I've got a topic I want to discuss today - providing context to data - but I haven't found the appropriate metaphor for it. It seems to me that data in the abstract is like a newborn baby - interesting, helpless but full of potential. It also seems to me that data is like a seed - useless without the soil, water and sunlight to help it sprout.
I was thinking about this when watching two colleagues of mine introduce themselves. They happened to know each other through one colleague's husband. So the spouse of the person they both know says "I'm so and so's wife" and the other colleague says "I know so and so through my former boss" and the discussion continued until they put their nascent relationship into context with the people, places and experiences both had had. What this process does is to help the individuals decide very quickly whether or not the new colleague is trustworthy, reliable and capable.
We don't take the same approach to data or information, but it's probably even more important to provide context to our data. About the best most of us do when we create a new document is to try to give the data a descriptive name. My desktop is loaded with files called "Sales and Marketing projection - February 2005" or something similar. This is a poor first step towards creating actual context for the data and helping other people find, understand and use the data or information I've created.
It seems to me we should create file storage systems with a lot of context about the data, and the context should not be optional. When you save a new file, the system should ask you:
- What's the data for? a temporary analysis or something we'll need long term
- What's the data about? a marketing project or a term paper for your graduate degree
- Who created the data? you, a team of people, a vendor or someone else
- How long should we consider this data valid? a week, a month, forever in the case of the recipe
- Who should have access to this data?
- How should this data be used?
- Is this data fact or conjecture?
This isn't a complete list - I can't define the entire list because to a certain extent each firm should shape how they capture the context of the data they create, because there are unique characteristics about information that may be specific to industries or other segments of businesses.
Putting our information into context so others can find it and use it means we are leveraging our internal knowledge and corporate assets more completely and are becoming more productive in using and sharing our resources.