Tag Archives: information overload

Wanted: Alive or Not Deceased

9 Oct

This morning’s process evaluation meeting involved a lengthy discussion about a particular field in one of the sources from which we’re collecting data for the study. It involved talking about “flags flipping” and logic statements. It involved looking at the code that someone else had written and figuring out (trying to, at least) what the variable associated with the field in question really meant. It involved data regarding a patient’s status and it turns out that we can be one of THREE things. Really. Three. Alive (check), dead (makes sense) or null. Null? What does “null” mean? A person is either alive or deceased. There’s a category, “Null”? And from there, the discussion went.

This experience would have struck me a lot more ridiculous had it not been for one pretty glaring fact – it happens everywhere. And all of the time. To people at every level of work from the corner convenient mart to health care research studies to Congress. Everyone is talking, but is anyone being heard? People are publishing facts and figures and reports and stories, but is anyone reading them? It’s as if everything has become the instruction manual that nobody ever bothered to read.

I have attended more meetings lately where the discussion is either directly or implicitly about communication; specifically, where it fails. At the same time, though, it seems that too often, the solutions offered to solve a communication problem do little to change the situation that causes the poor communication in the first place. Here’s an example:

  • Problem: A website is poorly designed, making it quite difficult to identify particular resources that students, faculty and/or researchers need.
  • Solution: Ask users of the site to tell you what they use and how they find it. Redesign the site accordingly.

Now, at first glance and in what has become standard practice, this makes a lot of sense. People way smarter than me have spent a whole heckuva lot more time on usability testing and website design than I have. I won’t argue that. What I will argue, though, is this… at what point in accommodating users do we forsake “good” behavior and/or reinforce “poor” behavior. In other words, if a person can’t find something in a logical manner, we believe in creating a solution that allows him/her to find it using their logic, whether it’s logical or not. Rather than instruct an individual on how to do something, we’ve opted (because we can and because it’s so darned easy) to look at the behavior and create an easy way to accommodate it. [Tangent: It’s like my former neighbor, a college professor, who once told me that there’s no point in assigning certain lengthy readings to students anymore, because they don’t read them. Instead, assign them things that they will read. What?!]

I’m not against progress, by any means, nor am I one resistant to change, but I find myself questioning our patterns and practices for problem solving, particularly in regards to improving communication. Is it possible that we have created a situation in which it is SO easy to communicate, we’re lessening our effectiveness at it? It’s so simple to compose an email, to shoot off a text, to build another subject guide, to write another line of code… it’s so easy to do all of these things in our work nowadays, we’ve perhaps lost (or are losing) the ability to sit, plan, purposefully draft and talk through with others the implications of our decisions, and document what we’re doing. That last bit it key. Particularly in research.

Even the best research projects in the best labs seem to fall to the temptation of poor documentation. We read about it in the news. We see it in retractions of journal articles. It’s everywhere.

Today, I taught a class of first-year students in our Clinical and Population Health Research doctoral program. My job was to teach them good strategies for searching the literature. I did my usual spiel about the importance of putting together a plan, writing things down, thinking through the different relevant terms for the search, listing them, etc. I told them how it’s a skill to build a good search, one that will yield you the results that you want and need. I hit all of the highlights and covered all of the important pieces.

And then I went to one of several bibliographic databases (take your pick) and had to explain how everything that I’d just taught them was completely undermined by the simplicity of what’s become the default for pretty much every resource we use nowadays.

Now let me pause and be clear – I love Google. I use it every single day of my life (when I’m online). It is effective and efficient and I’m not about to climb on the librarian bandwagon that beats it down (to no avail). It’s a GREAT resource. Google is a wonderful thing in our world. So wonderful, in fact, that it’s reinforced every notion, every dream, every desire for simplicity that seems hardwired into our human wiring. It is easy. It is fast. And it works good enough.

But here’s the thing. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To a Google user, every search is a simple one. Every search yields a good enough answer. AND… every search is fast. And to me, this is the danger.

Searching for information, along with every other thing we do that technology has made so much easier and so much faster, is a double-edged sword. For everything that we do easier and faster, we reinforce doing everything easier and faster. For how easy and fast it is for me to send a text, the more texts I send. And the more texts I send, the less time I ever spend thinking about (or heaven forbid, editing) them. And the more texts I send, the more I receive. And the more I receive, the more I answer. And the more I throw this information back and forth and back and forth, the less time I ever spend reading any of it. And THEN, all of these tools we’ve created to connect us to one another, to help us communicate… well… you tell me.

I asked the folks on the study team how in the world they would ever do a study like they’re undertaking now without computer programs, with codes for switching flags on and off, automatically putting certain pieces of data in one shoot or another? How would it even be possible? The programs are essential, but unless we sit and think and talk about and document what we’re doing, they generate more work than they ever save.

The ability to generate and gather so much data, so easily, is intoxicating. I wonder if one role the informationist might play is that of the designated driver. Give us the keys before you start collecting data, and we’ll help you get home safely.