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What Are Topic Maps

September 11, 2002

Many years ago, I started looking into SGML and XML as a way to make information more manageable and findable, which was something I had been working on for a long time. It took me several years to discover that, although SGML and XML helped, they did not actually solve the problem. Later I discovered topic maps, and it seemed to me that here was the missing piece that would make it possible to really find what you were looking for. This article is about why I still think so.

What Topic Maps Do

When XML is introduced into an organization it is usually used for one of two purposes: either to structure the organization's documents or to make that organization's applications talk to other applications. These are both useful ways of using XML, but they will not help anyone find the information they are looking for. What changes with the introduction of XML is that the document processes become more controllable and can be automated to a greater degree than before, while applications can now communicate internally and externally. But the big picture, something that collects the key concepts in the organization's information and ties it all together, is nowhere to be found.


This is where topic maps come in. With topic maps you create an index of information which resides outside that information, as shown in the diagram above. The topic map (the cloud at the top) describes the information in the documents (the little rectangles) and the databases (the little "cans") by linking into them using URIs (the lines).

The topic map takes the key concepts described in the databases and documents and relates them together independently of what is said about them in the information being indexed. So when a document says "The maintenance procedure for part X consists of the following steps..." the topic map may say "Part X is of type Q and is contained in parts Y and Z and its maintenance procedure resides in document W". This means taking a step back from the details and focusing on the forest rather than the trees. Or, to put it another way, it means managing the meaning of the information, rather than just the information.

The result is an information structure that breaks out of the traditional hierarchical straightjacket that we have gotten used to squeezing our information into. A topic map usually contains several overlapping hierarchies which are rich with semantic cross-links like "Part X is critical to procedure V." This makes information much easier to find because you no longer act as the designers expected you to; there are multiple redundant navigation paths that will lead you to the same answer. You can even use searches to jump to a good starting point for navigation.

The most common use for topic maps right now is to build web sites that are entirely driven by the topic map, in order to fully realize the their information-finding benefits. The topic map provides the site structure, and the page content is taken partly from the topic map itself, and partly from the occurrences. This solution is perfect for all sorts of portals, catalogs, site indexes, and so on. Since a topic map can be said to represent knowledge about the things it describes, topic maps are also ideal as knowledge management tools.

This is by no means all topic maps can be used for, however. They can also be used to organize the content in content management systems (instead of the simple folder hierarchies and property-value metadata often used today), they integrate information from diverse sources (using merging), they can drive expert systems, and much much more. (This article will focus on information-finding, however, since it is an introductory article with limited scope and length. See Marc de Graauw's article about topic maps in B2B exchange for a different view on what topic maps can do.)

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