Broadbanding Information

I've been holding onto this idea for a while now. Have decided to jot it down here in the hope of some feedback.

About 2 years ago I was watching a weather report on TV when I realised just how under appreciated such a presentation is. If you are a keen watcher of TV News Weather then you're probably aware that such presentations have developed many new methods over the past 10 years, including loud and stupid surfer guys somehow getting the job, naked weather, and the good old, tried-and-true, Mike Bailey method...

When I watch Mike, I get transported to a time when I was about 8. Sitting next to my grandad in a homely museum of a lounge room filled with the faint smell of pipe tobacco. Both of us warming our feet by the heater, grandad in his chair having his evening beer, me in mine having my apple juice, we both sharing beer nuts. It was a time when I could pretend to watch the evening news with grandad. It was the weather I looked forward to. The only thing I understood just a little, the only thing I could share with grandad in this evening ritual.

But actually, meteorological information can be quite complex, the craziness behind the Bureau's website is testament to that! TV News Weather presenters like Mike have managed to take all that complexity and dish it up to us in a nightly couple of minutes of calm and informative audio visual information. Add the smell of pipe tobacco and the scene is complete for me.

2 years ago, I asked myself the question, what is the method behind this TV News Weather? What is it that makes it comprehendible to an 8 year old, and at the same time informative to a 60 year old. I wanted to find a template that could be applied to all information so that 8 year olds could comprehend and 60 year olds could consider. I came up with broadbanding information.

I could see that the news weather had a somewhat unintentional format in its delivery. The information was being served up in layers, with the iconic, graphically enhanced and dramatically simplified information being presented first. A map of Australia, little pictures of suns, clouds, rain clouds and thunder clouds, numbers - high numbers hot, low numbers cold. Then the map would turn into a photo, with clouds all over it, Mike would point and weave the direction of the cloud movements, and finally the pressure systems, fronts and wind directions. These 3 layers each hold information, with the first layer being comprehendible to an 8 year old. The second layer adds value to the first, and leads into the third layer. The third and final layer is complex and detailed, but with practice and perhaps a layer in between layer 2 and 3, the viewer will learn how to consider it. All layers together give an over all picture.

It was also 2 years ago that some friends of mine where completing PHDs. They were painfully going through the edit and rewrite stages before their peer review. Towards the end of their gruelling process, the information that my friends were about to 'publish' was finally beyond comprehension to the public. Their papers had been reworked into such a verbose and specific language that only specialist in their field could consider it.

I put my weather analogy to one of my friends who was writing on research he and his colleagues had done looking at the long term effects that computer screens may have on eye sight. With a little massaging of the analogy he began to see that what I was trying to get out of him was a way in which he could write his paper in layers of complexity, for various levels of reading and cognitive abilities. I suggested that the first layer might be a children's book, the second maybe a text for young people, the third an article for general readership, and the forth an expert reading for specialists. I suggested that many of the initial drafts and concept sketches could be used to develop each layer, but the important thing is that each layer should offer as seamless as possible transition into the next.

He saw the concept, and appreciated the worth of such an effort, but disappointingly considered that it would be a considerable effort on his part, and that his research would not be interesting to anyone but specialists in his field!

I've sat on the idea since then, trying it out with different people in academia, testing their responses and getting a general feeling for how possible the idea is. Unfortunately almost every one politely sees the idea as worthy, and even go so far as to agree that it would be possible, but then finish by saying that it would require a complete overhaul of the current way of doing things, such as the peer review process...

Enter blogging. A renaissance in the democratisation of communications where the average person can now both read and write to the internet easily and reasonably freely. An era where everyone can develop an internet identity, and continue developing that identity, reshaping it, re emerging it over time. Blogging will eventually challenge the academic peer review process, and what is considered publishing. It is already disrupting the journalistic traditions, research will be next.

Enter wikis. The re emergence of the Internet's original intent. The ability to collaborate in the development of information, where the only constant is change. A new form of writing where everyone and no one can be authors. Wikipedia is the best example of a successful collaborative writing space that connects multiple authors for the continual co development of encyclopaedic information resources. Wikispaces makes such a co-authoring relationship possible to anyone online.

