Information Management in the movies

Welcome to my blog! Let’s begin by setting the scene…

In December 2011 the Cabinet Office published the Information Principles for the UK Public Sector as part of the wider UK Government ICT Strategy. The National Archives both helped in the development of these Principles, and continues to support the public sector in implementing them.

How do you write an accessible blog about this piece of guidance, I hear you ask? Well, whilst watching The Shawshank Redemption last night I had an idea: Could I explain how the seven Information Principles work using examples taken from the movies?

So here they are, the Information Principles at the movies. (Caution: spoiler alert!)

1. Information is a valued asset: Blair Witch Project (1999)

Three hapless American teens are trying to escape the woods and the elusive ‘Blair Witch’. Their only reliable means of navigation is a map, which is thrown into a river by one of the characters, leaving them lost in the woods to be killed by the witch.

This low budget horror flick is a simple analogy for valuing information. The map is an information asset; it holds the key to achieving their requirements (namely, survival). Having failed to value it, they end up doomed to waste time and resources, and are ultimately killed off by the Blair Witch.

2. Information is managed: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

The Jedi Temple is home to the Jedi archives – seen as the definitive resource for information about the galaxy. When Obi-Wan Kenobi questions the omission of a particular planet, the archivist replies “if an item doesn’t appear in our records, it does not exist…”

In the movie, the archives have been altered by a rogue Jedi looking to hide the existence of a Clone army. Good information management means that we know when records are moved or deleted through authorised and auditable processes. If we don’t protect our information and understand where it is, then our information can’t protect us.

3D cinema in the 1950's (WORK 25/208)

3. Information is fit for purpose: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Indiana Jones races a team of Nazi archaeologists to uncover the secrets of the Ark of the Covenant. Instructions to locate the burial place of the Ark are engraved onto a gold medallion. One of the Nazis brands his hand with half of the medallion when it’s thrown into a fire, but leaves the whole object behind.

Information forms the basis of the decisions and actions that we take, so it needs to be of sufficient quality. In this case, the accuracy and reliability of the information was compromised by its incomplete nature – only with both sides of the medallion could Indiana Jones find the correct location of the Ark.

4. Information is standardised and linkable: 24 Season 8 (2010)

Not strictly a movie but; Jack Bauer relies on linking different sources of data to help stop terrorists. In series eight the CTU overlay a street level map with a plan of the subway, integrate a list of disused bank premises, then cross references with the train timetable in order to identify the terrorist hideout.

Each individual piece of information had value, but when put together they provided an even greater insight. The opportunity for exploiting the value of information is greatly increased when it is available in standardised and linkable forms (for example, using widely accepted Open Standards).

5. Information is re-used: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Once again the Empire threatens the Galaxy with the Death Star, and once again the Rebel Alliance must destroy it. Cue fireworks and dancing Ewoks…

Presumably the Empire retained its plans from the first Death Star and reused it to build another one, even quicker. Being able to reuse your information is incredibly valuable, and it may even have value to others. In this case the Rebel Alliance obtained the information (due to poor information security) and reused it to destroy this second Death Star.

6. Public information is published: Deep Impact (1998)

Humanity is threatened by a comet which is on a collision course with earth. The government (headed up by Morgan Freeman) knows about it, but refuses to publish the information until a journalist uncovers the truth.

Could humanity have prepared their own bunkers or shelters had they have known sooner? Could an alternative answer have been crowd sourced, instead of sending Robert Duvall into space? Responsible approaches to publishing public data can stimulate growth, improve accountability and reduce information management costs in the long run.

7. Citizens and businesses can access information about themselves: Memento (2000)

Leonard Shelby is trying to find the man who killed his wife, but the attack left him with short-term memory loss. Accessing information about himself is therefore vital to solving the crime, and fragments of information he finds he tattoos onto his body for safe-keeping.

Access to your own personal information by request is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. Leonard Shelby tattooed himself with his own personal data which meant he could not only keep it secure, but could also access it whenever he needed to.

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I hope this was an enjoyable introduction to the challenges of keeping records in digital form. ‘Stay tuned’ for more Information Management blogs!

