Information Curation 1 dot 2

The big, fat and very cool Kabocha
At the end of a jetty on a beach near Benesse House, the big, fat and very cool Kabocha

Dot to Dot: In the previous Post

In part one we examined how the curatorial process is one that is relevant to the way in which businesses make informed decisions. We examined how Frances Morris, curator of the Kusama exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2012, dealt with abundance the most pressing issue for those of us dealing with exponentially increasing data volumes today. We also saw that curation has parallels with analysis. One that starts with very few assumptions, perhaps an inkling that there is a story to tell, but then becomes more focused as evidence is sifted, examined and understood.

In this, second part, we look at filtering, relevance and how the curatorial process helps us understand which comes first … data or information.

Relevance not Completeness

As I listened Morris at the Tate, it was clear that the story she wanted to tell was as much a product of the things she left out as it was the things she included. Morris described  how she visited a site on the Japanese island, Naoshima, to see an example of Kusama’s famous pumpkins. Perched at the of end of a pier, jutting into the Inland Sea, she decided that to take it out of context would be to lose something of the truth. This lead to, perhaps, her most controversial decision amongst Kusama’s many fans, to not include one of Kusama’s recurring themes in the summer exhibition. The pumpkins, similarly to the most frequently used data, were popular. They were well known and well understood. However, they didn’t bring anything new. At the end of the pier, they were relevant and contextual. In an exhibition intended to deliver insight into ‘Kusama’s era’s’, the key points at which the artist had reinvented herself they added nothing new.

Story First

One of the most telling characteristic of Morris’s curatorial process was that the story she wanted to tell was not limited by the art. Kusama was a leader in the 60’s New York avante garde movement. She was outlandish and outspoken, sometimes shocking. Not all of this is obvious from her art but it was an important thread in Morris’s story. To remedy this she chose to exhibit documents and papers that gave Kusama a voice. Clippings, letters and personal artefacts enriched the story. The result was a much more complete picture of an artist who’s influence on culture and society had as much to do with her activism, performance art and outrageous ‘happenings’ as her art.

Sometimes, as analysts, we limit our story by what is in the database or data warehouse. Smart decisions should be informed but that doesn’t mean to the exclusion of other forms of knowledge. That which is anecdotal and tacit alongside the ‘facts’ might provide a more complete and accurate picture. Information exists outside of columns and rows.

Joining the Dots

Does the curatorial process deliver insight? Does it ultimately leave it’s visitors with the “facts” insofar as we can as they relate to life and art. The test would be Kusama’s reaction to Morris’s exhibition when she visited for a private viewing before it was opened to the public. It seems the answer is an overwhelming yes. At one point, as Morris walked Kusama around the exhibition, she wept. The collection which spanned nine decades of an extraordinary life had struck a deep and personal chord. This visceral reaction was an acknowledgement that it was an essential truth from perhaps the only one who knew, in this case, what the truth really was.

Knowledge does not leap off a computer screen or printed page any more than the life of an artist leaps off a gallery wall. It is a synthesis of data and information. To deliver a report, chart or scorecard is not to deliver knowledge. The job is only part done. The information needs to be socialised, discussed, debated and supplemented with what we know of our customers and products.  Neither is the process just ‘analysis’. It is one of selecting that which is relevant, excluding that which is not and enriching with the experiences and opinions of those in the business who’s expertise is not captured in rows and columns. In a world where we are overwhelmed with information, knowledge and understanding requires curation.

The nine decades of Yayoi Kusama at the Tate. 

Frances Morris discusses and explores Yayoi Kusama’s life and work. Taking the audience through her curatorial processes, Morris will map out the exhibition from its origins to completion. The curator will also reflect on her personal journey with Kusama, having had the opportunity to work closely with her over the last three years.

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Information Curation: 1 dot 1

Connecting the Dots

kusama3_bodyOn an uncharacteristically warm Summer evening in 2012 I made my way into the Tate Modern as everyone else was making their way out. It was part of my work to understand the curatorial process and its relevance to information management through one of the Tate’s infrequent but excellent curator talks. This one, from Frances Morris, concerned the recent and enormously popular Kusama exhibition.

 

The notion that curation is an emerging skill in dealing with information is not a new one. It is covered by Jeff Jarvis in his blog post ‘Death of the Curator. Long Live the Curator’ where Jarvis applies them to the field of journalism. It is also the subject of Steven Rosenbaum’s excellent book ‘Curation Nation’ which examines the meme more broadly.

 

Abundance

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is prolific. Her work span the many decades of her life, first in rural Japan then New York in the 60’s and in contemporary Tokyo today. It is enormously varied. Her signature style of repeating dot patterns, whilst the most famous, represents only a small part of a vast and sprawling body of work. It is the perfect artistic allegory for information overload. Kusama has too much art for any one exhibition in the same way that information professionals in the age of Big Data have too much information for any one decision.

