Tools for Personal Knowledge Management

If you make your living as a carpenter, you’ve probably invested a lot of money in professional-grade tools you depend on every day. If you’re a knowledge worker, you have the same need for professional-grade tools, but it’s not a simple as going down to Home Depot to find what you need.

For one thing, the kinds of knowledge you have to manage may be widely varied, and a tool that’s good for one thing may not work well for others. More tools become available all the time, and it’s not always easy to separate the hype from the practical benefit. Though geek types like me are often attracted to high-tech solutions, sometimes “right tech” (or even, horrors, low-tech) approaches provide most of the benefit at a fraction of the cost (which is usually measured in time and effort rather than money).

I had a conversation today with someone who had learned about my experience with some Semantic Web technologies, and wondered what i thought about different approaches to mapping out complex knowledge. As we talked, i reflected on several different kinds of knowledge that i manage almost daily:

  • Bookmarking web sites in your browser doesn’t scale well beyond a hundred items or so: nearly everybody who’s organizing web knowledge these days has moved up to something like del.icio.us (here are my tags, which i see recently topped 1000!), Ma.gnolia, or something else with dots in its name.
  • For organizing notes on projects, i like to have small chunks of content with hyperlinks in a Wiki. I’ve tried a couple of systems, but Tiddlywiki is still the winner: it’s lightweight, it lives in my browser, and it’s got a great bang-to-buck ratio. I use this blog in some similar ways: even if nobody else reads my posts, it’s useful for me to organize my thoughts in writing them, and it also provides a more persistent record of my thoughts and wanderings across the web.
  • Bibliographic references: i use CiteULike for academic work, though it’s much easier to capture references than it is to find time to read them! A major benefit is CiteULike’s ability to easily import reference details rather than requiring me to type them. Similar systems include Zotero, Connotea, Citeline (which is cool because it harnesses some of the technology from the MIT Simile project).
  • Things that take longer to read than a simple web page, but have a shorter life span than academic publications, get queued on InstaPaper.
  • If you want a social bookmarking service with Semantic Web and natural language technology under the hood, Twine is an interesting new player. I haven’t had time to review its capabilities carefully yet, but i’m intrigued.
  • If you already know that you really want data structured as triples, and you already think that way, Turtle is a much easier way to manually author data than the RDF/XML syntax. But be warned that you’ll also need to invest considerable time in learning tools for parsing, storing, etc.: the geek threshold for Semantic Web technologies is still quite high.

A few more general thoughts:

  • If your data and knowledge will have a long lifespan, beware of lock-in. It’s not just the ease of entering knowledge, but what you can do with it afterward, including taking it someplace different altogether, that counts. People often regret their time investment in Facebook when they realize they can’t just pack up their data and move elsewhere (some comments by Dave Winer are typically on-target here). These systems are like a roach motel: data checks in, but it doesn’t check out.
  • You need to think like a carpenter about your knowledge management tools: what do you need them to do, how much investment is appropriate, etc.? The right tools can provide an enormous boost in your productivity, but they can also become masters rather than servants if you’re not careful.

Some related past posts: