Information Architecture for the digital-physical world

Day 2 of the Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference is over and I am still finishing the second part of yesterdays blog post! Oh well, there are a few distractions in Austin after the conference that get in the way of sitting in a hotel typing away on a computer.

I want to follow on from yesterdays blog post with the seven points Andrea concluded his presentation with. For want of a better word, he used “manifesto” to box the following seven points:

1. Information architecture becomes an ecosystem – all of the information artifacts no longer stand alone. They are all part of the single user experience and need to be acknowledged as such.

2. Users become intermediaries – users produce and re-mediate content. [In content management circles this idea has been around a while]. Andrea cited the example of Rosenfeld Media with its range of user experiences.

3. static becomes dynamic – information and content acquisition really never gets finished. There is always something more. Content is always changing and being reconstituted in different ways. The example of a dynamic information example is Wikipedia.

4. dynamic becomes hybrid – boundaries are separating media; there are thinner channels and genre. The example given in the presentation was the Hitachi 2400 windshield that could display a bevvy of information on the screen as you drove along! For example, the logo for a company might pop up to alert you to the fact that a XYZ fast food joint was coming up. I am sure there are probably more worthwhile pieces of information that could be presented but I’ll need to see if digital placement of information on the windscreen is the way to go.

5.horizontal prevails over vertical – intermediaries push for more informal structures and meaning; push for spontaneity and ephemeral meaning. Tagging was the example given.

6. products become experiences – from single object to a wider experience. Experience spans multiple steps for the user experience. [I think that recognition of the customer experience has been around a while among companies and marketeers (love that US expression) for a while as they attempt to differentiate their products – objects – from competitors.]

7. experiences become cross channel experiences – no longer tied to the one artifact and experiences span across channels. The great example used was for selling teddy bears! Build-a-bear not only allows you to create your own teddy bear (thereby outdoing the boring standard teddy bear and associated fluffy pals), you can also enter a digital world and play with other kids and teddy bears there as well. Your teddy bear has a unique bar code and you can give it a name. You can go to Bearaville and play, as an avatar with your bear who is “alive and playing as well”. Whoa – life couldn’t be so good!

Ultimately, Andrea concludes, the information architecture experience needs to account for a vary range of experiences useing cross channels and taking advantage of the integration between our physical space and our digital space.

Within the library context, we need to be aware that information silos may not hold the answers as they once did. We need to look at what channels of information we can use to help our users/clients/patrons get the outcome they want – to find the information they need.

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Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference 2012

It’s a beautiful time in Austin, Texas. The weather is warm to hot and the music is loud and proud. But I am in Austin for the  Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference. I attended this conference last year and I am pleased to be back again.

I’ll start my conference report with the morning session today (the first day) of the Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference. I will have to post another instalment for the after lunch sessions. By the way, I had lunch at the wonderful Blanton Museum down the road from the conference venue. The morning was both interesting and satisfying.

I will focus on the keynote since this was the presentation that had the most relevance and interest to me and my workplace. The keynote was delivered by Andrea Resmini currently working in Sweden. The title of his presentation was “Between physical and digital: understanding cross channel experiences”.

Andrea opened up with a story based on the Umberto Eco novel (and subsequent movie) The name of the rose. He focused on the labyrinthine library and the differences between the description and map of the library in the book and in the movie. The purpose of the story was to illustrate how important meaning is in understanding complex environments; and secondly, that we need to be able to understand how different media affect people’s experiences. Thus, is there really a meaningful difference between the physical reality of the library or information centre and that of the virtual library?

Taking some inspiration from William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer, Andrea explains that cyberspace is not a place to go to, it is a layer tightly integrated into the world around us. And as such, there are cross channels that enable information to be delivered, exchanged, and received to suit the needs of individuals and the contexts in which they find themselves. Cross channels may be expressed this way: “Cross-channel is not about technology, or marketing, nor it is limited to media-related experiences: it’s a systemic change in the way we experience reality. The more the physical and the digital become intertwined, the more designing successful cross-channel user experiences becomes crucial”. A full explanation, from which this quote was taken, can be found here.

The point of course is that libraries can no longer think of themselves as a set of discrete multiple actions, or silos,  (e.g. circulation desk, catalogue, web site etc.) but as facilitator for the provision of information in different ways to meet the needs of clients/users/students and the way in which they want to access and consume information. This of course involves the virtual library.

More generally, all of us are not staying within one channel all of the time. We move between them, depending on what it is we need them to do. And we would like all the digital pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to fit and work together.

I will return in my next post to continue what Andrea went on to say, outlining his seven point “manifesto” about information architecture, the user experience, and cross channel experiences.

