Making connections

The web is a failed information management system.

What is odd about that statement is not that the attempt has failed – I don’t think I have ever heard of any other fate for an information management system – but that the fact of the attempt has been so completely forgotten.

Information is everywhere, of course. The public web, or at least some parts of it, is densely populated with links. Following a chain of them long beyond the answer to any question you might have started with is the road trip of the internet age. But beyond a still-thin surface layer, many end points of links remain resolute no through roads.

Communications network

The idea of hyperlinks long predates the web. The hypothetical Memex engine dates back to 1945 and a recent article in the Atlantic takes the story back to the nineteenth century. More recently, everybody knows that Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web,1 but there is much less understanding of what it was he thought he was inventing.

Berners-Lee described the problem he was trying to solve in his famous paper proposing a new information management system for CERN:

CERN is a wonderful organisation. It involves several thousand people, many of them very creative, all working toward common goals. Although they are nominally organised into a hierarchical management structure,this does not constrain the way people will communicate, and share information, equipment and software across groups.

The actual observed working structure of the organisation is a multiply connected “web” whose interconnections evolve with time. In this environment, a new person arriving, or someone taking on a new task, is normally given a few hints as to who would be useful people to talk to. Information about what facilities exist and how to find out about them travels in the corridor gossip and occasional newsletters, and the details about what is required to be done spread in a similar way. All things considered, the result is remarkably successful, despite occasional misunderstandings and duplicated effort.

A problem, however, is the high turnover of people. When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost. The introduction of the new people demands a fair amount of their time and that of others before they have any idea of what goes on. The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found.

The solution he described combined technology and usability, recognising from the outset that people would use something which was attractive and useful:

The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use that it the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use.

That’s a fine ambition which became an information revolution and it’s pretty clear that the ‘critical threshold’ was passed quite a while back. But the initial problem Berners-Lee described still sounds uncannily familiar today, and is still a long way from being solved. As I wrote a while back:

One of the purposes of this blog is to help me find things I half remember thinking five years ago. I have no equivalent tool at work for finding my thoughts, let alone anybody else’s. That’s an important reason why so much energy is devoted to the reinvention of wheels.

There has been a flurry of recent coverage for the brave study by the World Bank which shows that a third of their policy reports are never downloaded and almost 90% are never cited (though if I have understood their methodology correctly, my citing their paper on the citation of papers would not be counted as a citation, so the precise numbers should not be taken too seriously). But although the coverage has included wry comments about the fact that a report about how pdf documents are little read is itself a pdf document, I haven’t see any recognition of a more fundamental problem. The introduction to World Bank report is a statement of why knowledge and the sharing of knowledge matter, including (with the emphasis in the original):

Internal knowledge sharing is essential for a large and complex institution such as the Bank to provide effective policy advice. Bottlenecks to information flows create inefficiencies, either through duplication of efforts and diverting resources from knowledge creation itself.

With that thought it mind, it turns out that that report does not link to any of the published material it refers to. It has a long list of references, many of them to other papers by the World Bank itself, but in virtually all cases they are textual descriptions, not links.2 It’s a dead end not because it’s a pdf, though that doesn’t help, but because it is constructed as an end point, not as a node in a network.

I have laboured that point a bit not because I care greatly about the information management practices of the World Bank, but because I suspect they are distinctive more in the visibility of what they do, than in the doing of it.

Most of the material I see in my working life is self-contained and very little of it makes explicit connections to other information.3 There are two big reasons for that (as well, no doubt, as a host of smaller ones).

The first is technical. You can only link to something if you know where it is now. There is only any point in linking to anything if you can be confident that it will still be there next week and next year (and in some cases, next decade). That requires information to have a permanent, canonical location at an appropriate level of granularity and for the arrangement of information to be more durable than the arrangement of work.

The second is cultural. You will only link to something if doing so is seen as valuable (and if doing so both is and is perceived to be easy to do). Links are most likely to be seen as valuable by people who might choose to follow them. Following links is easy for somebody reading on a screen, but impossible for somebody reading on paper. Reading on a screen is easier if the material is designed to be read that way, not just in layout but in information richness.  So there is little chance that links will flourish in an environment where most information is designed for presentation on paper (even if it is actually sometimes consumed on screen).

Any solution to the information management problems of organisations needs to address both the technical and the cultural issues. The technical solution is necessary, but wholly unsurprisingly, it falls very far short of being sufficient. Even with the network in place to support a much more web-like approach, we cannot hope to consume information that way until we start producing it differently.

But if we succeed, there are prizes well worth having here, which go far beyond better information retrieval. As Tim Berners-Lee speculated a quarter of a century ago:

In providing a system for manipulating this sort of information, the hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes. For this to be possible, the method of storage must not place its own restraints on the information. This is why a “web” of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system.

The need hasn’t changed in the last twenty five years. Perhaps we should try the solution.

