Posts Tagged “information”
Aug 21, 2014
The only way we can solve the problem of information obesity is to change the economics of information (the information that is the worst for us is the easiest/cheapest to obtain), because they have changed in a way that not only stupid people are getting duped anymore. We need to demand an end to factory-farmed content, and demonstrate a willingness to pay for content like investigative journalism and a strong, independent public press.
Ideas: share this book; organize in infogroups; focus and be civil, keeping focus on the goal of improving digital literacy; meet face to face; learn, eg. from the reports by Knight Comission; act, producing useful outcomes in your local communities, including children.
The participation gap is the gap between people and the mechanics of power in their governments. Its cause is our desire to focus on large, emotionally resonant issues over practical problems that can be solved. Related to this is the “sportsification” of politics, which makes us treat elections like athletic rivalries, vilifying the other team at the expense of doing what’s right.
The first cause is scale: the underlying structures of government aren’t designed to handle our present population. Transparency is overrated as solution to this, plus it has disadvantages like allowing dishonest people to appear honest. Two big lessons about this: (1) there’s a gigantic gap between the skills to win an election and the skills to govern a country, and (2) many of the nonprofits and advocacy groups are more interested in staying relevant than solving problems (as a result, these advocacy groups tend to focus on larger problems that can go unsolved for years; also, after working for one such group, the author assures that online petitions are not meant, primarily, to cause change, but to get your email address so that you can later be bombarded by emails asking for money).
Start sweating the small stuff at the expense of some of the big stuff. If you’re interested in making government more accountable, work on making it so that the government’s listening tools and policies are modernized. Every issue has hundreds of small, nonpolitical, operational problems. Fixing these can have a huge impact compared to combating a vague foreverwar.
Special note: Dear Programmer
Programmers: take your role in society seriously. Dedicate some portion of your time to issues you care about. You needn’t ask for permission to do this, or wait for a nonprofit or advocacy group to ask you donate your time (and while it’s useful to partner with organizations, it’s likely that they’re more interested in your skills to help them fundraise than they are to solve problems). This isn’t a call for you to build apps for your favourite nonprofit, because unless you’re willing to support and maintain each application, and help constantly ensure its usage and adoption, you’re wasting your time.
And this is it. As for my review of the book, I got to say I was a bit disappointed by it. It was much more focused on American politics than I expected, which sometimes made it hard to relate to. There are definitely many interesting parts in this book, and a fair amount of food for thought, but some of the advice feels pretty demanding: it feels like it’s enough to keep certain things in mind and make certain changes without really measuring everything objectively (I have the impression that the author has a much bigger faith than me in numbers, measurement and “objectivity”). In summary, good book, but not as universal or life-changing for me as I had hoped.
Aug 18, 2014
This is the second part of my summary of “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson (you can also read the first part). This part covers part II: The Information Diet.
EDIT: the third and final part is finally published.
The Information Diet
First of all: fasting is not dieting. It’s good to disconnect, but unplugging is just a way to avoid our bad habits. Second: the diet is based on the author’s experience, and is not backed by science. Third: it’s a list of recommendations, and every person has to find what works for them. Summary: Consume deliberately. Information over affirmation.
The author coins the term infovegan, a person that consumes consciously. This requires knowing where to get appropriate data and what to do with it. Check the ingredients of “processed information” (when reading news on a new medicare proposal, take a look at the bill itself). It’s also a moral choice: opting out of a system that’s at least morally questionable, shunning factory farmed information, politically charged affirmations, and choosing to support organizations providing information consumers with source-level information and containing more truth than point-of-view.
Our concept of literacy changes with every major IT shift. Now, filtering and sorting through all the available information is very valuable. Proposal for a modern data literacy:
Know how to search: not just Google and Bing, but specific engines for patents, scientific papers, laws, budgets (eg. USASpending.gov), etc.
Know how to filter and process: need to find the most reliable and accurate information sources, and learn how to process them with tools like spreadsheets, or else we’re unable to draw accurate conclusions.
Know how to produce: knowing how to publish information (text, audio or video) and the ability to take feedback are both critical skills.
Know how to synthesize: we must be able to synthesize the ideas and concepts of others back into our ideas.
