Using What You Know

The global storehouse of information is growing at a rate of 800 megabytes a year per person. How can IT managers and tech companies make all those data more useful?

"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered," the astronomer Galileo once said. "The point is to discover them." Galileo understood the importance of access to information in the quest for knowledge. He published his works in Italian, rather than Latin -- the convention for serious scientists of the time -- to share his findings with average people, rather than limiting access to the intelligentsia. A new discovery was more likely to be uncovered if information was conveyed in a form or language that everyone could understand, he found.

Today, the amount of information we produce increases by about 800 megabytes per year for every man, woman, and child on the planet. It is estimated that there are already trillions of bytes of information on the Internet alone, not to mention all the data stored in corporate databases and on individual PCs.

But, is calling this "information" too generous? Does something really "inform" if it is indecipherable or inaccessible? Maybe a more relevant question to ask is: "How do we make all this information more useful?"


  For starters, we have to reduce the volume of what we're sifting through. As anyone who's ever done a Web search using a generic term like "art" or "literature" knows, smart searching begins with qualifiers that narrow the parameters so they yield something useful and manageable.

This can be a specialized skill in itself. The Spanish Archives in Seville are one of the world's great treasure troves of historical information. But because of the massive amount of data in different forms and from disparate sources, historians often employ specialists who search for them -- people who are familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the system and have developed an expertise for extracting information.

For many in the business world, the inefficiencies of such a system may seem obvious. But historians don't often deal with the same pressures as an IT executive. For instance, up to 85% of business data exists in "unstructured" formats -- forms other than nice, neat files, making it tough to find and use.

E-mails are one example. In fact, the information may not even involve text or numbers at all; it may be locked in materials like voice recordings, still images, or video. In these often lie the nuggets of knowledge critical for uncovering trends, creating opportunities, solving problems, or averting disaster.


  Industry research shows that the average large enterprise often implements three different enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications. These are the systems designed to make sure various parts of the business, from manufacturing to marketing, work in unison.

Some big corporations operate more than 48 different financial systems. Buying individually packaged applications to deal with specific business processes can lead to challenges. Each new application tends to create its own set of information, rendering it impossible to make decisions based on a unified view of all facts.

Yet, if gaining visibility into all the data produced within an organization, putting it in context, and driving effective action based on a complete picture was possible, then the provision of information could become a readily available service within the enterprise.

And now, as an industry, we're developing ways to do this.

First, we have to establish standards for managing the physical and logical storage of data in information systems so information retrieval isn't hampered by differences among storage system suppliers. An open source community called Aperi has been formed (by IBM (IBM) and others) to produce common storage software that would make it easier for users dealing with disparate storage systems.

Next, once we remove physical obstacles, we need to establish a framework for dealing with all the information we can now access, regardless of format. Until earlier this year, the technology did not exist to allow software to search out and make sense of these disparate forms of data. The development of an open source technology called Unstructured Information Management Architecture (UIMA) is a step in the right direction.

These analytical tools will help us finally realize the potential of all this information. Here are just a few of the tasks for which applications might be developed:

• Detecting emerging trends in reports from all over the globe to avoid recalls and save consumer product companies and their customers millions if not billions of dollars.

• Shaving off just seconds per call to find the right technical documentation in call-centers to cut costs and increase customer satisfaction.

• Detecting otherwise unrealized drug interactions by analyzing linkages in medical abstracts to help prevent disaster as well as help discover new drugs or cures.

• Analyzing communications linked to terrorist networks to help uncover plots threatening national security before they result in action.

Industry leaders understand that they simply can no longer afford to mange information ineffectively. Managing information in silos has become obsolete. The technologies are being developed to link them, and an opportunity exists for early adopters to establish a competitive advantage. Forward-thinking business leaders recognize the value of information, have made initial investments, and are already well down the path to delivering business value.

Well beyond the Information Age, beyond the novelty of just providing access to data, the real opportunities will be in using information to change the way a business, government, or other organization functions. Because the most valuable insights are transformative, they enable you to uncover the hidden strengths of product lines, implement better ways of running a business, discover new ways of approaching the market, and learn how to use existing information to drive competitive advantage. This is about innovation, not just information.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.