19 comments

  1. Alex says:

    Rob,

    I disagree with your interpretation of Return of the Jedi. In this film, the Emperor has purposely leaked information to the Rebels to encourage them to attack the second Death Star, holding back important information (such as the number of Star Destroyers defending it). His failure was more to do with inadequate risk management, for example the military potential of the Ewoks.

    Alex

  2. Tim says:

    Alex,

    The point being made is that the Empire could rebuild their Death Star because they had retained (and re-used) the old plans.

    Although the Emperor leaked the plans to the Rebel’s it is still re-use. Albeit under a very poorly thought through information re-use policy.

    Which is to say; Emperor Palpatine. Worst. SIRO. Ever.

  3. Alex says:

    Tim,

    Yes, I agree that the Empire’s re-use of original specifications was exemplary. The facts speak for themselves – a new Death Star, larger and more powerful than the first, built in a fraction of the time of the original. But the rebels’ plans to destroy it were based on a leak rather than poor security, which was my main point. Clearly management of information in general had improved since Episode IV, although Palpatine’s sharing of key information with his senior managers left a lot to be desired. Compare and contrast Vader’s immediate upward reporting of an exception when he discovered Luke’s presence in the Endor system.

    1. Rob Johnson says:

      Thanks Alex and Tim for your comments – you’ve touched on some interesting concepts that I hadn’t even considered!
      Trying to apply information management standards to a fictional setting is extremely difficult – especially in a complex setting like the Star Wars universe – but I thought you both made some really good points.
      What I like here is that the Information Principles build on each other, and clearly both the Empire and Rebel Alliance both value and manage information effectively in order to make decisions.
      The concept I had in mind was the internal re-use of information in order to build a new death star, but I also wanted to highlight that information re-use is also about making it externally available where appropriate. You’re absolutely right Alex about the Emperor leaking the plans to the Bothans, and underestimating the Ewoks.

      Please keep your Star Wars and other movie comments coming!
      Rob

  4. Tim says:

    Alex,

    I think we may be dealing in semantics based on hindsight. When Palpatine leaked the documents he thought he was being smart – but it was, as it turns out, a very poor security decision. Personally I think leaking classified information is nearly always a very bad security decision; no matter how cunning the plan.

    I like your point on poor knowledge management in the Empire. May be there’s another blog for us to consider in that area!

  5. Andrew says:

    If we’re going to have a conversation about knowledge management – Obi Wan and Yoda communicating from beyon the grave is worth a mention…

  6. Alex says:

    Tim,

    As ever, sound operational policies are undermined by strategic decisions taken at a senior level without due consideration of the risks.

    And don’t get me started on the Empire’s approach to performance management.

  7. David says:

    Clearly the rebels did not have a sufficient selection and disposal policy. Assuming the Empire used the same plans for Death Star II as they did for Death Star I, then the rebels did have the plans as Leia stole them prior to Episode IV. The suggestion is that the plans were withdrawn, deaccessioned and junked as they were judged to no longer be useful. I’d have argued that they had great historical interest especially for the survivors of Alderaan. But then they wouldn’t have seen them for another 20 years due to sections 23 and 38 of the Freedom of Information Act.

  8. Anton says:

    Surely the presence of the fractious Ewoks on Endor should have made itself onto a risk register for the project/ This would have highlighted the potential problems that they caused and meant that a strategy could have been developed to deal with them…

  9. Alex says:

    Why won’t the Empire publish the Death Star II risk register?

  10. Anton says:

    Maybe they failed they only had a copies in a single location, i.e. the Death Star II. That in itself would be a data management failure.

  11. Gareth Maddocks says:

    Actually the second Death Star (DS2) was a considerably larger and more formidable structure (the original had a diameter of 160km, while DS2 was over 900km).

    The major difference in this redesign was the elimination of the two-meter-wide Thermal Exhaust port that was used to ignite a chain reaction in the main reactor of the first Death Star. Instead of venting gases out of a single port, millions of millimeter-wide exhaust ports were scattered over the surface of the station, each of which propelled a small amount of the excess heat and gases into the vacuum.

    Only by attacking it in its unfinished form did the Rebels stand a chance of defeating this behemoth.

