Big Data in the enterprise makes the headlines, but we actually spend most of our working lives wading through the little data that floods our inboxes or consumes our web browsing. Over the past few decades we've experimented with content management systems (CMS) to manage the growing flood of information, but most are pretty poor and hardly get used. Now Amsterdam-based Silk aims to build intelligence into content management.
More than a CMS, Silk almost reminds me of a database. But they’ve added a cool user interface and an intelligence layer powering visualizations I have never seen in a traditional CMS. So while Google Web Designer can take the heavy lifting out of building an HTML5 site, Silk actually goes one step further, also adding data visualizations.
The effect can be impressive. I say "can be" because the interface still requires too much intelligence on the user's part to make it useful. This can be a problem.
Breaking The CMS Mold
For example, I tried to build a collection of pie recipes in Silk. (I like pie.) I eventually figured out how to do it, but it took me a long time to make my way around the interface. And even when I was finished, it wasn't nearly as polished as, say, Silk's sample sites like America’s worst charities, Google's product graveyard or secure messaging alternatives.
Each of these offers a convenient way to organize and discover information. But each is beyond my nascent Silk abilities.
Recognizing this limitation, Silk has been steadily progressing toward an easier, more intuitive interface, and just announced a new paid, supported service and additional angel funding from New Enterprise Associates to fund that work. In total the firm has raised nearly $4 million from NEA, Niklas Zennstrom’s Atomico and some private angels in Europe.
It's an impressive group of investors that has broken the mold before in well-understood markets like telecommunications (e.g., Skype). But this can be a problem. Silk really doesn't fit into any convenient product categories. Is it a database? Is it a CMS? Is it a visualization tool like Tableau? Is it all of the above?
Just What Is Silk, Exactly?
To get a better understanding of Silk, I caught up with the company's 28-year-old CEO Salar Al-Khafaji, an Iraqi entrepreneur based in Amsterdam.
ReadWrite: So what is Silk?
Al-Khafaji: Silk combines the best aspects of unstructured, easy-to-use tools like wikis and Google Docs with the best aspects of heavy-duty tools for structuring content like databases or Sharepoint. We are a cloud-based service that looks and feels like a simple Web-based CMS but behaves like a full-featured database.
ReadWrite: What problem are you trying to solve with Silk?
Al-Khafaji: Typical office workers spend up to half their time hunting for information. Basically they rely on the same three core sets of functionalities: content retrieval from some sort of storage; analyzing, querying or searching of content; and visualization and display of that content, e.g., a report to their boss or a presentation to share with customers or colleagues. We make all of those tasks easy for non-technical people.
ReadWrite: Can you give me an example?
Al-Khafaji: Sure, Human Rights Watch uses Silk as a single place to track all of the information they gather globally on the voting track records of UN delegations. They use this information to help publicize their findings in reports they share with leading media outlets like BBC, CNN, Der Spiegel, NHK and The New York Times.
ReadWrite: What problem was HRW trying to solve?
Al-Khafaji: Before Silk, it was incredibly time consuming for HRW to keep track of the voting patterns on amendments and build graphics to show their findings. Staff maintained hundreds of separate Microsoft Word and Excel documents for each of the 47 different country members of the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission. Silk let HRW convert three years of data into beautiful interactive maps and graphics. Now it’s easy for non-technical staff to keep all the information in one place, keep it current, and query it almost any way they want immediately.
A Need For Even More Simplicity
Perhaps. But much more work is required to make Silk as easy to use as it is potentially powerful. Having used and competed against complex content management systems like Documentum, Silk is within its rights to claim it can be used by "non-technical people." Compared to the alternatives, etching documents on metal plates is a snap.
But to get truly broad adoption beyond the 16,000 users signed up today, the company is going to need to make the tool intuitive to newbies. Today it's not. It's a great tool for data-savvy experts like The Guardian newspaper, which has put the platform to great use.
But for mere mortals like me, it still needs some work.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.