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Data is Information. Information needs IAs.

text in this image is repeated in the post.

The Data, Information, Knowledge, & Wisdom hierarchy has shifted. Systems that store and transform data automatically apply simple or semantic metadata to the records they process.

What most consider data is really information in an early stage of refinement. Raw data off the sensor is something that a human will rarely see.

Information architects have the opportunity to extend their purview of information into what most would consider data.

  • Information Warehouse not Data Warehouse
  • Master Information Services not Master Data Services

The notes above are parts of an idea that has been bashing around in my brain for a while now. Data is Information. Information needs IAs.

Where am I coming from?

I recently worked for the Microsoft SQL UX team; there I was exposed to many things that I had ignored throughout my career because I thought “I’m not a database guy”. Even now I’m not even a novice DBA but at SQL I was exposed to the problems that individuals and organizations have with managing and manipulating ‘massive’ amounts of data (I have massive in quotes because my personal definition of massive has changed dramatically). The challenges that I was asked to deal with was how people dealt with these problems… because I’m a designer. When I stopped thinking about data as a blob and starting thinking about it as information that people need in context then I realized that many of the issues that ‘information workers’ have with data are information architecture challenges.

IA Venn Diagram by Jorge Arango

Many of the people that I’ve met who have been responsible for massive data sets approach it from the supply side: Is it secure; is it highly available; is it optimized; is it clean; …etc. The people who need the data to do their job demand answers to their questions and don’t know, or need to know, the ER diagrams of your database. These people need to find pieces of data, understand how they relate and use it to answer their questions.

After my exposure to the difficulties people have manipulating data because they don’t understand its context, I became fascinated with how we could make this easier on people and provide more value to organizations. After all, my job isn’t to create better information systems my job is to make better information workers.

Who inspires me?

A few months ago I found a podcast where Jon Udell speaks with the Chief Scientist of IBM Entity Analytics, Jeff Jonas, who discusses a set of themes woven through his work, explored on his blog, and captured in a series of evocative phrases: perpetual analytics, non-obvious relationship awareness, sequence neutrality, “data finds data”, and anonymous resolution. I’ve listened to this 50 minute talk about a half a dozen times now and each time I find a new notion that totally blows me away.

When the “data can find the data,” there exists an opportunity for the insight to find the user.

Content, Context, Users + Intent

For even more on this check out Jeff’s blog post or download chapter seven by Jeff Jonas and Lisa Sokol from Beautiful Data (O’Reilly)

What is the opportunity?

After leaving SQL I was trying to figure out a way to talk about the ideas I had on how information architects could help with the challenges. Early in 2010 Gene Leganza published Topic Overview: Information Architecture for Forrester Research, Inc. In this overview he talks about the 15 hot technology trends that Forrester has identified as fueling the next period of technology innovation and growth and how 5 of them could benefit from better information architecture practices.

Table of Five Of Forrester's Top 15 Technology Trends Require Solid IA

I agree with the 5 that he has chosen but I also feel that having someone who practices IA on the team could help improve the user experience of:

  • Business rules processing moves to the mainstream
  • Collaboration platforms become people-centric
  • Apps and business processes go mobile
  • BPM will be Web-2.0-enabled

I (mostly) like the article and I can recognize that its primary audience is Enterprise Architects. Keeping this in mind the paper provides great potential to re-imagine what enterprise information architecture could be. Information architects are needed because when exploiting and organizing information questions are more important than answers and, in my experience, designers tend to ask better questions then engineers.

I hope that the Information architecture community embraces this opportunity, I will explore this more in the future but I’m notoriously slow to post. I wish I could have been discussing this with people at the IAsummit, maybe next year.