Extreme Picklist Makeover

Last winter, the side airbags in my car deployed for no apparent reason. What does this have to do with taxonomy? Well, the subsequent struggle with both the insurance company and the car manufacturer sent me scrambling to the National Highway Safety Transportation Database (www.safercar.gov) to research spontaneous deployments of side curtain airbags when there was no visible damage to wheels, tires or undercarriage.

First, I love government information. Just today I used the U.S. Geological Service and checked information at the Bureau of Labor Statistics but the US Government has to learn how to makeover its picklists and 1.0 databases into an information architecture with usable taxonomies. These ugly ducklings need to become swans.

nhsta defects and recalls

nhsta defects and recalls

Here’s the problem. In a traditional database, every record has to be unique to avoid redundancy so when multiple reports are filed,  all reports are tied back to the original record.  Unfortunately, what happens is that the end-user, who is searching for information in a desperate moment of need such as after an accident, has to find that original record. The record I needed which described a research report about 498 similar complaints was filed in 2006 but was filed under the the original complaint (different year and model) which was a record created in 2003. To find the record that contained a research report filed 3 years after the original complaint, I had to use a year that was prior to the manufacturer of my car, and I was unable to search by the specific component failure as a keyword or phrase. I found the record by using a citation from a Google search where I found a news team investigation of a similar event in a different model. Even with the citation, I had to drill through multiple layers four queries deep to find the original record and I was unable to search by any keywords or topics.

How would taxonomy have helped? A taxonomy would have helped in 2 key ways. First, content management using a taxonomy provides multiple access points related to the same set of topics and issues. A faceted taxonomy would have provided a useful user interface that would have allowed me to alter my search strategy. Searching by model under the existing database design doomed my search to failure because the record I needed was filed under a different model and a different year. Second, the database would have been designed to consider multiple access points to content without sacrificing the benefits of relational database design. It would have simplified the query programming logic, but still allowed an efficient database design.   A good taxonomy design would make it easier to add new facets or terms as technology evolves to search across topics such as environmental issues and engine efficiency.

A quick 2-level redesign of the NHSTA interface might aid searching through a simpler page navigation such as

Vehicle Safety by type

  • Auto Safety
  • Bicycle Safety
  • Motorcycle Safety
  • Light Trucks
  • OffRoad
  • Tractor/Trailer

Driver and Occupant Safety

  • Child safety, car seats and restraints •
  • Teen drivers •
  • Older Population •
  • Population under 5’5”

Traffic Safety

  • Data by state
  • Pedestrian Safety
  • School Transportation Safety

Recalls, Defects, and Complaints

  • By manufacturer/model
  • By component

New Technologies

  • Fuel efficiency

Recent studies

  • Press Room
  • Fact Sheets

Redesigning picklists into taxonomies is not a difficult task for trained taxonomists and projects can be very cost-effective even in a tough economy. In my case, my search led to thousands of dollars of savings in insurance expenses. In other cases, getting good information quickly will help save lives. The hard part is pre-determining what the categories will be captured in the taxonomy, and how databases will be searched by endusers, but that’s why there are taxonomists who can do usability studies and research existing metadata such as insurance reports and consumer safety databases. The taxonomy can also be used to reindex databases through tools that support entity extraction where the taxonomy can be used to find synonymous terms.

After a weekend searching the NHSTA database, I was almost as eager to call the US Government to help provide an “extreme picklist makeover” to transform Web 1.0 picklists into a more searchable 2-level faceted taxonomy as I was to successfully resolve the issue with my vehicle manufacturer. I can’t imagine how anyone without some training or experience would have figured out the logic of the database and constructed a search strategy. By the way, I had a happy resolution with the manufacturer but I am still waiting for the NHSTA to respond to my complaint. One of the changes I am hoping for in the new administration is more attention to our neglected government databases which are in need of “extreme picklist makeovers.” Information has to be easier to find. In some cases, this improved access can save a life, if not thousands of dollars (as was my case).

