A broadcast architecture for distributed text tools

Steven J. DeRose
C.M. Spergberg-McQueen
Computer Center
University of Illinois at Chicago
(M/C 135)
1940 W. Taylor Room 124
Chicago, IL 60612-7352

Adequate textual analysis software is difficult to create. Scholarly users have special requirements seldom met by commercial packages, e.g. lexical, syntactic, and statistical analysis; special layouts for interlinear texts; synchronized scrolling of multiple translations or editions; and flexible tools for searching and for organizing search results and making latent patterns visible. Disparity in document formats and levels of tagging and meta-information long made it difficult to share text software. And the cost of software development frequently exceeds the resources available for humanities computing infrastructure.

Thanks to SGML, XML, the TEI, and even HTML, we are now closer to having a uniform way to exchange information about documents and their structures. And thanks to other existing and emergent standards, it is now possible to specify a simple architecture that can help organize a modular system, into which a variety of analysis, display, and other tools can be plugged. This would allow independent development, maintenance, and use of far more tools than could ever be handled with a monolithic approach.

A simple scenario

Consider a user viewing a large collection of texts; perhaps all the literary works of a single author or period, using several tools:

When the user selects a different hit in the KWIC display, the full-text view might scroll to the new location; when the user selects a different word from the word list, both the KWIC display and the full-text display might change accordingly. Each view has its own set of configuration options.

Our architecture is designed to exploit several insights:

  1. Almost all scholarly analysis tools can be construed as "views" of an underlying corpus.
  2. Little communication is required between the views. Each must have efficient access to the underlying data, but individual views only need communicate terse information (e.g. the new focal word-type) to others when they change state.
  3. When one view changes state, other views can respond by changing their own state; the first view need not control the others. This allows the user to have some KWIC or text views which respond to new selections in the wordlist, and others which are unaffected. Thus, our architecture decentralizes inter-view control: any view can respond to others, but no view is controlled by another.
  4. A view's response to events elsewhere may be simple (e.g. scroll) or arbitrarily complex (e.g. recalculate a statistical description of the text).

Overall architecture

The underlying data-access layer

The base of the system is an XML repository, which provides access to application modules (views) through the W3C Document Object Model (DOM). Application modules communicate directly with the XML data through the repository; they need not interact intimately with each other. This simplifies protocols and implementation considerably.

Since the repository uses standard interfaces, multiple implementations can co-exist and compete on their performance, scalability, etc. Ideally, the XML database should provide rapid access to large volumes of data and annotation, with fundamental kinds of indexed search out of which tools can build more sophisticated conjoint searches, search displays, and lexicostatistical analysis tools.

The view modules

User interfaces to the data are built on top of the data-access layer. Each typically provides a specialized view of selected data, and relates to other modules as a peer. For example, a formatter might collect data and apply a stylesheet, while a concordance view collects data portions and lays them out to reveal lexical patterns, and a statistical analysis tool analyzes selected data portions and provides a graphical or numerical report.

Modules interact frequently but simply, via broadcast: whenever a module changes its state, it tells all the other modules. Such broadcasts are easily performed either on a single system or across a network; they only need to contain a little information. Recipients can then respond or not, as desired.

A broadcast message consists of a list of state variables that have changed. A concordance view, for example, might broadcast changes to its sort order, the current search string it uses, and the size of context it displays. A word list might publish its search string and the current selection. Generally, variables should be small; there is no need to re-publish data from the underlying collection, which is accessible to all views.

A module can ignore messages if it has no interest in the originating view or in the particular state information. For example, a formatted view may be interested when a concordance view gets a whole new search, but not when it is merely re-sorted.

Views do not broadcast the new values of variables when they change; instead, interested recipients ask originators directly about state values. We believe recipients will, in general, need to be able to query the state of other modules for more information than changed, even though their query is triggered by a simple state change.

Each module, then, defines a small set of named information pieces about which it will broadcast, and another set that it will expose for examination or perhaps change. These variables amount to the module's interface to other modules. Its interface to the user remains its own.


We propose here a basic architecture for interconnecting diverse, decentralized text tools. Modules can thus be built by many people, yet used together. This requires a very simple protocol, and we propose a broadcast approach in which modules notify other ones when their visible state changes, and choose when and how to respond to received notifications. This fits very smoothly with existing standards such as XML, DOM, HTTP, and CORBA, making it feasible cooperatively to build an extensive suite of text tools. Achieving agreement on a very simple communication protocol would greatly facilitate the development of an effective humanities text analysis environment, by making it a cooperative rather than monolithic project, and by enabling re-use of existing standards and future code modules.

Partial Bibliography

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Simons, Gary F. 1990. "A Conceptual Modeling Language for the Analysis and Interpretation of Text". Chicago: Text Encoding Initiative. Committee on Text Analysis and Interpretation, document AIW12, January 16.

Sperberg-McQueen, C. M., and Lou Burnard (eds). 1994. Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange. Chicago, Oxford: Text Encoding Initiative.

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