But to finish this post, I want to give some further reading. Andrea mentioned the book “Pervasive Information Architecture” and I will be chasing that up when I return home later in the week.

 

What you say is not what you do

There is a bit of ruckus at the moment about the power of Australia’s supermarket duopoly – Coles and Woolworths.

In the past the criticism was that the two supermarket chains had too much market power – over 80% of the Australian market. That percentage probably remains the same today despite all the brouhaha about market dominance over the past decade (i.e. there were lots of protestations at all levels of the community, and a number of government inquiries, but there has been little tangible action to reduce this market dominance).

The main brunt of the criticism relates to market concentration (the duopoly has reduced competition in the market) and has too much market power on the buying side (the duopoly can squeeze suppliers to almost unsustainable levels). In addition, supermarkets can cross-subsidise their products when it suits them, thereby using their market power to artificially lower prices in “competitive” products.

In 2008 there was the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry into the competitiveness of retail prices for standard groceries. In September 2002 there was the Report to the Senate by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on prices paid to suppliers by retailers in the Australian grocery industry.

One of the interesting snippets of information from these public inquiries is that there was evidence that showed a difference in pricing at the supermarkets depending on whether the duopoly was in the one location and where the duopoly had a third supermarket in competition in the one geographic location. In the scenario where a location had three competing supermarkets, the Coles and Woolworths retail prices were generally lower than at locations where it was just Coles and Woolworths in competition. Well, as Michael Porter identified, businesses try to avoid price competition wheneve they can because it directly affects margins.

The impact on suppliers is clear enough. It was loud and clear when I worked at Rabobank throughout the first half of the naughties. I would hear how the supermarkets were screwing agricultural suppliers through reduced prices and increased compliance costs. For example, one banana producer told me that the bananas had to be packed in a box in a very specific way otherwise Woolworths would not accept delivery.

Nowadays, farmers have the same concerns but there are increasing demands from the duopoly concerning on-farm activities. Recently, one berry producer told me that having a dog on a berry farm was unacceptable because the dog may have been washed in a chemical bath that could get onto the berry fruit!

The supermarkets say that driving down consumer prices shows that a competitive market exists. Driving down the retail cost of milk to one dollar a litre makes a lot of sense if one wants to sell lots of milk but milk has a relatively inelastic demand – the lowering of the price does not necessarily see an increase in consumption. For the duopoly, however, a low price for a food staple like milk makes a lot of sense because it attracts shoppers to the supermarket rather than the corner store. If a shopper perceives the saving on milk is large enough, the shopper will alter his/her shopping behaviour to shop at the duopoly at the expense of other food retail providers and small businesses. Instead of going to the local convenience store to pick up milk and some ancillary groceries, the shopper will concentrate their total grocery shopping activity to the supermarket.  The duopoly wants consumers to stop buying any skerrick of grocery items from alternative convenience stores and grocery retailers. The milk war is less about increasing consumer demand for milk, but increasing the market power of the duopoly.

Currently, there is a lot of concern over the duopoly supermarket chains driving down supplier margins even further through “home brands” (also called private labels).  This article and this one sum up the private label issue nicely.

Everyone is out there saying how dreadful it is that the supermarket duopoly can do all these terrible things. However, the supermarket duopoly reduces prices on grocery items at the checkout for consumers (the same consumers who are equally screaming about the high cost of living).

A recent poll in the Sydney Morning Herald found that over 70% of people are against home brands because they limit variety (i.e. consumer choice). There is plenty of chatter to indicate that a similar percentage (or more) of people think that the supermarket duopoly has too much power.

But what does the behaviour say? Talk is cheap when there is no direct and tangible linkage to benefits or costs (i.e. there is no benefit or sanction as a consequence of our response to a survey or to give an opinion). A poll or a survey asks us what we think and we say so. We really believe what we say as well – Coles and Woolworths are bad.

However, it is likely that the very same people do their weekly grocery shopping at Coles or Woolworths. Mums and dads have Coles and/or Woolworths shares as an investment; either directly or via a superannuation fund. Our actions really do speak louder than words.

Whilst the supermarket duopoly is an important economic and marketing case study, the implications of saying one thing and doing another are huge. Are opinion polls really worth anything at all? The monthly tabloid treats of political opinion polls tell us the Gillard government will be wiped out if an election was held today – but it’s not. The next federal election (the real poll where an outcome actually happens) isn’t for another couple of years. Opinion and speculation are now touted as fact in the media. However, these same opinion-makers are not held accountable when the future unfolds in real-time and they are proved wrong.

