ASIS Midyear '98 Proceedings

Collaboration Across Boundaries:
Theories, Strategies, and Technology

Design for Collaboration in
Networked Information Retrieval

Robert J. Sandusky, Kevin R. Powell,
and Annette C. Feng

CANIS - Community Systems Laboratory
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
National Center for Supercomputing Applications
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

 

Abstract

The digital library has emerged as a result of advances in computing and information systems technologies. It is a direct response to the needs of users who demand access to a growing amount of information. Digital libraries provide an important benefit over traditional libraries by reducing the barriers of time and place. Access to services is enabled regardless of when and where the users are located as long as they are able to establish network connections between their host systems and the digital library. Digital libraries address the same basic needs as their traditional counterparts, which include searching and accessing collections of information. However, the traditional library also serves as a setting for social interaction, a dimension of use that developers of digital libraries have largely ignored until now. This paper describes a new effort within an established digital library research program to address concerns about the loss of social interaction within the larger, more complex digital libraries and networked information systems now being developed. The Interspace Prototype, an example of a complex networked information system, is currently under development at the University of Illinois. This paper describes one of the Interspace Prototype's sub-components, the Interspace Collaborative Environment, which will provide direct support for community, collaboration, and communication.

 

INTRODUCTION

Digital libraries, through the nature of the network technology that supports their construction, relax the constraints of time, place, and format associated with traditional libraries. Access to services is enabled regardless of when and where the users are located as long as they are able to establish network connections between their host systems and the digital library.

The digital libraries and networked information systems being built now, whatever their unique capabilities, are usually designed with the single user in mind. It is assumed that users work in isolation - that is, they have no awareness of other users and what those other users are doing, and are isolated from their actions. However, work is a highly collaborative, social process in which individuals and groups interact (Lave & Wenger, 1991). A more reasonable design assumption would be that people who are working together toward a common goal would like to maximize the level and quality of their shared resources in order to enhance their ability to collaborate.

Empirical research indicates that there are important social aspects related to the use of traditional library collections and services (Twidale, Nichols, & Paice, 1997; Procter et al., 1997; Nardi & O'Day, 1996). Appropriate interpersonal, socially based mechanisms for support of community, collaboration, and communication are needed in order to compensate for the loss of direct face-to-face interaction that is likely to occur as complex networked information systems and repositories of digital materials become increasingly common.

Consider the following scenario. A group of six researchers is beginning to design a new information system and conduct literature searches in many collections known to them in order to help identify the state of the art in their area of interest. It might be useful to be able to split this task among the six researchers, along their own special skills, or perhaps be able to hand off the task between the six researchers in a serial fashion. Alternatively, it may be best for the six researchers to move effortlessly between modes - sometimes working in a tightly coupled manner and sometimes working independently. Current networked information systems do not support the direct sharing of and interaction that would support these styles of work.

The paper first presents background information, starting with a brief overview of the field of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). Some of the literature raising concerns about the ways in which digital libraries are likely to reduce the amount of contact between users, librarians, and other people is reviewed. Research in library and information science related to collaboration and community building is identified. The background information concludes with a brief overview of the Interspace Prototype and its current status. The remainder of the paper describes the Interspace Collaboration Environment (ICE) currently under development.

 

BACKGROUND

CSCW -- a working definition

Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) is a multi-disciplinary field whose mission is to support interaction between people, using the computer as the enabling technology. Researchers from fields such as computer science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and library and information science seek to understand the nature of work and the complexities of human interaction for the express purpose of building computer-based systems which support and enhance inter-personal activities. These systems are generally called groupware.

The roots of CSCW reach back to visionaries like Vannevar Bush (1945) and Douglas Engelbart (1963), but its emergence as an independently-recognized field of research did not occur until the mid-1980s when innovations in network and personal computing technologies had advanced to the point which made building and deploying multi-user applications a practical undertaking [1].

