An emerging suite of sensemaking tools

Prospective research partners have asked for executive summaries of tools which support sensemaking, that I and my KMi colleagues are developing. This post summarises the emerging suite with links to take you deeper.

The pervasive theme: flow / structure / maps

To tackle any non-trivial problem today requires people working together, which requires infrastructure which balances the importance of fluid, interpersonal interaction, with the need for ways to structure ideas and interaction in order to make knowledge-building more effective. The interesting space is at the intersection of those words ‘fluid’ and ‘structured’, since sometimes they’re read as incompatible. Rather, they’re better seen to be in creative tension. There is no flow without structures to channel the energy, and creativity thrives on the tension of working within —  and knowing when to breach — boundary structures. To scaffold interpretation, sensemaking, and the management of ideas, the web of their interconnections should be treated as first class objects, which we can visualize and critique.

Just as “the map is not the territory” in the spatial world, maps of people and ideas are not to be confused with the real thing — but a good map is nonetheless a very useful artifact:

Maps are one of the oldest forms of human communication. Map-making, like painting, pre-dates both number systems and written language. Primitive peoples made maps to orientate themselves in both the living environment and the spiritual worlds. Mapping enabled them to transcend the limitations of private, individual representations of terrain in order to augment group planning, reasoning and memory. Shared, visual representations opened new possibilities for focusing collective attention, re-living the past, envisaging new scenarios, coordinating actions and making decisions.

Maps mediate the inner mental world and outer physical world. They help us make sense of the universe at different scales, from galaxies to DNA, and connect the abstract with the concrete by overlaying meanings onto that world, from astrological deities to signatures for diseases. They help us remember what is important, and explore possible configurations of the unknown. Cartography — the discipline and art of making maps — has of course evolved radically. From stone, wood and animal skins, we now wield software tools that control maps as views generated from live data feeds, with flexible layering and annotation. (Preface, Knowledge Cartography)

In collaborative sensemaking maps serve as boundary objects for people to negotiate shared meanings, and in a social media context, as a shareable artifact which can be improved, and as a mediating representation whose structure is useful not only to people, but to be computed on by machines which can monitor many flows at once, detect potentially significant connections, and recommend new ones.

Fluid real time collaboration


FlashMeeting is a hugely successful video-conferencing solution developed by Peter Scott’s team, and used by thousands of people. Dispensing with many of the fancier features of more complex systems, it uses the Flash plug-in that almost all users have installed in their web browser to deliver what’s thus experienced as a ‘zero install’ online synchronous, replayable meeting. The research interest is in the analytics that are generated from meetings, with immediate feedback available on a specific meeting, and across a series of meetings that a project has conducted. [Example research papers]

This tutorial movie is set in the context of a dedicated school-network server, but it is used similarly by many academic research projects:

E2BN FlashMeeting introductory tutorial


SocialLearn [blog/beta site] is a production quality social networking environment providing the standard tools that are now bread+butter basics for building online community (“Friending”, “Following”, Rating Resources, Messaging, Interest Groups, etc). However, because it is tuned for enquiry and sensemaking (rather than just socializing), it also offers free learning “Apps” (which you add from an online store), and you work with enquiry-oriented significant constructs such as a crowdsourcing Q&A space, Learning Paths (not just collections of bookmarks), Counter-Examples and Supporting Evidence (see Cohere below). A large dataset is generated by the traces left by SocialLearn users, providing input for experimental Learning Analytics (patterns in those traces which may signify important learning phenomena which we can feed back to users) and Amazon/Netflix-like Recommendation Engines (but for learning/enquiry, not shopping) which can act on those patterns to better personalise the user’s experience to their unique history and intersts. [Example research papers]

This talk introduces some of the thinking behind SocialLearn:

Structuring ideas and discussions

This work is the core of the Hypermedia Discourse research programme, investigating the reading, writing and contesting of ideas as hypermedia networks grounded in discourse schemes. We are striving for cognitively and computationally tractable conceptual structures: fluid enough to serve as augmentations to group working memory, yet structured enough to support long term memory. Such networks can be (i) mapped by multiple analysts to visualize and interrogate the claims and arguments in a literature, and (ii) mapped in real time to manage a team’s information sources, competing interpretations, arguments and decisions, particularly in time- pressured scenarios where harnessing collective intelligence is a priority. Given the current geo-political and environmental context, the growth in distributed teamwork, and the need for multidisciplinary approaches to wicked problems, there has never been a greater need for sensemaking tools to help diverse stakeholders build common ground. [Abstract from Hypermedia Discourse: Contesting Networks of Ideas and Arguments]


Compendium is an open source, customizable knowledge mapping tool, but distinct from the many other tools available, it is a true hypertext system, and is tuned as a dialogical medium for mediating and structuring complex, multistakeholder conversations around problems, with as much interest in surfacing important differences in worldview as what is taken from granted. While useful for beginners as a personal knowledge mapping tool, we are aiming for a tool which in the hands of skilled users, can facilitate the capture and structuring ideas, not only to model discourse, but also to model problem domains in a manner that invites and structures contributions, whether this is in a synchronous or asynchronous discussion. It is optimised for use in what is arguably the most demanding context of deployment for a knowledge representation tool: real time collaborative modelling. The software is a free Java application for all platforms, including the source code. Downloads and other community resources are coordinated via the not-for-profit Compendium Institute where you will find the tool, community, training and research. Apart from maintaining the open source tool, our research programme is focused on the nature of the new form of literacy that we have identified with such tools (see in particular the work of Al Selvin) [Example research publications]

Here’s the webcast and multimedia resources for a talk I gave which frames Research as Hypermedia Narrative, which includes many demos and movies of the diverse uses to which Compendium has been put for knowledge-intensive work:


Cohere moves the work with Compendium into the Web 2.0/3.0 sphere, supporting collaborative mapping, social bookmarking, direct web annotation, nodes and maps with unique addresses and embed code, a RESTful API, integration with Twitter and we hope in the future, other tools and services. [Example research papers]

Other movies

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