Broadbanding information is possible through wikis. Consider these scenarios.
  1. A school group is given an assignment on Australian Birds. A quick search of wikipedia turns up very little information on Australian birds. The school group is encouraged to start the wikipedia entry. The teacher contacts the Australian Birds Society and gains support from its members to contribute edits. The school group is tasked with editing the experts contributions into readable language, the experts are encouraged to start developing a second layer of detailed information, and so on...
  2. A group of hobbyists start a wiki on a topic with broadband information in mind. They start writing in their own discourse, and set up draft pages for other levels of readership. Then they invite writers from the various levels of reading and writing to interpret their content and develop pages for their own readership level. These levels might include younger readers, ESL readers, academic experts, even other languages...
Collaborative writing enabled through wiki technology makes it possible to broadband information. Working relationships can be set up between people of varying experience and ability with the common goal of writing content that is accessible and usable to all.

In many ways it is already happening. Imagine if ThinkQuest met WikiPedia or WikiSpaces

Photo by Dave Morris

Now I want to suggest a way software developers could contribute to this idea.

It involves the word processing/language tools department - thesaurus and spell check to be exact. As I write this post, above the box in which I am typing are a number of formatting tools I can use. Bold, italic, colour, hyperlink... then there's the spell checker. I couldn't get by without that little god send. Without it I would have to first type this up in OpenOfficeText, spell check it, then copy it over. But Blogger has managed to offer me this powerful feature right here, saving me the hassle (even suggesting to me that I may not need a text editor installed on my computer anymore...). I want them to take it a step further. And not just Blogger either. Everyone offering a WYSIWYG editor should take this idea:

Basically, it is a spell checker split into 3 levels. Each level represents a level of English reading such as: 1 = primary, E as a second language, etc. 2 = secondary, popular terms and expressions, SMS, etc. 3 = tertiary, expert level, big words, academic. When I hit the spell check button, it would ask me what level I want to check at. If I want my writing (or just a selection within it) to be broadly readable, then I'd select 1. If I knew that my writing was specialised, and almost impossible to simplify, I'd give 1 or 2 a go, just to see, but would probably settle for 3 if they didn't work. Each level of spell check would simply have a predetermined list of words suitable to that readership level. If the words in the writing do not appear in that list, then they are simply presented as miss-spelled.

Now, that alone would be frustrating to people without the talent for writing in an accessible way. They might be so caught up in an academic level of expressing themselves that they simply cannot write it any other way. Simply presenting a big word as miss-spelt wouldn't really help. That's were the wikithesaurus part of this idea comes in to play.

Imagine if the wiktionary (the free dictionary) was broken up into these 3 broad categories. It wouldn't have to be apparent to everyday users, just some database setup perhaps. Contributors to the wiktionary could progressively develop the lists of words for the readership levels, and also link across the levels to suggest more complex or more simple words in a thesaurus type of way.

So now, when I clicked that spell checker, it would still first ask me what level I want to check at, but instead of presenting words not in that level's list as miss-spelt, it would call on wiktionay and recognise the word being used, then suggest other words more appropriate to the selected level. Not only progressive academics trying to reach their broader community would benefit, but people trying to improve their literacy as well - the school boy trying to make his essay read more 'expertly' uses the tool and gets guidance in a more useful way... or the Taiwanese kid trying to comprehend some verbose English text, runs it through the spell checker at a level 2 to get a better idea...

Photo byChung Wei

I realise this may be a big ask for our humble WYSIWYG editor. That's why I posted this idea to the OpenOffice Developer Mail List. But disappointingly I haven't had a response from anyone there yet, maybe it didn't get through. While it may be a challenge to set a WYSIWYG editor up to do this, it should be a piece of cake for a full blown desktop application. It would certainly secure OpenOffice as the better word processor that it already is.

So I hope some language tools programmer reads this some day, and lets me know were my idea falls short.

Thanks to Jock Grady for his valuable contributions to this idea

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.