Contextual Computing At Work

May 28, 2013 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

In Co.Design May 24, 2013 Peter Morrison of Jump Associates writes The Future of Technology isn't Mobile, it's Contextual. He says that the way we respond to the world around is based on situational awareness. "The way we respond to the world around us is so seamless that it’s almost unconscious. Our senses pull in a multitude of information, contrast it to past experience and personality traits, and present us with a set of options for how to act or react. Then, it selects and acts upon the preferred path. This process--our fundamental ability to interpret and act on the situations in which we find ourselves--has barely evolved since we were sublingual primates living on the Veldt.

Here’s the rub: Our senses aren’t attuned to modern life. A lot of the data needed to make good decisions are unreliable or nonexistent. And that’s a problem.

In the coming years, there will be a shift toward what is now known as contextual computing, defined in large part by Georgia Tech researchers Anind Dey and Gregory Abowd about a decade ago. Always-present computers, able to sense the objective and subjective aspects of a given situation, will augment our ability to perceive and act in the moment based on where we are, who we’re with, and our past experiences. These are our sixth, seventh, and eighth senses."

Peter argues that we need four graphs to make contextual computing work:

  • The Social Graph - how you connect to other people and how they are connected to one another, including the nature and emotional relevance of those connections.
  • Your personal graph contains (gulp) all of your beliefs - data relating to a your deepest held beliefs, core values, and personality.
  • The Interest graph - what you like - is about curiosity
  • Your behavior graph - sensors that record what you actually do versus what you claim you do

I agree that one great value of Peter's contextual computing is to make agents like Apple's Siri or Google Now much more effective in answering questions, making recommendations, and delivering what you want based on how you express it in your own words or gestures, taking into account your current situation, recent requests and interests. But this augments a more fundamental capability: human content navigation, including but not limited to search.

In the world of work, I believe it's incredibly valuable to capture and connect the natural objects of your attention and interest, including tasks, projects, work product, relevant discussion, related references even if you're standing in for Siri or Google Now.

When Mr. Dithers shouts: "Bumstead! Where are we on the Acme Account?", the most timely, frequently discussed and contextually relevant version of Dagwood's Acme tasks, projects and work should pop up near the top of the result list, along with the cloud of tags and people who have touched or talked about tasks, projects and other related to the Acme account and its associated activity streams.

The important requirement is making tasks, projects, pages, discussions and other work products first class sharable, named objects that can be connected to each other and what you're working on, discussed, tagged, tasked, and navigated as well as found using search. Being able to talk about tasks and projects relating to Acme captures one important part of your interest and behavior graph (activity stream), and links these items to the names and behavior of other people working with or discussing the same objects.

The objects and connections made in the context of work are more reliable than connections that need to be inferred from your behavior - and they're available now, including the ability to connect tasks, projects, pages and discussion in TeamPage and files, discussion, email and SQL databases in your external systems of record. They record valuable context for Siri and Google Now when used at work - but there's no reason to wait to get started.

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