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.

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.

Single version of the truth, philosophy or reality?

Assuming you want the truth and you can handle it then you will have heard this a lot. The purpose of our new (BI/Analytics/Data Warehouse) project is to deliver ‘a single version of the truth’. In a project we are engaged with right now the expression is one version of reality or 1VOR. For UK boomers that will almost undoubtedly bring to mind a steam engine but I digress.

I have to admit, I find the term jarring whenever I hear it because it implies something simple and  attainable through a single system which is rarely the reality.

In fact it’s rarely attained causing some of our community to ponder on it’s viability or even if it exists. Robin Bloor’s ‘Is there a single version of the Truth’ and  Beyond a single version of the truth in the Obsessive Compulsive Data Quality blog are great examples.

Much, on this subject, has been written by data quality practitioners and speaks to master data management and the desire, for example, for a single and consistent view of a customer. Banks often don’t understand customers, they understand accounts and if the number of (err, for example Hotel Chocolat) home shopping brochures I receive is anything to go by then many retailers don’t get it either. Personally I want my bank and my chocolatier to know when I am interacting with them. I’m a name, not a number, particularly when it comes to chocolate.

This problem is also characterised by the tired and exasperated tone of a Senior Manager asking for (and sometimes begging for) a single version of the truth. This is usually because they had a ‘number’ (probably revenue) and went to speak to one of their Department Head about it (probably because it was unexpectedly low) and rather than spending time on understanding what the number means or what the business should do, they spent 45 minutes comparing the Senior Managers ‘number’ with the Department Heads ‘number’. In trying to reconcile them, they also find some more ‘numbers’ too. It probably passed the time nicely. Make this a monthly meeting or a QBR involving a number of department heads and the 45 minutes will stretch into hours without any real insight from which decisions might have been made.

This is partly about provenance. Ideally it came from a single system of record (Finance, HR) or corporate BI but it most likely came from a spreadsheet or even worse a presentation with a spreadsheet embedded in it.

It’s also about purity (or the addition of impurities, at least) It might have started pure but the department head or an analyst that works in their support and admin team calculated the number based on an extract from the finance system and possibly some other spreadsheets. The numbers were probably adjusted because of some departmental nuance. For example, if it’s a Sales Team, the Sales Manager might include all the sales for a rep that joined part way through the year whilst Finance left the revenue with the previous team.

It will be no comfort (or surprise) to our Senior Manager that it is also a Master Data Management problem too. Revenue by product can only make sense if everyone in the organisation can agree the brands, categories and products that classify the things that are sold. Superficially this sounds simple but even this week I have spoken with a global business that is launching a major initiative, involving hundreds of man hours to resolve just this issue.

It’s also about terminology. We sacrifice precision in language for efficiency. In most organistions we dance dangerously around synonyms and homonyms because it mostly doesn’t catch us out. Net revenue … net of what? And whilst we are on the subject … revenue. Revenue as it was ordered, as it was delivered, as it was invoiced and as it is recognised according to GAAP rules in the finance system. By the way does your number include credit notes? And this is a SIMPLE example. Costs are often centralised, allocated or shared in some way and all dependent on a set of rules that only a handful of people in the finance team really understand.

Finally, it’s about perspective. Departments in an organisation often talk about the same things but mean subtly different things because they have different perspectives. The sales team mean ordered revenue because once someone has signed hard (three copies) their job is done whilst the SMT are probably concerned about the revenue that they share with the markets in their statutory accounts.

So is a single version of the truth philisophy? Can it really be achieved? The answer is probably that there are multiple versions of the truth but they are, in many organisations, all wrong. Many organisations are looking at different things with differing perspectives and they are ALL inaccurate.

A high performing organisations should be trying to unpick these knots, in priority order, one at a time. Eventually they will be able to look at multiple versions of the truth and understand their business from multiple perspectives. Indeed the differences between the truth’s will probably tell them something they didn’t know from what they used to call ‘the single version of the truth’.