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Personal Toolkit: Navigating information and ideas

By Steve Barth

The mounting volumes of data and documents we wade through daily in the course of our knowledge work require increasingly innovative ways to organize, navigate and retrieve information and ideas. Two of the more innovative products to come along in recent years were TheBrain and Inxight’s Hyperbolic Tree, both of which use a dynamic branching structure to put information into less linear context. Now consider two new products that take very different approaches to the presentation of related material.

Grok this

The most impressive of these is Groxis’ Grokker, in its second beta release in February ($100). With a product named for the ubiquitous verb in Robert Heinlein’s "Stranger in a Strange Land," Groxis is backed by Smith & Hawken co-founder and new economy guru Paul Hawken and supported by a stellar cast of advisors from John Seely Brown to Peter Senge.

Grokker is advertised as a tool for mapping and organizing information to facilitate navigation and browsing, filtering or sorting, saving and bookmarking, or sharing your discoveries with others. Grokker is not a search utility itself. “You are getting the mapping device, not the landscape,” notes the company.

But it’s how Grokker displays those results, best illustrated by a screenshot, that is so unique. To say that the application assembles data and documents into what they call a “contextually relevant, graphical knowledge map” obscures the beauty of it. Grokker presents results as concentric clusters of shaded spheres, like so many brightly colored balls kept in the air by an invisible juggler, except that there are balls within balls within balls. The application can map thousands of files or URLs in those recursive clusters. Hover the cursor over one and see a text label for the category or file, but to more completely grok the gestalt, size, shape, color and proximity are some of the other ways attributes are marked. Users can zoom in and out to see the big picture or granular detail.

Grokker currently maps your own PC’s folders and files or the results retrieved through third-party sources such as Northern Light, the Open Directory Project or Amazon.com. Future plug-ins are promised for libraries, news organizations, public databases, movie sites, etc. Groxis also will release its API for software developers to write their own plug-ins. It will come in standard, professional and enterprise versions.

Grokker’s advantage is that it lets a user drink in aggregated information on many different visual levels. Its drawback, at least for the time being, is that it is a slower way to navigate than most of us are used to. Perhaps that would change dramatically with practice.

River of time

Developed by Yale computer scientist and philosopher David Gelernter, Mirror Worlds Technologies’ Scopeware Vision , released in February, lets users peruse indexed drives with related materials presented in chronological streams of documents, images and messages. Based on an enterprise product that has been available since 2001, the new personal versions come in three products: a version with banner advertising is free; Vision Personal ($30) searches a single drive; Vision Professional ($80) adds access to shared networks.

Vision is meant to leverage four key aspects of human recollection: time, type, look and essence. Based on keyword searches, each hit displays thumbnails and summaries as well as document names, types and creation dates in a simple and visually appealing interface.

“MWT's philosophy is based on the premise that information should be woven into a flowing narrative stream with a past, present and future,” explains the product literature. “Information should mirror the structure of life, not the structure of computers.”

As visually appealing as it is, I’m not sure the results are really much more useful than if I date-sorted the results from a more sophisticated personal search tool, then browsed the results with the file viewer included in many of those applications.So far, very few tools for personal knowledge management have been offered for any Mac operating systems. It’s great to see that Grokker has been developed for both Mac and Windows platforms.

Cable news

Mobile knowledge work is fraught with petty burdens and perils. On the way up to Victoria, B.C., to visit the new KM program at Royal Roads University, my locked and checked suitcase was rifled by security. I understand the necessity and nothing was missing, but I worry about the second shaving kit I typically carry with hundreds of dollars worth of peripherals and adapters. So I’m reducing the weight and clutter of these extras to fit in my briefcase instead. Some discoveries:

A kind of Swiss Army cable, RoadWired’s AutoRetract Network/ISDN Cord ($33,), unwinds 7 feet of heavy-duty Ethernet cable, but includes adapters for standard phone line modems. The cord, adapters and extenders all fit into a case the size of a deck of cards.

Dazzle’s PC Card 4 in 1 Adapter ($50) that turns the PCMCIA slot of my laptop into a high-speed digital transfer port that eliminates the need to carry separate cables for my voice recorder, MP3 player and digital camera. It accepts Memory Stick, MultiMedia, Secure Digital and SmartMedia cards.

Worrying whether colleagues’ laptops will have floppy, zip of CD drives, I often carry two or more types in my suitcase. But a new breed of relatively inexpensive flash memory drives—dubbed “thumb drives” for their size—from suppliers such as Trek plug into any computer with a USB port to transfer or back up as much as 512MB or 1GB of data. Windows and Mac operating systems (except 98) read the devices as a lettered drive without requiring separate drivers. That eliminates pounds of drives, cables, power adapters and the packing to keep them from damaging each other.

Steve Barth (global-insight.com) writes and speaks frequently about personal KM. Steve will teach his PKM workshop at InfoToday 2003 New York in May

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