Groupware

Groupware is software that supports group interaction and collaboration. By definition, interaction involves a two-way (or N-way) flow of information, and collaboration centers around a set of shared goals. In order for groupware to be successful it must (1) make its users aware of being participants within a collaborative effort, (2) provide cues regarding the actions and their effects taken by the other participants, (3) enable communication between the participants, and (4) allow the sharing of resources. Meeting these conditions is necessary, but not sufficient.

Although CSCW enjoys widespread popularity and acceptance as a viable area of research, it has not had much success with the end-user community. Addressing the needs of the community, in addition to those of the individual, is what distinguishes groupware, or collaborative systems, from other kinds of software, and is precisely what makes designing groupware applications a difficult task. Evaluation of actual CSCW systems that have failed has sensitized researchers and developers to the importance of basing their system designs on the appropriate models of work and human behavior (Robinson, 1991). More importantly, perhaps, groupware developers must take into account the context within which their systems will be used. Their systems must be acceptable to an established community, which has existing methods for accomplishing tasks, many of which defy prescription. Iterative rounds of field work, prototyping, and evaluative testing, in situ, referred to as participatory design, is a common development method used to build CSCW applications (Bowker, Star, Turner, & Gasser, 1997).

Current CSCW research includes looking at ways to (1) build awareness features into applications, (2) increase the user tailorability of virtual work environments, and (3) design systems which support collaboration across different and perhaps independent domains. Research being done in CSCW promises to offer unique insights and solutions to help us reach our design goals for the Interspace Collaborative Environment.

A commonly used taxonomy attempts to place technologies along two dimensions, time and place (Figure 1) (Grudin, 1994). Group Support Systems (or Group Decision Support Systems) are an example of groupware systems that support people working together in the same location at the same time. These systems typically are used to support anonymous brainstorming, anonymous voting on issues, rating of ideas, and generating statistical summaries during meetings. A Post-It Note is an example of a technology that supports communication at different times in the same place. Electronic mail (Email) is an example of an application that is typically used by people in different places, at different times. Video conferencing is most often used to link remotely located people at the same time. Network news (Internet news groups) is an example of computer bulletin boards that usually support communication at different times between participants at multiple remote locations [2]. CSCW applications to support these many patterns of use have been designed, built and tested. The time dimension is most often used to distinguish among types of CSCW systems, and most systems are designed to support either synchronous or asynchronous collaboration.

Interspace -- overview and architecture

The Interspace is a direct descendent of two earlier community information systems, the Telesophy system (Schatz & Caplinger, 1989) and the Worm Community System (Schatz, 1992). Both Telesophy and the WCS were directly influenced by the work of Bush and Engelbart. These systems also have traits in common with mainstream CSCW applications. The Telesophy system was developed in the late 1980s as a prototype to demonstrate the feasibility of (1) assembling a distributed collection of multimedia objects as content, (2) adding connections between the objects as hyperlinks, and (3) embedding information in the objects, such as keywords and classification codes, to support browse and search within the system. Telesophy was envisioned as a tool for supporting the diverse information needs of some community of interest, like telecommunications engineers. The Worm Community System (WCS) extended the Telesophy system and was designed to support a community of molecular biologists performing research on the nematode worm C. Elegans. Both Telesophy and the WCS supported the creation of information objects by users as well as the ability to incorporate user created objects within the systems' indexing and classification systems. The WCS provided the ability to add information objects for either personal use, for use within specific groups of people, or for use by anyone with access to the WCS.

The Interspace Prototype (Figure 2), the latest generation system in this series, is being designed to scale along several dimensions, including medium, collection size, and domain. The services of the Interspace Prototype already process text collections and are being extended to handle image data. It is also desirable to support a range of collection sizes, from personal collections of several hundred or a few thousand documents to collections consisting of millions of abstracts (Nadis, 1996). Finally, the Interspace is being designed to include multiple knowledge domains including engineering, computer science, and medicine.

