IMS5023 : Information Enterprise Management and Marketing
GUEST LECTURE BY DR GRAEME JOHANSON
The quality of information for accountability
1. Information surrounds us like an ocean
The nature of information ensures that we must rely on it, individually, in organisatons, and socially. We are inextricably information's creators as well as its users all at the same time. When we are accountable, whether we act freely and independently, or in reaction without choice, as individuals or as part of a group, following external pressures, or with mixed motives, we cannot escape the need to justify our use of information. This lecture tries to answer the question: how can we do it thoroughly?
Accountability information records social and organisational activity as ‘evidence'. Such information provides proof of personal, business and cultural activity, enabling people to account for what they do to each other, with each other, about each other. It establishes personal and cultural identity, and functions as personal, corporate or collective memory. As an instrument of power and authority, it regulates and controls all sorts of relationships (business, social, political, economic, envrionmental) between and amongst people and organisations.
Accountability is often described as the responsibility for performance and results, being obliged to answer for one's actions, to an authority that may impose a penalty for failure. Frequently we try to hold political leaders and managers accountable for results against agreed-to performance standards. One important component of accountability is the maintenance of a reliable and up-to-date record of roles, policies, and required activities.
Some cultures do not keep written records, and traditionally their accountability is regarded as of lesser status than cultures with writing. This is actually a misconception, because there are many methods for maintaining information accountability using the spoken word, including the use of narrative and specific spokespeople with the job of maintaining lore and law. See: W. Ong 1995, Orality and literacy, Orality and literacy; technologizing of the word . London, Routledge, pp139-147.
2. Accountability is a route across the ocean
IInformation's vast quantity, dispersal and complexity creates dilemmas. For example, while the lawyer selects a set of evidence about a particular situation to assist in making out an argument to fit a predetermined corpus of rules, a journalist needs a story from the beginning. The two professionals will account for their information use using quite different sets of criteria. They are accountable to different audiences. Also, the meaning behind the information may defy existing codes; it may be full of exceptional surprises. Of itself, data accounts for nothing. Yet as used information it may provide fantastic, innovative meanings, accounted for only because of the significance placed on it by a creative user. This aspect has been covered already in this subject.
Information for accountability may originate in many places, and consist of quite different forms. In the realms of trade, it can be represented by tangible objects, such as coins or credit cards; it can be well-established social relationships, for example, trading alliances; it can be related to hidden processes, like acceptable levels of incurred debt; it can be a set of known rules, like the limited liability of a public company; it can be symbolic institutions, like market-places, banks and stock exchanges; as well as abstractions, like a cash flow; or part of theories or systems of thinking, like principles of "free trade," or a "command economy". All these forms of information may be conscripted into use for trade accountability in different ways at different times.
Obviously it is rarely possible or necessary to account for all the information involved in a decision or activity, often for very practical reasons. Some information will have disappeared altogether, or lie dormant, or never be disclosed, while other information will be too repetitive and self-evident to be articulated tiresomely in every memo, policy, decision or guideline.
However, other information will be overlooked inadvertently upon a cursory examination, but will be resurrected and reintegrated into mainstream processes of accountability after careful reflection. Some evidence is mulled over many times. Evidence provided for accountability by modern DNA tests on old, organic samples is an example of re-examining old data with new tools. New convictions are achieved using DNA analysis of old crime exhibits.
Sometimes politicians, or others within a special interest group, seek to divert accountability procedures, to suppress information in order to propagate their own narrow interpretations. They manage to foster and sustain a predetermined sampling of information for their own posterity. Manipulators of evidence seek to control opinions in order to mould their future. Public relations consultants are accountable more to their host organisation than to the public at large.
We delegate to certain groups and organisations the responsibility of keeping or destroying our accountable information. Collecting and caring for it, and weeding it in our society are part of the professional duties of journalists, historians, information managers, curators, custodians, librarians, archivists, record-keepers, database managers, and others. Some old oral cultures relied on story-tellers heavily to pass on information about accountability to young members. Clever modern managers need to be good story-tellers also, in order to sustain a consistent, authentic, credible, well-publicised status for their organisations. A good story should synthesise the best of the evaluated information to demonstrate authenticity. The urges to nurture a reputation, to project a responsible image, to spin a good yarn, or to destroy any of them, suggest an intrinsic power in the information itself.
