Monday, January 23, 2006

Context-Aware Services 3

Paul Miller replies to my second post on Context-Aware services, and asks if this just means advertising. That's a good question, because most of the examples look that way.

My view of context-aware services is that any aspect of a service may be differentiated according to context. The service I get from a supermarket is fairly simple, so perhaps there isn't much scope for variation. But each customer may get a different set of special offers, and this can be generated dynamically, according to the contents of the shopping basket or the path through the store. A customer with a known taste for raw eggs, or a history of returning stale products, may get a warning that a selected product is close to expiry. But is that all? If all we're talking about is commodity advertising, then there is possibly no difference between selling soap powder and lending books.

But I'm not particularly interested in libraries selling me nappies, because I don't think that's their job. I'm interested in ways that the library can serve me better (not just target me better) through an awareness of my context. This is intrinsic differentiation - in other words, differentiation that is relevant to the service in hand.

For example, my son has just done a school project on a mathematician of his choice. He chose Florence Nightingale (the inventor of the pie chart). If he had gone into a library for help, would he have been offered a scholarly history of the Crimean War or an academic thesis about mortality statistics and their graphical representation?

Can a computerized system offer anything approaching the sensitivity and common sense that we still expect from a human librarian? At one extreme, there are standardized search systems, which will give you exactly the same answer whether you are a schoolchild or a BBC researcher or an LSE postgraduate. At the other extreme, there may be inflexible classification systems that assume that a child is only interested in reading books that are designated suitable for that age group.

One of the most important aspects of context is how the service fits into what the consumer (the customer, the library reader) is trying to do. Do I have an essay or article or thesis to write, and when is it due? Am I reading Nietzsche because I am learning German, or because I am learning existentialism (or both)? Am I reading Bede because I am studying history or historians (or both)? Does it make sense to read Locke without also reading Hume? What stage of my learning have I reached? Do I need an edition with glossary, with scholarly notes, with English translation facing? What is my preferred style of learning, my preferred style of researching a topic? Surely questions like these are relevant to improving the service offered by a library to a particular reader?

Ultimately, context-awareness takes us down a path of embracing user diversity. Not just user semantics, but user pragmatics. How much of the reader's context can the library possibly deal with, and what other service providers might the library collaborate with? There are some seriously complex models here.

I see context-awareness as a very significant challenge - introducing modes of complexity that most organizations have never dealt with before - but with the potential reward of offering massive improvements to the experienced quality of service.

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