Two-Part Series On Discovery And Serendipity With Government Information: Serendipity

By Ryan Mayfield, Global Affairs, Yewno, Inc.

Yewno Discover now includes information from the United States Federal Government.  As we’ve worked to break this content out of its silos and make it accessible for our users, we’ve had opportunities to reflect on the joys of serendipity that emerge throughout the discovery process.  This is the second of two blog posts about the experience.

In addition to discovery, the dense, challenging content that makes up US Federal Government information is also ripe for serendipitous discovery.

Navigating complex information can provide an opportunity to experience serendipitous discovery. At the Electronic Research & Libraries conference, I had the chance to talk with Michael Levine-Clark, the Dean of the University of Denver Libraries.  One of the topics we connected on was the vital role of serendipity in research: we both found unique inspiration for our research while searching for other books on library shelves for our theses.

Structure enabled this sort of serendipity.  Content related to our core subjects was located nearby, such that in the process of locating the actual resources we sought, we happened to find other materials that had an even greater impact on our research journeys.  While we had missed the materials in our initial catalog search, we discovered them on the library shelves.

This sort of serendipitous discovery is challenging with overwhelming amounts of unstructured data stored in a wide variety of silos.  When it’s challenging to even locate material, let alone navigate through systems, unexpected discoveries are more likely to be negative than positive.  It’s more likely to discover a broken link or a mistitled document than it is to suddenly find something that advances your research.

Breaking down silos of information (such as aggregating government content) enables a new sort of serendipity.  By opening up this massive volume of text for conceptual and inference-based discovery, users are able to find unique connections that they would have never before considered.  Instead of enabling researchers to walk through library shelves, we enable users to visually explore through concepts, behind each of which is a new opportunity for learning.

For example, water issues are a such big challenge in California, they have a name.  Californians refer to “the Delta”, coined from the CALFED Bay-Delta Program.  As someone who did not grow up in this state, this has been a challenging topic for me to understand since I first arrived.

Yet, through the organized serendipity of Yewno, I was able to move through this content and learn about the broader history of the Water Wars, the role of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the complex legislative hurdles that this project has had to overcome.  While looking into the role of the Clean Water Act, I discovered some of the harsh realities within the ongoing debate over water in California: millions of acre-feet of water required for both environmental preservation and agriculture.  While this information is interrelated, it is stored in different formats and systems from the Environmental Protection Agency, to the Department of the Interior, to Congress.  Without the serendipitous discovery enabled by opening these silos, this exploration would have been virtually impossible.  It now enables future rounds of discovery, both through Yewno and more conventional structured analysis.

Being able to walk through information, Yewno Discover is helping unlock this complex, fragmented resources from the United States Federal Government, and enabling users to serendipitously explore this information.

Jun Ge