    1. Rob Johnson says:

      Hi Gareth, Thanks for your post.

      I’m learning so much about Star Wars from going through these comments! I can tell I’m going to have to go back and watch those DVD’s again.

      I think the point you’ve made is a good example of how information is an asset which is just as important as any other in an organisation. It forms the basis of the decisions and actions we take, so it’s important that we can find and trust it when necessary.

      The Empire in particular would need their information to be fit for purpose (Principle 3) and valued (Principle 1) in order to make decisions about the new exhaust ports. Sounds like they made the right decision to make them smaller than a Womp Rat on the second Death Star.

      Keep the movie comments coming!

      Rob

  12. Gareth Maddocks says:

    No problem. The difference in size of the 2 Death Stars is never made clear in the movies and the depth of space doesn’t really give you anything to compare them against. The best point of comparison you get in the movies is the Millennium Falcon – compare the scene in Star Wars when it gets tractor beamed onboard and the end of Jedi when it flies through the exploding second Death Star and you’ll see the difference in scale.

    The Empire falls into the same trap that many large corporations and government bodies fall for – attempting to create something that is ‘too big to fail’.

    When a project falls apart due to oversights that should have been picked up in the planning stage their answer is to make a bigger, more complex, expensive version of it rather than stopping to consider if there plan was flawed from the beginning..

  13. Gavin Gribbon says:

    Rob,

    Not Star Wars related but…

    I went to see the recent biopic of J. Edgar Hoover and say what you like about his methods and general modus operandi but what a records manager!

    In one scene he takes his putative secretary on a date during which he demonstrates the categorisation and search scheme he devised at the Smisthsonian (?) and later in the film demonstrates a brutal retention and disposal strategy to stop anyone seeing his secret files!

    Gavin

  14. Steve says:

    Great blog and a trigger to read and review again the Information Principles. It seems to me that the principle of timely access to informaiton is implied in the principles but not explicitly referenced. Imagine Jack Bauer in 24. He was always wanting some nugget of information e.g. autopsy reports, imigration dates, individuals addresses, network and sewer maps, building plans, dates, times in a relentless search for the next clue. Occassionally the piece of information arrives too late and usually some loved character dies. Whilst the real world is seldom that dramatic, good decision making and cost efficiency relies on the timely access to accurate information. The search for information quality and better management processes should not ignore the need to make information accessible in the time frame dictated by the information user.
    Keep up the good work!

    1. Rob Johnson says:

      Steve,

      Thanks for your kind words and insightful comments. Your point about having timely access to information is an important one. Good information management will help ensure that the right people have access to the right information at the right time, and the Information Principles should support Government in achieving this.

      Your Jack Bauer example is a good one. Whilst the real world may not be as dramatic, Government officials do take important decisions and create policies everyday based on information. In a digital world this information can take a number of different formats, such as maps, databases, case files, technical schematics, videos, intelligence reports, satellite images etc… Therefore due to the vast quantities concerned we need to make sue that it is managed and fit for purpose, before it can be effectively shared and made accessible. I’m always amazed at the processing power available at CTU, and yes, I have seen many loved characters killed over the years!

      Also remember that timely access doesn’t just refer to sharing information internally. For Government to be open and accountable it needs to make information available to the public, and therefore it publishes information (Principle 6) under the Freedom of Information Act, and provides citizens with access to their own information (Principle 7) under the Data Protection Act. Both pieces of legislation have statutory timeframes that must be adhered to, and promote transparency in a timely fashion.

      Finally I would say that, for CTU especially, information has both primary and secondary value. Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian are constantly calling up old case files that have been gathered as a result of operations in the past. Because it has been (presumably) managed so well, they are able to refer to it again to draw added and new value from it when the context of world events changes.

      Thanks again for commenting!

      Rob

  15. Mike says:

    Do they have a migration workflow or digital preservation plan for the digital records stored in R2D2? Did his software/hardware become obsolete when later models were produced? I hope they backed up those files somewhere.

  16. Angharad Turner says:

    While Leonard Shelby’s personal data is undoubtedly accessible in tattoo form, I have to question how secure it is!

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