The goal of our work on the Interspace Collaborative Environment (ICE) is to provide strong, integrated support for communication, collaboration, and community building based upon both the experiences gained in designing Telesophy and the WCS as well as progress in other fields, particularly Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. The Interspace will support the development and evolution of communities by providing a collection of tools to support "sociotechnical synthesis" (Nardi & O'Day, 1996).

The Interspace Prototype is architecturally a multi-tiered system consisting of several parts that together will support community evolution. The Interspace incorporates several advanced information retrieval services (illustrated in the Service Layer shown in Figure 2). These include concept spaces, self-organizing maps, full-text retrieval, and keyword generators. Concept spaces (Chen & Lynch, 1992) are a limited form of thesauri. Their essential limitation is that they lack the broader term and narrower term structures provided by traditional subject thesauri such as INSPEC or MESH. Concept spaces are generated in two steps. First, concepts are extracted from each document in a collection (Bennett, forthcoming). Then the resulting list of concepts is transformed into a concept space by a statistical technique called co-occurrence analysis. This approach relies on the consistent usage of terms (concepts) in close proximity with other related terms. The algorithm in its simplest form counts the occurrences of terms in the context of other terms and then ranks them according the frequency of their co-occurrence. When computed over an entire corpus of related documents a list of terms and ranked related terms is produced. The related terms list is typically limited to about forty terms, for both reasons of computational complexity and end-user convenience. Hence, a limited subject thesaurus is constructed, limited in that related terms are extracted but the relationships between the terms (e.g., broader term, narrower term, synonym, etc.) are not identified.

Self-organizing maps (SOMs), as defined by Kohonen (1995), are generated through the use of a self-training neural network technique that produces two- and three-dimensional maps from a high-dimensionality input vector set. The input vector for the Interspace's SOMs is a document vector of all of the terms in the corpus encoded as binary values (1 if the term is present in the document, 0 if not). This produces a large, sparse vector which, through optimizations on Kohonen's base technique (Chen, Schuffels, & Orwig, 1996), can be computed on large collections on supercomputers. The resulting maps represent the input vector set by placing similar vectors adjacent to one another, spreading all vectors across the surface of the map. Documents which contain similar language, and by extension similar meaning, are therefore closer to other documents of similar meaning in the map.

Keyword generation in the Interspace system is an automatic analog to the subject keyword assignment done by humans in abstracting and indexing services (Chung, forthcoming). These traditional services have human indexers read and then assign representative terms to a document from an appropriate controlled vocabulary. The Interspace uses another neural network technique called Hopfield networks (Chen, Basu, & Ng, 1992) to automatically generate keywords for the document. The Hopfield network uses all the terms (concepts) present in the document to determine a derived set which describes the document. This process produces the best results when done interactively with the user guidance. Fully automatic assignment is possible but produces somewhat poorer results.

The Interspace is currently being implemented in the C++ and Smalltalk programming languages. C++ is being used to implement the computationally intensive elements of the prototype system (the concept space and SOM generators, and the keyword assignment service). Supercomputers are used to run the largest generation tasks (collections on the order of a million or more abstracts or documents is typical for these runs). Smalltalk is used to implement the user interface components and CORBA is used to communicate between the interface and the C++ based services.

CSCW and the Interspace

Some digital library researchers have concerns about possible deleterious effects of digital libraries upon library users, pointing to the emphasis on the development of basic technologies taken by many digital library projects like the NSF/NASA/ARPA Digital Libraries Initiative (Chien, 1997). The loss of opportunity for social interaction provided by physical libraries is one concern (Ackerman, 1994; Levy & Marshall, 1995; Twidale et al., 1997). Another is a perceived lack of attention by digital library designers to previous research into the interactions between information systems, organizations, and users, and the ways in which information is sought and used in context (Elliott & Kling, 1997).

