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Voyage of the Beagle: Biology, Evolution, and Content Strategy

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“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ― Charles Darwin.

Despite being creatures made of pixels, codes, and thought, websites are living entities that follow principles similar to the evolutionary principles that predict how life changes and adapts. Using concepts from biology and the natural sciences, we'll look at the evolution of the University of Florida Health web presence, a three year process that eventually affected over 500 academic sites, six hospitals, hundreds of medical clinics, and eventually an entire university redesign. You're not going to need a lab coat or safety goggles as Stevens investigates how many finches are needed to make a decent digital birdhouse, genetic engineering (how to take learned principles and splice them into new projects), order and understanding through taxonomy, or punctuated equilibrium (and how to affect what comes next).

Presented at the 2014 Higher Education Web Professionals Conference in Portland, Oregon and at the 2014 Confab Higher Education in Atlanta, GA.

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Editor's Notes

  • Good morning. My name is Jeff Stevens, and I’d like to invite you on a journey this morning to discuss biology, evolution, and content strategy on the web.
  • We live on a wondrous planet.
  • Scientist estimate that there 8.7 million species on our planet, of an astonishing array of sizes, shapes and forms.
  • And yet, all of these species are believed to have started from a single celled organism.
  • And came to be as they are today over the course of billions of years.
  • And despite all of those myriad shapes, underneath, we’re built of the same common DNA chains. Humans are said to have 60% genetic similarity to both fruit flies and chickens.
  • We’ve seen this same explosion of variation on the web. As of the beginning of this year, it’s estimated there are a billion websites.
  • All of which spawned from a single, simple site.
  • In just 23 years (the same year as Super Mario World came out).
  • And, if we peak under the hood, all of them have similar DNA as well.
  • What caused this change, both in the natural world and on the web? Evolution.
  • Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection fuels most of our modern views of evolution.
  • From 1831 to 1836, Darwin sailed on the HMS Beagle on a voyage to South America and the Pacific to collect animal specimens. Some of the most intriguing animals we collected were from the Galapagos islands, a remote island chain off the coast of South America.
  • Among that collection were many birds that Darwin identified as being various different species. Upon returning to England, Darwin’s friend and ornithologist John Gould identified the birds as all being finches.
  • This revelation led Darwin to development his theory of natural selection. Darwin hypothesized that all of these species started from a common ancestor, but that through time those animals whose features were best suited to their environment passed those traits to their offspring (theory was descent with modification by means of natural selection) Natural selection results, over the course of generations, in beneficial features replacing their disadvantageous counterparts.
  • The same kind of natural selection occurs on the web, but what we do is also affected by artificial selection. Both natural factors and human decisions affect our site changes.
  • A term first used by biologist Johan Koeslag: when sexual creatures seek a mate, they prefer that mate not to have any unusual, peculiar or deviant features. A sexual creature, therefore, wishing to mate with a fit partner, would be expected to avoid individuals sporting unusual features, while being especially attracted to those individuals displaying a predominance of common or average features. On the web, this results in the homogenization of our web presences in higher education. Our tendency is to build alike and to give users a commonly recognized interface.
  • In part determined by us as makers.
  • But also by our audiences and what we perceive our their expectations.
  • This is how Pixar could so easily emulate a University experience for Monsters U – we could all see our sites in this design due to koinophilia.
  • Adaptive Radiation: in biology, a process in which organisms diversify rapidly into new forms, particularly when environmental changes make:
  • On the Galapagos finches, certain beak sizes are favored in dry years when the few seeds produced are large. Only big beaked individuals can handle them so those are the ones that disproportionely reproduce- driving the selection of big beaks.
    On islands with multiple finch species eating seeds, you will see character displacement – the beak sizes of different species don’t overlap much as they partition the seed resources of differing sizes.
    Also, keep in mind, selection is not always directional. So, a couple of wet years on the islands could relax selection pressure and totally change the distribution of beak sizes.
  • New tools and programming languages, hardware and devices
    The internet of things
    Favored styles for higher ed sites
    Character displacement – silos in organization, multiple levels of sites
    Not always directional – decentralized site management relaxes selection pressure and leads to variance in site designs
  • A concept introduced by William Hamilton and John Jaenike that refers to the arms race of evolutionary developments and counter-developments that cause co-evolving species to mutually drive each other to adapt. Organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate to survive while pitted against ever-evolving competi­ng organisms in an ever-changing environment.
  • Coined by University of California, Berkeley professor Anthony D. Barnosky in 1999.
    Theorizes that abiotic forces including climate, rather than biotic competition between species, is a major driving force behind the processes in evolution that produce speciation.
  • Phyletic Gradualism Change occurs gradually over time towards new species
  • Saltation Evolution occurs rapidly, from one generation to the next, “leap”
  • Hopeful Monster, the idea that a mutation can affect the larger pool
  • Punctuated Equilibrium Species exist in stasis until some external pressure moves them to change, spurring rapid evolutionary change (not in one generation, but over a short period of geological time. Relative stasis over a considerable part of its total duration [and] underwent periodic, relatively rapid, morphologic change that did not lead to lineage branching".
  • Phyletic Gradualism Iterative change based on usability testing, A/B testing (slow, gradual changes over time)
