Monday, July 15, 2013

Thanksgiving: Information Science for Hungry People

This post originally appeared on Information Space, the blog of the iSchool at Syracuse University, on 24 November 2011.

Things are gearing up for the Thanksgiving meal, and I’ve recently realized that Thanksgiving can work as a pretty perfect analogy for information sciences. At the risk of stretching my metaphors beyond all recognition, let’s take a trek through a feast of information…
There are five things required for a good celebration:
Good Friends: Information is social! Just look around at Facebook, Twitter, G+, and any of the niche networks, and you’ll get a sense that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. People are creating and sharing content every chance they get, and the conversations that spark up are every bit as good as those around the thanksgiving table.  Holidays bring us together, and the culture of sharing we’re immersed in can spread that togetherness into the virtual realm. Conversations have been happening over meals for centuries: why stop now?
The Main Meal: Just as good turkey needs an experienced chef, good information is “roasted” from raw data—and the result is delicious! (Don’t forget to baste.) The raw ingredients (data) are blended in particular ways according to specific recipes, and the product (information) is worth consuming. Information scientists work with different kinds of data all the time, but at the core, they’re each learning to cook them into more palatable forms.
Side Dishes: Accompanying that information is a host of other skills; information organization, evaluation, and access, to name just a few! Look at it this way—for thanksgiving dinner, (and the rest of the year) I can’t get nearly enough cranberry sauce. Standard canned, Cranberry-Orange Relish, sugared cranberries, take your pick! I wouldn’t call cranberry sauce a meal, but neither is the meal quite finished without it. In the same way, information is great, but unless you’ve got the skills to accompany that information then you’re not quite ready to serve it up.
Presentation: Information design is just as important as content—bad design will turn information into mush. On the same wavelength, tables look nice if they’re set properly, and they can be set for different people, different meals. Information design and user experience can be and should be tweaked for every situation, but if it’s a well-designed information experience, people will “come back to the table” again and again.
Pie: The sweet finish, and one of the best parts of Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone has their own style when it comes to pie—there are tons of recipes for crusts, fillings, toppings, and more, and it really comes down to personal preference whether you pick cherry, mincemeat, apple or pecan. (I generally try all of them. You know, to be polite.) Information can be handled the same way. Library scientists, information managers, database specialists, and network administrators all have a slightly different flavor when it comes to work style, but they all try to accomplish similar goals. Information scientists want to curate their world, and help their chosen communities access the information they need. We’re the pie—not a piece of it, but the whole thing. We complement the rest of the information world, just as dessert is the perfect finish to a holiday feast.
How are you sharing your feast? What information are you serving up? How have you set your table? Let us know the answers (and what kind of pie you are) in the comments!

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