Topic Maps: The GPS of the Web
Topic maps represent a radically new approach to solving some of today's most pressing business problems. We live in an age in which knowledge is becoming the key asset of many organizations, but at the same time we find ourselves drowning in excesses of information. Given such a situation, how do we:
Topic maps can help with all three. They promise to revolutionize the ways in which we search for and navigate information, they allow us to model and represent knowledge in an interchangeable form, and they provide a unifying framework for knowledge and information management.
But as with most "radically new" things, the basic concepts are grounded in ideas that are familiar to all of us.
One starting point for understanding topic maps is the traditional
back-of-book index -- that carefully handcrafted map into its subject
area that enriches any good book. The building blocks of such an index
are topics (and the names by which they are known), associations between
topics (in the form of "see also" references), and occurrences of those
topics (the page numbers or locators).
That model basically describes the knowledge structures inherent in the underlying information: It is used to chart the topics of the subject matter and present a concise and accurate map for readers.
This map can then be perused in an intuitive manner that
reflects the associative mode typical of the way humans think. Thus, instead
of wading through realms of irrelevant information, it becomes possible
to navigate around (or search through) a multidimensional topic space
to find topics of interest and from there go directly to the precise pieces
of information that are most relevant.
This makes topic maps ideal for representing knowledge in other fields as well. For example, topic maps can be used to encode the interrelation of roles, products, procedures, and so on that constitute corporate memory, and to link them to the corresponding documentation; thus topic maps become an enabling technology for knowledge management.
For traditional commercial publishers, producing well-crafted
topic maps will be a new way of leveraging their existing knowledge and
experience and combating the threat to their existence posed by the vast
amounts of information now available for free.