The value of information changes over time, as do the purposes for collecting and using it. Contemporary medical files of three million individual patients in Iceland collected now by local doctors will become part of a gene archive sold by the Icelandic government in 1999 to private U.S. genetic researchers of the future. Who is accountable to whom in this change?
In this section I have described some basic characteristics of information for accountability. It is collected for different purposes and used differently at different times. Once a manager or stakeholder has a need for a bundle of information for a decision, then evaluative criteria have to be applied to it.
3. Six mental guides to map the route across the ocean
There are at least six criteria that information analysts can use to determine the value of information for accountability. Even though I separate them in this section for purposes of clearer description, some criteria overlap. It is necessary to assume that we are agreed that information is bundles of helpful data, run-of-the-mill propositions, pieces of linguistic shorthand, which we all daily use to describe past reality and to predict future probabilities. This agreement makes for consistency and continuity in our everyday lives. The guides described below are accompanied by a series of questions which a stakeholder should ask about any information in hand. Although the techniques are described as personal guides, in fact groups or organizations also use them effectively.
3.1. Detection as a guide
All accountability information is in the past. We need to bring to it a mental check-list of questions, like a detective. What is the totality of the information available? We might ask: what evidence is left after an event? If some information is not available, how much information is enough? How much is required to indicate any major change in a situation? How much will show the suddenness of a past event? How complete is the crucial information? What large gaps are there? Are the gaps accidental or intentional? Why did some information survive, and some not? What form is the information in now? How can it be laid out carefully for interpretation by all stakeholders to examine here-and-now?
In trying to devise a method for eradicating the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, it was assumed that rats were the cause of the spread of the germs. In fact the bacteria that caused the plague was actually carried by fleas on the rats, which bit the victims, not the rats themselves. This was discovered only in 1898. Globally, the World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague every year.
When Victoria's prisons were privatised about 10 years ago, so were some prisoner records. If access to those records is required by a social worker, helping the prisoner's family to survive, is the prison company obliged to provide them? If Interpol requires access, can it have them? If the descendents of the prisoner need them in 20 years' time, to establish details of a medical condition in the family, will it be allowed to use them?
3.2. Scepticism as a guide
Having identified most of the likely clues, stakeholders are led to ask how reliable the information is. Once found, can it be depended on? Can anybody rely on it? How credible were the producers of the data, and the distributors of it? Are appropriate experts available to test its validity? Has the data been corrupted over time? In what ways? By whom? Who had a vested interest in ensuring its survival? What parts of it might have gone missing?
Statistically, bias can be defined as any unreasonable influence that sways the conclusions drawn from a sample survey. One form of this bias is inappropriate estimation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is alert to the problem that sample surveys do not automatically ensure that non-sampling error is kept to an absolute minimum. Even after sample survey results are finalised, bias can be introduced. An example of inappropriate estimation relates to the issue of global warming (greenhouse effect). In general, it is believed that an average increase in global temperatures in the last 160 years has been between 0.3 Celsius and 0.6 Celsius. Some scientists have questioned the accuracy of this estimate, because – although the measurements have been taken at various weather stations around the world – they have been taken mostly from land stations and not equally from the sea mass. See: http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/D3310116.NSF/0/e9d957f477cad7364a2567ac001e02d6?OpenDocument.
A drug company might claim to have discovered a secret medicine which it is using for competitive advantage. It is a miracle cure. Another company claims to have discovered the same thing. How reliable is the claim? Who can test it? Who can stakeholders (patients, doctors, shareholders, customers) rely on?
3.3. Attribution as a guide
A person concerned about accountability needs to know who created the information, and why? To whom is it attributed? Where did it come from? Are the originators well known? Are any of its contexts lost? If it were presented to different audiences, would it be understood and believed fully? Does it have more than one possible meaning? Who has used it recently, for what purposes?
