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Knowledge representation and multimedia knowledge base design: A methodology for alignment

Ross J Todd, Joan Parker and Hilary Yerbury
University of Technology, Sydney
That multimedia knowledge bases are informational tools approached by users seeking information, and that as such they should reflect the needs of users, is axiomatic. Interaction with multimedia knowledge bases is a communication process in which success is determined by an alignment of users' knowledge structures and system structures, that is what users know and how they structure what they know, and what the designer knows of user knowledge and its structure as it is reflected in system structure. With particular reference to the development of a multimedia knowledge base for community activists, this paper addresses the identification of knowledge structures as a critical factor in the conceptualisation and structure of such knowledge bases. It focuses on the application of an integrated process of concept analysis and discourse analysis in order to identify conceptual neighbourhoods and their interrelationships for the purpose of developing navigational pathways to enable users to actively search the knowledge bait.


This paper reports on the first stage of a research project currently under way at the University of Technology, Sydney, to design and develop a prototype of an interactive knowledge base that aims to provide community activists with access to a dispersed and undifferentiated collection of materials generated during the Green Ban Period, a time of intense community action to shape the urban environment in Australia in the 1970s. The project represents an experiment in inserting the audience or end users as the front end of the design of the knowledge base, its access pathways and its narrative structure. The long term goal of the project is to develop an interactive knowledge base designed to suit the needs of researchers, past and contemporary activists, journalists and community workers that provides access to the full set of materials of the Green Ban period in their varying media. This report will focus on the first stage of this project. It documents the decisioning rationale and outlines a methodology to understand end user knowledge representation in relation to the Green Ban material and to enable the researchers to better understand the conceptualisation of the ways in which the end users perceive and use the material.

Historical background: The Green Bans

The Green Bans were union imposed black bans with a green twist. The purpose of the bans was to protect inner and near city working class housing, historical sites and parklands. They were imposed by the Builders Labourers Federation on development sites in Sydney between 1971 and 1974. During those four years, some 38 sites had successful bans placed on them, arresting the development of the city for some four years. The period was the genesis of community activism in Sydney. It was characterised by clashes between State police and standover men employed by the developers on one side, and unionists, community activists and tenants on the other. An ugly undercurrent of violence and corruption existed, with intimidation of tenants through property destruction and fires, alleged kidnapping of community activists, and the disappearance of a prominent activist working as an investigative journalist for an inner city newspaper.

The Green Ban Period generated a massive amount of material, only a small amount of which has been collected in libraries and other information agencies. Much of the surviving material still remains in the hands of the 1970s activists. It includes pamphlets, posters, newspaper cuttings, graffiti, diaries, development proposals, film, video, and audio recordings. Historical researchers, past and current community activists, journalists and Australian archivists in recent years have noted the absence of provision of access to these valuable materials for use in a range of fields of study - sociology, politics, journalism and conservation, as well as an information base for current community activists. Access is limited and somewhat haphazard. To date, some attempt has been made to bring these materials together, however, no index of the intellectual contents of these materials has been developed. By their very generation, the materials are already linked in complex ways in a wide network of inter-connections, each used to illuminate and understand the others. As the collection is in a variety of formats that can be, by their very nature, approached in different ways and applied to different purposes, it is recognised that a simple subject based index system may fail to reveal the richness and complexity of the pathways by which they might be accessed and interpreted by different groups of users.

Theoretical background

Two key assumptions underpin the project's development. Firstly, information users are viewed as active, purposive and sense making agents in the information retrieval process, rather than passive recipients of information or robotic information processors (Dervin, Harlock, Atwood, & Garzona, 1987; Dervin & Nilan, 1986; Dervin & Dewdney, 1986). This "sense making" approach asserts that information seeking and utilisation occur when individuals find themselves stopped in their progress through a particular situation and need to form some kind of new "sense" about something. Information needs are situationally bound, and information seeking and needs resolution are presented as part of a holistic "movement through time-space" continuum, of which an encounter with an information system and the immediate consequences of such an encounter may be just one part. Information need is seen to arise from a "problematic situation" in which an individual's knowledge of the problem area (environment, knowledge, actions) is inadequate for goal attainment or to solve ambiguities or problems. Belkin, Oddy & Brooks (1982, 15) suggest that individuals engage in information seeking behaviours when "their states of knowledge concerning some particular situation or topic are recognised by them as somehow being insufficient or inadequate for that situation; that is there are anomalies (gaps, uncertainties, lack of relation or concepts etc) in their conceptual state of knowledge concerning the topic, which they perceive as needing to be resolved in order to achieve their goals".

