Taxonomies

What is your superpower?

When asked which superpower they could select, most people would choose the ability to fly, to see through walls, to have the power of invisibility or some other enhanced physical ability like Superman or Wonder Woman. But some of the most powerful superpowers come in a very different form.

What if there was a superpower we all possess in our pockets and use every day without realising it? That superpower is information, or more specifically the ability to find and discover the world’s knowledge quickly and easily on our devices and tablets. Each time you search Google, Amazon or another website, the technology that powers that search is the humble taxonomy.

Classifying resources into categories and collections is nothing new, as humans have been doing this with resources for millennia. What has changed in recent years is the volume of information which is available and the difficulty we would have finding the relevant information without a robust taxonomy categorising and sorting the information behind-the-scenes.

From our time at school most of us will be familiar with the classification system used to describe the animal kingdom, with its branches defining different species and classes of animals. Consider the gorilla. The gorilla is a Hominid of the order Primate, of the class Mammal, represented as a tree of life. But, gorillas are also herbivores, are ground-dwelling and nurture strong family groups. These properties of the gorilla could easily apply to another mammal within the tree structure, perhaps a rabbit, a kangaroo or a cow. So, how do we distinguish and group these properties into a meaningful structure?

Think about the word Apple. Are we referring to the technology, the fruit or a celebrity’s daughter? Without a robust taxonomy, it is difficult to make this distinction. Grouping similar properties such as colour, texture or modality can help us to make distinctions between species, between objects or between pieces of information.

The graph taxonomy has revolutionised the way in which we search and categorise information. Perform a search on Google or Bing for renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci and you will be presented with a panel of information about the artist, including links to his most famous works, notable personal relationships, places he lived and famous quotes. This panel is powered by an open graph taxonomy which shows relationships between seemingly disparate objects and contexts. So, Leonardo da Vinci is not just related to art, he is also related to Anchiano in Italy (the place where he was born), the Louvre (where the Mona Lisa painting is displayed) and slightly further removed, Leonardo DiCaprio (they share the same first name).

Everything has multiple properties and everything has multiple relationships and it is these similarities that are used in a taxonomy to make information more easily searchable and discoverable.

Health Education England’s (HEE) Technology Enhanced Learning programme is working with industry experts to identify the most effective way to organise and categorise our learning and educational resources. A prototype taxonomy has been developed in the Smartlogic management tool which helps sort and organise terms and create synonyms of common words. We’re taking the best elements of many different taxonomies, vocabularies and lists of values, such as SNOMED to create a taxonomy that works for everyone and makes finding information easier. The prototype draws content from the HEE e-Learning for Healthcareportal and the NHS eLearning Repository, indexing it and linking it to the taxonomy terms. The results of the prototype work will be published in a further blog post once the work is complete. The taxonomy will ultimately power many of the education and learning tools you use every day and will be a key component on the new HEE learning solution.

Taxonomies may not be as exciting a superpower as invisibility or the ability to fly but this unassuming technology has transformed the world we live in and turned information into an everyday superhero!