On being magpies

I was delighted to contribute to Andrea Resmini, Sarah A. Rice, and Bernadette Irizarry’s edited book, Advances in Information Architecture, for Springer. Just published (and available here), this is a landmark book that takes a broad view of the field and the challenges ahead.

The magpies reference here is an allusion to the title of my chapter, wherein I note that the discipline of IA gathers together insights and methods from other fields, willingly, to serve the mission of designing better information infrastructures for all. Yes, there’s a nod to the old ‘big’ vs ‘small’ IA but that’s only in passing, the questions and conversation took is in far more interesting directions. With similar contributions from many figures in the field, this is a book that we all could have used earlier, but which probably could not have been written until now. Well done Andrea, Sarah and Bernadette, and thanks for inviting me to participate.

iSchool UXPA group up and running

I gave a quick overview of the basics of expert evaluations, using Heuristic and Cognitive Walkthroughs as exemplars to the iSchool chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association this week. Our student group, brought back to life thanks to the efforts of Beth Sarno and Aylin Saribudak last semester, is thriving and offered a set of talks this week involving several industry experts discussing professional work in the UX arena. It’s been impressive to see how quickly the group has gelled and the enthusiasm they bring to meetings and self-education. Find out more about the group on their Linked In page

A title is never firm

ASIST are apparently launching a new professional communications publication, unfortunately to be called Information Matters, which you can imagine sounds a little close to my own, admittedly quite unprofessional offering, in name. Seems they are not alone in liking the term as I find another blog called InfoMatters by SJA, consulting group, which I can date from 2015. I guess the terms are generic enough but it’s a shame that professional courtesy is in such short supply in the information professions that just taking or mildly altering the title of existing spaces is apparently acceptable. Given I am a former president and current member of ASIST…. oh well.

Texas power outage and the lack of information

By now you’re probably aware that we had a ‘weather-related’ incident here in Texas as the energy industry, which effectively runs our state’s production and delivery infrastructure with minimal oversight, failed catastrophically when temperatures plummeted. That’s what most people are paying attention to right now but there’s another aspect to all this which was sobering for those of us on the information side.

As power and water went out, people naturally became concerned. And when people are concerned they lean heavily into their information networks for guidance, updates, connections and support. The local and state government, as well as the utilities’ responses were mixed at best. With power going, so went many people’s internet connection, forcing them to use smart phones. For those fortunate enough to have sufficient data plans there was then the challenge of maintaining battery charge. Easy enough perhaps if you own a functioning vehicle but again, not everyone does.

On top of this infrastructure problem however the information provided by government and utilities was a mix of confusion, deflection and just plain unhelpful. Forget that our governor used an appearance on television to go off topic on the ‘green new deal’ which had nothing to do with anything, we had confused messages that blackouts would be rolled so those without power now could anticipate the situation changing shortly as the pain was shared around. If you planned on that basis you were in for a rude awakening.

If you managed to keep access to the web, you could check the Austin Electric and Austin Water sites for updates, but there again we saw a display of data that offered less help than you might have wanted. Check out Austin Energy’s outage map:

I was trying to determine if an outage was coming my way but I have no idea what this was telling me, nor did anyone else with whom I shared it. I know my home is in one of those red wedges but……yeah, you figure it out. A supreme example of data yielding a pretty display but no actual information.

Austin Water has just updated there site to include a general outage map that is mildly more informative now that the worst has passed but in the midst of the mess this week, they went low-tech, offering a simple list of current outage location, vaguely described in terms of an address and intersection e.g., 18th and Harvey to MLK, plus estimated time of restoration. Unfortunately, while my water was off, there was no way any of the locations listed mapped to my address so I inferred that if I was within a few 100 meters of a listed one, that was the most likely. That did not really help as one neighbor and I were cut-off but no others seemed affected on my street, and there was no outage listed within half a mile of my address. I submitted my data point via the link to provide outage info, along with my requested number for a promised text update when service outage might be resolved but, yep, you guessed it, I never heard back.