Empirical research however contains remarkably little evidence of end users' participation in the development of retrieval systems that are responsive to their particular information needs. The development of retrieval systems based on the intellectual contents of materials has focused on the application of existing indexing languages and the construction and evaluation of indexes based on these, and automatically generated indexes, by their very nature, have not been developed with end user participation. This process does not capture the variable number of messages and meanings based on context, situation, cognitive style and intended use by users. The multi-dimensionality of central concepts represented in materials is not made explicit in the organisation of the index (Schamber, Eisenberg & Nilan, 1990).

The usefulness of these indexing systems has been questioned in recent literature, with particular criticism made of commercial retrieval systems that are not developed to service end users (Harman, 1992). A growing amount of attention is now being paid to user characteristics, both for the design of interfaces and for the organisation of the knowledge base. It is imperative that the development of such systems proceed from a strong user base if the full capabilities of interactive multimedia systems are to be exploited. In a recent report for the Australian Museum on interactivity, Nash claims: "the revolutionary characteristic of interactivity, when applied to audio visual media, is that computers have extended in quantum leaps the range of flexible real time choice by users of the sound/ images/ text that they are viewing and/or producing." This has ramifications for the construction of narrative pathways through an interactive audio visual/textual data base. "Internationally there is now a growing move to question the value of interactives which have advanced technical specifications but embody comparatively primitive understandings of how people relate to images and data . The formal structures of narrative will change to accommodate audience participation." (Nash, 1992, pp173-174.) This notion is central to the development of the project: rather than constructing a system based on hypothesising what a user might do, it would be built on what users have done in past situations and what they are doing in present situations.

The second assumption is that it is reasonable to regard the study of human-computer interaction as a form of communication. Borgman (1986) suggests that the more promising theoretical areas to be explored in explanation of the interaction are those of dyadic communication and of cognitive models brought to it. The transactions in this interaction are goal driven, to match a user's information needs with system output, and their successful outcome depends on the ability of the end user to form a mind picture of their own need and of the system. The interface is limited in its ability to respond to the user by the view the system designer has of users, the user model embedded in the interface.

Kuhlthau (1988) argues that the search process in information retrieval is a process of construction. The topic of the search is construed and re-construed in the communication process. The initiating query statement is usually in the form of a 'label' of few terms, which may be conceptually far from the underlying information need. This statement is a product of the knowledge, image, or model that the end users have of the texts represented in the system of the underlying principles of their organisation, and also of an extended information environment which includes their socialised knowledge of the human activities from which information is generated (Katzeff, 1989). This highlights the importance of states of knowledge in explaining an individual's motivation to use the system.

Knowledge representation

The theoretical basis for understanding how people know what they know, how what they know changes, how they use what they know in interaction, and how they understand the process of interaction, lies in the area of knowledge representation. Relevant theoretical approaches to externalising individual's structures of knowledge are concept analysis and discourse analysis.

The concept analysis approach is founded on Ausubel's assimilation theory of cognitive learning. This theory asserts that concepts play a central role in the acquisition and use of knowledge, and that new knowledge and meaningful learning result when a person consciously and explicitly ties new knowledge to relevant concepts and propositions already possessed. It asserts thus that concepts, and propositions composed of concepts are the central elements in the structure of knowledge. Concept meanings are developed primarily in the extent that they are embedded in frameworks of propositions, and that the set of propositions a person has incorporating a given concept defines that person's idiosyncratic meaning for that concept. Concepts thus do not have fixed meanings, but rather meanings derived from the matrix of propositions in which they are embedded (Novak, Gowin & Johansen, 1983, p.626). At a practical level, this approach focuses on externalising knowledge structures through: (a) determining the global structure of the message, that is, establishing perceptions of the hierarchy of concepts, from superordinate to subordinate; and (b)identifying the texture of the message, that is establishing the various meaning of the relationships. It enables people to articulate central concepts, clarify their meaning, and establish how and why they are linked.

