The Open Meeting:
Light-Weight Semantics for Wide-Area Collaboration

John C. Mallery and Roger Hurwitz
Intelligent Information Infrastructure Project
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A large-scale collaboration system was developed and deployed in the Vice President's Open Meeting on the National Performance Review for 4000 Federal workers to comment on proposals for reinventing government. This presentation will overview the technology and the lessons learned from the experiment. A central theme is the use of a light-weight semantics of typed links to structure discussion, plans, policies, and institutional experience.

Wide-area collaboration is distinguished from small-scale groupware because the larger volumes of communication inherent in the former are made tractable for individuals by means of knowledge-level techniques for structuring information, focusing interactions, and locating expertise or interest. Annotation of hypertext nodes make possible hierarchical decomposition to achieve topically-focused and locally-manageable information flows. In the Open Meeting, taxonomic structure and light-weight link semantics are the knowledge-level techniques used to:

The taxonomy provided a means to disaggregate and manipulate issues while the link semantics captured discourse relations of comments to the their target hypertext nodes. A discourse grammar controlled what categories of nodes are available for comment and how links combined with nodes. Given the underlying categorized and linked textbase, specialized views of the structure are synthesized for participants according to whether they access the system from the Web or email, and whether they are moderators or users.

The Open Meeting was implemented as an application on top of the general-purpose substrate provided by the Communications Linker System (COMLINK), which includes the following components:

A number of web-based tools for managing the open meeting were developed for use by 40 moderators. These included tools for reviewing users' comments before their exposure to public view, returning standardized instructions/reviews to users, inspecting different views of the evolving textbase.

In the online meeting, a topically differentiated set recommendations developed by the National Performance Review comprised the initial, taxonomically-structured textbase. After completing a participation survey over email, participants were allowed to join the discussion. To support both productive discussions and differences of opinion, the discourse grammar permitted users to attach examples, alternatives, qualifications, questions and answers, in addition to agreements and disagreements. Agreement and disagreement accounted for most of the 1000 posted comments, but several hundred examples and alternatives were also submitted. In almost all cases, users correctly identified the link type and the resulting discussions were more structured and reflective then those often found on line. This early experiment in wide-area collaboration demonstrated that knowledge-level structuring techniques can allow non-technical people to effectively extend a collective hypertext and make wide-area collaboration systems tractable.