If you gave up on the official channels and tried searching for yourself, you found that news media were a little behind the current situation, you were better of contacting people directly or networking via NextDoor or other local connections. But again, all this requires to you have service and a functioning device, something that is not equally distributed across the population, as we know. Vague utterances from politicians to ‘check the web’ were useless, and don’t get me started on official pronouncements to ‘boil water before drinking’ — pretty impossible to do if you had neither power nor water.

In short, despite the lessons of Katrina, Harvey and the like, we seem so ill-prepared to handle the information needs of ordinary citizens when their needs are greatest. I did get one robocall over the week. It was on my landline (yes, I still have one) from the police department telling us not to call them if we had water leaks, this was not deemed a cause for emergency. Ok, so the one clear message I received was the instruction on what I should not do. Got it! I don’t think any organization comes out of this looking good, thank goodness for neighbors.

New interview with All Tech is Human

I did a quick interview for the All Tech is Human group who have produced an interesting new publication, The Business Case for AI. You can find the full document here. I would have said more if I’d had time but the whole document is full of interesting perspectives on a very important set of issues. The All Tech group want to grow the pipeline for more ethical information technologists, and that’s an aim many of us share.

Covid as a socio-tech challenge

Getting on top of the C-19 pandemic has seemingly challenged the resources and capabilities of our apparently developed nation. Lots of excuses are offered, many hinging on the argument that people are basically irresponsible or in denial, but my experience of trying to use the system we have in place to handle the outbreak raises more questions than answers.

When I developed symptoms I, like many others I am sure, tried to figure out what I had. I checked online for comparisons with flu, wondered if my headache was severe or mild, checked to see if I had any taste and so forth. Unsure what I learned here, I waited a day or two, hoping for the best but the symptoms persisted, I felt awful and decided I needed a test.

At our university we’ve made repeated public pronouncements of the commitment we make to our students, staff and faculty. There’s an app you can download to monitor your condition, register for quick test and find treatment advice. We have quick walk-in test options and a clearance option to register when you are on campus. All well and good, until I tried to use it.

I downloaded the app to my phone and very quickly realized it is one of the least usable apps I’ve experienced in some time. Problem #1. Clunky in terminology and navigation, the effort involved in engaging meaningfully with the app is significant, not the type of interaction experience one wants under stress. I tried to register for a test and was stymied. It became obvious, even with the app, that if you have symptoms you require a different protocol than if you just want clearance to be on campus. Unfortunately, exploring my options as a symptom-showing user kept returning me to the same dead end on the app. I gave up using it and called my doctor, which. as it turns out, is what you are supposed to do.

So, progress. By now it’s Friday. I’ve been feeling poorly since Wednesday. I call the doc’s office and ask if I can get tested for coronavirus. No, I am told. That is not how it works. Apparently only the doctor can authorize me for a test. Problem #2. OK, I suppose the number of calls for tests is high, the testing options are limited (what was that you said Mr Trump?) and the doctor serves as a clearing agent to avoid the apparent waste of sick or healthy people trying to figure out if they have it. So, put me through to the doctor please. Problem #3. My doc was not available and would not be able to see me (in the figurative sense since appointments were online) before Monday afternoon. Wow, ok, I’ll take the appointment but who knows if I’ll live that long.

Monday afternoon, after a quite awful weekend of symptoms that in my somewhat confused state can be nothing other than C-19, I chat with the doc via some web conference software and in two mins she tells me, yes, I should have a test. Thanks, how hard was that. She booked me one for the next day (so now, if you’re keeping count, its 6 days from first symptom to test date). And just in case, she tells me to test for flu as well. Next day I duly drive to test facility, am in and out in five minutes, and return home to lie down, wasted.

Now, it turns out, I tested negative, and so bewildered by this were the doctor and I that she suggested a re-test three days later. But none of that matters much. I recovered. What the experience showed me is that the reduction of Covid treatment to a numbers game (how many tests have we got? How many vaccines and when will we have them?) is really not solving the problem. Yes we need a vaccine but the vaccine alone is not the solution, its the vaccination. Getting the treatment to the person is a challenge not of medicine but of social science.

