Taxonomy experts presume to teach FCC something about communication

By Andy Oram
September 21, 2009

I'm all in favor of the current call to redesign the web site of the Federal Communications Commission, one of the most notoriously difficult sites to navigate among well-known, frequently visited organizations. I myself have thrown up my hands several times after trying to find my way through the FCC's pages. A docket number will give you the key to information about a particular case, but without that, going on the site is like entering the Piney Woods of New Jersey without a compass.

It was gratifying to see the FCC receive an offer of help from the Sunlight Foundation, a fabulous organization with the loftiest public interest goals at heart. Sunlight Foundation is crowdsourcing the reorganization by asking people to enter and organize terms that apply to the FCC's content, a common exercise in taxonomy known as "card sorting."

I mentioned this effort to a friend of mine, Marlene Rockmore, who has several decades of experience in taxonomy, even predating the Web. In her turn, she showed the idea to Joseph A. Busch, a leader in the field and Principal of the consulting firm Taxonomy Strategies. They were not so thrilled.

I highly recommend Joseph's blog on the topic. It's not only a stirring defense of the noble art of taxonomy, but takes an interesting look at a broader issue under constant discussion these days: the relationship between expertise and grassroots contributions.

During my travels and travails on the FCC site, I got the impression that several different pressures contribute to its difficulty:

  • The sheer volume of information, along with its storage in a variety of formats, most of them unstructured and hard to search. DOC and PDF files mingle with HTML pages.
  • The variety of activities tasked to the FCC. Consumers curious about the pace of digital TV conversion mingle with children's programming advocates, entrepreneurs trying to find out the parameters of cable competition, and electrical engineers trying to determine the rules for spectrum use.
  • The ambiguity of terminology that results from the previous variety of topics. For instance, "programming" means something totally different for television producers and Internet advocates. This consideration is particularly relevant from the standpoint of taxonomy and ontology.
  • An abstract site organization based on the role of a document within the FCC rather than the topics people come looking for. The goal of the proposed reorganization is to address this problem, and at its base, of course, it is also a matter of taxonomy.

The Sunlight Labs initiative looks like a good thing to do after a small group of experts do some preliminary work to determine basic structures and purposes for the FCC site. The development will be an interesting case study to watch.

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