 

Morris, I figured, must have wrestled with Kusama’s prodigious nature. The problem is not one of assembling a coherent and factual account. Instead, it is one of separating out that which is relevant and that which is extraneous. It is a process of  building a series of working hypotheses and building a story that is a reality, that is a ‘truth’.

 

Analysis and Curation

Like many managers, Morris had a vague sense of the story she wanted to tell but the final story could only be told through material facts, works or ‘data’.  At first, she considered, selected, dissected and parsed as much as possible. Over time Morris selected works through more detailed  research. She travelled extensively spending time with Kusama herself in a psychiatric institution which has (voluntarily) been Kusama’s home since 1977. She also visited locations important to Kusama including her family home and museums in Matsumoto, Chiba and Wellington, New Zealand where others had curated and exhibited her work. This parallels the analytical process. One of  starting with very few, if any assumptions, and embarking a journey of discovery. Over time, through an examination of historical and contemporary data points, the story begins to unfold.

 

In the Next Post (1 dot 2)

Already we can see that curating is a process of research and selection. It has strong parallel’s with early stages of information analysis. In the next post we will look at filtering, relevance and how the curatorial process helps us understand which comes first … data or information.

Decision Making problems are not new, in fact they are centuries old

Not Frank BuytendijkFrank Buytendijk delivered a great keynote at 8am in Las Vegas at the TDWI conference in February 2012. He avoided the technicalities of data architectures, the rigours of  data modelling and the disciplines of agile methods.

 

Instead, over breakfast, he dipped into the world of philosophy and asked us to consider the centuries old problems of what is true? what is real? and what is good?

 

Referring to Plato, Thales and Machiavelli Buytendijk lead us through some fundamentals about decision making.

What is True?

Firstly decisions are not just about the data. Do we decide to pay for parking because we calculate the cost of a ticket against the cost of a fine but factored by the risk of getting a fine? Or do we do it because we think it is the ‘right’ thing to do, the ‘civic’ thing to do?

 

What is Real?

So often, even with all the dashboards, scorecards, reports and charts, senior executives don’t seem to know what’s going on. Like in Plato’s Cave, the shadows on the wall are not reality, they are representations of reality. How much could really be told by listening to our customers directly rather than waiting for analysis much later?

 

What is Good?

Predictive analytics can provide great information that allow micro-segmentation. For example it could help an insurance company to identify those most likely to claim on their insurance policy for back and neck strain based on their on-line behaviours. Increasing their premiums might protect the business from additional costs but  the insurance business model is about distributing the risk not identifying it perfectly. Taken to it’s conclusion then there is no need for insurance, we all pay for the cost of our health care as and when it happens. However, if the insurance company used this information to promote lifestyle changes for this group then ethics and business models are aligned.

 

What’s it all about?

Buytendijk’s quirky, thought provoking start to the TDWI conference tells us that in IT, we  are wrestling with problems that preoccupied philosophers centuries ago. It also tells us though that in IT we can think too much and reflect too little.

Social Analytics … At a Glance

First off, let me stipulate that I absolutely support the notion that technologists of a certain age (let’s go with over 40) should regularly evaluate what they need to ‘unlearn’ in order to make way for new thinking.

However, some older techniques really do stand the test of time when attempting to understand new concepts. Take Social Analytics. It’s a hot topic and information specialists are trying to get their heads around what it it and what the business benefits are.

To help me understand, I started researching in the usual way. Books, white papers, articles and opinion. But as I did so, I drew up a ‘Dimension Map’ and a list of questions. Two simple devices that are as useful today in clarifying information requirements and their usefulness as they were err, a few years ago.

The first, a dimension map, has as it’s columns, the dimensions of measurement. So a revenue dimension map would typically have columns for product, customer etc. The rows are hierarchical levels so time (and most things are measured over time) might be years, months and days. The final column is a list of metrics. These are the measurements that can be analysed by the dimensions so a revenue dimension map would include sales value, sales qty. Easy, right. The social media dimension map below is very much a work in progress but I trust you find it useful as a ‘Social Analytics at a Glance’ diagram from which you can expand your thinking in the way that I intend to.

The question list is self explanatory but is a really simple and illustrative way to remind us that the purpose of information is to make decisions by answering business questions.

Social Analytics Dimension Map

Questions;

  1. Who does or does not like me|my product|my campaign|my brand?
  2. Who influences my customers?
  3. Do influencers like me|my product|my campaign|my brand?
  4. Are my customers talking more about me|my product|my campaign|my brand? than my competitors? i.e what is my share of voice?
  5. What are my customers saying about my competitor? i.e. what are the competitive opportunities or threats?