The 2009 Toronto Information Overload Awareness Day Presentations

On Wednesday, August 12, 2009, the inaugural Information Overload Awareness Day took place. As part of the celebration, three of Toronto’s knowledge meetup groups merged for a series of presentations on the topic of Information Overload and its impact on us and the technology that surrounds our daily lives. The event took place in the back room of Fionn Maccools on University Avenue from 18:30 to 21:30.  The event comprised of six presentations.

My Thoughts Enclosed…Rb


Information Overload – More Personal Than You Think (by Karl Dawson)

Depending on which source you use, the web is roughly comprised of 20+ billion pages of visible content.  This content is deemed visible due to the search technology currently in place to fish the sea of content that is the Internet.  It is believed, as presented by Karl Dawson, that there could be over 500 times more pages deemed invisible by today’s search engines.  This is considerably important given that search engines are becoming the source of advertising engines that will eventually fully commercialize the web as we know it now.

The Fridge Web is the portion of the web that the mainstream market is unaware of and is often inaccessible by mainstream means.  This invisible web is where the majority of the fringe content exists.  The reason for its lack of mainstream awareness is the simple fact that most engines are unable to formulate its content due to lack of context and connectivity.  Google has started addressing some of this untapped content market with its Google Books Library Project.  Similarly, Recaptcha has made great use of its anti-bot service by using non-OCRed scans as the source for its crowdsourcing digitization of content.  However, much of this work involves making content available and not applying context to it.

Unstructured data is the Achilles heel of current knowledge awareness and aggregation.   As with any communication medium, trust in the content and the mitigation of noise are mandatory success criteria. Even with the technology currently in place, we are already well behind the information overload curve.  Relative to the content now available to the masses, technology is considerably ahead of our ability to abstract and digest the Internet Firehose.  When the amount of content continues to grow exponentially, if we do not apply context to the content, we will never get passed our state of information overload.

Through the continued use of Semantics, we will be able to fully give meaning (context) and thus awareness of the content currently ill suited for modern engines and aggregators.  The application of semantics to the web is what is bringing forth Web 3.o and the Semantic Web.  Through formats such as the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and RDFa, the amount of contextual content that will become available to us will grow exponentially.  However, it is with the use of semantics that we will be able to bring order to the chaos that is the Internet content information overload.

By leveraging the power of active reading (e.g. user tagging of sites using tools such as delicious), we can start applying crowdsourced tagging to the content that we come across in our daily lives.  Auto tagging systems and micro-formats will assist in bringing context to the web.  However, much of the understanding of context currently resides in human recognition.  We have not fully achieved the level of artificial intelligence in our systems to do it alone.   As with any learning system, it often has to be first taught through cross-referencing and familiarization exercises.  As an example, facial recognition software (e.g. iPhoto ’09) often make use of a series of identified images of the same facial attributes to start interpreting new images to find similar facial matches.  User involvement plays a large role in the early context awareness of these systems and crowdsourcing of the context of the web content must play an integral part in the Semantic Web.

Information Overload in Law Firms (by Kathleen Hogan)

The extraction and abstraction of content is key to both Competitive Intelligence and Knowledge Management.  In a competitive market, there can be no excuse for information overload causing analysis paralysis.  The issue is more of one of context unawareness which leads to a failure in trust in the information collected.  Kathleen Hogan presented us with the real reality of information overload in a legal market.

In legal firms, success is based mostly on the ability to collect as much information about a topic as possible and applying the context of law to the retrieved content.  In an age where the concept of the billable hour is potentially on its way out, it is even more important to ensure that profit margins and margins of error are controlled.  The ability to quickly aggregate, assimilate, digest, and successfully apply contextual content is the key to winning legal battles.  These legal battles are constantly being lost due to lack of content or improper application of context on the part of the respective legal team.  Publicly available mainstream content is not longer suitable when attempting to find that winning edge where precedence and relevance matter most.  Making full use of the Fridge Web is a natural competitive advantage over those who fail to see its value.

Hunters and Gatherers in Fancy Clothes (by Vwodek Wojczynski)

How up to date the context of your accessible content remains, plays an ever increasing role in dealing with Information Overload and Information Pollution.  Resolving conflicting information is the next level of dealing with tagging and aggregation of content.  How you pull from the expert knowledge of your network is as important as your ability to parse out non helpful information efficiently and effectively.

The core of humanity has not really changed in the last hundred or so years.  However, the amount our brain has had to process has never been so great.  As such, our physical ability to deal with Information Overload will be forever challenged if left to our own individualistic capabilities.  Vwodek put forth the notion that even with all our evolution, we are still but Hunters and Gatherers in Fancy Clothes.

Vwodek presented that there are six distinct civilization stages:

  1. <missed this one>
  2. Agricultural (~10,000 years ago)
  3. Feudal (1,300 years ago)
  4. Industrial (300 years ago)
  5. Information/Knowledge Age (50 years ago)
  6. Post Information/Possibility (10 years ago)

Our ability to move from one stage to another defines our evolutionary ability to deal with the stress and duress of a modern civilization.  Each modern age requires new modernized tools.  In each era, the tools are often made available to us before we are capable of fully utilizing them with the mastery required to meet the demands of the time.  In a post-information age, we are starting to link to a hive of global resources via the Internet.  The social web is a manifestation of this evolution and our need for evolved community settings for our disconnected connectivity.

