Different origins, different side of the market, different impetus for creativity, similar result. I had a great deal of mail of one sort or another after writing “I wish I had done that…” just before the holidays. In that piece, wrapped around the launch of Digital Science Ltd by Macmillan/Nature, I tried to exemplify the continuing drive to workflow in producing sustained responses to the demand for solutions. But the topic was not Lexis for the insurance industry or Thomson Reuters GRC for financial services, but how you run research procedures in a lab in a more productive, effective and compliant way. And the science research market is vitally important, not just because of the impact of science on our society, or because a segment of that society now cries “foul” at unwelcome results before trying to technically discredit unpalatable truths, but because the science community is the historic belwether of change in the networked society. They had it first.

So I was fascinated to find in my mail a kindly note from one of the founders of BioRAFT (www.bioraft.com). He pointed out that the problems tackled by Timo Hannay and his team at Digital Science were content-orientated just because the angle of approach via Nature was publishing derived. But there was a number of ways of examining these issues. One, and I am now persuaded that it is a very valid one, is to look at  them from the viewpoint of lab technicians and lab management and maintenance. I have always been told that over two thirds of searchers in the scholarly literature seek not research results which support or destroy their own findings or direction of enquiry: instead they are looking for experimental techniques which pass muster, yield compliance, and cannot be easily over-turned by critics. Results are important, as is data derived in research mode, but nothing stands up if the technique is faulty and the experimental warcraft is holed at the waterline.

Obviously good literature research helps to ensure the appropriate selection of experimental techniques. But it does not stop there. BioRAFT seeks a unified system of management in research, and its proponents are research managers who clearly pride themselves on creating solutions with an “intuitive approach which even the most hard-nosed PI will use and value”. This is researcher-for-researcher solutioning, grounded in lab procedures, with a strong bent to community, to quality outcomes and to innovation to make it all work. Solutions can be customized, genuinely difficult compliance issues managed (take a look at the “NIH Guidelines for Research involving recombinent DNA modules “if you doubt the size of the compliance Himalyas in this sector), and biosecurity and biosafety can be married to simplicity in use.

Otherwise BioRAFT (it stands for Research Applications and Financial Tracking) Inc. is a neat start-up, based on the east and west US coasts and in Lebanon, very into Open Source and full of good sentiments about sustainability. Is it publishing? No. Does that matter? No, it is to be welcomed. The solutions in question will only be created by the content people coming over the bridge from one direction and the research laboratory procedures people coming in the other. And we are trying to build a bridge here, which, if you start from both banks simultaneously, means sharing data and materials to ensure that the structure meets up midstream. It seems to me therefore that Digital Science and BioRAFT may potentially be partners in some contexts, and that there may be a great many more sectoral BioRAFT’s out there than the content community suspect.

This experience re-inforces a long held prejudice: we are only just scratching the surface. BioRAFT claims a genesis in 2003, which is honourably aged but cannot disguise the fact that it is now that take off appears imminent, because it is now that the research community, like so many other networked groupings, are beginning to believe that there has to be a smarter, more consistent and more auditable way of doing things in the network. And if networks create the methodologies for releasing the accumulated experience of communities into insight and understanding, then BioRAFT is a good exemplar. It takes a long time to get started and then everything goes with a rush. BioRAFT and its founder Nathan Watson are participants to watch.

In the course of this year I need to find a local source of shredding services in my desperate fight to stop this hut from drowning in paper. By the end of the year I shall need to have bought a new car. In the idle twilight between Christmas and new year I found myself Googling on both of these topics – and the process took longer and took me to more places than I had ever imagined. And I read more advertising, dodgy reviews and spam than I had ever imagined, so when I read that Paul Kedrosky had had an identical experience (http://broadstuff.com/archives/2370-On-the-increasing-uselessness-of-Google……html) then I perked up a bit. It is always good to find really clever people reacting just as you did. I then discovered a whole band of bloggers through December and January basically arguing that the Web of spam and misleading search of a decade ago, which Google had cleaned up effectively in its early days, had now returned to haunt us – on Google.