Previous research has also shown that there are many challenges to designing usable information retrieval systems. Difficulties identified in the literature include use of Boolean logic in query formation, poor interface design, and idiosyncratic indexing procedures. As a result, most users find it difficult to operate information retrieval systems effectively. Borgman (1996) coined the term 'perpetual novice' to describe the skill state of many people using information retrieval systems. The perpetual novice comes to a particular information system infrequently, and has little opportunity to become as familiar with information finding systems as she does with other systems she might use daily, like electronic mail clients, word processors, etc. As use of information retrieval and other searching systems (e.g., advanced networked information systems and digital libraries) become more common, the opportunities for interaction, intervention, and guidance of the end user by skilled intermediaries are reduced.

Applying ideas from CSCW research is one of the ways in which both the isolating effects and complexities of networked information system technologies might be mitigated. Potential applications of CSCW in complex information systems include support for co-searching and co-browsing, support for bibliographic / usage instruction, support for synchronous remote reference services, and 'just-in-time' help giving.

CSCW applications in information science and library settings are relatively rare. Systems that have been built and evaluated include ARIADNE (Twidale et al., 1997), a collaborative browsing tool that enables the storage and retrieval of representations of OPAC search sessions in a semi-synchronous mode, a WWW based library collaboration space (Procter et al., 1997) based upon self-categorization theory which supports synchronous collaboration among system users, and CSCT (Computer-Supported Cooperative Training), a synchronous system to support groups seeking information from existing abstracting and indexing databases (Swigger & Hartness, 1996). Other relevant published reports focus on the analysis of information seeking and provide insights into the process that can be used to inform and guide the design and development of CSCW systems for information retrieval. Nardi and O'Day (1996) examined information seeking in corporate libraries and made recommendations about which tasks seemed most appropriate for support by computer systems and which tasks seemed most appropriately handled by human beings.

The Interspace Collaborative Environment described here attempts a more ambitious integration of collaborative support technologies within an advanced networked information system.

 

INTERSPACE COLLABORATIVE ENVIRONMENT DESIGN

The Interspace Collaborative Environment (ICE) provides facilities for supporting direct communication, collaboration, and community development among the users of the Interspace Prototype. The goal of this work is to provide support for a variety of collaborative modes along both the continua of time (synchronous and asynchronous collaboration) and place (local and remote).

The work on the Interspace Collaboration Environment is moving forward simultaneously in three areas. At the lowest layer, the Information Unit and User Interface Frameworks provide key functions for support of the other ICE layers. The ICE Collaboration Frameworks provide general support for asynchronous and synchronous collaboration. The ICE Applications layer provides the end-user services that enable collaborative access to the Interspace Prototype's services.

Information Unit (IU) and User Interface Frameworks

The Information Unit (IU) Framework is a distributed object model, which provides a rich set of low-level capabilities that can be performed upon information objects including versioning, linking, access control, indexing, and object embedding. Every object visible to users in ICE is a descendant or instance of an Information Unit (IU) object. An IU is the fundamental structural unit of all the objects in the system, including documents, indexing engines, data converters, etc. All IUs include support for three major abilities: to display itself, to link itself and to index itself. These three categories of functionality break down into a number of sub-components that will be described below.

Objects are displayed and interacted with in any number of ways. Objects are associated with one or more view IU objects that provide the means by which an object is represented on the interface and manipulated by the user. Any object can have multiple independent views associated with it. For example, an object containing numeric data might be represented by a one view showing the data in a tabular format and another view showing the data as a graph. Both views can be in use simultaneously by a single or multiple users. A mechanism exists for automatically updating the independent views of an IU when one view changes the underlying object.

Linking between IUs involves one or more IUs or sets of IUs being placed in the link list of an IU. The system provides a default list that is publicly readable and writeable. The object can also have protected sets of links as well. Links between objects are bi-directional and are represented as a link object. Linking an IU appears in many cases to the user as embedding the object inside another object.

Indexing and searching are closely related operations. IUs index themselves and this process in turn allows the IU to be searched. Several different levels and methods of searching exist, allowing for application of alternate indexing and search techniques depending on the nature of the data in question. In some cases it is appropriate to do a full text search (e.g., text documents) and in others a coordinate based search (e.g., two-dimensional maps) is more appropriate.

