GIS: an insurmountable opportunity?

(approximately what I said at the Information Fluency symposium at Southwestern University, 19-21 November 1999)

I was somewhat surprised to hear David Brown emphasizing the importance of DATA in last night's keynote address:

and use
and espousing the heretical notion that "accessing and sorting skills are as important as knowledge."

That's one of the things I was planning to talk about, but for nowI'll just cite my favorite inequation:

data are not equal to
information, which is not equal to
knowledge, which is not equal to
The "does-not-equal"s are where fluency comes in, and where teachers and librarians help students develop the skills to effect the transformations.

A couple of things that are on my agenda, but I think are not on everybody's mind when they think about fluency:

  1. multiple media are essential, extending beyond the traditional literacy definitions of "information". So images, data in various forms that need to be transformed into information, other digital media --all are potentially the object of fluency.

  2. the experience of being surprised by NEW developments, unanticipated demands on skills and resources --and the necessity to figure out how to integrate them into what I do

Most of us probably think that we're pretty information-fluent, at least within our domains of interest. But I want to suggest to you that we're dancing on quicksand, and briefly describe two examples of the problem --one the GIS challenge that prompted me to volunteer some remarks, and the other something that happened a week ago and blew away my complacency about my own fluency.

Geographic Information Systems is an example of a technology-driven domain of information we suddenly find ourselves needing to support and integrate into libraries, classrooms, and research programs. An "insurmountable opportunity" in that the imaginable future is glorious (maps as everyday mode of communication, and spatial analysis as an obvious form of research in many disciplines). But how do we get there? GIS has only very recently moved out of the geek realm to become a desktop utility.

We have to collaborate to realize the potentials, and all of the following need solutions:

Who gets to solve these problems?

I believe that GIS is an information technology as transformative of the way we think about the world as word processing and spreadsheets --both of which have certainly transformed scholarly practise in a relatively short time (Bricklin and Frankston first marketed VisiCalc in October 1979...)

At Washington & Lee we now have a site license for ArcView (and the same has been arranged for other ACS institutions, via the Environmental Studies program), and (thanks to an ACS grant) we have a server upon which GIS data can be collected and from which these data can be distributed to campus users. So we have to do something to realize this potential. We don't have a campus-wide user community, or anything more than nascent demand for GIS, but I want to describe briefly how we're going about the collaborative business of creating this community, starting from a GIS Cabal of about 5 people.

  1. we're learning ourselves, via workshops, ESRI training, lots of fumblesome experimentation
  2. we're fingering likely faculty and working on projects on their behalf, toward the creation of some exemplary instances, and via a pilot group of half a dozen or so that we'll train in the Winter Term
  3. we're setting up a structure on the server for data, arranging for use of ArcView in a networked setting (a non-trivial matter)
  4. we're working toward collaboration with other ACS institutions in the reas of software, training and data
  5. we're accumulating datasets, and realizing the necessity for care with metadata as we work toward eventual appropriate integration of GIS data into the online public access catalog
  6. and we're writing web page tutorials for asynchronous support, using screen dumps and step-by-step instruction

I think of GIS as a success, even though we're just beginning the collaboration that will eventually result in its inevitable incorporation into teaching and research. And I'd be happy to talk about collaboration with anybody who's involved in the same ballet, or wants to be.

The other example of information fluency is more ambiguous, fraught with horror and promise and murky implication...

A week ago I was talking with one of our computer mavens about network traffic and server problems, and he showed me some graphs of actual traffic on our T1 lines, showing near-capacity use throughout most of the 24-hour day.

What's going on with the pipelines that move information to and from our campus?

Part of the answer turns out to be a novel piece of client software that has become very widespread in the last couple of months --and has almost totally escaped the notice of the world of print (one substantial article turned up in response to my search of Lexis/Nexis, from the Israeli newspaper A'aretz... but thousands of websites via AltaVista).

The forom of information in this case is MP3 files --digitized music. Not, you may say, part of the information universe of libraries or scholarship, and so off our screens... but supremely relevant to many of our students.

The client software, the application, is NAPSTER --of which I hadn't heard 9 days ago. Napster is

...a completely new way of thinking about music online... it works by making the libraries of other MP3 listeners accessible to you directly..."
(from the website)

Listen: if you have the Napster client running on your computer and you're connected to the Internet (say by the college's T1 line), you can send a search request for a song title or a band name and (almost immediately) get back a listing of other machines, also simultaneously running Napster, which have MP3 files with the same search string. That's pretty amazing: Napster creates a virtual catalog of material ON THE HARD DRIVES of machines which have the application running. But that's just the beginning. You can select MP3 files to be transferred to your machine, fetched from any of thousands of other sites; and people can do likelwise with MP3 files that reside on your machine, so long as you're connected and have Napster running. A vast traffic in MP3 files, reaching INTO C:\ drives.

Terrifying implications for computing services and bandwidth demands. But the prospect of virtual communities of information sharers is really wonderful, in the abstract. Napster is a management tool for one specific kind of information, a harbinger of agents to come...

The point for fluency is: here's a form of information with which NONE of us is more than barely conversant. It's not the only one... and it won't be the last we'll have to deal with.

So. I doubt that fluency can be taught. I'm certain that fluency can be LEARNED, and that teachers can create environments in which that's the result --that students (and teachers themselves) DEVELOP fluency in finding, using, and presenting information. Fluency develops in environments in which one practises the arts, the craft, the science of interpreting data and information. Information landscapes are tectonically unstable in the extreme. We have to keep dancing.

By way of conclusion, I spend Thursday at University of Texas, talking to people who are (or whom I expected to be) concerned with teaching and supporting GIS. What I found surprised me: the Perry-Castañeda Map Library, which has an excellent web site with images of historic maps, neither knows nor cares about GIS, about digital mapping data... The Geography Department has an excellent GIS lab, with a dedicated technician --but it's a fiefdom, and there's no possibility for collaboration with other departments who are or might be interested in GIS. UT, like other large public institutions, is a dinosaur. By comparison, we're more like scurrying mammals in the underbrush, with a more efficient metabolism...

This experience renewed my faith that we can do things that make a difference, that are on the leading edge of Education. And we'll do them by figuring out effective ways to collaborate, on our various campuses and among ACS members. And some of what we figure out will influence what happens in the larger world of higher education.