Tag Archives: knowledge management

The Information thing

Most of computer science is built on top of Claude Shannon’s “Information Theory”. Observers have noted that ‘computer science’ has very little to do with computers. I have come to think of it as ‘computation and information science’. I might throw in the word “process” to bind everything together, if I could work out where to put it. For a long time I was ready to dismiss the word “science” but I have recently changed my mind.

In the book I’m writing, I plan to point out that Shannon explicitly says in his paper that he and his theory don’t care about the meaning of any signal being transmitted. It could be meaningless. To my mind that is data not information. Our foundations are shaky.

There is a long tradition of drawing a triangle with layers labelled ‘data’, ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. Here is one: http://www.knowledge-management-tools.net/knowledge-information-data.html
I am trying to develop my own model that adds layers and explains the difference between them. My working definition of the difference between data and information is that information requires a cultural context to be understood. I tried to think of the simplest information I’d ever seen. It was 3 sticks laid down on a forest path, to make an arrow shape (or they fell randomly from a tree. Here, Shannon has something useful to say.) I realised that interpreting this arrow requires a knowledge of human weapons technology. Recognising whether an arrow symbol on a path is a message also requires environmental, cultural and statistical knowledge.

I only came up with my distinction between information and knowledge a few days ago, so I’ll keep testing my hypothesis until the book comes out. I will say that I don’t believe you can store knowledge in a computer system. Oh dear, someone else beat me to the ‘wisdom layer’: http://plmindia.com/services/knowledge-management/


Call yourself an ‘Information Systems Engineer’?

A few years ago, I was on the cusp of becoming a Chartered Information Systems Engineer. The night before my peer review interview, I sat imagining questions I might be asked. I had long been aware that there is no agreed, consistent, meaningful definition of the word “systems” but I suddenly realised I didn’t know what “engineer” meant either. Once again, the word has been so horribly misused that its value has been depleted. Luckily there remains a core meaning that an engineer applies scientific knowledge to solve practical problems. But everyone does that, surely? I preferred a definition I found that evening, “an engineer is someone who can do for ten shillings what any damned fool can do for a pound.” It has an element of quality and value. We were getting into Zen.

Many years later, I was working on a ‘Knowledge Management’ project; to capture snippets of information provided by engineers and scientists. I started to think about the difference between data, information and knowledge. I wasn’t convinced that you could build a computerised ‘information system’ that could store ‘knowledge’. At about the same time, several people around me were getting interested in blogs and wikis. With my colleague, a librarian, I attended a ‘Knowledge Management and Social Software’ event. There was an open question session so I asked the assembled experts what they understood to be the difference between information and knowledge. There was an awkward moment before someone tried to answer me, then a fairly rapid intervention by the chair, who said it was a very theoretical question and we all understood what we meant. A noticeable wave of relief radiated out as people retired to their comfort zones.

I’m still not sure if this had been discussed so many times, without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, that they were bored or if they didn’t want to think about it because it’s A Hard Question. I was forced to conclude that I didn’t even know what ‘information’ was. Awkward!

I’ve thought about the subject a lot since. I have a few ideas but I’m not there yet. I’ve decided to think of it as “Information Metaphysics”. What is information? Does it exist? What is it made from? How does it work? Some people think the universe is made of information. I think they are Wrong. I think information is related to matter, energy, order, disorder, chaos, entropy, intelligence and culture.  I think it is probably unwise to settle for ignorance. That is rarely a good idea. We need more information – whatever THAT is.