Contextual Information | Dutch IT channel

Information always has a source and a reason for its creation. Someone writes something down, a sensor measures a value, a compass points in a direction at a specific location, an event is recorded. Any information always has a context that provides additional content to both its origin and use. Contextual information is ‘the information about the information’ just as metadata is the data of the data. Metadata tells something about the data such as ownership, status, origin, version, etc. For example, the information context provides additional information about the message’s location, source, environment, circumstances, etc.

The OODA race

In a previous blog from 2015 ‘Data without meaning is worthless’ I wrote about the OODA loop. The circle that leads from data to information, to knowledge and finally to action. The abbreviation OODA comes from the military world and means Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. The term originated during the Korean War, when American fighter pilots had to be able to describe the combat process. In the world of quality, Demming’s comparable quality circle arose: Plan, Do, Check, Act. Simply put, data can lead to action and action leads to data in an endless cycle.

In these circles or loops, context therefore refers to the surroundings and circumstances of that loop, and how data has arisen and information – a message – has come to be. Context thus helps the user of information to better interpret the meaning of this information. Context can take many forms, such as background information or details about the circumstances, setting, or time frame in which an action takes place. The main characteristic of context is that it helps clarify the meaning of information – a message.

context aware

In the early days of computer science, the context in which systems were used was strongly determined by where computers were located. Personal computers were also first used in office environments or on factory floors. The context of use did not change much, and there was little variation in the situations around the computer. That really changed with the advent of the cell phone. How could mobility be made transparent to the user and how could the same service be offered automatically everywhere?

Transparent means here that the user did not have to worry about changes in the environment. This transparency made the phone ‘context aware’. Attentive to his environment and its use at the time. Think of a tablet that changes its screen orientation when tilted, maps that orient to the user’s current location, adjusts the zoom level to the current speed, or turns on the phone’s backlight when used in the dark.


Even before the mobile era, the need for standards for how context was measured and used arose. Research into ‘ubiquitous computing’ at Xerox PARC caused a shift in thinking in the early 1990s. Omnipresent means ‘all-encompassing’ in Dutch. Transparency of functionality, such as providing network connectivity without the user discovering the transfer between different networks.

Bill Schilit, in a 1994 article in the Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications (WMCSA), describes the concept of context-aware computing as follows: “Such context-aware software adapts to the place of use, the collection of people, hosts, and available devices.” nearby, as well as changes in such things over time. A system with these characteristics can survey the computing environment and respond to changes in the environment.’

The basic idea was that mobile devices provide different services in different contexts – where the context was originally related to the location of a device, such as satellite navigation systems in cars. However, context is more than location, and a need quickly arose for a reference architecture for context-aware computer systems. Sensors provide data about activities and events in the real world. Perception algorithms understand these stimuli and classify the situations in their context. Based on the experienced context, actions are triggered from and in the system. In short, the old OODA loop digitized and built into software. We can see the F35 as an ultimate example of a context-aware flying platform.

Context awareness as an enabler for ubiquitous computing

The concept of context awareness is closely related to the vision of ubiquitous computing and was introduced by Mark Weiser, CTO of Xerox PARC, in his seminal article in Scientific American magazine. As computers become part of everyday life – he claimed – it is essential that they are easy to use. He introduced the concept of ‘stateless’, where technology ‘disappears’ into the background, so to speak. And in everyday life, we no longer even notice that a computer is active in the background.

Meanwhile, computers have penetrated our daily lives: think of the smart car, smart house and smart city. But to disappear entirely from our view, in Weiser’s view, they must anticipate user needs and act proactively to provide appropriate assistance. To make the capacity for ‘context awareness’ also possible for large systems and environments, agreements, methods, platforms and architectures are needed. Although often associated with mobile devices, context awareness is a technological driver in the further decentralization of computing such as grid computing, M2M (machine to machine), P2P (peer-to-peer) and IoT (Internet of Things) communications, edge computing , ubiquitous computing (metaverse) and event-driven computing environments. In short, for the future of the Internet and the new Metaverse.

FiWare: open source platform for our smart digital ‘future ware’

As context is an increasingly necessary source of meaning for information, any information will contain more and more contextual information. Contextual information can be objective or subjective, individual or for a group, meaningful or meaningful or incidental, extrinsic or intrinsic, and finally visible or hidden to the user. It must also provide information about both the sender and the recipient. Or in a security context: the attack, the attacker and the threatened systems and data. It includes logs, time and location stamps, IP reputation lists, version control, threat folders, vulnerability information and verified identities. The context quickly becomes many times larger than the information itself.

Context awareness makes the designer’s job more complex as the number of situations and contexts in which the system is used increases. Out of that need, the open source community FiWare (Future Internet Ware) emerged in 2016 to jointly develop conventions, methods and architectures to manage and use context information in decentralized and large-scale ways. At its core is the Next Generation Service Interfaces (NGSI-LD) metadata model, which uses a ‘broker’ between sender and receiver to collect data in a targeted manner and to collect and send it in a targeted manner. And thus giving meaning to the concept of ‘smart’, such as the smart car, the smart city, etc. Systems that can work together and find their way in a huge context of extensive data. But this context awareness is now rapidly emerging in many places, creating a whole new vision of our current information infrastructures and existing reference architectures.

By: Hans Timmerman (photo), Chief Data Officer at DigiCorp Labs and Director of Fortierra

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