Saturday, December 15, 2007

WIKI / Mind-Mapping: Overcoming Information Overload

Do you feel buried in information? If so, trust me, you are not alone!

If you are like me, you are probably hoping for, and/or looking for, a way to overcome information overload in your daily life - as it seems the pace at which new data piles up just constantly increases. There has to be a better way, and a technology / software solution, that can be employed to efficiently organize masses of information: personal tidbits, work and business information, miscellaneous facts and notes, multiple documents in varied formats (e.g., Word, PowerPoint, OpenOffice, Acrobat PDFs, Excel Spreadsheets), important hyperlinks / URLs, other file-locations (i.e., essentially FTP site or local file-system hyperlinks), images and so much more.

For years, I have been dealing with this growing problem of information management by trying to employ technology to stay one step ahead of things. I have used a wide array of information storage and retrieval tools and techniques to assist in my pursuit of life-simplification and data-management efficiency, with varied results. Each knowledge management approach has had its pros and cons, and most have worked for a while, but eventually implode under the increasing complexities of growing interdependencies, references, and relationships.

I am once again at an inflection point in my information and idea management undertakings. Though my current system of managing my thoughts, files, and information has worked for a few years, it is starting to collapse under its own weight again. So, I have been vigorously researching the latest and greatest alternatives that exist to help me in my desire to once again gain control of all my data and information.

This time around, I am looking into software and technology that was in a rather nascent form the last time I was "in the market" for such things. In particular, I am looking towards an information management solution that may be best described as:

  1. a "personal WIKI" (or, perhaps workgroup WIKI or corporate WIKI -- a WIKI I can run in-house on my own server or desktop computer). I have played with a few now, and know what works for me well, and what does not. There are some nice open-source personal WIKI software options available now thank goodness, and they have really come a long way in functionality and ease of use over the past few years. I tried a few locally-installed WIKI software products with success during my search.
  2. "personal mind-mapping software" (or, "brainstorming software", thought-mapping software, neural net software. This type of visual information management software was cumbersome (at best) just a few years ago. I am delighted to report that I have found a few modern mind-mappers that have some serious potential. Most implement a very similar paradigm for mind-maps, but at least one, called Personal Brain, implements a completely different neural-network or information-web type approach (not the best description, but trust me, it is different) to visual data-management.
  3. A combination of the two - using a mind-mapping system as a WIKI-overlay or add-on to better manage the complex relationships between information, files, and links. Thankfully, most modern mind-map software supports linking external (or attached) files / URLs into the diagram, so I can easily use one for linking to a WIKI or file-system.
  4. The end result needs to support multiple hierarchical navigation-trees / views of the underlying repository documents and data. This is sometimes referred to as faceted classification or faceted browsing (or faceted [data] browser). I find that accessing data from multiple "angles", or entry points, or ways of thinking is essential for quick retrieval. This also leads to...
  5. Easily Searchable Repository - regardless of what I end up implementing, I need to be able to search notes, documents and other attachments, and the like, quickly and easily. More so, I will go beyond considering a "search" to just be a text-based operation - I want to be able to quickly search / scan visually through navigation diagrams and cues I setup, so I can not only see specific search-results, but also how other information is related to those results.
Let me begin by posting some definitions that may be helpful in understanding these technologies I propose to use for managing and overcoming information overload...

WIKI, as defined by Wikipedia:

A wiki is a kind of computer software that allows users to create, edit, and link web pages easily. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. They are being installed by businesses to provide affordable and effective Intranets and for Knowledge Management.

Mind-Mapping, as defined on Wikipedia:

A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea. It is used to generate, visualize, structure and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing.

It is an image-centered diagram that represents semantic or other connections between portions of information. By presenting these connections in a radial, non-linear graphical manner, it encourages a brainstorming approach to any given organizational task, eliminating the hurdle of initially establishing an intrinsically appropriate or relevant conceptual framework to work within.

A mind map is similar to a semantic network or cognitive map but there are no formal restrictions on the kinds of links used.

The elements are arranged intuitively according to the importance of the concepts and they are organized into groupings, branches, or areas. The uniform graphic formulation of the semantic structure of information on the method of gathering knowledge, may aid recall of existing memories.

My Chosen Information-Overload "Cure" Technology
Stay tuned. I have made significant progress over the past couple weeks with installing a multitude of demo software, trial software, and open-source full-version solutions. This has taken a lot of time and effort, as there are plenty of nuances to learn about how each piece of technology and software approaches the problem / objective of best information management solution.

I have currently looked at well over 30 WIKI solutions and 10 mind-mapping solutions. From that, I have boiled down the "potential winners" list to just 2 or 3 WIKI products and 2 brainstorming products.

I will soon be posting a list of these "finalists" along with a more detailed discussion about each one, their features, pros and cons, and why I chose what I did in the end. Then, once I select my absolute ultimate knowledge management system, I plan to post detailed directions on how to install and setup the software, and how to best use the technology / software to conquer information overload.

In the case of some open-source software solutions, the installation and setup can be challenging to technology newbies, so if I go that route, it'll take time to provide really clear steps. Ideally, I'd create a personal-WIKI virtual machine appliance (using VMWare tools to create an easily distributed pre-configured WIKI / Mind-Mapping VMware appliance), but that will only work if I use an open-source operating system and only software that will run on OSS too (which, would eliminate any Windows-only solutions of course). I do not plan to only look at open-source mind-mapping or WIKI solutions - I want to consider products based on their functionality more than anything, though with WIKIs, open-source is pretty much a given (there are tons of good ones for free now!).

Once I post further blogs about mind-mapping and knowledge management solutions, I'll amend this one with links to them for easy access.


Argey said...

I suggest 3D Topicscape as an addition to your list. It gives a wider view of all your information by mindmapping in 3D. It provides greater flexibility than a strict mindmap because it allows multiple parents for a topic and loose associations (like Personal Brain), but the underlying approach will feel familiar to any mindmapper.

There is a free Student Edition and Lite and Pro versions.

It's at


Map Babe said...

I'm always looking for solutions to information overload, and I was reading
your post and muttering Topicscape, Topicscape, Topicscape to myself, then I
saw someone beat me to it.

I use it to organize all my files. For me, it's been well worth the effort
of learning it. I still keep an eye out for other ideas, though, and yours
was a great post, thank you.

Mike Eberhart said...

Regarding TopicSpace:
It was in my evaluation group, but I tossed it out rather quickly. Couldn't stand the user interface at all. For me, there were just much better options, and even the better ones may not still be good enough in regards to how I want to use one.

I also suspect both of these previous comments are by the same person. The proximity of post-times, when I rarely get comments here, tells it all to me. You probably work for TopicScape. If I am wrong, oh well, but I have a feeling I am right.

The fact is, if anyone is going to choose a mind-mapper software tool, they need to check out MANY options and find the best one for themselves. Each of these things works differently, but shares some common underpinnings. It all will depend which one feels right when you use it.

I played with a LOT of these tools before narrowing the field to just a few. And, I gave each of the final few a fair amount of hands-on time, and even came up with lists of "pros/cons" for each, and things that need improvement (I hope to forward to the makers yet).

I still plan to post my detail findings. If you want to offer any side-by-side comparisons (detailed) to back up the push for TS software, feel free.