– Marlene Rockmore

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Book Review: Organising Knowledge by Patrick Lambe

Although the interest in and applications of taxonomies has grown in recent years, there are still not many books on the subject. Most of the information on taxonomies currently resides in online discussion group archives, blogs, wikis, conference presentations, white papers and reports (the latter at quite a premium price), but not much yet in easily accessible books. A search on Amazon.com on “taxonomies” yields numerous books of specific taxonomies, but very few on the art of creating taxonomies in general. Even the “books” page on the Taxonomy Community of Practice Wikispace lists mostly books on information architecture, a classic book on classification theory, chapters of books on broader topics, and high-priced research reports. There is just one book listed with a focus on taxonomies: Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness by Patrick Lambe (Oxford, England: Chandos Publishing, 2007)

Indeed, as its title and subtitle suggest, taxonomies are presented within a broader view of how knowledge is organized. The book is neither a simple “how to” book, nor a scholarly treatment of the subject, but in fact combines both: practical advice on how to create taxonomies along with thoroughness in covering the field of knowledge organization and analysis of various ideas and previous literature on the subject, with many footnotes and a lengthy bibliography.

The author, Patrick Lambe, is a Singapore-based consultant in the field of knowledge management who can base his ideas on his own business experience. Yet Lambe also has the academic credentials of an information scientist, a Master’s degree in Information Studies and Librarianship and experience teaching as an adjunct professor. Thus, he aptly bridges both sides of taxonomies, the traditional library science side and the newer corporate knowledge management side, although it is the latter that is the subject of this book. What I appreciate in this book is that Lambe writes based on both his research and his experience, and based on these he has developed a number of his own ideas.

While common definitions of taxonomies often limit them to hierarchies, Lambe prefers a broader definition. The forms of taxonomies that Lambe presents, along with a detailed explanation for each, are: lists, trees, hierarchies, polyhierarchies, matrices, facets, and system maps. Stretching the definition and boundaries of what taxonomies are and can do is a central theme of Organising Knowledge. Lambe states: “Taken together, it becomes clear that taxonomy work holds a wider range of application and use than simply as a tool of information retrieval.” (p. 95) .

Organising Knowledge presents a number of real world examples, scenarios, and case studies of the application of taxonomies in their broadest sense. These include implementations by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Unilever, and Club Med. These examples illustrate the wide range of uses for taxonomies. Among business activities, Lambe says that taxonomies can support the areas of risk recognition and response, cost control, customer and market management, and innovation.

Lambe does not simply describe taxonomies and their use. In this in-depth book he discusses their varied roles, how they are understood, and trends in their implementation. He describes how different kinds of taxonomies can either (1) structure and organize (both things and processes), (2) establish common ground, (3) span boundaries between groups, (4) help in sense-making, or (5) aid in the discovery of risk and opportunity.

Several later chapters turn to the practical steps of preparing, designing, and implementing a taxonomy project. Lambe breaks out the process into ten steps, the first six of which are all still part of the preparation stage. Among the topics presented in the preparation phase are taking technology into consideration and communicating well with the taxonomy sponsor and stakeholders. While it is appreciated that technology/computer systems are mentioned, I would have liked to learn more about this. It becomes quite evident that different situations require different approaches and different kinds of taxonomies, the different kinds of taxonomies that Lambe describes earlier in the book. My only point of disagreement here is the continual distinction between tree taxonomies and faceted taxonomies, since taxonomies often exhibit both characteristics at the same time.

The book is well written and relatively easy to follow, but it is not a “light” read. It has a number of helpful tables and diagrams. Particularly useful is the table (two and half pages long) comparing the uses and issues for each of the seven forms of taxonomies: lists, trees, hierarchies, polyhierarchies, matrices, facets, and system maps.

I highly recommend this book of great breadth and depth to anyone who works on taxonomies or is interested in working on taxonomies. The intended audience of the book is indeed limited to knowledge management and taxonomy professionals. Even those with considerable experience working in taxonomies will find this book informative and enlightening.

– Heather Hedden

This review is based on a longer book review written by Heather Hedden and published in Key Words, the Bulletin of the American Society for Indexing, Vol. 15, No. 4, October-December 2007, pp. 130-132.