If we are to make any sense of opinions linked to action, we need to actually examine the behaviours. This applies equally to marketing, economics, and knowledge management. It’s the logic behind behavioural economics, real-life behavioural research, and user experiences. Mark Hurst’s Good Experience is a good example of looking at what actually happens as distinct from what reportedly happens.  It’s the logic that we need to apply in our knowledge management research as well.

My favourite quotes from Gov. 3.0 conference

I went over my notes from the Gov. 3.0 conference over the weekend. There was much to read and think about. In my notes were some key quotes. A summary of key quotes from the conference is worth keeping – here they are:

“Sometimes we forget that social media is an exchange” Angelina Russo (Museum3). This quote really identified one of the biggest problems with the hype around social media – for many, social media is used as a broadcast mechanism and this is fine up to a point. But the real reason for social media is to allow communication exchange; to make mutual connections; and to learn from each other. Government – are you listening or just broadcasting?

In a similar vein, Amanda Eamich (US Dept of Agriculture) said that “it’s not about the technology…it’s about the people and intent”. I couldn’t agree more.

“Web 2.0 is the social filter” Robert Thomas (Dept of Innovation, Industry, Science & Research). A key reason people use social media is to be able to share experiences and opinions with friends. These experiences and opinions are used to filter the vast swamps of information out on the web and in junk mail catalogues. Word-of-mouth marketing has never been more significant.

According to research from IBM, “every week businesses waste 5.3 hours due to inefficient processes” Mike Handes (IBM). This quote was actually on a slide in Mike’s presentation but really reinforced the point to me that knowledge management is vitally important to the bottom line in business and government. If we as knowledge managers can improve the way information is used and knowledge accessed within an organisation, then we are saving people valuable time AND ensuring that decisions can be made with the best available information.

The other quote from Mike that makes a lot of sense is that “content revolves around people”. Technology is a wonderful enabler but it really is the people who really count. That’s the difference between loading documents onto a website and calling that open government when what should be happening is increasing the access and level of interaction between government, it’s workforce, and the citizenry. My fear is that government doesn’t think much of the social and prefers the document repository form of community “interaction”.

Anni Rowland-Campbell (Intersticia) quotes Genevieve Bell when she said to “think of data as a person”. I liked this metaphor because it gives awareness to the fact that data can be viewed with many personas and used for many different reasons. Whilst I am not certain of the context the quote was originally used, “data as a person” opened my thinking as to how we might perceive data in the web 2.0/web 3.0 world.

Tudor Groza (University of Queensland) observed that “the problem (with social media) is the silos”. By this he meant that our social media is compartmentalised (in silos). Social media relies on formal links (hypertext) to join information elements together rather than having the right combination of information about a person or an object in the one spot at the one time. Personally, I don’t see this as a problem as the “silos” can be linked if they want to be. I also believe that a person’s identity is comprised of many different personas representing different interests and associations. Let me think this one through in the context of the semantic web…

My final key quote is less about the potential  “dryness” of a topic, but more on the way in which the topic can be communicated.

“I’m the kind of person who, if you met me at a dinner party, would find accountants more interesting to talk to” Paul Storey (Dept of Health). I certainly disagree, Paul. Your presentation about the use of health data to solve medical riddles was both interesting and passionate. Don’t underestimate passion in anything that people do.

Gov. 3.0 conference day 2

I missed the initial sessions this morning at the Gov. 3.0 conference but saw the rest of the days proceedings. Once again, rather than give a summary of the presentations, I want to feature a couple that particularly resonated with me. Not surprisingly, they were on the practical aspects of web 2.0.

The most interesting and relevant presentation for me today was from Amanda Eamich of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Amanda described some of the web 2.0 activities used by the USDA to convey particular messages and/or run engagement campaigns. These included such worthwhile initiatives as improving health and fighting obesity; linking chefs with a good food message to schools, and a food desert locator to show low access to healthy food. You can check out the following websites to see some of these initiatives in action:  Choose my Plate, Chefs move to schools and the Food Desert locator

Amanda emphasised the importance of defining the  mission when starting social media initiatives. This is akin to my mantra” what’s the purpose”? Amanda also recognises that it is important to properly resource initiatives (staff, etc.), have familiarity with the tools (i.e. don’t the tools be your master), have an awareness of your target audience, and have a commitment to the strategy to see it through over the long-term. This is good advice.

I really liked the Chefs move to schools program. The idea was promoted through social media in response to calls from schools for more information about healthy eating and by chefs wanting to deliver the healthy food message to students. The USDA acts as a matching service to link up chefs with a good food message to schools wanting to find out about healthy food and nutrition. It is akin to knowledge brokering which I blogged about recently.

