Losing something in the research process with such easy access to information

A retired academic laments that the thrill of the research hunt has diminished with easy access to information and data:

It’s a long stretch, but it seems to me that “ease of access” and the quite miraculous enquiry-request-delivery systems now available to the scholar have had an effect on research. The turn to theory – attention to textuality rather than physical things such as books, manuscripts, letters and paraphernalia of various kinds – has, I think, coincided with big changes in method. Discovery has been replaced by critical discourse and by dialectic.

Fieldwork was, typically, solitary. Lonely sometimes. The new styles at the professional end of the subject are collective – if sometimes less than collegial. The conference is now central to the profession, particularly the conference at which everyone is a speaker, a colloquiast and a verbal “participant”.

One can see something similar at the undergraduate level. I suspect that in my subject (English), some undergraduates are nowadays doing their three years without feeling ever obliged to go the library. Gutenberg, iBook, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Google and the preowned, dirt-cheap texts on AbeBooks have rendered the library nothing more than emergency back-up and a warm place to work, using wi-fito access extramural materials. The seminar (the undergraduate equivalent of the conference), not the one-on-one tutorial or the know-it-all lecture, is the central feature of the teaching programme.

There may be something to this. Discovering new sources, objects, and data that no one has examined before in out-of-way places is certainly exciting. However, I wonder if the research hunt hasn’t simply shifted. As this academic argues, it is not hard to find information these days. But today, the hunt is more in what story to tell or how to interpret the accessible data. As I tell my students, anyone with some computer skills can do a search, find a dataset, and download it within a few minutes. This does not mean that the everyone can understand how to work with the data and interpret it. (The same would apply to non-numeric/qualitative data that could be quickly found, such as analyzing online interactions or profiles.) Clearing a way through the flood of information is no easy task and can have its own kind of charm.

Perhaps the problem is that students and academics today feel like having the quick access to information already takes care of a large part of their research. Simply go to Google, type in some terms, look at the first few results, and there isn’t much left to do – it is all magic, after all. Perhaps the searching for information that one used to do wasn’t really about getting the information but rather about the amount of time it required as this led to more profitable thinking, reflection, and writing time.

Data guru Hans Rosling named to Time’s 100 most influential people

Hans Rosling’s talks are fascinating as he makes data and charts exciting and explanatory in his own enthusiastic manner. Named as one of the 100 most influential people by Time, Rosling is profiled by sociologist and MD Nicholas Christakis:

Hans Rosling trained in statistics and medicine and spent years on the front lines of public health in Africa. Yet his greatest impact has come from his stunning renderings of the numbers that characterize the human condition.

His 2006 TED talk, in which he animated statistics to tell the story of socio-economic development, has been viewed over 3.8 million times and translated into dozens of languages. His subsequent talks have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways by showing how our actions affect our health and wealth and one another across space and time.

When you meet Rosling, 63, you are struck by his energy and clarity. He has the quiet assurance of a sword swallower (which he is) but also of a man who is in the vanguard of a critically important activity: advancing the public understanding of science.

What does Rosling make of his statistical analysis of worldwide trends? “I am not an optimist,” he says. “I’m a very serious possibilist. It’s a new category where we take emotion apart and we just work analytically with the world.” We can all, Rosling thinks, become healthy and wealthy. What a promising thought, so eloquently rendered with data.

Here are some of Rosling’s presentations that are well worth watching:

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes – The Joy of Stats

TED Talk: No More Boring Data

TED Talk: The Good News of the Decade?

Here is what The Economist thinks are Rosling’s greatest hits.

I’ve used several of Rosling’s talk in class to illustrate what is possible with data and charts. Rosling gets at an important issue: data should tell a story and be interactive and available to people so they too can dig into it and understand the world better. By simply taking a chart and adding some extra information (like population size of a country displayed as a larger circle or being able to quickly show the quartile income distributions for a country) and the dimension of time, you can start to visualize patterns and possible explanations of how the world works.

(A side note: alas, I don’t think any sociologists were named as one of the 100 most influential people.)

Naperville government leads Illinois’ top 20 cities in social media use

Naperville is used to accolades – see this well trumpeted #2 ranking in Money‘s Best Places to Live in 2006. Here is a new measure of excellence: Naperville is #1 in a suburban government’s use of social media.

A University of Illinois at Chicago study ranks the western suburb No. 1 among local government websites in a study of social media use by Illinois’ 20 largest cities.

Researchers from the university’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs analyzed the websites using at least 90 criteria to determine how well each provided residents with information and the opportunity to interact with officials. Chicago and Elgin round out the top three…

In addition to its main website, Naperville uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, RSS feeds and about two dozen e-newsletters to communicate with residents. It also is looking into starting a mass notification system that Community Relations Manager Nadja Lalvani likened to a “reverse 311.”

“It’s very important for us to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently with residents and other constituents,” Lalvani said. “Social media is very prevalent and another tool to make sure the message is penetrating our audience.”

The UIC study also found increasing use of social media by cities around the country. In 2011, 87 percent of the 75 largest U.S. cities used Twitter, compared with 25 percent in 2009. Likewise, 87 percent used Facebook, compared with 13 percent two years prior.

It doesn’t surprise me that Naperville would lead the way: they seem to have the resources to make this happen as well as the interest in being efficient, taking advantage of new technology (see the ongoing debate over wireless electricity meters – the city’s view and an opposition group), and communicating with people.

I wonder if the study included talking to residents to see if these efforts are reaching them. This is an on-going issue for many communities: the city/village/town claims that they are putting out information while residents suggest they are blindsided at the last minute or aren’t informed at all. I think both sides are often right: many communities have newsletters and websites where information can be found. However, searching out and reading this information does require some effort on the part of residents. Add in the issue that many communities are without local newspapers and it is more difficult to transmit this information broadly. If this plan of attack in Naperville is successful, I imagine more communities will follow their lead.