The test and vaccine concerns are legitimate but they are insufficient. Once we have the supply, they have to be delivered. People have to be able to receive swabs and injections. An access network that forms a bottleneck on delivery through sequencing of permissions, and information apps that confuse rather than assist troubled individuals is a recipe for slow uptake of preventative and treatment options. In this, the vaccine recipient is forced to work through a series of communication channels to determine how and where to gain access. Throw in misinformation about the situation, false promises of easy access to tests and treatment, partially confused messaging about how some people rather than others should proceed, and the need to have the time, persistence and ability to navigate this network raises serious questions about how well designed is our response to this pandemic.

Yes, it is a design challenge and frankly, one that casts our user-centered design skills in a poor light. Better apps would be a start, apps that recognize the context of use for Covid is stressful, personal and driven by a desire for help. But a better app is only a start. We need to recognize that information is a resource that exists at multiple levels, from the physical to the social, and only by considering people as actors at all levels, as users of devices and members of networked communities within a broad social structure, layers that have competing goals sometimes, differing power structures, and incomplete understanding of actors in differing roles, can we hope to create a seamless and humanly usable response to this situation. Yes, our IT in a time of covid is a highly contingent socio-technical system and unless we proceed to tackle the problem with this in mind, I foresee more roadblocks ahead.

Strategic planning, associations, and those info pros

When ALISE issued a new strategic plan last week, one might have hoped it signaled a sign of life in one of the remaining LIS professional associations. A few years ago they spoke of a 100 year plan, but this time around it’s a little more modest, covering the years 2021-25, during which the group aims to become the global leader in the education of information professionals. Well, that’s no mean goal for largely American collective, but I suppose the rest of the world is used to such statements these days.

What was likely not expected, though it might reasonably have been given history, is that some of the association’s own members took issue with this and weren’t shy about raising their concerns in the JESSE discussion group. OK, people have a right to their opinions but I understand how frustrating it must be for the directors and plan writers to read the comments months after they had offered ongoing opportunities for members to engage in the process and provide input when it could have shaped the outcome. I think there’s a fundamental law of group behavior here — some people will only react, they will rarely create, no matter how many opportunities you give them. There’s another law which states that no matter the subject, some people will always bring it back to their personal hobby horse but that’s a different story which may or may not also apply here.

Nevertheless, I was somewhat bemused by the comments posted in reaction, many of which spoke earnestly and perhaps accurately about messaging that indicates ALISE caters to information professionals. You can imagine that some within ALISE do ask if the L-word is somehow being danced around in this strategic plan and wonder, with reason, if this is really the right way to proceed. Where were those voices earlier? Pick your excuse, from pandemic to procrastination, but they are certainly making themselves heard now.

For me, I am less bothered by what’s missing than what’s being claimed. ALISE is a small association, mainly made up of LIS-oriented faculty who are pretty comfortable the LIS view of the world which tends to put libraries at the center of many things informational, and believes accreditation will keep us all together. What some object too is the generalization of this to the broader world of information professions where libraries might actually be peripheral or worse.

I am sympathetic to the concerns but for quite different reasons. Firstly, I acknowledge the shitload of effort a volunteer group takes on to produce a strategic plan. I might note that most strategic plans contain enough bullshit that we could write them in our sleep and not risk saying anything new, but they still take some work. Thankless work. Unpaid work. You get the point. And the feedback they get for this work is usually negative, which I mention just in case you really did not get that point. Anyway, some good folks did this but I too find myself wondering if the effort is worth the result.