IU objects have a base set of properties associated with them, including ownership and accessibility. IUs can be named and always have a numeric ID associated with them. Names can be human readable but this is not a requirement. Additionally, IUs can have versions of themselves (i.e., older versions), and belong to one or more groups of related IUs.

The User Interface Framework is based upon a version the Morphic system written for Smalltalk (Smith, Maloney & Ungar, 1995). Morphic is a user interface system that supports direct manipulation of all interface components at run time. Users and programmers alike can change any element of an interface. The capabilities of the IU framework when combined with the Morphic User Interface framework makes it possible for ICE users to construct documents and other objects via composition. For example, a user can create a new document by dragging and then embedding new elements into a document or other object.

A general Collaborative User Interface Toolkit (CUIT, pronounced "cute") is also being developed within this layer to provide low level synchronous mode services to upper layers of the ICE. Synchronous collaboration will take place in a large shared virtual workspace (see Figure 3). Individual users will have independent, smaller views within this larger shared workspace. Users can initiate collaboration by overlapping their views onto the same underlying region of the overall virtual workspace. Additionally, users may invoke shared video and audio tools independent of location in the overall shared space. Finally, any number of these virtual spaces can be created, each with its own content and users.

Collaboration Frameworks

The goal of the ICE is to support users working in large, complex, open systems. These environments are distributed and heterogeneous in nature with information sources and user communities that may span domain and organizational boundaries. A unified and cohesive model of the environment is necessary in order to support communities of users grounded in a variety of domains and with diversified sets of interests. Abstracting out the common features as a basis for the model of a collaborative information environment minimizes the barriers that typically exist between the users and each other, and between the users and the environment.

A three-dimensional model of collaboration is used, viewing the system as a collection of artifacts, agents, and actions. Artifacts provide a consistent and uniform model of all the various types of data and information that can occur within the system. The kinds of artifacts include documents, search criteria, user information, and system attributes. Agents provide a model of the participants within a system. They include users, clients, service providers, information sources, and so on. Actions model the tasks that can be performed within the bounds of the system. They include a range of operations that users (agents) can perform, from searching, to navigation within an information space, to setting up a joint meeting with other agents, and to modifying the system behavior or user interface attributes.

As an example of the kinds of things that are possible by presenting actions, or tasks, as manipulable resources, end users are able to modify existing task networks, or to compose new ones, in order to dynamically alter underlying system behavior in order to accommodate continuously changing needs. Given task networks as manipulable entities, users can share them with each other, participate in task networks even as they unfold, construct more complex tasks from lower-level tasks, or even replay a history of executed tasks.

The collaboration framework provides fundamental services such as process and session management, shared data and environments, user interface awareness features, user-interface coupling, inter-process communication protocols, and event management. The IU framework serves as the foundation for the collaboration infrastructure, providing capabilities such as object linking and security services. IUs are used to derive each of the three dimensions of the system, thus enabling treatment of artifacts, agents, and actions as available resources.

ICE Applications

The Interspace Collaboration Environment Applications layer (ICE-A) provides tools to support interaction between community members as well as tools to enable access to the Interspace Prototype's information repositories and services. Providing direct and robust support for interaction will allow users to work together within the Interspace Prototype in ways that are not possible in systems designed with the assumption that users should, or prefer to, work in 'single isolated user' mode. Several services are planned supporting both synchronous and asynchronous modes of collaboration. The specific applications include support for co-searching and co-browsing, provision of real-time interactive assistance between community members, support for collaborative creation and manipulation of information objects, and support for mutual awareness.

Co-searching and co-browsing are the terms given to situations in which two or more Interspace Prototype users work together to browse or search the Interspace (i.e., the collections, concept spaces, self organizing maps, etc.). The distinction between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration reflects the degree to which the interactions of the users are coupled. Co-searching in a synchronous mode implies that the session participants are supported by a WYSIWIS (what you see is what I see) style interface presentation, where each session participant has an identical view into one or more interface workspaces (see Figure 3). In synchronous co-searching, the session participants work in a tightly coupled manner. For example, members of a research group could perform collaborative real-time searches through the Interspace Prototype repositories using synchronous co-searching.