  1. Apart from the people who persist in believing that he invented the internet.
  2. There are precisely two clickable links, both to posts in the same blog – but bizarrely the links are to the blog’s homepage rather than the specific posts being cited, so even those don’t help as much as they should.
  3. The one big exception to that is emails which contain long chains of their predecessors, but the less said about that the better.

Twenty years of e-Government

Many of the ambitions of twenty years ago still resonate today. Their realisation is still work in progress.

Jerry Fishenden has taken on the labour of recording the main trends of the history of e-government, or online government, or digital government (even the name has archaeological layers) in the UK over the last twenty years. So far, there are four thematic parts, with the possibility of more to come:

Part 1: Progress towards a single online presence

Part 2: “e-government” architectures

Part 3: Approaches to identity

Part 4: Approaches to social inclusion

There’s a fair bit in all that which I recognise from my own experience, but plenty more which is new to me, or reminding me of things half known and long forgotten. Of course there are other ways of telling the story, there always are (my far less systematic attempt, also prompted by Jerry’s work, was a ten year anniversary piece written five years ago), but this is a really clear account of the history and foundations of current digital government, with much of it more relevant to today’s challenges than you might expect.

Capturing the story this way highlights just how ephemeral it all is. Much of the material Jerry refers to is somewhere between hard and impossible to find online, and there seems little prospect of stable, long-term canonical references. Many of the links in my 2009 post are now broken, sometimes because archive sites I linked to have themselves been archived. Even that is oddly inconsistent: archive.cabinetoffice.gov.uk, redirects to the National Archives breaking specific links as it goes. But archive.official-documents.co.uk redirects first to a gov.uk landing page before linking to the National Archives, but despite that preserves the underlying link structure.

I am not going to attempt to review or provide a commentary on Jerry’s posts, but I do want to offer one small addition to the final part, on social inclusion. Jerry quite rightly makes the point that:

It’s clear that social inclusion has been a concern at least since the 1990s and the first attempts to move government services online. But this narrow association with purely technological aspects has at times diluted the focus on the underlying causes of social inclusion — notably the way public services are designed, operated and delivered across multiple channels.

But his account of what’s happened here is mainly about the very early years, essentially from 1996 to 2000, taking in the genuinely pioneering View from the Queue along the way. Stopping there, I think he misses a subtle but critical turn in the direction of e-government which happened a couple of years later. In the early days, the focus was very much on the availability of services: the core target was about putting services online. Success was counted in terms of what could be done, not whether anybody was actually doing it. In 2002, that changed, with the focus moving much more to the use of services. That was both a minor change in wording and a fundamental change of approach. If you want people to use an online service but they have a choice not to, you have to start doing user centred design. Of course that doesn’t guarantee social inclusion, nor yet the integrated multi-channel approach Jerry rightly advocates, but it is the turning point from online as technology to online as service – the consequences of which have been playing out ever since.

Interesting elsewhere – 13 May 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Makessense Stop! — Crooked Timber
Thinking generally uses the “makessense” stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence — enough so that our position “makes sense” — we stop thinking.

The Five Axioms of the API Economy: Axiom #1
Everything and everyone will be API enabled.

APIs are core to every cloud, social and mobile computing strategy.

APIs are an economic imperative.

Organizations must provide their core competence through APIs.

Organizations must consume core competences of others through APIs.

Guest post: You’ve got two hours to fix government IT | Government technology
The “risk averse, responsibility shy” attitude of some managers. There was quite a lot of discussion on this point at our table. We talked about how senior leaders want people to try digital things, like social media or open internet tools, but don’t want to accept responsibility when things go wrong or when people make mistakes (and that’s definitely a when not an if). What’s your incentive to try something new if you know you’ll be dragged over the coals if you fail?

The best way to organize your business communications is not to organize them at all – Quartz
But the truly interesting thing about Slack is that it puts the whole fragmented list of ways we communicate beyond email, chats, messages, documents, and reports into one stream and makes it searchable. It promises to end the need to constantly categorize and sort everything we do. When everything’s already in one place, you don’t need to spend time creating folders to sort things into and trying to keep track of where the information you need is. You just search for it as needed.

Stop Making Users Explore — Product Management — Medium
Figuring out what that most obvious first task is can be tricky. In order to do it well, you need to truly understand why your user might want to use your product. What problem are they trying to solve? What task do they want to accomplish? How do they want to change their lives? What sort of hole are they trying to drill?

How to take a report to management team | Freedom From Command And Control
Talk them through the paper and invite comments. This means you talk as they read; at the same time, but never in the same place in the document. You may need to raise your voice as they shuffle through their papers searching for bullet points. If you do raise your voice, remember to lower it again. As you talk, try not to show any teeth. This could make them aggressive. Speed up as you go through it. Say you are conscious of time.

How Uber and Airbnb Resurrect ‘Dead Capital’
Uber connects black car drivers with passengers, Airbnb links renters with travelers, and Etsy allows small artisans to create virtual storefronts. Uber owns no cars, Airbnb has no properties, and Etsy prints no Insane Clown Posse fan art