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More thoughts on an application to find structure in word processing documents


In my last post I said I'd write more about how Ian Barnes' Structure Guesser AKA Structure Sniffer1 might work, and how it might be able to leverage Schematron.

The sniffer is part of Ian's Digital Scholar's Workbench concept, where you can upload an unstructured word processing document, and use the workbench to add explicit structure in as automated a way as possible. Explicit structure really helps in being able to convert the document to other formats such as HTML for the web, or structured PDF with a table of contents, but also for preservation formats that might keep the words and other content for posterity without necessarily worrying about exact formatting. Ian has looked at using DocBook for this, but I reckon HTML might be good enough, and I know others are thinking the same thing2.

Ian's looked at the statistical approach to guessing structure used by in the Lemon8-XML project, found that particular implementation wanting and is now thinking about more of a machine learning approach.

I too have been thinking about how this application might work for a while now and I'm getting increasingly enamored of the idea of using an HTML interface, something like this:

  1. Upload a word style-free processing document to a web site.

  2. You see an interactive preview of an HTML version of the document, complete with a full table of contents (so you can see where the sniffer application thought the headings were).

    Interactive? Hover the mouse over a top level (h1) heading in the preview and see some details about why the machine formatted it that way, such as Paragraphs at 18pt (10 instances) and 19pt (1 instance) Helvetica look like Heading 1. You'd be able to correct the machine, either on a case by case basis or wholesale.

    Another area where some interaction might be needed would be in disambiguating various kinds of indented text, some indentation might mean block-quote some might be example while other text might just be, you know, indented. We had to add an indent style in addition to the bq1 (block-quote) style to ICE to support this because some authors just, you know, want to indent stuff.

  3. Once you were happy with the HTML view of the document, there would be an option to improve your original by adding styles without changing its presentation too much (Did I mention? You too should use styles.) or you could just use the rendition and leave the original alone. Either way, the choices you made would constitute feedback to the learning system. So even if you don't choose to use styles, the next time it sees the same document it will be able to handle it better.

So where does Schematron come into this? Well, leaving aside the (very) hard problem of actually writing the learning system, that system could generate Schematron rules, which could be used to annotate the original document with suggested styles for each paragraph. Having done that, you could then feed the document into the existing ICE HTML formatter, which is style-driven and it could use the suggested styles to render the document.

These rules can be hierarchical meaning that based on certain cues different sets of rules might apply. For example, there might be a family of documents which all come from a user who uses Palatino 11pt for the main text, and makes use of an idiosyncratic mixture of formating and styles the learner could derive rules for that situation. I know nothing about this kind of thing, I wonder if it would be like the Naïve Bayseian in the Old Bailey where a machine is trained to classify trials.

Using Schematron rules would mean that they could also be written or tweaked by humans. Returning to the example before, a human could add a rule that if a bit of text is indented relative to the text around it and it contains something that looks like a citation which could mean either that it uses something like a Zotero field, or is formatted like a citation with brackets or a footnote then it's a blockquote.

This would be a nice modular approach. Chances are we're going to be looking at Rick Jelliffe's in-zip Schematron for use on Open Document Format documents, so the sniffer could piggyback on that1.

1 Also know as that by me , at least.

2 And no, OOXML and ODF are not necessarily the answer for preservation although they are important, I'll expand on this in a future post as I think about a presentation for Open Standards 08 .

1 Actually there is an issue with this, it's not that simple to write rules that work on the formatting in an ODT file, cos it uses these automatically defined styles that introduce a layer of indirection. We could consider a pre-processor that remembers these automatic styles between documents, it would also probably need to annotate docuents with some kind of weighted score like they use in Lemon8-XML.