. Select an invoice and see who you e-mailed it to. Select an image file and see the message to which it was attached.

Those relationships are presented in a floating toolbar called the Legend. You can open documents or send e-mail from there, or use it to navigate through the material associated with a given project. A Properties function displays hierarchy that lets you see where your files and messages are located.

Center on any artifact and see the people who have touched it. Six Degrees maps that human network based on the flow of threaded e-mails and who is listed in primary, copied or from forwarded address fields.

For example, if you create an e-mail message with a file attached to send to a colleague, Six Degrees assumes that the message, file and recipient are connected. So the next time you open the same document or image file, the Legend lists any related messages or people.

It’s a powerful concept delivered through an elegant interface. But it works best if you and your organization uses e-mail to drive workflow within and across organizational boundaries. It would be less than ideal for researchers who might capture ideas and information long before they know what project it will be valuable for and need intelligent scanning of content to identify the relevance.

Ethereal redemption

A few months ago, I chronicled my angst over trying to link several devices via Bluetooth personal area network technology. As it turned out, my SonyEricsson T68 phone, my HP Jornada PDA and the Socket Bluetooth modules were all working perfectly. The problem was with my former wireless carrier, Cingular. It wasn’t until after a half-dozen support techs assured me that it “should work” that I found one that authoritatively announced the carrier did not support BT data services. T-Mobile has proven much more competent. I was immediately able to use my phone as a dial-up modem for my PDA via wireless connections (wireless between the devices, not just over the phone’s wireless national network) to check mail and surf the Web via GSM speeds. A call to tech support quickly set me up to use the faster GPRS protocol.

Steve Barth (global-insight.com) writes and speaks frequently about personal KM, e-mail barth.pkm@global-insight.com. He will teach his PKM workshop at InfoToday 2003 New York May 9.


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