During the Vietnam War the US Defence Department collected data on the dispersal of the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over the Vietnamese jungles. After the War the magnetic tapes of data were stored in the US National Archive as government records. About ten years later War veterans began to suffer illness and die from the effects of the chemical on their bodies. They sued the US government. A Congressional investigation was instigated. The hardware for accessing the tapes was lost. The data could not be retrieved. See: During the Vietnam War the US Defence Department collected data on the dispersal of the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over the Vietnamese jungles. After the War the magnetic tapes of data were stored in the US National Archive as government records. About ten years later War veterans began to suffer illness and die from the effects of the chemical on their bodies. They sued the US government. A Congressional investigation was instigated. The hardware for accessing the tapes was lost. The data could not be retrieved. See: http://188.8.131.52/search?q=cache:i7-ZKoLk9_kJ:www.gao.gov/new.items/ns00031.pdf+magnetic+tapes+Agent+orange+Vietnam&hl=en.
Imagine that you are employed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners ( http://www.racgp.org.au/ ) to make sure that members are advised quickly of new health treatments. For some decades there has been a debate about the value of vitamin health products, and their efficacy. One recent discovery is that excessive consumption of vitamins can cause various long-term health problems. Do you publicise this immediately to members? How do you check the reliability of these reports? From where do they originate? Why have they been published? See: http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/nlett47.html.
3.4. Verification as a guide
Verifying involves internal checking for accountability. A stakeholder needs to know, for instance, whether the information is a deliberate hoax. Is the information typical of the information emanating normally from the scrutinised source? Is the creator of the information regarded as reliable by peers? Is the informer consistent always? To what extent does bias affect the usefulness of the evidence?
Our culture describes many different activities as hoaxes. When a newspaper knowingly prints a fake story, we call it a hoax. We also describe misleading publicity stunts, false bomb threats, scientific frauds, business scams and bogus political claims as hoaxes … What is the common thread that runs through all of these? First of all, they are all deceptive acts, or lies. But not just any deceptive act qualifies as a hoax … To become a hoax, a lie must have something extra. It must be somehow outrageous, ingenious, dramatic or sensational. Most of all, it must command the attention of the public. A hoax, then, is a deliberately deceptive act that has succeeded in capturing the attention (and, ideally, the imagination) of the public.
Do you agree with this definition of ‘hoax'? Is any unreliable information a form of hoax? Does the unreliable information need to cause injury to another (emotional, financial, physical) to be classed as a hoax? See: http://184.108.40.206/search?q=cache:ir4g8L2PCUMJ:www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/02/14/1044927791710.html+hoax+information+site:au&hl=en.
The company which used to run the Melbourne emergency vehicle call centre, Intergraph, was under Victorian government scrutiny for concocting statistics which exaggerated its performance in an effort to achieve increased profits from the Treasury. Different ex-employees gave conflicting evidence about the illicit Intergraph practices to the government Royal Commission of enquiry. See: http://www.audit.vic.gov.au/reports_other/agintr01.html.
3.5. Corroboration as a guide
Corroboration involves external checking. Does one piece of information corroborate another by a different witness? Are there other witnesses who agree with the accounts recorded via the primary source? Do pieces of the information jigsaw fit neatly, or roughly? What are the relationships between all the bits of facts, ideas, events, gathered from all the related sources scattered over the ocean?
At the time of the launch of the Hubble space telescope, when the early images from the telescope were badly focused, NASA needed to thoroughly check all of its launch data for possible faults. After about a week it discovered that the focus problem was not connected to the launch at all, but to the telescope engineers who had installed a faulty piece of machinery on the ground. A crew of astronauts were sent to replace the faulty mechanism only in 1994, that is, 4 years after its launch. In this example, information was used to confirm and improve performance. Just to make sure that it functioned well, the astronauts also replaced one of its bulky cameras, and changed over the solar panels. In 1997, astronauts visited again to instal a new spectrograph for splitting up light from faint stars and galaxies and an infrared camera. More and more of the collected data was corroborated as time passed. See: http://www.firstscience.com/site/articles/henbest.asp.
We often corroborate by reference to our own common sense and prior experience, but are those sufficient in all circumstances? Can all records be checked for supporting evidence? Is corroboration assisted generally with the use of information from independent individuals or outside organizations?
3.6. Disentanglement, clarification as a guide
Clarification involves steering a clear direction across the ocean of information. Stakeholders might ask, looked at in its entireity, what does all the information mean for accountability purposes? Where does it lead across the ocean? To whom should it have meaning? How different is the audience for the information today, from possible future audiences? Which mix of interpretations of the information is most likely to be true, on the balance of probabilities, and which efficiently lead along the desired route? Can the information be disentangled to steer a course, or is it just too much of a mish-mash or too confusing to make any real sense?