Another top tip from Amanda was that despite the opportunities that arise through social media, “it is important to do things on the ground”. The matching service linking chefs to schools is a classic case of making things happen on the ground.

The USDA has a lot of data and this data can be brought alive through visualisation. Whilst the USDA (and similar government departments) may not have the technical in-house capability to do data visualisation; by making the data available publicly it allows those with such technical skills the opportunity to turn the data into really useful and engaging information. The food desert locator is a good example. Similarly, information of farmers markets used to be on the USDA website. It was later made available in MS Excel and this information was then used to create data visualisation of farmer markets across the USA by people taking the data to reformulate the information into a more appealing package.

I consider government data (as distinct from reports and publications) to represent the greatest value for the open government mission. By putting data that is publicly owned into the public domain, opportunities abound for the data to be used and mixed with a range of data sets to give really useful and engaging information in ways beyond the scope of government web teams.

Lastly, Amanda also championed the social and humanising nature of web 2.0. One example was the USDA blog featuring the people who worked at the USDA – personalising government “bureaucrats” and showing to outsiders a human dimension to the staff of the USDA. An added benefit was greater awareness of people and their interests among USDA staff throughout all the offices in the US.  One other anecdote was about a fun campaign on pumpkins. The USDA ran a campaign encouraging people to send in fun photos of carved pumpkins. Even the luxury car maker Audi got involved with a pumpkin shaped in the style of the logo – an unintended consequence that now reached a market (Audi customers) that might not otherwise have been touched by the USDA).

I intend to follow up with Amanda at a later stage some of these initiatives in more detail. Suffice to say, Amanda’s presentation was the highlight of today.

Even so, I also want to note the presentations from Robert Thomas at the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research who is making great strides in making nanotechnology and biotechnology more accessible and relevant for public consumption through social media: see the Technyou website.

And I thought the presentation from former puppeteer Paul Storey (now at the Department of Health in Canberra) was a fascinating insight into how the semantic web may, in the future, help improve preventative health care through examining the relationships between disparate but relevant data sets to hone health and medical diagnosis. The international harmonisation of health terminology was the first start in this quest: see what SNOMED CT is all about. What was really interesting from this presentation was in looking at the prescription of pharmaceuticals in network terms. Pharmaceuticals taken in combination can have very dangerous effects (the Heath Ledger death almost four years ago was an example). Having the technical capacity to better understand the effects of pharmaceutical use in combinations from the available data would provide real human benefits.

It was clear to me that much of what I heard from the presentations had applicability in my professional field of knowledge management. As a network administrator now and in the past, networks are an important part of my knowledge management arsenal. And it is still clear to me that information and knowledge exchange is critical, assisted by social media, if we are to solve problems or seek solutions to problems that we may not have the answer to right now.  Whilst I do have concerns over the slow pace at which government is embracing social media in Australia, I am encouraged by some of the experiences shared at the conference.

The panel discussion concludes the day and a very informative Gov. 3.0 conference is over for this year.

Gov 3.0 conference Day 1

My post-conference blogging reports usually provide a summary of the presentations. I report this way so that I have a record of my conference notes in digital form that I can access at any time.

This time, I want to pick up a theme that developed during the course of the day at the Gov. 3.0 conference – how social media can be used in organisational settings to provide positive outcomes.

The two presentations that were of most interest to me were the ones from Mike Handes (IBM) and Jeffrey Levy (Environmental Protection Agency – USA).

Mike’s presentation (I think he used prezi) demonstrated how social media is applicable for both business and government. He gave some examples; the most interesting for me was the use of the IBM Connections in his own workplace and professional life. The product is a more systematic and comprehensive platform to Yammer. The key message was that content revolves around people. Social media in all its different forms allows people to get connected, at varying levels of intensity. Despite all the talk about the semantic web, I still believe it is people who derive meaning from information and turn that into knowledge. Using tools like Yammer and IBM Connections, it is possible to enhance people-to-people contact, facilitate information sharing and problem solving, allow meaningful search, and have these exchanges recorded for others to participate and learn from. Best of all, such systems allow for an organisation’s human and social capital to be effectively utilised. How I wish for a Yammer-style solution to my own workplace staff directory for example, or as a replacement for email-based thematic networks.

One interesting titbit of information from IBM was the observation that every week, 5.3 hours were lost by workers due to inefficient processes. Having completed my own study on information seeking behaviour, I can vouch for the fact that people are losing valuable time and getting frustrated by their inability to locate the right information at the right time.