Here’s my issue. I now wonder if the term ‘information professional’ has served its purpose. Yes, it was a nice phrase in 2000 to describe an emerging interdisciplinary community who recognized that IT would change our world, and that if we valued humans, we would need to design and influence and shape and deliver these new information products and services for human benefit. We were fewer then. In the intervening decades, information has impacted everything. EVERYTHING. And our lives now are not lived in the way they were in 1990, never mind 1970. Consequently, every profession, every job, every human activity has an information layer associated with it or a technology that mediates it. There is no longer, in my view, a cluster of information professions that coalesce even loosely around a core set of principles, never mind a core set of methods, theories or findings. In such a world, there is little room for one association to claim to lead the many professionals who are wrestling with how to leverage and deliver information for their organizations, members, colleagues, citizens, selves etc. Information is so ubiquitous, so much part of the fabric of work and living, so much wrapped in technologies and in practices, that it’s become a generic property of routine professional practice for disciplines that have little awareness or even desire to know each other.

Information schools have already wrestled with how to engage the L folks, the IA folks, the UX and HCI folks, the design folks, and more. Each school has it’s own approach and where there is collective action, the iSchool Caucus has attempted to provide a form of professional community infrastructure without ever admitting it is like any other association, though the clues lie in the actions more than the statements. Add in ASIST, a mix of scholarly and professional members who seek to advance information science as a discipline and field of practice, and you have, with ALISE, three groups all representing a lot of shared territory. One might ask which of these three should or could lead and why are we even asking this question in 2020? The reality is, none of them, do, will, or even can!

Information professions such as Info Architecture barely acknowledge the presence of any of these groups in their lives, and anyway, they have their own group. Ditto competitive intelligence, knowledge management, HCI, UX, special libraries, archives, museums, and any of the other closely related to LIS groups of ‘info professionals’. Add in the data science community, the health informatics, CSCW, IT and work, ICT, Ed Tech, and so on and so on, groups of professionals who cluster around particular problems spaces all mediated by IT, and you can start to appreciate that ‘information professionals’, as a general term, covers such a range of people and practices that leading them is impossible and perhaps not even desirable. Many, likely most, of the members of some of these communities have never heard of ALISE, or LIS, or even the iSchools, and they certainly don’t want to be led by such groups. Do we deny them the status of being ‘information professionals’ then? Well we can try, but to so means defining info pro in a much more constrained way. And even if we could do that, we’d still have to argue about the boundaries like it was 1984 all over again.

I fear, therefore, that it is pointless now to even call someone an information professional unless they want to be called it. And even then, most people in the world would still not understand what it meant without resorting to referents that made sense to them…’oh, you mean a librarian..a stockbroker, a journalist, a mathematician…etc’. All to say, whatever information is, it is not, to most people, a profession.

So what then should ALISE do? Not my call but I would generally recommend that if one group wishes to lead, they need to understand who they and leading and who the competitors for leadership are. In the LIS space, which is really quite small, all things considered, ALISE might want to differentiate itself from ASIST and the iSchools caucus. It can do that either by providing something that is different, or something that is better. When ALISE speaks of being a leader of the information professions, I see neither difference nor improvement over anything the other two provide. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.

What’s coming for higher ed post-Covid?

Fascinating argument about the future. Tenure as a welfare system taxing the young, elitism, higher education as a luxury brand, and a predication that we might see up to 40% of universities close in next decade? I might take issue with some of the numbers, but I can’t disagree with much of the argument.

More suits looming

Seems SU students are not alone in suing their university over the failure to deliver what was promised this semester, something’s brewing in Florida too where a class-action lawsuit against the state system is ongoing over the inability of students to obtain paid for campus services after the pandemic caused campuses to empty. One imagines these not being the last examples we’ll hear about, confirmation indeed that no matter what happens, lawyers will be involved.

More interesting, but also Florida related, the claims for productive career enhancing skills being provided by the Florida Career College (FCC… nice!). Seems students are ‘encouraged’ to take out expensive loans to pay for short certificate programs that promise secure jobs repairing HVACs and the like. Lured by the economic argument of advancement and the promise of support in the subsequent job search, it seems this ‘college’ is not quite living up to expectations. Not only do some of the teachers admit they lack experience but essential equipment for this ‘education’ is often not available. Add to this, the apparent targeting of minority students via what’s being termed a ‘reverse redlining’ approach and you start to get the picture. Personally I’m not a fan of accreditation for universities but when I see the results of slack regulation, I wish maybe we had even more lawyers involved!