Clarification also involves identifying exaggerations about the information. Have distortions or myths grown up around information, which had no place in the original context of it? What purposes did the misrepresentations and elaborations serve? Have the myths been acted on in good faith in the past? Where did they lead? What were the effects of the legends? Who perpetuated them? Should they be sustained?
In the 1960s the Australian government permitted the US government secretly to build satellite communication bases in its central desert, one at Pine Gap. The satellites were primarily for military surveillance, but the Australian public was told by the media that the bases were to assist in US space exploration. The Australian government imposed a D-notice on their real aim, a form of security blackout which is agreed to clandestinely by major media owners and executive government ministers. Ten years later, towards the end of the Vietnam War, finally journalists realised the real purpose of the bases, and published details, defying the D-notice. None were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act because of the anti-War mood of the Australian public at the time. Australians are still not permitted access. See: http://www.cia.com.au/vic/cia.3.txt.
Are the words below better at describing ‘disentangling'?
unsnarling, untangling, clearing up, decoding, disengaging, drawing out, explaining, extricating resolving, sorting out, uncluttering, unknotting, unscrambling, unsnarling, working-out.
They all require a deliberate, prolonged effort.
Examine the claims made in the 1960s-1980s for the benefits of subliminal advertising. For example, see: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0003/ads.php . Subliminal advertising is a message or a signal designed to pass below (sub-) the normal limits of perception. For example it might be inaudible to the conscious mind (but audible to the unconscious or deeper mind), or might be an image transmitted briefly and unperceived consciously and yet perceived unconsciously. Why do you think that subliminal advertising is illegal in Australia? See: http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:v_jtZdBuZPsJ:www.camla.org.au/clb/CLB%2520-%2520Volume%252010,%2520Issue%25204.pdf+subliminal+advertis+site:au&hl=en . Is its effect just a myth?
In this section I have described six main intellectual activities of the person seriously concerned about using good quality information for accountability. If a judicious mix of these guides is used, then it is likely that the quality of the information will be of a very high standard. All six roles of the stakeholder involve testing and interpreting the information in order to assist in accountable decision-making.
4. Professional charts to accountability across the ocean.
In addition to the personal techniques listed for determining how accountable information might be for decision-making, there are also group professional roles which are designed to promote accountability. Many people in the information professions are concerned with the capture, maintenance and delivery of records of social and organizational activity that satisfy business needs, social needs, and cultural needs, for essential, accessible, and useable evidence.
You have discussed in earlier classes situations where accountability is required. The general purposes for ensuring accountability by information professionals aim to:
You can see that many of these professional purposes apply also to personal accountability.
Information professionals help manage evidence (as texts, publications, records, documents, shared knowledge) from the time they are created for as long as they are of value -- whether that be a nanosecond or millennia. In order to fulfil their professional functions, the information professions encourage and enforce accountability in several ways, for example by:
See ‘Alarm as private medical files go offshore', in The Age , ‘Next,' 26 April 2005, p 4:
Australian service providers have raised questions about the wisdom and legality of sending sensitive medical information overseas for processing. About 50 medical specialists in Sydney use Professional Transcription Solutions to send digital voice files to India, where they are transcribed and turned into letters detailing diagnosis and treatment plans, which are then sent to the patients' general practitioners.
In Australia the service would cost $1.50 per line; in India it costs $0.02 per line. This practice might breach Australia's privacy legislation, which requires a privacy contract between the company and the doctor, or patient, and could create risk of abuse of the information. Recently a woman in Pakistan threatened to place patient information on the Internet if she was not paid by her US employer.
In workplaces issues of accountability for information frequently arise, and information managers are required to determine answers to these sorts of difficult questions:
In the lead-up to the recent 2004 federal elections, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, was accused of using public funds to promote the interests of his National Party electorates above other electorates. The charge was that government money favoured country areas which supported the National Party. This is known as ‘pork-barrelling'. If information professionals were involved in this event, would they expect to find documents which determined whether the allegations were true or false? Why was the media interested? Who else has an interest, and why? See: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/s1250105.htm.
Graeme Johanson, 27 April 2005