Through making use of hive like structures, we not only have access to untapped content but untapped capabilities to bring context to this content.  Through crowdsourcing efforts such as SETI@home, we have been able to tap into the global computing and processing power.  Similar crowdsourcing efforts will need to take place to tap into the global analytical power to bring about a viable Context Artificial Intelligence system capable of dealing with the ever growing complexity of our accessible content.  This is ever more evident by Facebook’s Peter Thiel’s continued support of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.  By combining the power of social systems such as Facebook to the Semantic Web, we will be able to successfully adapt to our new civilization and mitigate the Information Overload that we will continue to face if we continue to use the same tools to Hunt and Gather.

Time cannot be managed regardless of what people will tell you.  However, we can be thought to manage our commitment within time.  To achieve this, you need to have a framework that contains what content is important for the task at hand.  Context is the main driver in decision making, not content.  Only through the application of context to content can you acquire useful knowledge.  One must remember that knowledge (content) transference is only successful if someone can listen with understanding (context).

Vwodek suggested that we must shift from a memory-based mindset to an archive-based mindset.  Through the application of structure to content, we can avoid the need to remember everything and thus focus more on the means of retrieving necessary information as required.  We must learn to forget and learn how to recall.  To achieve this, we must first deal with the blind spots of our awareness.  Vwodek makes reference to Sense Making as a necessary tool in dealing with information uncertainty and information paradoxes.  Once again, applying context to content is key to dealing with information overload.

Guided Navigation(by David Suydam)

The quality of the decision is based on the quality of the information.  The more options available, the more complex the options and thus the failure to act.  By using tools such as information trees, we can use structure the content, break the clutter and provide useful content.  By connecting data sources and finding connected context, we can create powerful relationships.

Finding the unique identifiers that exist in existing content goes a long way in paving the road to addressing aggregate identification and personification of content.  The more we make use of e-mails addresses as the unique identifiers for logging into system, the more we can leverage on that context to aggregate personal content across multiple systems.

Dealing with the temporal shift in data is also a constant problem.  Data will grow and change and as such will need to be kept in sync.  Failure to ensure this, will cast doubt in the content.  Without trust, decisions cannot be comfortably made.

David reminded us all that the evolution of the Spin Toothbrush actually stemmed from the basic functionality of a spinning lollipop.  The ability to perform lateral analysis on existing content is key to our innovation.  Without context to existing content, we forever be re-inventing the wheel as opposed to building upon its framework.

Yakidoo (by Victor Bensusan)

This presentation was an overview of the Yakidoo product line of document management and virtualization software.

Information Overload vs. “Underload” from an Enterprise Perspective (by Gordon Vala-Webb)

Gordon made reference to how the majority of an iceberg is below the water.  This is another example of the Pareto principle, where only 20% of the Internet is currently visible and contextually usable.  In the case of the iceberg, what you don’t see will potentially sink your vessel.  In the business world, this lack of awareness is equally hazardous.  The more you are aware of your surroundings, the less risky your actions will be. The case for risk management and mitigation is at the forefront of most successful projects management methodologies.

Metrics and contextual knowledge are, in my opinion, the two primary components of defining the value proposition of any business endeavour.  Mastery of these two elements is a need for any business unit as well as for those who supply the tools and relevant content.  In a modern world, the sources of content are growing at an exponential pace.  However, the sources of context have been lagging behind for decades.  This is primarily due to the publisher failing to provide the necessary context elements for their content.  To say this is a personable failure on the individual is not my intent.  These publishers of content are often unaware of the value this context provides for themselves and their audience.  Metadata concepts are so far removed from our mainstream society due in part by education, ownership, and ease-of-implementation.  We are seeing, however, a rise in this awareness in the later years with the growth of social tagging.

The growth of social tagging is mirrored by the massive improvements being made to the tools for creating context.  Whether it is simple tagging or microformats, the need for a comfortable and easy user experience is paramount to bringing in an age of social contextualization of content.    Whether we remains simply knowledgeable or evolve to become wise will come down to how we apply our acquired knowledge.  Without proper use of context, all of the knowledge in the world will not allow us to consistently make the right decisions with the content made available to us.

On this note, Gordon made reference to the need to thin slice our information.  By using frameworks for categorization of content, we can ideally minimize the amount of noise brought about by an abundance of opinion.  Quite often in a world of information overload, we need to under-load to make a reasonably accurate decision.  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell talks in great depth on the adaptive unconscious.  By leveraging our tools to attack our information overload problem, we can hopefully find a reasonable solution. By  bringing context to the masses and the important information to the tip of the iceberg, we can make use of thin slice decision making with the majority of the valid and valued content at our disposal.

Finally, Gordon made an interesting observation about his own presentation style that mimics his views.  He indicated that the important part of a presentation is to speak to an image as opposed to reading the words.  The bullet-presentation or the word for word presentation styles are the most overused and underpowered.  The content should be presented in the form of context.  Your words and actions during a presentation should represent the knowledge being shared.  The slides themselves should provide context for the content being presented.


2 thoughts on “The 2009 Toronto Information Overload Awareness Day Presentations

  1. Pingback: Information Overload Awareness Day (August 12) « My Thoughts Enclosed…

  2. Pingback: My Thoughts Enclosed: Human-Machine Collaboration and the Problem of Information Overload « My Thoughts Enclosed…

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