Can music really contain subliminal or hidden messages? A question I’ve pondered since listening to my iPod on the train this morning…
In today’s blog I’d like to stress how important it is to think about ‘usability’ when managing your digital records. Keeping digital information usable in the way that you need for as long as you need isn’t as simple as it sounds. It can be particularly challenging, for example, when you make changes to your technology, organisation or business needs.
To help explain exactly what we mean by keeping digital information usable, I’m going to write this blog with a little help from my iPod. There are five things which you need to think about, and the following five songs each contain a hidden message about how to successfully manage digital information over long periods of time.
So crank the volume up to 11 and read on for the information management playlist!
Usability is… Finding your information when you need to
U2 – ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ (1987)
This U2 single is a good analogy for the importance of accurate metadata. Imagine yourself stood in a town where the streets have no name. Do you think you could find the Post Office if I asked you to? Having the street names, house numbers and postcodes means that you can find your way there, and it’s the same with information on your computer systems. Finding information is important not only because it forms the basis of our decision making, but also because it is inefficient to spend time recreating it.
Remember that digital information is essentially all the same, a collection of ones and zeros held on a spinning disk. It’s only the way that we label, structure and present these ones and zeros that means we can find them again when we need to.
Usability is… Opening information using the technology you have available
Feeder – ‘Buck Rogers’ (2001)
Feeder’s hit song is about an individual who purchased a ‘brand new’ car that had leather seats and a CD player. Even new technology becomes outdated: ten years ago the car would have had a cassette deck. Ten years in the future it would be an mp3 player.
The lifespan of information is often longer than the systems and media that it is held on. Technology changes so often that format obsolescence can be a problem for information of long term value. Old hardware or software can corrupt information or prevent you from opening a file, so think about the retention periods for important pieces of information when refreshing your IT systems. Think of it this way: the next car you buy may not have a CD player, so how will you play your music?
Usability is… Working with your information in the way that you need to
David Bowie – ‘Changes’ (1972)
David Bowie knows all about ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, and admits in his 1972 classic that ‘time may change me’. This idea of being in a constant state of change is important to understand when working with your information. Bowie aside, ‘time’ will also change your IT infrastructure, as well as how you will work with the information that you create or receive.
Whereas the ‘paper world’ of records only allowed for documents to be read and annotated, technology has allowed us to manipulate, interrogate and process information in many new ways. Remember then the relationship between using and preserving information: converting documents into a static format may allow for effective preservation, but consider whether the original form allows you to draw added value which you still need in order to work with your information.
Usability is… Understanding exactly what your information is
Take That – ‘Never Forget’ (1995)
A good reminder about the importance of context: ‘Never forget where you’ve come here from’. I think what Take That were trying to say is that ‘accountability in government means having sufficient contextual information available to show why a decision was taken’. Okay, it’s not quite as catchy as Gary Barlow and co. Remember though that the structure and context of information is vital to understanding it, and that this can be lost when documents and folders are moved around.
Understanding the context of information is a little bit like having a single jigsaw piece. It’s an isolated document which on its own may not mean anything, but it is significant in order to create the bigger picture. Just like having the jigsaw box, it is important to understand exactly what information assets you hold, and how they fit together.
Usability is…Trusting that your information is what it claims to be
The Clash – ‘I Fought the Law’ (1978)
‘And the law won…’ Understanding information legislation is important because ultimately, if you can’t trust that your digital information is what it claims to be, then you may not be compliant with the law. For example, if you don’t protect the personal data you hold and keep it accurate, then you may ‘clash’ with the ICO.
If you can’t trust that your information is interpreted correctly, you may not be able to produce it when required under the Freedom of Information Act or for an ongoing Public Inquiry. Wrongly interpreting information can be a simple mistake, but is potentially very problematic. For instance, if I set up a meeting on 03-04-11, would everyone know what date I was referring to?
If you can’t find, open, work with, understand or trust your information, your organisation may be at risk. For more information on keeping your information usable, please visit our pages on Digital Continuity.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this music-themed blog. For now I’ll leave you with the rest of the Information Management album.
Information Management B sides
Blur – ‘We’ve got a File on You’
Cinderella – ‘Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)’
Led Zeppelin – ‘Communication Breakdown’
The Rainmakers – ‘Information’
Shuggie Otis – ‘Information Inspiration’