Coagmento – going beyond searching collaboratively

A lot of work on collaborative technologies in the recent years have been focused on search, which is not surprising. I do realize this need to focus on search. After all, that’s where lot of our energies are already invested, so why not look for collaborative solutions for something we do quite often? But why not go where the puck is going to be rather than where it’s been? And that’s why no matter how important searching is, I like to widen my net and look at the larger picture, especially looking at what people do with search processes and results. Yes, that’s definitely one of the reasons I like “information seeking” instead of just “information retrieval” or “search”.

Coagmento reflects this philosophy. Unlike many other systems in its class, it’s not just a tool for doing collaborative or social search and/or browsing. Rather, it’s a system that allows one to do collaborative planning, problem solving, information synthesis, and collective sense-making in addition to, of course, search and retrieval. Though I can’t take full credit for following this idea as it started during my work with Gary Marchionini and Rob Capra at UNC on NSF-funded project on ResultSpace. There, we cared about what people do with the results that collect through searching or other methods. We looked at two primary dimensions – time (sessions) and people (collaborators/community/social network). So it’s not a surprise that Coagmento is designed around supporting multi-session information processes whether a person is working alone or in collaboration. It does, though, surprise me how good some of these design decisions turned out!

Upcoming book on collaborative information seeking

Yes, this is a shameless self-promotion! But it’s important (and exciting) to note that my book on Collaborative Information Seeking, to be published by Springer under their Information Retrieval Series, is coming bout soon! There have been several articles and a couple of reviews/book chapters/booklets in the recent past on this or related topics, but none that gives a fairly comprehensive treatment to the subject. This book is intended to do just that. Here’s the link for the flyer that gets you substantial discount:

And here’s the book description:

Collaborative Information Seeking
The Art and Science of Making the Whole Greater than the Sum of All
Today’s complex, information-intensive problems often require people to work together. Mostly these tasks go far beyond simply searching together; they include information lookup, sharing, synthesis, and decision-making. In addition, they all have an end-goal that is mutually beneficial to all parties involved. Such “collaborative information seeking” (CIS) projects typically last several sessions and the participants all share an intention to contribute and benefit. Not surprisingly, these processes are highly interactive.
Shah focuses on two individually well-understood notions: collaboration and information seeking, with the goal of bringing them together to show how it is a natural tendency for humans to work together on complex tasks. The first part of his book introduces the general notions of collaboration and information seeking, as well as related concepts, terminology, and frameworks; and thus provides the reader with a comprehensive treatment of the concepts underlying CIS. The second part of the book details CIS as a standalone domain. A series of frameworks, theories, and models are introduced to provide a conceptual basis for CIS. The final part describes several systems and applications of CIS, along with their broader implications on other fields such as computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) and human-computer interaction (HCI).

Yahoo! award

I’m happy to announce that I have received the Yahoo! Campus Innovation Award in the amount of $20,000 for my project titled “Reimagining and Reinvigorating Information Seeking with a Novel Approach to Collaborative Information Seeking (CIS).”

This is a one-year project that seeks to understand motivations and methods for people working in collaboration for information seeking tasks, gather design specifications for a user-driven CIS system, as well as implement and evaluate a flexible and scalable integrated collaborative environment. The project is intended to investigate social and collaborative aspects of information seeking as an overarching goal of this research.

Thank you, Yahoo!

Collaborative IR course at RuSSIR 2011

I had a fun time teaching a short course on Collaborative IR at the Russian Summer School of IR (RuSSIR) held at St Petersburg, Russia this year. I will share my experience in other posts, but for now, here’s a short description of the school.

The mission of the school is to teach students about modern problems and methods in Information Retrieval and Database Technology; to stimulate scientific research and collaboration in these fields; and to create environment for informal contacts between scientists, students and industry professionals.

The target audience of the school is advanced graduate and PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, academic and industrial researchers, and developers. RuSSIR/EDBT 2011 School will offer up to seven courses (in parallel sessions) and host approximately 150 participants. The working language of the school is English.

And here’s the description about the course that I taught:

The course will introduce the student to theories, methodologies, and tools that focus on IR in collaboration. The student will have an opportunity to learn about the social aspect of IR with a focus on collaborative IR situations, systems, and evaluation techniques.

Traditionally, IR is considered an individual pursuit, and not surprisingly, the majority of tools, techniques, and models developed for addressing information need, retrieval, and usage have focused on single users. The assumption of information seekers being independent and IR problem being individual has been challenged often in the recent past. This course will introduce such works to the students, with an emphasis on understanding models and systems that support collaborative search or browsing.

Specifically, the course will (1) outline the research and latest developments in the field of collaborative IR, (2) list the challenges for designing and evaluating collaborative IR systems, and (3) show how traditional single user IR models and systems could be mapped to those for collaborative IR. This will be achieved through introduction to appropriate literature, algorithms and interfaces that facilitate collaborative IR, and methodologies for studying and evaluating them. Thus, the course will offer a balance between theoretical and practical elements of collaborative IR.

The background story of IR, IS, and CIS

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my dissertation: A Framework to Support User-Centered Collaborative Information Seeking. While it was published in 2010, this part (introduction) was written long before (late 2007 or early 2008).

