Collectively (Collaboratively?) Defining Context

I’m engaging in what seems like an unending exercise in shuffling and reorganizing all of the intelligence and insights that live in various PDFs and such all in my electronic and analog libraries. I have no idea what the most effective way to organize the stuff is — I’ve tried knowledge management tools and practices. (DevonThink is the current. If any one has any insights on the best way to use that puppy, or what their best practices are, I’d be interested in hearing..) I think I’m stuck creating a variety of bibliographic blobs in various places.

Anyway. I was moving a PDF off my desktop and thought I’d capture a few insights. The paper is Collectively Defining Context in a Mobile, Networked Computing Environment by Burrell and Gay. (See also my budding wikiography. It reaches back into the early 1990s when many people were hopped up on context. Context was the CHI meme-du-jour. Context..mmmmmm..makes me dream of the crunch of a triangle of crispy waffle, smothered in syrup and butter..

The research plan was to give a number of students mobile computing devices that allowed them to leave notes (what the locative media tribe, including myself, loftily calls spatial annotation — notes sounds like something you mean to do, but never get around to, or immediately sounds way too laborious) that are associated with their identity and their location. That was the context. The other side of the story is social navigation which in this paper means “the process of using cues from other people to help you find information and potentially to more fully understand what it is you have found.” That’s not breaking through the cobwebs here, but further along I found a tasty nugget — “Graffiti’s social navigation capabilities allowed users to collectively drive the use of the system. This is one of the benefits of social navigation defined as social affordance where the behavior of users suggests ways of using the system to other users.”

There are also content creation problems. Give someone a blank notebook and they clutch up. Content creation is friggin’ hard, hard, hard.

Graffiti was designed to support direct social navigation. This means that users had to make an effort to contribute content to the system. This proved to be one of the greatest barriers to the usefulness of the system. In survey responses many users commented that they had, ‘nothing useful to say,’ or had ‘no reason to [post a note].’ Users also commented that they didn’t check for notes on Graffiti because ‘others weren’t using it’ and because ‘messages were of little value.’ ..A possible solution is to use indirect, aggregated user behavior information for social navigation, rather than relying totally on user contributions..We envision a system that allows users to see where their friends or coworkers are and where they’ve been on campus to help with coordinating activities. The benefit of this is that users don’t have to do anything to contribute to the system besides using their laptops on the wireless network.

Why do I blog this? I enjoy the sidewise move toward looking at “context-aware” computing in the mobile idiom that moves away from the “expert-to-tourist” or “machine-to-user” scenario. It seems too no-brainer to script a tourist application or provide an expert map, for instance, of best routes, best restaurants, etc. I’d be very interested in what the possibilities are for collaborative mapping (different from this context), where the point-of-entry is clear and hopefully compelling for a specific authoring practice, such as — identifying possible locations for film shoots.

An aspect of this paper I enjoyed was the way it accepted that social use arose through an exploration of the frameworks’ capabilities. So, some interfaces are provided, presumably, and a few practice idioms (take notes while in this classroom, or over on this hill) and usage arises from the points of entry afforded by the design, without a whole lot of fuss, or assumptions about what precisely people will do.