Halliday and Hasan (1985) present a framework for discourse analysis. They assert that the written and spoken word contain multiple layers of meaning based on a multiplicity of contexts. The thread which links these contexts and which helps to clarify meaning can be identified through an analytical process. This process seeks to identify the subject matter (field), the relationships and values (tenor), and the purpose behind the conversation or text (mode). This approach extends the context within which an individual establishes a hierarchy of concepts and their propositional relationships.

In the identification of field, one would expect a statement of the subject area and how that Subject area relates to other subject areas, and a description of what is happening. Tenor is concerned with the major actors and their relationships to each other and to the action or subject area. Mode reflects what the participants expect from the conversation or the text, for example, whether the text is intended to inform or persuade.

Research in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology and linguistics suggests that thew analytical approaches to externalising structures of knowledge are also embedded in network models of semantic memory and schema theory.

Quillian (Ringland & Duce, 1988) proposes a model in which concepts, corresponding to particular senses of words or phrases, are presented as nodes in networks. Properties relating to concepts are represented as the labelled relational, two way links from nodes to other nodes. Links are differentiated by a form of weighting, according to how essential each is to the concept meaning. This enables a network of nodes to be linked. The complete meaning of any concept is the entire network emanating from the initial concept node. Links can be of different types and are thus nested or embedded to any degree to allow expression of any level of abstraction or specificity.

A schemata contains the network of interrelationships of the concept, that is, the "data structures for representing the generic concepts stored in memory" (Rumelhart 1984, p.162). Schema theory explains how knowledge is represented and how that representation facilitates its use. It provides an understanding of the structures which guide information processing in: directing attention; providing frameworks or scaffolding for preserving episodic information as a memory trace; and in providing frameworks for integrating new information, including the use of metaphors and analogies, as mapping between frameworks. It is thus a means of explaining what user knowledge, including contextual knowledge, is brought to interaction, as impetus in information seeking and as a basis for the ability to interact, and a way of explaining how user knowledge changes in interaction.

Representing knowledge: A methodology for alignment

The methodology to represent community activist's perceptions of the material has been developed through a number of focus group discussions. Using the theoretical frameworks established earlier, two approaches to the identification of relevant concepts and propositions have emerged:
  1. concept analysis of materials: to identify concepts and their complex pattern of interrelationships;
  2. analysis of context of situation: to identify meanings or message of texts
Our purpose was also to show that traditional or system oriented approaches to indexing create a disjunction with the way in which people with experience in a particular subject area structure their understanding. Three people who have experience with both traditional manual indexing and automated indexing used a traditional subject analysis approach to identify the concepts in the materials. The outcomes of this subject analysis was compared with the outcomes from this methodology.

The methodology to be described below will allow knowledge engineers and systems designers to:

  1. establish concept clusters and conceptual neighbourhoods and other key webs eg, source, space, time, degree and viewpoint webs;

  2. establish links: join components that users believe are relevant to a defined line of inquiry;

  3. establish for novice users a "guided tour" of specific conceptual neighbourhoods;

  4. establish navigational aids such as maps, line markers, back tracking mechanisms, for users to navigate the knowledge base.
The spirit of the methodology is reflected in the words of Adams (Lunin & Harmen, 199l): "Designers of information retrieval systems today can't rely on well tested techniques and principles. ... Instead ... they must create new techniques and establish new principles for their medium, even as they practice their craft."


