The Story of Information

I have a secret. It’s one of those things I don’t tell people very often. But since we’re all friends here, here goes.

I love databases.

Yup. Databases. I find them wildly interesting. Why? Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of an information junkie. OK, a LOT of an information junkie. I read voraciously. I love to learn and absorb. I love to take in all sorts of information, process it, think really hard about it, then spit it back out in a way that makes sense to me. Information excites me in a way that not many other things can.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been helping a company fix up their database (yup, I do that too). I’ve been given the challenge of finding ways to increase the integrity of their existing data, and to make the overall snapshot of the data easier to understand and align with the goals of the company. It’s a clean up exercise, a business process exercise and a functionality exercise all in one.

All of this digging around in the bowels of my client’s information and categories and bits and pieces has got me thinking a lot about how people deal with information.

The fundamental problem with a database is that it’s only as useful as the information that is contained within it. In other words, you can have the most sophisticated database in the world, but if the information is outdated, or simply not useful to your organization, then your database will fail.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for a database to become useless. At times, depending on the data, it can be a matter of days or weeks (or even hours) before the information in it is rendered out of date and therefore useless. What this means is that there needs to be meaningful input to your database at all times. It means that processes have to be put in place to make sure that meaningful input happens.

Now, let’s take this outside of the structure of a database. If I look around at all of the information I have coming at me in a given day – hundreds of emails, thousands of blog posts, what can seem like tens of thousands of tweets – I can easily get lost in that. Data in the world of the Web gets old in a matter of minutes sometimes. How can anyone hope to keep up with this kind of turnover?

What it comes down to is context. It’s the same thing I’m using to solve my client’s database issues. The best way to define context is to ask relevant questions. Once you have answers to these questions you can start to put things in a logical order that makes sense and allows for processes that can be maintained.

In the case of my client’s database, I had to forget about fields and categories for a minute, step back and look at what they are really trying to accomplish with this information. If I can see the big picture, define the actual goals, I can then figure out how to structure the data. I give it context. I get it to tell a story. Once that story is there, people can begin to use the information in a meaningful way. And suddenly, maintaining the integrity of the data is easy, because everyone knows the story that we are trying to tell, and only contributes that information that is relevant to the story.

So…what does this have to do with your information? All of these inputs we have coming at us – blogs, news, tweets, videos, emails – they are just a mish-mash of data until we are able to give it context. Giving it context means we have to figure out the stories that we are trying to tell. Think about the things in your life that are important to you. For me, in a nutshell, and in no particular order, it’s family, business, music, and friends. All of the information I take in corresponds to one of those areas, most of the time. If I just bring in unfiltered information all the time, I have no context, and at the end of the day, I can’t make sense of any of it. Therefore, the information is essentially useless to me. And I’m missing out on the story.

However, if I start to figure out what kind of story I want that information to tell, then the picture starts to become more clear. Suddenly, I can understand and process and actually absorb some of what is coming at me. I can put it into categories, and continuously update my knowledge base. My data suddenly takes on a new level of integrity, and as I filter in the new information, it seamlessly adds to what’s already there. My data is suddenly incredibly valuable and useful.

Data is exciting because inside of this vast online maze of disparate information lies a story waiting to be told.

How do you define the story your information is trying to tell?

Going with Gut
What Being Tired Teaches You


  • March 3, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Today I was talking about our database, helping others (and myself) remember that the information has incredible value because of the people that are represented and the story that we can tell.

    Wonderful. And true.

    (and because of my scheduling choices, you win the posting race).

    Jon Swanson’s last blog post..outliers and talent and hope and deliberate practice

  • March 4, 2009 at 7:39 am

    This really got me thinking this morning. I look at twitter everyday and sometimes just walk away because of all the information being thrown at me. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but thinking of it as a way to build MY data base. contribute to MY story is a very useful context for me to explore. Thanks!

  • March 9, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    So glad to hear someone else admit they love databases. I also love metadata, tags and information design. And information theory. And I constantly ponder the question of what skill sets and mind sets we need to develop to cope with an overabundance of information and give it meaning. Many of us of a certain age, I think, still suffer from an attitude of scarcity and I think we now need to figure out how to let the waves of information wash over us and extract our own stories from it.
    Thanks for the post.



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