“Since the focus here is on exploring such processes in the information seeking domain, it is important to lay out this understanding of collaborative information seeking (CIS) in the context of collaboration and information seeking. Such a depiction is given in Figure 1.1. As shown in this scheme, for the purpose of this dissertation, information retrieval (IR) is seen as a subset of information seeking (IS). While IR typically assumes that there exists some information that could satisfy the given information need, IS does not have such an assumption.

On the other hand, a typical collaboration includes several parts, some of which may be related to information seeking. Thus, in this dissertation, CIS process is seen as a part of a larger context of collaboration. In addition, this CIS is seen as a user-driven (intentional), interactive, and mutually beneficial process.

Keeping in mind this refined definition of CIS, the next chapter will review related domains, such as collaboration, information seeking, information filtering, user and system interaction, and social networking.”

And here’s something from chapter-2 (p.29-30), once again, written in 2008 while doing my literature review.

“Marchionini (1995) defines information seeking as a process in which humans purposefully engage to change their state of knowledge. This process of information seeking goes beyond simply retrieving information; it is usually associated with higher level cognitive processes such as learning and problem solving (Marchionini, 1989). Dervin and Nilan (1986) presented a view of information seeking that emphasized communication and the needs, characteristics, and actions of the information seeker rather than mere representation, storage, and retrieval of information.”

In summary, I have always (or since late 2007) viewed information seeking as something that’s not just information searching. Exploratory search is often perceived as information seeking, but I see it more as a subarea within the broader “search” field, as in some searches are exploratory and some are not. I can also see it as a connecting concept between “traditional search” (keywords, rank-list, single session), and broader “information seeking”. To me, what makes information seeking special is the state of uncertainty in the seeker (see Belkin or Kuhlthau). Seeking may involve searching. I seek the meaning of life, but I don’t really search for it! I don’t even know how to search or the kind of questions to ask for meaningful answer. Neither do I know if there is an answer for it.

Exploratory search focuses on the process of search that is more complex than just forming a keyword-base query and retrieving results, whereas information seeking focuses on the cognitive states that one goes through in the process, starting with the anomalous state of knowledge (Belkin) or noumenal cloud (Marchionini).

Seeking is not just searching

I think it’s about time we stop using “seeking” and “searching” interchangeably. This is especially relevant to those working in information retrieval/seeking/behavior fields, and even to those in HCI. But the main reason I’m posting this topic here is to bring attention to those studying collaboration in search and related processes. Let me be very clear. The following phrases are NOT all same: “collaborative search”, “collaborative information retrieval”, “collaborative information seeking”, “collaborative exploratory search”.

I believe information seeking is a part of information behavior, and information retrieval is a part of information seeking. Information retrieval (IR) assumes that there is some information that is out there for the given information need (one may not able to retrieve it, or it may not exist in reality), whereas information seeking doesn’t make that assumption. Personally, I use collaborative information seeking (CIS). See the following publications:

  • Shah, C., and Gonzalez-Ibanez, R. (2011). Evaluating the Synergic Effect of Collaboration in Information Seeking. In Proceedings of ACM SIGIR 2011. Beijing, China. July 24-28, 2011. [PDF]
  • Gonzalez-Ibanez, R., Shah, C., & Cardova, N. R. (2011). Smile! Studying Expressivity of Happiness as a Synergic Factor in Collaborative Information Seeking. Proceedings of American Society of Information Science & Technology (ASIST) Annual Meeting. New Orleans, Lousiana.
  • Shah, C (2010). Collaborative Information Seeking: A Literature Review, in Anne Woodsworth (ed.) Advances in Librarianship (Advances in Librarianship, Volume 32), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.3-33. [DOI]
  • Shah, C, and Marchionini, Gary (2010). Awareness in Collaborative Information Seeking. Journal of American Society of Information Science and Technology (JASIST) 61(10), 1970-1986.
  • Shah, C (2010). Working in Collaboration – What, Why, and How? Proceedings of Collaborative Information Retrieval workshop at CSCW 2010. Savannah, GA: February 7, 2010.
  • Shah, C. Lessons and Challenges for Collaborative Information Seeking (CIS) Systems Developers. In the Proceedings of Collaborative Information Behavior Workshop at GROUP 2009. May 10, 2009. Sanibel Island, Florida. [PDF]
  • Shah, C (2010). Coagmento – A Collaborative Information Seeking, Synthesis and Sense-Making Framework. Integrated demo at CSCW 2010. Savannah, GA: February 6-10, 2010.
  • Shah, C, Marchionini, Gary, and Kelly, Diane. Learning Design Principles for a Collaborative Information Seeking System. In the Proceedings of CHI 2009. April 4-9, 2009. Boston, MA. [PDF]
  • Shah, C. Understanding System Implementation and User Behavior in a Collaborative Information Seeking Environment. In Bulletin of IEEE Technical Committee on Digital Libraries, 4(2), Fall 2008. [Online]

And, of course, there’s my PhD dissertation – “A Framework to Support User-Centered Collaborative Information Seeking” [PDF].

