From the CD-ROM "Concepts and strategies"


Growing a portal

by Peter Small


Think of an information space with designated subject areas, each of which can be reached by means of a suitably sign-posted pathway. Think of each of these subject areas as containing people who are giving pointers to information relative to the subject area they are in.

It is then just a question of people who want to know something, following a pathway to an area where someone can give them an answer, or suggest a solution to their problem.

(It is like a library without any books, but, with the library system of labelling the areas - rooms, book cases, shelves, etc - being used to guide people to positions in the physical space, where they can meet up with others who can tell them where they might find the information they are looking for).

Sounds a reasonable idea, doesn't it? This is something that can easily be handled by a conventional database solution. Sure it can, but only when the system is up and running and populated with thousands of users. The problem is: how do you get such a system working in the first place? This is the problem and the solution we are after.

A database solution is no help here. This is why it is necessary to use a stigmergic system - because it copes with the difficult start up phase.

The problem

Creating pathways to designated meeting places (creating a formatted space) would seem to be the obvious way to start creating a system of this kind.

But, in the beginning, there would be nobody at these sign-posted destinations for people to meet when they get there. This wouldn't encourage people to return again, resulting in a stillborn venture that never ever gets off the ground.

The alternative is to get the right sort of people at meeting places first and then create pathways to the meeting places afterwards. This seems an equally impractical solution.

This is where stigmergy comes in, it can provide a solution for such catch-22 type problems. The way out of this dilemma is to create both at the same time. In this way, no path would have a meeting place where there are no people and no source of information would be without a sign-posted path leading to it.

This is where the concept of stigmergy comes in, the phenomenon where an environment has an effect on behavior and behavior has an effect on the environment – a positive feedback situation.

This is the principle underlying self-organisation in many biological systems: evident in the way ant colonies appear to be highly organized. It is also amply evident in the evolution of eco systems, with their complex arrangements of inter dependencies.

Unfortunately, if you try to explain an organic portal in this way, you'll lose credibility. People will think you are an impractical theorist.

To illustrate this idea in a more convincing way, it is best to provide examples of this phenomenon happening in the real world.

4) Explaining stigmergy

The concept

Fundamental to the development of an organic portal is the concept of stigmergy. This is another of those elusive, abstract concepts that most people don't seem to click onto very easily.

The general idea is that people react according to what they see in an environment. If their reaction changes the environment, then subsequent reactions will be different - because will be then reacting to a different, newly changed, environment.

This is not intuitive. It is only understandable in terms of "positive feedback": a concept that many people are not familiar with.

5) A strategy for creating an organic portal

Stigmergic systems and organic portals do not start as a completed, all bell's and whistles, application. They are a collection of software facilities that will enable an end product to emerge as the result of interactive processes.

This is where the development of an organic portal is counter intuitive. You don't start with an organizing product and use this to create a self-organizing system. You start by creating a self-organizing system, then add the facilities and structure of the product as you go along.

This concept is not easy to grasp, particularly if it is viewed from a top down, system design view point. So, it might be helpful to use a real life example taken from an article I wrote a few years ago..

My first encounter with this phenomenon [exponential growth of evolving systems] was with London's Carnaby Street. As a schoolboy, I first visited Carnaby Street to visit a clothes designer called John Stevens. There were no fashionable shops in Carnaby Street at that time, just this one designer who sold garments from two small rooms on the second floor of one of the buildings.

Word of mouth brought his customers and because of the uniqueness of his designs he attracted a growing clientele. This growing business enabled him to move into one of the many run down shops in Carnaby Street, where he began to attract even more customers. This trade attracted other designers, who took over the shops next to his.

With more fashion shops opening, Carnaby Street started to attract an even greater flow of customers. This attracted even more fashion designers, which in turn increased the attraction of the street.

The effect was exponential. Within a few years Carnaby Street had become the most fashionable street in the World. I know the full story because twenty years after I made that first visit to Carnaby Street as a schoolboy, I opened a shop there myself.

The technical name for this phenomenon is 'phase transition' – describing the exponential change of a dynamic system as it changes from one stable state to another. Such phase transitions are commonly observed in many biological eco systems, as well as many human business and social situations.

This story illustrates the main principles behind the creation of an organic database:

It isn't about the physical structure...

...it is about the accumulation of activities that mutually reinforce each other.

It isn't about creating algorithms and computer programs...

... it is about creating an environment where a self-organizing process can take place.