2012 End of Year Update

By dwhly | 1 January, 2013

Friends of Hypothesis:

While we’ve been fairly regular in our code contributions on github, in our tweets and more recently on our blog, we’re past due for an outbound communication to everyone who’s supported us over the last year and is curious about the state of activity here.

A lot happened in 2012.

We secured significant funding from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation and the Shuttleworth Foundation, assembled a team, held a major workshop to think through our peer-review model, connected with key partners like the Open Knowledge Foundation, laid out the roadmap for the various stages of development we foresee, committed a substantial amount of code and produced an early prototype of our annotation tool.

2013 will see us focus on completing the development for an alpha release of the annotation tool, begin work on the distributed peer-review model, and begin cultivation of the partnerships and early user communities that we think can help demonstrate the potential of what annotation brings.

Here are some realizations and milestones from the last twelve months:

It’s not just about fact-checking.

Annotation represents the promise of a new layer of information delivered over the Internet that relates and interconnects small bits of knowledge on the web and elsewhere–throughout documents, media and data wherever they exist. Its promise is a much more fluid interplay between creators, publishers, remixers and consumers of information at every level. It’s based on free and open principles, just like the Internet and the web.

We’ve learned that annotation was part of the original vision of the web as laid out by Vannevar Bush nearly 70 years ago in his seminal article “As We May Think”. It was also built into the world’s first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, by Marc Andreessen back in 1993. It’s clear from past efforts and current momentum that annotation has been part of the DNA of the web and its innovators for decades.

Here’s a powerful quote from Marc this year with a bit of history that brings home just how long held a dream this has been.

“Back in 1993, when Eric Bina and I were first building Mosaic, it seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web – our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents. So we built a feature called “group annotations” right into the browser – and it worked great – all users could comment on any page and discussions quickly ensued. Unfortunately, our implementation at that time required a server to host all the annotations, and we didn’t have the time to properly build that server, which would obviously have had to scale to enormous size. And so we dropped the entire feature. I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything – to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum.”

(We wrote a blog post about that quote and the related investment in annotation company rapgenius.)

We’re part of a movement.

An ecosystem of technology providers, publishers, libraries, communities of interest and others is emerging that is committed to the annotation of the worlds knowledge. These are linked by a nascent standards effort that promises real interoperability. As the year has unfolded we’ve begun to understand our role as developers, conveners and open systems advocates within this ecosystem. Our essential mission is unchanged — we hope to enable the crowd-sourced peer-review of knowledge everywhere, undertaking this goal as an organization that is dedicated to realizing and preserving this capability for humanity in perpetuity. What’s new is that we’ve discovered a lot of other people that want to see this happen too, and who want to work together to make it happen. This is very good news indeed.

We’ve gotten started.

Ours is a long term effort. It’s clear that building the standards, software, infrastructure and services to facilitate annotation of text, video, images, audio, data and other formats will take more than a year. That said, we’ve identified a clear starting place: creating a simple user interface to enable the annotation of text, and coupling that with a model for community peer-review.

We have a prototype.

We have an early prototype ready and if you’re a designer, developer or otherwise would like to contribute to the effort and would like to take a peek, take a look at the code and jump into the conversation. We’d love to hear from you. We have an active developer mailing list and IRC channel. Our Github repository has extensive documentation of issues, a wiki outlining many of the key features we imagine, many of them with mockups, and a roadmap for how we’ll get there.

For everyone else, have a bit more patience, we expect to be making a more general announcement about an early alpha in the first quarter of 2013.

We have a lot of work left to do.

This next year, we’ll be focused on completing the remaining key product areas we’ve already identified. However, building a great product is worthless if no one shows up to use it or if they don’t stick around once they do. Though we have had substantial discussions with a wide range of likely users over the last year that have validated the need, interest and feasibility of what we’re building, we’ll be expanding our explorations with “first users” in our candidate launch domains (legislation, scientific articles, terms of service, etc). We need to understand, what is their workflow, what specific features and functionality will be most useful for them, who do they interact with throughout a typical day, and what are the other systems and services they use that we should interoperate with?

Based on this feedback, we’ll begin to source a series of community annotations of documents in our target domains. These will provide valuable feedback, supporting further product refinement and allow us to widen the community and accelerate the cycle of annotation, sharing and entrainment of larger communities that will drive adoption.

Thank you for the interest and support you’ve shown us thus far.
— Dan, Randall and Jehan

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