And so here’s a request to those using CIR, CIS, collaborative search, etc. interchangeably – please reconsider.

Ad hoc collaboration

While talking to Jaime Teevan during my recent visit to Microsoft Research, I realized that there is a need for investigating ad hoc collaboration much like the way we do “regular” collaboration. See, with the usual collaborative projects, there is some kind of setup process; the collaborators identify the need to work together, they recognize roles and responsibilities, and set rules and guidelines for working together. At least this is what happens quite often. But then there are situations where things are not that thought out.

As Jaime and I discussed, imagine being at a conference in a new town, and at the end of the day having a need to find a place for dinner. Do we actively seek out others who may also be looking for restaurant suggestions? Sometimes yes, but what if someone (or some system) could connect us in an ad hoc fashion for creating an impromptu collaboration? The problem is already identified, the solution is understood, and there is most likely intention to be in a group like this. In other words, we don’t have to explicitly set the rules of engagement; they are already defined or understood via social norms. We are ready to collaborate!

Another example that I thought could be study sessions for students. We often find students gathering in places where they work on their homework problems in the same space such as a library or some other common space. They may not necessarily be thinking about working with others, but given that they are in the same space at the same time, one could give them a “nudge” to see if they would like to collaborate. Once again, the problem and potential solution are already there, and all that is needed is intention.

One way to look at these scenarios is through Fisher’s notion of information grounds. People being in the same space at the same time for some reason (conference, working on homework, etc.) could start interacting with each other – seeking and sharing information.

I believe mobile devices have a large role to play in facilitating such impromptu interactions and creating ad hoc collaborations.

The Coagmento difference

I often get asked how Coagmento is different than Google Docs, Diigo, etc. Actually there are a number of collaborative tools now available, and several of them have already achieved a good traction among end-users. So where do we fit in?

Well, from the beginning I have made it clear that Coagmento is not Google or anything close to it; it’s not designed to make it fast for “regular” searches. It’s also not merely an information exchange place like diigo or delicions, nor it is for simply creating a collaborative product like Google Docs. The real strength and the real difference that Coagmento brings is the ability to capture the process as it stores not only collective bookmarks, snippets, and final product, but also keeps track of various processes (search, share, interactions) that take place throughout the collaboration. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s quite a powerful difference that Coagmento offers. This has significant implications for education, where it’s not the final product that we care about, but also the process that one went through to create it. This also goes along with a core objective of reference librarianship, where one tries to not only get an answer, but also shows how it was retrieved.

As we keep developing and testing Coagmento, we encounter more and more of such scenarios and applications. The reports of our lessons and findings will keep getting disseminated through several channels, including this blog.

Black, white, and gray areas

When it comes to inter-personal interactions, I believe there are three shades of areas – black, white, and gray. The other individual’s personal area is ‘black’; it’s off-limit since he/she owns that space and need to feel safe in that space in order to trust others around him/her.

Your own area is ‘white’. It’s open and available to you, and you don’t want anyone else to overshadow it. This white area gives you a sense of privacy and personal space.

And then there is the ‘gray’ area, which is in-between you and the others that you interact with. In a sense, this area is open to anyone, but we try not to use it unless it is absolutely needed. For instance, you could ask a friend for $100 to borrow. That’s going into that gray area. It’s allowed, you are not invading your friend’s privacy, but in normal circumstances, we refrain from entering into such areas. Every time you step into the gray area, you lose a little bit of your value. Try asking for money to the same friend for too many times!

A good collaboration should have clearly marked white, black, and gray areas, and the collaborators should understand how to avoid stepping on black areas (other people’s personal spaces), and limit their access to the gray areas. This will make everyone comfortable and confident in that collaboration.

Dissertation abstract

Following is the abstract from my dissertation titled “A Framework for Supporting User-Centric Collaborative Information Seeking” that I successfully defended on March 15, 2010. My committee included Gary Marchionini (chair), Deborah Barreau, Susan Dumais, Diane Kelly, and Barbara Wildemuth.

Collaboration is often required or encouraged for activities that are too complex or difficult to deal with for an individual. Many situations involving information seeking also call for people working together. Despite its natural appeal and situational necessity, collaboration in information seeking is an understudied domain. The nature of the available information and its role in our lives have changed significantly, but the methods and tools that are used to access and share that information in collaboration have remained largely unaltered. This dissertation is an attempt to develop a new framework for collaborative information seeking (CIS) with a focus on user-centric system designs. To develop this framework, existing practices for doing collaboration, along with motivations and methods, are studied. This initial investigation and a review of literature are followed by a series of carefully created design studies, helping us develop a prototype CIS system, Coagmento. This system is then used for a large scale laboratory experiment with a focus on studying the role and the impact of awareness in CIS projects. Through this study, it is shown that appropriate support for group awareness can help collaborators be more productive, engaged, and aware in collaboration without burdening them with additional load. Using the lessons derived from the literature as well as the set of studies presented in this dissertation, a novel framework for CIS is proposed. Such a framework could help us develop, study, and evaluate CIS systems with a more comprehensive understanding of various CIS processes, and the users of these systems.