The end users of this system will be community activists in Sydney. While this group is made up of diverse individuals drawn from varying age, income, occupation, education and social groups, they are clearly distinguished by their commitment and active involvement in community action. Community action in commonly understood as a process by which disadvantaged or marginalised groups of people come together to promote their collective interests and to make demands on more powerful and/ or decision making groups. It assumes a conflict approach and is usually, though not always, aimed at righting social injustices and at working for are distribution of power, materials and decision making in Australia. It has often been associated since the 1960s with working class communities taking action over such issues as the redevelopment of low income housing, poor community facilities and lack of public transport. In the 1990s community action increasingly focuses on "quality of the environment" issues with neighbourhood community groups protesting against toxic and hazardous waste dumping and the redevelopment of local "green space". Larger environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society use community action techniques widely and effectively in campaigns to "save the forests" and drawing attention to large corporations misusing the environment. The nature of the action process is summed up by Rubin & Rubin: "Social action campaigns DOCUMENT a problem, choose as a TARGET those who can effect a solution, SYMBOLISE the issue, take PRESSUREFUL actions and try to ensure IMPLEMENTATION of promised changes" (Rubin & Rubin, 1992, p.245). Given that this view of community activism appears to be widely accepted, it seems possible that the outcomes from the research that underpins this system can be applied to the development of any system aimed at community activists.

The community activists who participated in the development of the conceptual framework comprised people who were involved in action during the Grew Ban period, contemporary activists, authors of Green Ban materials held in the private collections, and people researching the period for a variety of reasons. This group thus enabled knowledge from both generators and end users of the materials to be represented.

To elicit the concept clusters, interviews based on the focus group model were held. The group approach was chosen because of the acknowledged solidarity of community activists in Sydney. (This solidarity was confirmed in a pilot test of the technique). Groups of eight to ten activists were asked to describe a specific situation when they needed information from the Green Ban period to enable them to progress with their current community activities. A small collection of materials was made available to the group. This consisted of photographs, newspaper cuttings, poster and private diary entries. They each selected a number of Green Ban materials that met their situational needs and undertook a concept analysis of these materials. Once everyone had completed their concept analysis, a structured discussion using a series of questions and prompts was held, and this was recorded. After the formal group discussions had ended, a number of the activists volunteered to continue the discussion and these were also recorded.


Community activists' conceptualisation of the material examined is structured on concepts such as group solidarity, betrayal, victimisation, the hero, participation reluctance, urban neglect, high rise isolation and tenancy eviction. Many of these concepts are implicit rather than explicit, and can only be recognised through individual experience in past and current action. There is a high level of abstraction in the representation of concepts common among the group, and the ability to abstract at this level is seen as an outcome of group loyalty that the group expressed as characteristic of community activists. The common set of abstract concepts and their interrelationships identified by the groups will form the basis of structuring the conceptual neighbourhoods to be included in the system.

The central concepts identified by community activists are multi-dimensional. Dimensions such as source, time, space, situational environment, degree, scope. prior experience, motivation, and viewpoint are important contextually in shaping the portrayal of the concepts. The representation of these dimensions are seen by community activists as important in judging the usefulness of the documents to their particular needs. These dimensions will need to be made explicit in the design of the system.

The interpretation of these concepts within each of these dimensions generates a high level of specificity in the meaning of concepts. It is important that system designers place these concepts in appropriate contexts so that the matrix of meanings is correctly established. For example, whether a poster is viewed as propaganda or informing can only be established by linkages to contextual elements such as intention, key players, situation, and time.

From our comparison of the outcomes of community activists and indexers, it is evident that community activists speak a unique language which they appear to understand and use with ease to communicate with one another. Their conceptualisation of the material is not an indexer's conceptualisation of it. Essentially, the message is very clear: systems that are based on a conceptualisation derived from traditional subject analysis (or automatically generated indexes) will be of limited usefulness to community activists.


It is recognised that we are in early days of this new technological era, an exciting era where the locus of control can shift significantly from an information provider (knowledge engineer) or system designer to the user. The task ahead is challenging because of the interplay of many unknowns in relation to design, navigational issues, cognitive issues, and motivational issues. It is important that knowledge based system designers collaborate with researchers investigating knowledge representation of users so that there is alignment of users' knowledge structures and system structures. This methodology may contribute to this shift in control.


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Contact: Ross J Todd, School of Information Studies, University of Technology, Sydney, Kuring-gai Campus, PO Box 222, Lindfield NSW 2070 Australia. Tel: 02 330 5518 Fax: 02 330 5528 Email: R.Todd@uts.edu.au

Please cite as: Todd, R. J., Parker, J. and Yerbury, H. (1994). Knowledge representation and multimedia knowledge base design: A methodology for alignment. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 543-548. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/qz/todd.html

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