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Multimedia Knowledge Representation and Management : "Brain Annex"

 (Updated Feb. 2022)

Wouldn't it be fantastic to have a "butler" to help us as we constantly face drowning in information?

That need was crushingly pressing for me, as a polymath with a thirst for knowledge in several fields, not to mention numerous very technical jobs over the years, several complex research projects, old notes from college and grad school, an endless stream of online courses I take, a tech startup I founded and used to run, the many conferences I attend, life in general, and even hobbies that tend to generate abundant information (such as flying airplanes and studying multiple foreign languages!)  

I was immensely eager for some sort of powerful assistance, something so helpful that I could poetically describe as an "annex" to my brain..

In this blog entry, I'll describe how deep frustration with existing software tools led to the start of the open-source BrainAnnex.org project, a web-based knowledge representation and management application.

The Problem

Knowledge comes in many forms.  Notes written out in words.  Tabular data.  Semi-structured data.  Images.  Plots.  Documents.  Audio.  Video.  Meta-data about other bits of knowledge.  Relationships between different notes....

Word processors are great to typeset your novel, but of mediocre help for structured or semi-structured data, such as the many little ideas about tidbits to include in the novel.  And they are unwieldy about managing images, never mind other types of knowledge.

Likewise, spreadsheets are as sleek as a penguin in water for the specific tasks they were designed for, but as clumsy as a penguin wobbling on land if used in other ways!

And traditional relational databases tend to require more expertise, beyond casual users; that's not a problem for me personally - in fact I worked as a database administrator for years - but databases can be rather unwieldy.

We've all been there, in our personal data management, and at work : we end up generating a lot of files - in particular Word docs, spreadsheets and images - and resort to using the file system to try to "tame" them in some fashion.  A battle easily lost, as evidenced by how many files typically end up littering the computer desktop.

Also, the OS file system is most definitely not meant to be a content management system.  In particular, the tree structure forces to choose one - and one only - location for a file or folder.  If you want multiple parents (categories) for a file or folder, you need to resort to creating very unwieldy "shortcuts" (or their counterparts in various operating systems), which are generally "second-class citizens"; for example, in Windows, shortcut folders are listed alphabetically after all the "regular" folders.

Beyond Content Management Systems

Content Management Systems are not a new idea.  But they are often specialized; for example, I worked with - and also developed - some Lab Information Management System (LIMS.)

Many of the more general-purpose content management systems aren't particularly popular - for good reasons, in my opinion.  I will contrast-and-compare some in future blog entries, but for now I'll just say that my jaw dropped when I tried out Microsoft One Note!  Not particularly useful - other than for laughs - and so no surprise that it never really took off, even with MS behind it...

Then, in 2015, after years of dissatisfaction with existing knowledge-management tools, I took the software platform that I had developed over the previous decade for a fairly elaborate movie information management system, and decided to apply it towards creating a general knowledge representation and management tool, to be eventually released as open source.

That's how the BrainAnnex.org project was born.

What is Brain Annex?

 Brain Annex is a web-based tool (which can also run locally) for Knowledge and Media Management.  It's very integrative, bringing in several open-source tools, and it's highly extendable with plugins.

There is no point to repeat here what's said on the official BrainAnnex.org  site, but I'll just mention one blurb:
Freely mix up formatted text notes, documents, images, graphics, data tables, spreadsheets, video, music – synergistically used together with the power of Semantic Technology. For example, to manage:
  • class notes
  • work/research notes
  • notes from hobbies
  • notes from everyday life (bills, medical)
  • personal-growth notes (journaling, progress)
  • music collection
  • photo/video collection (personal, work or research albums; artist porfolios)
  • website bookmarks (with optional annotations)
  • documents (the contents of any uploaded PDF files become searchable)
  • new plugins for special needs can be created easily
  • optionally sharing some of of your pages with others or making them public

Here's a 3-min intro video, aimed at the general public and casual users:

 

Above All, Something that is Useful

In various blog entries I'll be talking about interesting designs and technology behind knowledge representation and management, but the first-and-foremost force behind Brain Annex has been to create something extremely useful.  Remember the "butler" analogy I made at the beginning?  Brain Annex isn't meant to be a show-off for technology, or a playground for programmers; it's meant to be something of practical utility!

Since this is a blog about Science and Technology, the focus will be on the technologies behind Brain Annex - for example, Semantic Technology and Classes that have code (plugins) associated to them.  For more practical information about Brain Annex, including what it does and how to use it, I'll refer to the official BrainAnnex.org  site.

I am happy to say that, without exaggeration, Brain Annex has been a life-changer for me, in terms of managing my knowledge - for my research projects, jobs, courses, hobbies, and life in general.  I've used it essentially daily for the past 6 years.  Down the line, the plan is to release it as open source (UPDATE: done, see below), and hopefully help out others.

 

Feb. 2021 UPDATE: a radically-revamped new major version of Brain Annex is currently under development, and is expected later this year.  It keeps the same general feel while overhauling and modernizing the technology internally used: PHP gives way to Python/Flask, and MySQL and a simple Triplestore give way to the graph database Neo4j.  Also, the front end is getting a major face life with Vue.js  .  Management of general datasets will be much more powerful.  The promised full release to open source will happen with this version.

Feb. 2022 UPDATE: the release of the complete redesign of Brain Annex - now in beta - took place as promised last year.  GitHub repository.

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