Out of pure happenstance, I think, I have been hearing and learning a lot about networked data and information recently.
The first I’ll mention is a TED Talk by Hans Rosling (also check out his website Gapminder). It is from 2006, but still highly relevant. The talk is mainly focused on how information and data could be better communicated and represented. It is a great talk in general, with wonderful visualizations. Throughout, Rosling shows that often the way data is presented is misleading, confusing, or incomplete. This can be remedied by presenting it better, but, to my point right now, having access to more and better data from a variety of sources is also necessary. Rosling discusses this toward the end when he notes that most data already exists in databases or proprietary sources, but it is hidden or cumbersome to access. In order for data to be better represented and understood it has to be accessible. What is really needed is the ability to link everything together, and more importantly, create a way to search across all these massive data sources. The more information that can be brought together, better questions can be asked, and answers can be more nuanced, detailed, usable, and accurate.
The second occurred when I attended the New England Archivist meeting (which I wrote about very recently in A Librarian Can…also be and archivist). The second plenary of the conference was Sands Fish, a data scientist and computational artist from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, focusing on the digital public sphere and communities of discourse in citizen media. Fish focused on networks, first showing how networked structures are the most effective forms, existing everywhere from neurons in the brain to the dark matter of the universe. The concepts of networks become particularly applicable and important when applied to information. The network effect postulates that a good or service becomes more valuable when more people use it. Networks create access, helping people find and use more relevant resources and information that can be found libraries and archives. Fish demonstrated a number of innovative and interesting ways this can be done. The technology and new services being created in this arena are impressive. I am only beginning to wrap my mind around the technical aspects. For now, my point is just that networking information, data, and our collections is something we in the information profession should be learning about and thinking of ways to apply it to the work we do and collaborate with others.
When data, sources, materials, information can be identified and linked, questions can be asked that would have never been thought of before. It does not matter what type of information we are talking about – in a medical library or a unique collection in an archive – the concept applies across the spectrum. Linking information and data can even help bridge gaps not previously recognized that may exist across these disparate institutions. Not all questions can be answered from a single source, so why do we think that they can be answered from a single institution’s collection. The more resources that can be linked together and drawn from, the more robust, comprehensive, and accurate research can become. Networking is also self serving for institutions. Bringing people into your collections, your resources, when otherwise they would have been missed, increases impact and outreach. Regardless of role, all information professional’s work is about access and answers. It is beneficial to both researchers and institutions to network unique resources together. To highlight hidden data and information, facilitate more comprehensive and clear research, and help our researchers and institutions, a librarian can…network.