Whether this is the fault of Google is debatable. Some argue that it is SEO which causes the damage, others that it is the insatiable hunger for Google advertising. Some appear to think that a search environment without advertising will do the trick, and Vivek Wadhwa at UC Berkeley argues convincingly for Blekko (http://techcrunch.com/2011/01/01/why-we-desperately-need-a-new-and-better-google-2/). Both of these blogs demonstrate key facets of the debate, but, to my mind, the debate they are having is couched in the wrong terms entirely. What we must think about is not who replaces Google, but whether keyword searching has a future.

Now I must declare a prejudice. I have never been a huge fan of keyword searching. My experience of search began in the early 1980s, when as a (younger) Thomson manager I was deputed to build an online service for lawyers. We used a search package called STATUS which had been created for the UK’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment to search UK statutes and statutary instruments for references to the enactments which had set up the AERE. Both inventors worked for me, one as an advisor, the other as my CTO. Both warned me daily of the insufficiency of the system we were operating to do more than find words in documents, and not to fall victim to the idea that we were thereby creating “answers” or “solutions”. The result was that I was never a victim of the “myth of infallability ” that pervaded early web search engines and became an essential Google quality in the past 5 years. Infallable? A system that cannot distinguish the grossly out of date from today, that can be spoofed into presenting advertising copy as answers, or that can represent anything except a thought or a concept?

As a result of this early innoculation, my sights have long been set on finding search solutions, so I checked back with some of my legal market successors this week to see how they were faring. Was Google law going to sweep them away? Would the service principles of Google Scholar once applied to law, as Google have claimed, create universal free service values that would separate the lawyer from his dependence on subscription based legal retrieval engines? Not so, I learnt from Lexis Nexis. In fact, the opposite is the case. The body of law is finite, its authorship necessarily limited. In any legal domain, the retrieval engine investment is now dedicated towards tagging content with semantic metadata, developing the inference rules within the ontological structure created when taxonomies are being refined and redeveloped, and emerging as semantic search players. As law is increasingly defined in conceptual blocks which can be developed as a classification system for the ideas and arguments that lie behind legal concepts, systems are emerging which owe little to the world that Google still inhabit. And what Lexis (and undoubtedly Westlaw) are doing today will be the way in which law offices search contextually in their own and third party content tomorrow.

Is this just a law market phenomenon? Well, the techniques and ideas mentioned here have been very heavily involved in scientific research, especially in the life sciences, for the past five years. The whole standards environment created by Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web council predicted this development and the search engine software SPARQL is an experimental exemplar of a direction taken by a number of semantic search start-ups. The drawback has been the tendency for searching on concepts to become very domain-focussed, where taxonomy can be more precise and concepts easier to describe. But as we move forward, this may be the next big push behind vertical search. Despite (or because) we have stopped talking about them, community-based vertical sector players like Globalspec have been able to take a strong grip on the way in which professionals work in a sector like engineering. Once community activity – making engineering design specs available for cross-searching – becomes susceptible to semantic enquiry, the ability of vertical business players to lock in users and establish themselves as the performance benchmark (and compliance engine) of the sector becomes realistic. The scenario that results from this is sometimes monopolistic, often duopolistic, seldom capable of sustaining rafts of competing content players.

So Google remains in place just as a consumer environment? No, I think that Facebook and its successors become the consumer research environment. Search by asking someone you know, or at least have a connection with, and get recommendations and references which take you right to the place where you buy. Search in mobile environments is already taking too long and throwing up too many false leads. Anyone here used a shredding company in South Bucks? How did you rate them? How do I contact them? I have this fantasy that I mention “Google” to my grandchildren and they say “did you mean the phone company?” What is the best strategy job in the industry: the one that defines the line of migration for Google out of search and towards the next big marketplace (pity they missed Groupon!).

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