First of all, figure out how much information you’re consuming daily (the average is 11 hours). A long-term goal could be to reduce that to 6, turning the rest into information production, social time with friends, exercising, etc. Things to avoid:
Mass affirmation: avoid the suppliers that make a living telling you how right you are. Eg. no more than 30 minutes a day of mass affirmation. For liberals, that’d mean choosing between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
Overprocessed information: consume locally or try to remove distance to the things that you investigate.
Advertisements: the economics of advertisement-based media results in sensationalism. We have to reward our honest, nutritious content providers with financial success.
Our own fanaticism: keep an eye on your own fanaticism and challenge your beliefs. Keep a list of stuff you find to be absolute, like firm positions and values, and look to find data and people that challenge your biases, prescribing yourself enough time to encounter them.
And this is the end of the second part of my summary. The next one will be the last, covering Part III: Social Obesity.
Aug 17, 2014
This is the first part of my summary of “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson, which I got through the O’Reilly Reader Reviews program. The book is about the information we consume, and by drawing parallels to food diets, come up with ways to be consume information in a more concious and healthier way. The book is very focused on American politics, but can be applied to other topics. This part of the summary only covers the first third of the book, the introduction.
As we’re hard wired to love salt, sugars, and fats, we’re also hard wired to love affirmation and the confirmation of our beliefs. Food companies learned to sell a lot of cheap calories, by packing them with salt, fat, and sugar. And media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Driven by profits, they produce information as cheaply as possible. As a result, they provide affirmation and sensationalism over balanced information.
When viewed through the health lens, the information abundance problem appears to be a matter of health and survival. The first step is realizing that there is a choice involved.
The media is using technology to figure out what it is that people want, and finding the fastest way to give it to them. Eg. Huffington Post shows two headlines during the first 5 minutes and keeps the one that got more clicks, and AOL’s policy says that each editor should use four factors to decide what to cover: traffic potential, revenue potential, turn-around time, and lastly, editorial quality. All editorial content staff are expected to write 5 to 10 stories per day.
“Information obesity” is what makes people not know basic facts or believe falsehoods. This doesn’t stem from a lack of information, but from a new kind of ignorance that results in the selection and consumption of information that is demonstrably wrong. We don’t trust “the news” but we do trust “our news”. Tobacco companies have figured out that “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public”. Information obesity has three flavors:
Agnotology: manufactured ignorance and culturally induced doubt, particularly through the production of seemingly factual data. The more informed someone is, the more hardened their beliefs become, whether or not they’re right.
Epistemic closure: dismissal of any information that doesn’t come from a network of interconnected and cross promoting media because it comes from “the other side”, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted (how do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!).
Filter failure: The friends we choose and the places we go all give us a new kind of bubble within which to consume information.
The next part will cover “Part II: The Information Diet”.
Nov 10, 2011
These are my notes about “Envisioning information” by Edward R. Tufte. It’s not a normal summary because most of the content needs the graphics, plots and figures being discussed. The following notes cover the whole book (six chapters).
EDIT: Manuela wrote another, easier to read summary.
The methods in this book work to increase the number of dimensions that can be represented on plane surfaces and the data density. Nearly every escape from flatland demands an extensive compromise, trading off one virtue against another. Even our language often lacks capacity to communicate a sense of dimensional complexity. Some design strategies are found again and again (examples of over 380 years of sunspot data analysis). These design strategies are surprisingly widespread, albeit little appreciated, and occur independently of the content of the data.
Massive Java railroad line example on p. 24-25. The train diagonals cleverly multiple-function, recording six variables at once (p. 26). Example of criminal activity for a trial on p. 30-31. The chart invites reading both horizontally and vertically. The eyes detect curious patterns, which make these displays persuasive and memorable. Visual displays of information encourage a diversity of individual viewer styles and rates of editing, personalising, reasoning and understanding. Unlike speech, visual displays are simultaneously a wideband and a perceiver-controllable channel.
We envision information to reason about, communicate, document and preserve that knowledge. Chartjunk on p.34: data-thin, uncontextual graphs. Its promoters imagine numbers to be dull and tedious, requiring ornament. If numbers are boring, you got the wrong numbers. The audience might be busy or eager to get on with it, but not stupid. Chartjunk looks more like a poster, meant to be looked at from a distance (thin data density).
