Future Medium was engaged to develop a functional web application model that collected data and displayed resources and capabilities. The scope for functionality development essentially revolved around mapping users and projects to each other and encouraging collaborations.
The problem was twofold
- Firstly, create a collaborative environment whereby researchers and commercial entities would be motivated to interact and maintain up-to-date data.
- Secondly, solve the Holy Grail problem of creating an intelligent yet flexible suite of intellectual property that could actually map resources and capabilities to one another with the intent of realising commercial gains and research benefits.
This challenge would need to combine social networking with some very clever programming. We knew the project would fail if we could not provide value from day one. It had to do something useful the instant it was turned on.
This, like any other social networking project, needed the community to be seeded. This presented a marketing challenge and could only be met with a carrot and stick approach. Meanwhile the initial load on the community needed to be small enough that the barriers to building a useful dataset were small.
Technology challenges aside, we knew our biggest challenge would be behavioural barriers in the user groups. The environment was driven by individuals of a sceptical and rational mindset and therefore collaboration would be hard to force. We knew we would be measured by how we dealt with the following:
- Ease of use
- Creating sustainable value
- Managing sensitivity protocols (who gets what) - with restricted contact levels
In order to define a productive application we assessed traditional offline resource mapping issues and then layered social networking concepts over these frameworks to resolve the resource mapping problems.
To this end we identified a best-practice paper covering offline resource mapping and incorporated the following topics into our application plan:
- How Resource Mapping Can Help
- The Mapping Process
- Analysing Community Resources
- Extracting an Action Plan for the community
- The human component of action plans
- Maintaining, sustaining, and evaluating mapping efforts
Our target 'community' consisted of various individuals and agencies in both sides of the commercialisation equation i.e. research and commercial entities. Our resource mapping focussed on identifying, aligning, and leveraging community assets and resources that could be used for building stronger communities.
The mapping process was refined down to a 4 stage process that involved varying levels of self-automation and human contribution. Identifying the human components that occurred offline was essential to the success of the project. We uncovered certain critical roles that would need to be facilitated in person by 'task force members'. The application was designed to trigger alerts to the task force and feed outcomes back into the application such that alerts were not recalculated.
Core functionality of the application was planned by specifying high-level use cases; mapping objectives to functional components, and identifying data units/labels, and measurement criteria for reporting. This process resulted in a scope of development consisting of a:
- User interface,
- Resource Management,
- Contacts Engine,
- Matching Engine,
- Visualtion tools, and
- Reporting Engine.
An audience profiling task uncovered 5 specific groups with individual needs and behavioural characteristics. All groups shared common triggers to elicit involvement with the application.
Numerous visualisation and application wireframes were produced and this culminated in a clickable prototype design that ensured our user interface designs were on track.
We investigated numerous social networking platforms and sought a turnkey environment upon which we could layer resource mapping and visualisation IP. Considering the flexibility required in the data model for resource definition we resolved to utilise a bespoke application framework.
The following high level functional requirements drove our initial understanding of requirements and our intended solution.
- Develop flexible ways of representing linkages between resources in the system with the ability to tag and annotate not only the resources themselves but the linkages between them
- Track temporal attributes of these linkages to understand how they change over time
- Develop a security model that encourages collaboration and sharing while giving groups the ability to hide things as desired
- Produce a ranking algorithm to increase the quality of search results
- Enable various ways to search, both manually and via intelligent agents that monitor new content on your behalf
- Provide the ability to visualise the data in various ways to assist in better utilisation of the data, as well as measuring the success of the system
- Be flexible enough to apply to different problem domains
We developed a domain model to support the following features:
- A freeform tagging system to capture tags written by an individual about another Resource.
- An indexing system to maintain a more complex model and weight tags based on a number of factors such as similarity to other tags and factors based on the tagging user's roles and networks.
- Weights for search queries to provide results based on more than just simple keyword matches
- Almost every entity in the system woudl therefore derive from a generic Resource object to allow entities to be linked in as many ways and to as many things as possible
- Almost everything was specified as a many-to-many relationship. The intention was to try and capture this via a generic ResourceLink entity which would describe the relation via a set of verbs such as 'employs', 'authors', 'funds' or 'attends'.
- Linkages would be tracked via a time component to allow mapping of changes over time
- Entities would never be deleted, only disabled, to allow historical reporting