Information - lifeblood or pollution?

Globe with an 'i' for 'information' on it The growing dependency on information and communication technologies to publish, consume and manipulate information has impacted upon economic and cultural life of us all. Simon Rogerson looks at the growing problems confronting information integrity.

We live in an information society which crosses traditional boundaries and as such comprises individuals from many different cultures. This cultural variability means that the expectations of individuals can differ considerably. There are great difficulties in providing information in a form that is acceptable to all given this cultural variability. This is certainly one of the current great challenges for ICT professionals.

ICT maturity has reached a point where information of nearly every form is available at the touch of a button, the click of a mouse or the point of a cursor. Never before has it been possible to support many-to-many or many-to-one information publication and consumption. Existing new information conduits such as blogs, podcasts and wikis offer so much.

Online access is now possible to all forms of information including music, moving images, literary works and art. But what does the new form of access do to information? For example, does ICT-enabled online access detract or enhance a work of art painted by the artist to convey a specific piece of information? Whether value is being added or subtracted by such access is rarely considered.

Three types of information

It is this powerful characteristic which can change the nature of information and how we perceive it. Albert Borgmann suggests there are three types of information. There is information about reality in which reports disclose what is distant in space and remote in time.

There is information for reality in which recipes transform reality and make it richer materially and morally. Finally there is information as reality in which recording information through the power of ICT steps forward as a rival of reality. It is the latter which challenges the traditional view of information.

This multifaceted information is the lifeblood of organisations. Without it organisations cannot interact with individuals and other organisations along the supply chain.

However, with the advent of computer technology and more significantly the convergence of this technology with other technologies such as media, the amount and type of information available has exploded.

Alvin Toffler predicted in 1970 this information overload, where individuals and organisations were swamped with so much information that it prevented decision making and actually reduced knowledge. This problem continues to grow at a seemingly accelerating rate.

Indeed Jakob Nielsen argues that we are reaching the point of saturation: 'Information pollution is information overload taken to the extreme. It is where it stops being a burden and becomes an impediment to your ability to get your work done.' If humankind is going to survive this mutation of information lifeblood into information pollution a new way of thinking and an associated new way of operating has to be developed.

One aid that could reverse this mutation is explicit guidance as to the status of information as it is presented. In other words, to provide a rating of the integrity of the information before it is consumed. Information integrity is about accuracy, consistency and reliability of information content (see Beyond Quality: the Information Integrity Imperative, Total Quality Management and Business Excellence) and information systems. 

If information is questionable then decisions and actions which are based upon it could be flawed and unsafe. The expectation that information has integrity and therefore is dependable and trustworthy is reasonable.

But how can dependability and trustworthiness be demonstrated? Trustworthiness is an intrinsic reality. Its perception, particularly in the beginning, depends critically on the perception of certain extrinsic forms (signs, labels, messages, etc) that are understood to represent the presence of underlying trustworthiness. These extrinsic messages provide the much needed guide to information integrity.

The power of provenance

If such messages were recorded over time then the information would exhibit a provenance. In general provenance defines the place of origin and is a proof of authenticity or of past ownership. Therefore, information provenance fixes the origin and network of ownership thus providing a measure of integrity, authenticity and trustworthiness.

It provides an audit trail showing where information originated, where it has been and how it has been altered. In this way people would be able to consider how much credence they would give to a piece of information before acting upon it.

For any piece of information people should be able to answer 'Can this information be believed to be true? Who created it? Can its creator be trusted? What does it depend on? Can the information it depends on be believed to be true?'

Information provenance is a powerful instrument in improving information integrity. Consider this example.

In the course of its enquiries a police authority collects information about an individual. This information is held within the police authority's information systems. Such information is allowed to be shared with a number of other authorised agencies across a secure network.

Access is instigated by the agencies so no track is kept of where the information has been shared. Once this happens the copies of this information become legally owned by the recipient agencies. Agencies update this information for their own purposes and based upon their own intelligence. These new versions of the information are passed onto other authorised agencies.

The police authority then updates the information about the individual based on new evidence. Agencies are not aware of this and continue to use their own version of the information. In this situation there exist multiple copies of the information across a complex network of agencies. Copies are not the same and there is no mechanism in place to ensure that they are the same.

Clearly the integrity of the information is questionable but those receiving it are likely to be unaware of this. Decisions that may be made are based on this untrustworthy information, that have detrimental effects on the individual. If the information had been accompanied by the information provenance then decision makers would be able to see how the information had changed and therefore consider how safe it was.

Also provenance would provide a method to track back to the provenance of original information held in the information systems of the police authority to check whether the original information had altered since it was first accessed.

In the information society there is a moral obligation to address information integrity. Information provenance offers a normative instrument for turning this moral obligation into ethical practice. It is ICT professionals who have the wherewithal and an obligation to establish information integrity. It requires a radical rethink of how information systems are developed and interconnected. The time for that rethink is now.

Professor Simon Rogerson is Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, De Montfort University

July 2008

This article first appeared in the May issue of ITNOW.