[okfn-discuss] Thinking about Annotation

Rufus Pollock rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Thu Jan 11 10:49:43 GMT 2007

Further to our recent discussion about annotation I've worked to distill
some of my thoughts on the matter into a coherent form and posted them
below. The main thrust of it is that it would be nice to get a simple
sharable spec for an annotation format so that we can separate
presentation and data.



## Thinking about Annotation v0.1

Annotation means the adding of comments/notes/etc to an underlying
resource. For the present I'll focus on the situation where the
underlying resource is textual (as opposed to being an image, or a piece
of film or some data). Various things to consider when implementing an
annotation/comment system:

1. Addressing and atomisation: Are annotations specific to particular
parts of the resource. If so how do we store this address (relatedly:
how is the resource 'atomised' and how to we address these atoms, or
range of atoms). For example, do we address by word, by character, by
paragraph or by section? Do we wish to store ranges rather than a single
address? Do we wish to allow a given annotation to be associated with
multiple ranges/atoms?

2. Permissions: Are there restrictions on the creation
(deletion/updating etc) of annotations.

3. Will the underlying resource change and if so are annotations
intended to be robust to those changes.

Let's concentrate on the first issue for the time being as it is the
most immediately important. Furthermore, defining the 'atoms' of the
resource sharply narrows the implementation options.

### The Simple Case: Mod a Blog

If one is happy to have fairly large atoms (pages, or even sections of
some piece of text) then implementing an annotation system can be
reduced to grabbing your favourite CMS or blogging software and feeding
the text in in appropriate chunks. This is often satisfactory and is a
simple, low tech solution that will pretty much work out of the box. A
classic example of this approach is <http://www.pepysdiary.com/> which
works so well because the subject matter (Samuel Pepy's diary) has a
very obvious atomisation (namely the daily diary entries) suited
perfectly suited to blog software (in this case movable type).

You can even start doing a bit of modding, for example to present recent
annotations (<http://www.pepysdiary.com/recent/>) or to present the text
plus annotations all in one piece. (Given that [commentonpower][] seems
to fall neatly into this category with most commentable atoms of the
right size for 'blog' entries I wonder why they didn't just implement it
as a plugin for wordpress -- perhaps it was such a simple app that it
easier to 'roll their own').

[commentonpower]: http://www.commentonpower.org/

### Getting More Atomic

Once you want to have atoms below a size comfortable for individual html
pages/blog entries, wish to allow people to comment on chunks too large
for an individual page, or to comment on ranges one starts to have
problems with this approach. The main challenge at this point is to find
some way to extract the addressing information from the client doing the
annotation. Confining ourselves to the web the challenge becomes way to
structure the interface and the text so that one can determine range
start and end points. This is a non-trivial matter. Possible options

   * Javascript: in theory the selection/range objects should help us
out here unfortunately cross-browser support is patch (firefox as usual
is excellent and IE pretty bad). If one does not want to be as precise
as to get ranges javascript could also be used to extract e.g. element ids.
   * Copy and paste of the quote to annotate with some backend algorithm
to determine the actual range. Nice and simple but not clear that one
can 'invert' (i.e. find a unique range from a given selection) unless
the selection is large.
   * If addressing fairly large atoms (e.g. a paragraph or large) one
could just insert a unique piece of user interface equipment (e.g. a
button or link) with each atom. Note however that this prevents support
for ranges.

### Separating Data and Presentation

Whatever one chooses to do it does seem sensible to clearly separate
data and presentation. This is particularly important when there is so
much uncertainty over the user interface. In particular, it would be
good to clearly specify the annotation format and implement a
programmatic interface to it independent of the standard (human) user
interface. That way is easy to switch interfaces (or have multiple
ones). Given that annotations are essentially just a comment it would
seem sensible to try and reuse an existing format such as Atom (or RSS)
for the machine interface to the comment store. [marginalia] already had
such a format based on atom. I've recently reimplemented a stripped down
version of this format for the annotation store backend in python in
preparation for adding annotation support to openshakespeare web
interface, see:


[marginalia]: http://www.geof.net/code/annotation
[openshakespeare]: http://demo.openshakespeare.org/

Of course as discussed above this isn't quite as simple as it looks as
your user interface can constrain what you can and can't store (using a
blog approach you can't store ranges and from what I have read getting
reliable character offsets is problematic). Nevertheless it seems the
best place to start.

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