Jeffrey Levy spoke about the use of web 2.0 as a major form of communication  in times of crisis. Web 2.0 is both immediate and accessible. The example he gave was the Japanese nuclear disaster earlier this year. Naturally, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) was following developments and what impact the disaster might have on citizens and the environment in the USA. The EPA monitored and sampled radiation data over the USA. There was a daily report of information on the website. In addition, the web page was divided vertically in two – text (news) on the left and data on the right. Most people wanted to know what was going on so the daily news was adequate, but there were others looking for the data.

The data was provided, including a “heat map” of the USA which showed where the greatest number of hits on the EPA page were coming from. Naturally, the west coast of the USA was a flash point, as was the Boston-New York area on the east coast (shades of Three Mile Island?). People could click into the map and get state and localised information. There were also links to Twitter and Facebook.

The EPA created a Facebook page solely for this particular disaster. Information was delivered through this channel. The EPA also responded on Facebook to posts challenging or critical of the EPA message.  It was important for the EPA to maintain credibility and to enhance confidence in the information provided. Facebook posts would be repeated so that the message was regular and relatively immediate to people as they logged into Facebook during the course of a day.

The success of the crisis management communication delivery was in the way the EPA used the different communication channels to broadcast, and respond to, the information needs of the citizenry.

The take-home is that social media can deliver a positive and effective outcome for both your internal and external audiences.

Gov 3.0 Conference 2011

Tomorrow (Thursday 24th November) I will be attending the Gov 3.0 conference in Canberra. The tagline for the conference is “the future of social media and public sector communication”.

I am looking forward to what the speakers have to say, albeit I remain to be convinced that governments in Australia are serious about openness, citizen dialogue, and the full use of social media both inside and outside of Departments.

With respect to openness, the observable evidence in Australia and the United Kingdom seems to suggest that uploading millions of documents onto government websites is the solution. In many cases, there is little (if any) contextualised meaning applied to these documents. Documents written for specific purposes are placed into the public domain without that context being explained. There is still the issue over timeliness and relevance.  And the internal approval mechanisms to authorise (and disallow) the publication of certain government documents on the web can be trying. But really, is the average Joe Citizen in the mood to spend oodles of time scouring government websites to read through public-service-speak documents when all they really want to do is ask a knowledgeable person for an answer? Of course, not. There is therefore a need to consider the real needs of the citizenry beyond the selective publication of government documents on the web by government departments. After all, if publishing government documents is what open government is about, then we may as well ask Julian Assange to project manage the whole government openness agenda.

That is not to say that government documents on the web don’t have a place in providing information to the world. However, selective document availability is not the answer to openness without at least providing the necessary assistance and feedback mechanism for real citizen engagement. If I can download a government report but cannot discuss the meaning of the report with anyone inside government (i.e. the public service), then openness and dialogue are rather hamstrung.

When it comes to dialogue with citizens, the general polity likes to think that spewing forth tweets and answering constituent emails is enough. But the reality is that there is not much conversation and two-way dialogue in these type of exchanges. I remember Neil Postman saying in “Amusing ourselves to Death” that in the US in days of Lincoln and co., political dialogue was much more personal and immediate through public gatherings and political campaigning than what it has become now. Sure, I appreciate the issues of scale and technology, but citizen dialogue remains something that the political machine (and the administrative servants in the Public and Civil Service) are yet to achieve.

Social media is also important. There are plenty of politicians using social media – US President Obama and a number of Australian politicians are good examples. But there remains a certain disquiet about social media in the hallowed halls of the Public Service. The main concern is around risk (although there is also a good deal of ignorance about communication in general, let alone via web 2.0 technologies within a Department or with an external audience). The argument goes that social media represents a loss of control, is subject to unknown responses in the public domain, and acts as a diversion to the real work at hand. I’d like to have some sympathy for these concerns because I see some intelligent people using these arguments to say “No” for even the slightest of reasons.

However, there are many risks that can be mitigated against through proper procedures, through establishing organisational trust, and in the recognition that the benefits outweigh the risks. There also needs to be a recognition that organisations need to adapt to a changing world; where stakeholders have different needs and aspirations, than in previous times.

In the corporate world there are also communication risks associated with social media but, for the most part, the corporate world is more willing than the public sector to use social media in positive and interesting ways.

It is therefore of immense interest to me to hear tomorrow and on Friday what the speakers have to say about open government and connectedness; about particpatory discussion and citizen dialogue; about the transformative effects of social media; and about how information, knowledge and learning can flow more effectively in the digital economy than ever before.

In particular, I am keen to hear the experiences from the US about the use of social media and web 3.0 (?) communication channels to distribute information and enhance public engagement with stakeholders. I will also be interested to hear how social media fosters improved communication and participation from both citizens and within the public sector. There is much to learn – I hope that the conference provides those thinking and learning opportunities.