Research on information retrieval system usage (Borgman, 1996; Twidale et al., 1997) suggests that supporting interaction between the users of a system can support learning and help giving. For example, support for user assistance can be provided by allowing 'perpetual novice' users to contact 'expert' users (analogous to library patrons requesting help from librarians), allowing 'expert' users to interact (analogous to consultation between experts), or allowing 'novices' to interact (analogous to library patrons seeking help from one another). The ICE will support search and browsing for people in the community in addition to searching for information.

In addition to searching, browsing, and learning, collaborative support will also be provided for the creation and manipulation of new information objects, an essential feature of the Interspace Prototype. These objects, based on the IU framework described earlier, may represent artifacts, activities, or agents. The applications will allow users to define new forms of information objects (that is, new types of objects), create new instances of existing types of objects, or extend existing information objects (that is, add instance variables to an existing type of information object) in real time. Users will also be able to define how information objects link to each other, what kinds of indexing and classification services should be applied to the information objects created, with whom information objects are to be shared, and then store the information objects in the persistent object database. Users will also be able to return, by searching or browsing, to previous sessions, searches and search sets.

The initial ICE-A offering will provide users with awareness of the presence and activities of other members within the Interspace Prototype through the use of visible, shared cursors and other techniques. Previous work in CSCW has shown that systems which rely only upon the cues provided by the CSCW system itself are difficult to use (Robinson, 1991), leading to both problems in coordination and user frustration with the system. Text based coordination via a 'chat' facility will be provided as one integrated coordination channel. The ICE-A layer will also incorporate access to audio and video side channels for use by participants in coordinating / articulating their interaction.

Asynchronous co-searching (or co-browsing) involves the automatic storage and indexing of information objects, which represent session and search activities of Interspace Prototype users. Subsequent searchers then may choose to search not only the document repositories but also the repository of previous sessions and searches. In this way, collaboration across time is supported. Asynchronous co-searching enables the members of a research group to create persistent search and session history objects, which can be shared serially by other group members. Alternatively, persistent search and session histories can become the focal objects of a later synchronous collaborative session.

The stored representations of sessions and searches can also be processed by the Interspace Prototype services, resulting in concept spaces and self organizing maps which represent the usage of the collections and systems in contrast to the contents of the collections. This would, for example, be useful for either managing the collection of respositories or in evaluating usage of the Interspace Prototype.

 

SUMMARY

The Interspace Collaboration Environment will provide direct support for community, collaboration, and communication by providing Interspace Prototype users with a shared, community oriented workspace. The ICE layers will provide (1) a rich distributed object model, (2) a flexible, community enabled user interface framework, (3) a rich framework for support of collaborative activity, and (4) end-user applications. ICE applications will be built to support co-searching, co-browsing, provision of real-time interactive assistance, and support for collaborative creation and manipulation of complex information objects. In addition, the ICE will also provide integrated access to the Interspace Prototype's advanced information retrieval services: automatic keyword generators, concept spaces, and self-organizing maps.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This research is supported in part by the NSF/ARPA/NASA Digital Library Initiative under contract number NSF 93-141 DLI.

 

NOTES

1. A useful collection of papers on CSCW can be found in (Baecker, 1993).

2. The placement of any of these technologies or types of work on a pair of continua is, of course, open to debate. For example, email can, in addition to its typical remote / asynchronous mode of use, provide near-real-time text conferencing ability among members of a group who can be either co-located or remotely located. This kind of two-dimensional arrangement does, however, provide a way to differentiate between the capabilities and orientations of different types of CSCW systems.

 

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Paper presented at the 1998 midyear meeting of the Association for Information Science, May 17-20, 1998, Orlando, Florida.


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