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Future Watch: Taming Data Complexity

Technology promises lucid displays of complicated information, regardless of its format.

June 30, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - While much of the IT world focuses on building computers that are faster, smaller, cheaper and brainier, CEO Peter Lucas and his colleagues at Maya Design Inc. are obsessed with liberating the reams of data that computers contain, regardless of the format in which the data is stored.
To Lucas, computers are little more than "transducers" -- necessary but "uninteresting prosthetic devices" for viewing data. "We can't see data, so we build computers, the same way we use goggles to see infrared," he says.
What would be much more valuable, Lucas believes, is a computing architecture for sharing data now stranded in relational databases, which he calls "information islands."
This is also the goal of the Semantic Web, which involves taking a relational database and "webbing it," according to Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee [see story, QuickLink 37596]. Where Maya's technology differs, Lucas says, is in "taking the much more radical step of freeing the data from any particular Web page or any particular machine."

Maya Design CEO Peter Lucas
Maya Design CEO Peter Lucas
Instead of describing data in a standard way or with metadata as the Semantic Web does, Maya's technology wraps the data in "containers," which reside in repositories in a peer-to-peer-based "information space" where people can meet and collaborate.
Pittsburgh-based Maya, a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University, has come up with a container it calls a "u-form" that Lucas says makes it easy to transfer and manipulate data across different computer systems and applications. Higher-level semantics can be layered on top of the u-forms.
What guides the transfer of data from place to place is a set of "shepherds," or rules-based software agents developed by the data owners. For corporate applications, Lucas notes that u-forms could be encrypted and shepherded only to paying customers.
The same data could be viewed in different ways by different users. For example, a logistics manager could view on his PC a geographic map of warehouses and their contents in a specific region. Meanwhile, an inventory manager could draw on the same data and display on his handheld device a bar-chart representation of goods available for shipment from those warehouses.
In this example, multiple distributed views of the data could be linked in real time, permitting the data itself to become a medium for collaborative work. This is comparable to two users running Excel on the same data set, and every time one of them changes a number, the other's display is instantly updated.
Maya Design's Maya Viz software arm has technology it calls CoMotion, a set of tools for building different views of data that's stored

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