Design for Data: Thoughts

Nearly a month ago I left a comment on Jason Kottke’s weblog, in
response to a post about his upcoming Web 2.0 conference workshop called Design for Web
2.0. He had listed 15 questions that were to be discussed in that workshop and one in
particular caught my eye. It was:

“Right now, Web design feels like talking to the API and
blending Flickr RSS with Upcoming iCal subscriptions. What happens when design(ers) has
little to do with what’s on the page?”

My comment on that
question was

“This is a fascinating question and it reminds me of a recent Tim
Berners-Lee interview, where he talked about how the Semantic Web is all about re-using
information. Yes I know TBL always talks about SemWeb, but there were some gem quotes in
this one. eg:

“The Semantic Web is just the application of weblike design to
; it will be many more decades before we will be able to say we have really
implemented the Web idea in the full, if ever we can.”

(emphasis mine)

As I wrote a
week or so ago
about that: Nowadays it’s not just about designing a beautiful
website, it’s about designing for re-use of information. In a way, that’s what people are
already doing with RSS – designing with data.”

A few days after that, I submitted an article proposal to Digital Web Magazine on this topic of Design
for Data
. The proposal ended up getting lost due to the email woes Digital Web were
having at the time, but I re-submitted it a couple of weeks later. In any case, I
still haven’t quite put my finger on what my approach would be with the

Then tonight I read a new Digital Web article by Joshua Porter called Home Alone?
How Content Aggregators Change Navigation and Control of Content
. This excellent
article got me thinking about Data Design again. So I thought I’d note down some
highlights from Joshua’s article, then post some of my notes about Data Design – and
maybe people can give me some feedback or pitch in with ideas for us all to

Distributed Navigation and Death of the Homepage

Firstly, Joshua makes a distinction between human-aggregated content (e.g. blogs)
and machine aggregators (e.g. search engines). He says:

“Aggregation hinges on gathering content from other domains. This
dramatically affects the search for content. Users no longer need to start their search
in the domain where the content lies. In fact, they almost never do.”

…and then he asks the logical next question: “With all these aggregators providing
new places to start our searches for content, what will become of the home page?”

So we’re getting into ‘death of the homepage’ territory, which I think is currently
one of Steve Gillmor’s hobby horses (but
I couldn’t find a link tonight). Joshua notes that the homepage is traditionally the top
page in a website information hierarchy, but content aggregators often bypass this:

“…users navigate completely outside the site containing the target
content. The only page they see is the one that the aggregator links to. So the IA that
ends up getting users to the target content page isn’t the one on the site they end
up on, it’s the aggregator’s site’s IA.”

Nicely put! I think this is one of the reasons I’ve gone off the boil in regards to weblog ontologies and
taxonomies – it’s because RSS and syndication technologies have completely changed the
rules. It’s now less about the website as a “place” to organize information – it’s more
about how information flows, is aggregated and re-used. 

I like how Joshua has put the ‘death of the homepage’ syndrome into the context of
traditional IA (information architecture) – that ontologies are now just as important, if
not more so, on the “aggregator’s site” rather than the content producer’s site. Joshua
calls this “distributed navigation”.

He goes on to say that it’s a user-centered IA – the user makes your content work for
them. Which is how it should be on the Web. Further, aggregators are “promoting a shift
in the control of content” from the producer to the consumer. Again, a user-centered
paradigm. Joshua lists some ways that web designers can tackle this issue – but it’s at
that point that I’ll tack away to a different perspective.

Joshua’s focus in his article
is on the web designer and how distributed navigation is “bypassing much of what
we’ve built for them [users]”. My interest is more in the underlying technologies –
RSS, Atom, syndication – and their affect on web publishing (…which makes me wonder if
my article will be suited to Digital Web’s audience?).

My initial notes on Design for Data

So what should I look at in my quest to understand Design for Data? I’ve noted down
these things to explore:

Matt Webb and others (see also: 1, 2)

Atom API (see also)

Steve Gillmor and Dave Sifry

Matt Mower and Paolo’s experiments with “RSS

– The latest features in Blogdigger and other
content aggregators

– Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s “semantic web is a program”

– The results of Jason Kottke’s Design for Web 2.0 session at the Web 2.0 conference
(does anyone know if that workshop was blogged? I haven’t been able to find anything on
the Web about it and I even emailed Jason himself, who said he wasn’t aware of any

– Probably get back into XML – e.g. Jon Udell’s XPath

I’m sure there are a bunch of other things to consider. What else do you suggest
I/we explore for Data Design?

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