  • Saltation Senior management request for change
  • Punctuated Equilibrium Stasis punctuated by rapid change
  • . Transitional forms are particularly unstable, and perish rapidly and completely
  • Parallel evolution occurs when two independent but similar species evolve in the same direction and thus independently acquire similar characteristics—for instance gliding frogs have evolved in parallel from multiple types of tree frog. Independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages.
  • Different ancestors, develop same traits
    Shands Jacksonville, External marketing sites
  • Aristotle developed a system of classification in 300 BC.
  • “Modern” methods of taxonomic classification are attributed to Linnaeus, who introduced his methodology in the 1700’s. Linneaus was a botanist, and taxonomy is generally associated with biology and systematics.
  • The composition of each class is determined by a taxonomist. Often there is no exact agreement, with different taxonomists taking different positions. There are no hard rules that a taxonomist needs to follow in describing a class, but for well-known animals there is likely to be consensus.
  • Taxonomy on the web often refers to traditional LIS definitions for classification schemes, controlled vocabularies, or thesauri.
  • Hierarchies: A hierarchy defines the structural framework used to classify terms into parent/child or broad-to-narrow relationships. Hierarchies are specifically used to support layered groups of information and not simply for the convenience of creating groupings—although each level of a hierarchy is commonly referred to as a “category.” Sometimes referred to a as a “taxonomy,”
  • Polyheirarchical Taxonomy: On the web, we tend to play fast and loose with terminology, and that’s true here as well. A strict interpretation of the definition of taxonomy would demand that the scheme be a pure hierarchy with one to one relationships. Polyhierarchical taxonomy. Polyhierarchy being the concept that something can “live” in more than one place in a hierarchy.
  • A Universal Hierarchy:
 Content structure matches the navigation – the navigation structure is your taxonomy.
    Easy for content creators to understand
    Hard to reuse content
  • Content Mapping:
Managing content is indepenedent of the navigation; content can be organized in many different ways for the end user
    Marketing sub-sites
    Content, in your management environment, may be orphaned in your presentation framework if there are no rules mapping to an accessible part of the site.
    Parts of the site may only be sparsely populated. It may not be readily obvious that you are creating gaps (with little or no content) in your site.
  • Nested sets are the union of data classified under a particular node and all of its descendents. The example, above, shows three sets. One of those sets is North America and all the nodes within it. Content classified under nodes within a single set may have relevance because they are related by something inherent in the structure. Relevance in looking at the larger group (ancestors) and in a more specific group (descendants)
  • A thesaurus translates conceptual relationships between the content, often made naturally by humans, into something a computer can understand. Thesauri typically address three types of relationships: equivalent (synonyms), hierarchical (broad-to-narrow terms), and/or associative (related terms).
  • In small sites, taxonomies are easy to manage and are obvious
    As sites grow larger, the taxonomy becomes increasingly more difficult It will create legacy issue that will be hard to fix in the future
  • Address governance as early as possible in the design cycle. 
How do you revise; how frequently; who is responsible? How do you handle conflicts? Focus on developing good criteria for the definition and extension of your metadata and taxonomy. Good rules will enable those tasked with management to respond quickly and with reason to requests for adaptation.
  • Identify the scope.
Scope creep is a potential issue. Instead of solving all the organization’s problems right now, invest time and energy in defining how your classification requirements can and will change over time. The larger the scope, the harder it is to find consensus within the organization. Smaller vocabularies within silos.
  • Catalog your content. 
The exercise of cataloging your content can be very informative. A lot of guidance, limitations, and input can be achieved during this process. More often than not, your classification requirements will vary by content class or type.
  • Experts versus laypeople (get outside testing whenever possible) Audience is important - a health site for doctors would probably require a taxonomy written in latinate language - no heart attacks, just myocardial infarctions - but one for the public would use common language. This may throw a BIG spanner in the works because plenty of organisations use their own special vocabulary which may not be used by their site users. Even within organisations, sub-groups tend to hide behind jargon and special vocabulary as a way of identifying and isolating outsiders.
  • Experts versus laypeople (get outside testing whenever possible) Audience is important - a health site for doctors would probably require a taxonomy written in latinate language - no heart attacks, just myocardial infarctions - but one for the public would use common language. This may throw a BIG spanner in the works because plenty of organisations use their own special vocabulary which may not be used by their site users. Even within organisations, sub-groups tend to hide behind jargon and special vocabulary as a way of identifying and isolating outsiders.
  • Experts versus laypeople (get outside testing whenever possible) Audience is important - a health site for doctors would probably require a taxonomy written in latinate language - no heart attacks, just myocardial infarctions - but one for the public would use common language. This may throw a BIG spanner in the works because plenty of organisations use their own special vocabulary which may not be used by their site users. Even within organisations, sub-groups tend to hide behind jargon and special vocabulary as a way of identifying and isolating outsiders.
  • "Perfect" taxonomies are always too complex and you need to fight to make them more manageable (especially if you have just cut up a few parent-child vocabularies into several smaller ones).
  • 95% adherence to new templates
  • Storage and release of variation, just as electric capacitors store and release charge. Living systems are robust to mutations. An evolutionary capacitor is a molecular switch mechanism that can "toggle" genetic variation between hidden and revealed states.
    This mechanism would allow for rapid adaptation to new environmental conditions.
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