A second issue could still limit the effectiveness of the social media outreach. I was reminded of this by a talk I heard last week: governments may make information publicly available but they don’t necessarily make the information easily understandable. For example, a community may release some data or an important report but the language and data requires interpretation that the average citizen may be incapable of doing. There is a translation issue here from technical or government speak to what people can understand and then react to. Or a large dataset may be public but it requires knowledge of statistics and specialized software to make some sense of it. Granted, it can be hard to boil down complex issues into newsletter items but it also shouldn’t be the case that newsletters and tweets only cover basic stuff like brush pick-up and meeting times.


College students don’t know how to use Google

I recently heard about this study at a faculty development day: college students have difficulty understanding and using search results.

Researchers with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project watched 30 students at Illinois Wesleyan University try to search for different topics online and found that only seven of them were able to conduct “what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.”

The students “appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school,” Lynda Duke and Andrew Asher write in a book on the project coming out this fall.

At all five Illinois universities, students reported feeling “anxious” and confused when trying to research. Many felt overwhelmed by the volume of results their searches would turn up, not realizing that there are ways to narrow those searches and get more tailored results. Others would abandon their research topics when they couldn’t find enough sources, unaware that they were using the wrong search terms or database for their topics.

The researchers found that students did not know “how to build a search to narrow or expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results.” That means that some students didn’t understand how to search only for news articles, or only for scholarly articles. Most only know how to punch in keywords and hope for the best.

Such trust in technology. Wonder where this came from?

I like how anthropologists were involved in this study. Including an observation component could make this data quite unique. I don’t think many people would think that ethnographic methods could be used to examine such up-to-date technology.

Several other thoughts:

1. How many adults could explain how Google displays pages?

1a. If people knew how Google organized things, would they go elsewhere for information?

2. Finding and sorting through information is a key problem of our age. The problem is not a lack of information or possible sources; rather, there is too much.

3. Who exactly in schools should be responsible for teaching this? Librarians, perhaps, but students have limited contact. Preferably, all teachers/professors should know something about this and talk about it. Parents could also impart this information at home.

4. I’m now tempted to ask students to include all of their search terms in final projects so that I can check and see whether they actually sorted through articles or they simply picked the top few results.

Sociologist says “access to information is a fundamental human right”

A sociologist talks about the importance of citizens accessing information:

Access to information is a fundamental human right and democracy can’t function unless you know what government is doing, Dominique Clement, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, said Monday.

“By denying people access to information, you’re denying a human right and you’re denying them knowledge of how governments work, and ultimately that harms our democracy,” Clement, a sociology professor, said during a Canadian Historical Association panel discussion at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Calling freedom of information law in Canada “draconian,” Clement, who’s filled about 500 information requests throughout his career, said reform needs to happen nationwide in order for those laws to be effective.

He said privacy commissioners in the provinces should become more arm’s length than they are now and should be answerable to the legislative assembly or parliament, not to any premier or prime minister.

I wonder how democratic governments would respond to this argument. I imagine they would support it and then argue that certain information need to be protected because of national security and other reasons. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that there is quite a bit of public/government information that is not easily accessible. Of course, non-democratic governments may not be too happy with these arguments as restricting information is deemed vital – see Iran’s recent efforts to create a national Intranet.

But this is related to a thought I have had in the past: is Internet access, particularly because of its ability to share and produce information, going to become a human right in the near future? Should rights regarding information apply to all information on the Internet or just “vital information” that citizens might need to participate in the civic realm? What would be the response in Western nations if Internet access was severely limited, even if a case could be made for it (like a threat of attack)?

Graphic comparing US to other developed nations on nine measures

This particular graphic provides a look at how the United States stacks up against other developed nations on nine key measures, such as a Gini index, Gallup’s global wellbeing index, and life expectancy at birth.

As a graphic, this is both interesting and confusing. It is interesting in that one can take a quick glance at all of these measures at once and the color shading helps mark the higher and lower values. This is the goal of graphics or charts: condense a lot of information into an engaging format. However, there are a few problems: there is a lot of information to look at, it is unclear why the countries are listed in the order they are, and it takes some work to compare the countries marked with the different colors because they may be at the top or bottom of the list.

(By the way, the United States doesn’t compare well to some of the other countries on this list. Are there other overall measures in which the United States would compare more favorably?)

One chart that situates the 2012 Republican presidential contenders

One of the key purposes of a chart or graph is to distill a lot of complicated information into a simple graphic so readers can quickly draw conclusions. In the midst of a crowded field of people who may (or may not) be vying to be the Republican candidate for president in 2012, one chart attempts to do just that.

This chart has two axes: moderate to conservative and insider to outsider. While these may be fuzzy concepts, creator Nate Silver suggests these axes give us some important information:

With that said, it is exceptionally important to consider how the candidates are positioned relative to one another. Too often, I see analyses of candidates that operate through what I’d call a checkbox paradigm, tallying up individual candidates’ strengths and weaknesses but not thinking deeply about how they will compete with one another for votes.

Silver then goes on to explain two other pieces of information for each candidate that is part of the circle used to place each candidate on the graph: the color indicates the region and the size of the circle represents their relative stock on Intrade.

Based on this chart, it looks like we have a diagonal running from top left to bottom right, from moderate insider (Mitt Romney) to conservative outsider (Sarah Palin) with Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee trying to straddle the middle. We will have to see how this plays out.

But as a statistics professor who is always on the lookout for cool ways of presenting information, this is an interesting graphic.