Detail cumulates in coherent structures. Simplicity of reading derives from the context of detailed and complex information, properly arranged. To clarify, add detail. Stem-and-leaf plots of statistical analysis also rely on micro/macro design (examples on p. 46-47).
We thrive in information-thick worlds because of our marvellous and everyday capacities to select, edit, single out, structure, highlight, group, … Visual displays rich with data are not only an appropriate and proper complement to human capabilities, but also such designs are frequently optimal. If the visual task is contrast, comparison and choice, then the more relevant information within eyespan, the better. Low-density requires visual memory, a weak skill. High density also allows viewers to select, narrate, recast and personalise data for their own uses.
What about information overload? The question misses the point. Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information. Interesting quote on typography on p. 51. The deepest reason for displays that portray complexity and intricacy is that the worlds we seek to understand are complex and intricate.
Layering and separation
This technique is one the most powerful devices for reducing noise and enriching the content of displays. The various elements interact, creating non-information patterns and texture simply through their combined presence (1 + 1 = 3 or more). Colour effortlessly differentiates between annotation and annotated (example on p. 54). What matters is the proper relationship among information layers (example of old + improved design on p. 54-55). For tables, try to do without rules altogether, only use when absolutely necessary. Example of map (good and bad) on p. 58. Example of (non-)dull background on p. 59. Notes on how 1 + 1 = 3 can also be applied to noise on p. 61-62. Example of use of colours (another bad + good design) on p. 63.
Information consists of differences that make a difference. A fruitful method for the enforcement of such differences is using layering and separation.
Quantitative reasoning is based on “compared to what?”. Small multiples answer by visually enforcing comparisons of changes, of the differences among objects, and the scope of alternatives. Information slices are positioned within the eyespan, so that viewers make comparisons at a glance. Example of drawing a Kana character on p. 69. Simultaneous two-dimensional indexing of the multiplied image, flatland within flatland, significantly deepens displays with little added complication in reading.
Colour and information
Example of Swiss mountain map on p. 80. Fundamental uses of colour in information design: label (colour as noun), measure (as quantity), represent or imitate reality (representation), enliven or decorate (beauty). Principles to minimise colour damage: (1) pure, bright colours have loud, unbearable effects when they stand unrelieved over large areas adjacent to each other, but can work very well when used sparingly on or between dull background tones; (2) placing of light, bright colours mixed with white next to each other usually produces unpleasant results, esp. if the colours are used for large areas; (3) large area background or base-colours should do their work most quietly, allowing the smaller, bright areas to stand out most vividly (strongly muted colours, mixed with grey, provide the best background for the coloured theme).
What palette of colours should we choose to represent and illuminate information? Use colours in nature (familiar and coherent, possessing a widely accepted harmony to the human eye), esp. those on the lighter side such as blues, yellows, and greys of sky and shadow. Great examples on p. 90.
In the ocean map, quantities are shown by a value scale, progressing from light to dark blue. Colour rainbows confuse viewers to mumbling colour names and the numbers they represent (“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees”). Colours are sensitive to context. In the ocean map, contours (which are very helpful) are labelled with depth measurements. Edge lines allow very fine value distinctions, increasing scale precision. Example of bad map/good colour on maps on p. 94-95.
Narratives of space and time
Example of bad/good train schedule on p. 104-105. Space-time grids have a natural universality, with nearly boundless subtleties and extensions. Great, assorted examples on p. 110-111. Example of “tale of two cities” on p. 112-113.
I’m aware that this summary is not very useful if you can’t see the different diagrams being examined, but it’s partly for myself :-) Anyway, if you like the ideas in the book, go buy it, it’s a great book in a big format, with really nice paper and full of very interesting examples of both good and bad information design.
Nov 9, 2008
I just remembered something really cool that I had on my previous blog: a small box that shows information that “someone doesn’t want people to read”. It’s part of a brilliant campaign called “Irrepressible info” by Amnesty International. Many of you know that I’m very Amnesty-friendly (“supporter” might be too strong a word, since I’m not really doing much apart from being a member), and I think this campaign is just pure awesomeness.
I have of course added the information box to the sidebar, under the “Irrepressible info” header.