Information management through music

Can music really contain subliminal or hidden messages? A question I’ve pondered since listening to my iPod on the train this morning…

The boat that rocked?

Tape cover found in possession of Radio Caroline DJ Phillip Marshall ("alias Mitchell") at Folkestone (HO 255/1226)

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 Even new technology becomes outdated: ten years ago the car would have had a cassette deck.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’


  1. Madi says:

    I particularly like the use of “Buck Rogers” for considering the changes in technology that we use. I guess part of it is having to take a calculated risk on what format is going to last and what is just a “fad”. For instance that song talks about having a CD player as a think to boast about, 10 years later it is still standard to have a CD player in a car, and yet we have had other formats in the time in between (mini-disc anyone…?). The same is true for cassettes, and although new cars don’t have cassette players, it is still my preferred choice for listening to music in the car because it is easier than using CDs.

    Some interesting points this raises!

  2. Ingmar says:

    Just for fun, I created a Spotify-playlist:
    Information Management through music
    And you can add more songs to it. I just added Quality control, because it’s all about checking, checking and checking.

  3. Rob Johnson says:

    Madi – I certainly do remember mini-disc bridging the gap somewhere between portable CD players and MP3. My car also only has a cassette deck, but I have an adapter to play my iPod. Perhaps a good example of considering technology when thinking about how I make use of my information?

    Ingmar – what a great idea to Spotify! Quality control is certainly important when being able to use and trust your information, so a nice addition to the playlist.

    Please do keep the suggestions coming!

  4. Ingmar says:

    This afternoon I blogged about your post: Informatiemanagementliedjes (in Dutch) and got some nice suggestions.

  5. Rob Johnson says:

    Thanks for the link – hopefully this has been an accessible way of sharing the message of good information management. There are some great suggestions on there, I like in particular:

    The Police – Too Much Information
    (Stresses the importance of knowing what information you have, where it is, and what value it holds)

    Johnny Cash – Time Changes Everything
    (Good demonstration that putting information on a floppy disc and leaving on a shelf for 30 years is not the way to preserve its content or usability)

    U2 – I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
    (Another classic from Bono and co. I think everyone has had that feeling whilst searching through an inbox, network drive, or document management system)

    Thanks again for posting!

  6. Steve says:

    Hi Rob
    Another excellent blog with many pertinent examples. I have to confess that on reading the blog the song Gaudete from Steeleye Span (1973) came to mind. For those who dont know the song is recorded in a language (Latin) that is widely understood across the globe but by a relatively small number of people. The issue of the underlying language is brought to mind. Great data could be easily missed if it is collected and kept using unfamiliar codes or languages. Useful data (as opposed to Usable data) needs to be accessible by the many. One should also be wary of translation errors that can creep in.
    Keep up the good work

  7. David Matthew says:

    I think this blog explains the problem that digital records causes (the recent Treasury report (see their website) on the economic crisis described their records management system as ‘unreliable’ . Paper records have a defined subject and no need for context and the likelihood of future survival and in the correct place. The idea of music linked to information management is an interesting one, I am sure you will notice that vinyl is coming back thanks to some stars, perhaps Metal Guru (T Rex) or Help! (The Beatles) come to mind when information management doesn’t work.

  8. Bobby Bloomfield says:

    Hilarious. Though I was expecting an article on hidden data in digital music files.

    Bobby Bloomfield
    Music Producer

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