Friday, December 26, 2008

Solving mundane information problems: parking on Boxing Day

Boxing Day is the biggest shopping day of the year in Canada, with many deals to be had. I myself picked up two hardcover books, at a hefty 30% discount. I also went to see a movie today with two relatives and we found ourselves looking for a parking space for nearly thirty minutes.

Spending that kind of time looking for something like a parking space is both frustrating and sad. This is a fairly simple problem that should have been solved quite some time ago. I've seen some places where very simple information systems have been developed for parking garages (e.g. "There are 57 spaces available here") but could we do something better? Maybe order the sections that people park in? Or set up a GIS system that detects whether or not a space is occupied? I'm not an engineer or programmer by education or experience, but I've seen enough systems and tools out there to know that it should be possible.

This idea could be countered by saying that it only delivers value on days of high volume. That said, it could deliver significant time savings and it could play a role in in lowering December stress levels. I would love to do a study in a particularly busy parking area and see if something like this would be worthwhile.

While I'm thinking of mundane information problems, what about shopping in a supermarket? I hate all the irritating wandering I have to do whenever I enter a new shopping market AND the total lack of basic guides (sure, there are labels for each aisle, but what about a guide to the store as a whole?). Ideally, I'd like to be able to use a touch screen (or some other interface) to indicate the types of products I'd like and then simply have a map or route generated for me.

Wandering around discovering things can be fun in a bookstore or a library sometimes, but not in a parking garage or grocery store.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Physicist and Economist: a parable for the Information Profession?

Another PhD student I know (this one does economics) told me an interesting joke (parable?) about her profession recently on expertise. I may not be relating the story perfectly, but I think I have the main points right. In sum, I wonder why people think they are information experts when they have only a weak understanding of how to use a handful of tools.

A physicist who recently won the Nobel Prize decides to set up a table in Central Park to answer questions and help people learn about physics. Many line up to ask and many walk away amazed and enlightened to know more about the field. After a day of answering such questions, he returns to his university and describes his activities to some other professors.

An economist hears the story and decides to go and answer questions as well. The economist has a long line of people come to discuss economic answers. Almsot everybody walked away disgruntled, muttering about how the economist didn't know what s/he is talking about. Everybody has a view on economic matters and so they don't respect the expertise of experts.


Everybody thinks they know how to find information they need through free search engines like Yahoo! or Google. How many people understand how these services work? How listings are managed and arguably manipulated? Is there an understanding of how do different research efforts (e.g. research a candidate's voting record vs. find a shop that sells a given product etc)? How do we build that respect?

There are a few ways of doing this. The classic and possibly best way is to demonstrate our skills and make sure that our results are recognized (i.e. marketing = "Doing good and being recognized for doing it"). I've also heard that librarians have to pass exams to practice in some countries (e.g. the Philippines) - that might be a possibility too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Process Analysis in Cataloguing: Can't we do this better?

One of the arguments deployed against human editing or cataloguing of the Internet is that would be too expensive and slow. This is also an argument used in many library contexts (generally not archives since those institutions work with mostly unique materials) against original library cataloguing; it is better to simply digitally import catalogue records from a national library or commercial service.

One of the hats I wear at my university involves doing some cataloguing for an academic research project. Out of curiosity, I started to plot how many steps are involved in cataloging a single item into the database. I stopped counting at step 13, but I would say that there are about 20 steps. That's 20 steps PER ITEM; it takes roughly 3-5 minutes per item catalogued. I would say 80-90% of these steps are highly repeatable, perhaps even amenable to automation with a script. One could respond this by saying "Oh we'll just automate everything and fire the cataloging staff." That's not what I'm advocating here. Rather, I am suggesting that one analyze the process and seek to minimize the ineffective or repeatable steps and let staff focus on the more challenging tasks.

