From the CD-ROM "Concepts and strategies"
This description of a stigmergic system - using the growth of malignant cancer as an analogy - was written to be able to explain the concept of a self-organizing database to a group of oncologists.
An analogy to explain organic information portals
Written by Peter Small and Dr. Tillman Pearce
The need for an organic information portal
There is a need for a comprehensive information source for patients to find out more information about their particular condition. There is a need for physicians running treatment trials to find suitable patients.
As the combinations of different types of patients and cancer conditions can run into many thousands, the building and maintenance costs to run a suitable database are prohibitively high.
An organic information system can solve this problem because it is self constructing, self-organizing and self maintaining.
What is an organic information portal?
An organic portal is a self-organizing information system that grows organically by budding out into increasingly diverse areas of specialization.
Information is put into the system by means of specialists creating information carrying agents. These agents are dynamically grouped into appropriate meeting rooms by the system, where the knowledge they carry can be accessed by anyone on the Internet using a conventional Web browser.
It is totally different from conventional information systems, which are based upon algorithms and databases. Organic information portals are more like living structures that grow organically as a result of interaction with their environments.
In this particular case, the information relates to the study and treatment of cancer so it might be informative if the explanation uses the growth strategy of a tumor as an analogy to describe the growth and development of an organic information portal.
Analogy with the spread of cancer
A tumor will start out as a clump of cells that can autonomously express their genes in a variety of different ways. Analogous to this situation, an organic portal will start out with the agents of a number of specialist practitioners who have a variety of expert skills and knowledge.
Note: agents are created by specialists who give answers to a number of questions. The questions are the equivalent of genes and if any question is answered it is as if the gene is being expressed - the answers are synonymous with the secretions resulting from gene expression (see below for more detailed explanation).
The pathological growth of a tumor depends upon the ability of certain cells to turn on specific genes to produce proteins that assist the growth and spread of the tumor. Some of these proteins take the form of secretions, which break down restraining barriers in the body so that groups of cancerous cells can break away from the main body to form new growths in different parts of the stroma (detachment and embolism: tumor metastasis).
An organic portal does something similar, by using the way questions have been answered to reorganize groups of information carrying agents - activating groups of agents break away from main clusters to create new special interest areas (called meeting rooms). With an organic portal, this breakaway is triggered when the meeting room exceeds a critical mass (fifty agents), whereupon the most prominent group (in terms of specialty interest) breaks away from the main party to form a new meeting room.
Vascularization in an organic information portal
The process of cancer metastasis is highly selective and consists of a series of sequential, interrelated steps that must include sufficient vascularization (the generation of a blood supply through a process of angiogenesis). Proliferation and survival of a metastasis is critically dependent upon the ability of some of the cancerous cells to produce several angiogenic factors (e.g., VEGF) to promote the formation of a capillary network from the surrounding host stroma, allowing it to link up with the main circulatory system.
Analogous to this vascularization process, the growth pattern of an organic information portal is critically dependent upon the agents producing factors that promote and facilitate survival and growth in the hostile hostile environment of the Internet.
In tumors, survival and growth involves the creation of an adequate supply of blood. In an organic information portal, this equates with the creation of an adequate amount of interest, measured by the number of people visiting a particular meeting room to obtain relevant and useful information.
Cancer cells, secrete angiogenic factors such as VEGF. The agents in the meeting room of an organic portal secrete pertinent knowledge and information. This creates increasing interest for visitors and increases the incentive for new agents to participate. This leads to the generation of more and more meeting rooms , each becoming increasingly specialist in different aspects of cancer treatment and research.
In this way, organic information portals expand and grow through increasing visitor counts, similar to the way in which metastasis proliferate as a result of an increasing access to a blood supply.
Cell clusters = meeting rooms
Cells = agents (constructed from questionnaires)
Genes = questions
Products of gene expression = answers
Blood supply = visitors looking for information
Carrying on with the analogy of a tumor, the activity of a cancer cell within a metastasis equates with the activity of an agent in a meeting room. In a cluster of cancer cells, the metastasis is reliant upon particular genes being expressed by the various cells to secrete the necessary factors into the surrounding environment.
The equivalent of genes in an agent are the questions that an agent's owner is asked when the agent is created. A specialist answering a particular question is the equivalent of turning on a particular gene in a cell.
Just as the aggregate effect of the genes that are turned on in the cells of a metastasis affect its survival, so the aggregate questions that are answered by all agent owners affect the survival and success of a meeting room.
There are three main categories of questions that are asked to construct the makeup of an agent:
1) The first set of questions allow the specialty fields of interest and expertise of the agent's owner to be described. These are equivalent to the genes that produce the enzymes (collagenases) that break down confining tissue structures and facilitate detachment and embolization. Just as these factors in a tumor allow groups of cells to break out of a cluster to form new metastasis, these questions facilitate the migration of groups of agents: breaking away from a meeting room to set up a new meeting room to focus on a narrower subject area.
2) The second set of questions ask the agent's owner to provide references to Internet discussion forums, Web addresses of useful sources of treatment and research together with other sources of information relative to the subject area of the meeting room. These questions are equivalent to the genes that provide the proteins that generate the all important angiogenesis processes. These questions provide the stimulants for the life blood of the system: the information that attracts and satisfies the needs of visitors to the information portal.
3) The third set of questions are the equivalent of the genes in a cell that provide for its self maintenance. These questions are those that can lead to direct benefits for the agents' owners. Identification, credibility, establishment of a presence in a particular area of expertise. These questions allow an agent's owner to get direct benefit from participation as it provides exposure to the visitors the meeting room attracts. In particular, it can attract interest from possible new contacts and clients, initiate professional associations and provide a source of suitable patients for treatment trials.
Little human effort required
Once an agent is created by a specialist, no further participation is required. The agent is provided with a memory made up of the answers given to the questions. It can then act autonomously, passing the relevant information to both the system and the visitors to the organic information portal. The system itself takes care of the configuration of the the meeting rooms and provides facilities for visitors to obtain the information contained in the memories of the agents.