That said, there do not seem to be the right mix of incentives to make this happen. Or perhaps there is just a lack of interest in innovation? I wonder if there is a better way of saying, "A lot of this is boring and highly repeatable; can we work with the IT staff to automate parts of this so that we can all be more effective at work?"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Archivaria Issue 66 has been published; great article on archives in fiction/pop culture

I received an email today informing me that the latest issue of Archivaria (issue 66) has been published online. There are a number of interesting articles and I have only just begun reading through. The article that caught my interest immediately was Karen Buckley article, "The Truth is in the Red Files”: An Overview of Archives in Popular Culture."

In the first episode of the new Doctor Who series, it only takes a few sentences summarizing an exhaustive archival search to encapsulate a general sense of the mystery surrounding the Doctor and his place in time, space, and history: “I tracked [the information] down in the Washington Public Archives … if you dig deep enough … this Doctor keeps cropping up all over the place.”

Fantastic. The mysterious nature of the Doctor is one of the many, many reasons I find him such a captivating character.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Information Asymetries and Incentives

On the weekend, I purchased Freakonomics (it reminds me of another recent work of "pop" economics I read in the summer called The Economic Naturalist) and it has already proved a stimulating read. I have long been interested in social science, of working with real data to try to understand society and then go somewhere with that.

One of the opening themes of the book is a concept the authors call "information symmetry"; the common practice that experts/professionals often hold significantly more information than their audiences or lay people. There is some good research that suggests powerfully negative effects to this. The book examines tens of thousands of house sales in the Chicago area and notes that real estate agents selling their own property typically have that property listed on the market longer and typically sell for much better prices than their clients. The question is one of incentives; if a person selling their property raises the price by $10,000 they get all of that, but if you are working on elaborate commission system, you might earn as little as $150 or $200, so it may not seem worth the effort.

Given the non-profit motives (and indeed, aspirations to empower people with information) of many in the information profession, I wonder how the question of incentives play out. As far as experts go, librarians - on a vague and ideological level, anyhow - are committed to eroding our informational advantage in favor of users. This strikes me as good in many ways, but might that explain some other things? Such as why other professionals who sharply control information or manipulate information (e.g. doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, some scientists)?

What makes people come to us? Is it desperation (i.e. information we have cannot be obtained any other way) or something else (preference for filtering)? I do think there is something to be gained from asking the incentive question in a more systematic fashion. What is the effect on incentives if we make services more difficult to use (or conversely, refuse to provide easy methods of access)?

As usual, I don't have well formed ideas on this but I wanted to share some views to provoke further thought.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Nearest Book Meme

Ah, memes. It has been a few years since one of these has come out in the bits of the blogosphere that I keep track of. However, the "Nearest Book Meme" is a fun one. As with some many fun and interesting things, I read it about on Stephen Abram's blog.

"Besides, she told me, she read something once about how aluminum pans cause Alzheimer's - so this would be, medicinally, a wise purchase."
- Michael Beaumier, "Not Included with Display" in The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles Edited by Jeff Martin.

Note: I have a stack of three books directly next to me (The Customer is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles; Someone Comes to Town, Some Leaves Town; Dreams From My Father). It is unclear which one is nearest. Given that the first book on that list was on the top of the pile, I guess it should be selected.

* Get the book nearest to you. Right now.
* Go to page 56.
* Find the 5th sentence.
* Write this sentence - either here or on your blog.
* Copy these instructions as commentary of your sentence.
* Don't look for your favorite book or your coolest but really the nearest.

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Alternative to Blaming Google

I'm reading Imre Szeman's article “‘Do No Evil’: Google and Evil as a Political Category" (published in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies). Google comes under a lot of attack here for its way of implementing its book scanning/search service. From the perspective of a pro-open access, open source graduate student, I would certainly say there are problems...

That said, why is the emphasis always on a sort of quasi-whining? Sure, Google is popular and often good at what it does. Is it the end of search and using information? No. Why can't there be more discussion and work on projects like the Open Content Alliance or the Internet Archive? Instead of complaining about why Google is lacking in some way, is it not more productive to build something better? I presume that most critics simply lack the resources or IT skills to create something like that, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted at all.