Thinking About Information Science

September 29th, 2015

Thinking About Information Science
John Beckford

The role of information science in Universities and Business is changing rapidly, but what is Information Science?

According to:
“Information science (or information studies) is an interdisciplinary field primarily concerned with the analysis, collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval and dissemination of information.[1] Practitioners within the field study the application and usage of knowledge in organizations, along with the interaction between people, organizations and any existing information systems, with the aim of creating, replacing, improving or understanding information systems. Information science is often (mistakenly) considered a branch of computer science. However, it is actually a broad, interdisciplinary field, incorporating not only aspects of computer science, but often diverse fields such as archival science, cognitive science, commerce, communications, law, library science, museology management, mathematics, philosophy, public policy, and the social sciences. Information science must not be confused with information theory, the study of a particular mathematical concept of information, or with library science, a field related to libraries which uses some of the principles of information science.”

What might that mean for Information Scientists in contemporary universities?

I have been working for the last five years on research that has substantially informed the National Infrastructure Plans and considering how the UK should respond to the needs arising from ageing physical infrastructure, climate change and the emerging technologies.

What became very clear during the course of the research (three major confidential submissions) is that of the five ‘base’ infrastructures (Water, Waste, Energy, Transport and ICT), the two most fundamental are Energy and ICT as they enable the functioning of the others.

The impact and influence ICT is little understood and where it is, the majority of emphasis is on the ‘T’ with only limited appreciation of the ‘I’. It seems that everybody is an ‘information expert’ ‐ whereas the reality appears to be that the ability to produce a graph in Excel is, often, taken as evidence for such expertise…………….

What am I getting at?

1. The whole notion of Information Science, the breadth and depth of expertise available, the comprehension of what can be achieved through information, is not understood or appreciated outside relatively narrow confines.

2. The world of infrastructure (and industry in general) is moving very rapidly towards an absolute dependence on artefacts which will incorporate much telemetry and electronic control/automation ‐ but the owners and users of that infrastructure have only limited ability to use the data they will capture (hence they do what is easy, not what is effective).

3. ‘Smart Cities’ and other such technological wonders (Smart Metering etc) are being undertaken by technology specialists NOT information specialists ‐ so pride is being taken in the number of sensors being installed, NOT in the value and utility of the information generated.

4. Information Science has a substantial role to play in creating the future ‐ though it is perhaps beyond the traditional thinking ‐ it will not be about ‘more of same but faster, cleaner, cheaper’ but about taking the ideas and expertise of Information Scientists and connecting it with the challenges presented by technology change, climate change, infrastructure investment.

5. This means a radical rethink of what it means to be an ‘Information Scientist’ and how that affects what we research and teach, what students learn and how the knowledge is applied. It means engaging with a different world ‐ engineers in particular but also government, industry and consumers ‐ and particularly those large companies which are occupying the commercial AND research space but who often conflate the ability to capture and store data (sell large systems) with the ability to understand, interpret, learn, adapt, understand and decide ‐ to me the stuff of information science.

6. Information Scientists need to exist ‐ and that existence needs to be both rooted in a place and a body of people but also virtual ‐ extending out and across this institution and beyond through partnership, joint‐venture and alliance.

7. We need a bold approach to this to ensure that institutions understand what future we are already in and the potential for what information science must become ‐ and that should be located in an understanding of the role of information in both UK society and beyond.

8. This is I suspect is not adequately recognised, with information science perhaps seen as a subset activity of IT or computing ‐ not the whole point of both!

Think about the need for adaptation of the UK ICT infrastructure:

That all of the artefacts of ICT work together as a system – inter‐connected, interdependent and completely enmeshed in each other and working to absolute rules of inter‐operability. ICT is the only sector of infrastructure that directly connects any one user to any other user across time and space using multiple pathways simultaneously with inherent dynamic re‐ routing in real time. As such, in this case, the asset is the network rather than any of the individual components – and it is the operation of the network that relies on the whole infrastructure and enables the generation of value. That the historic complete separation of ‘voice’ from ‘data’traffic has been lost. Atthe level of network transmission, for all digitalsystems,they are the same thing – streams of moving ‘bits’ – separated into ‘data packets’ at one end of their journey and reassembled at the other. Thus the whole of data and voice is converging as are the devices from which the messages are sent and received. At the level of this discussion there is no meaningful difference between them.

A further emergent complexity in this case is the growth of ‘power over ethernet’ in which the network cable that carries data is also used to carry electricity. From this emerges a further convergence of the ICT sector with, elements of, the energy system increasing their interdependence and co‐functionality in which either they both work or neither works.

That whilst the network is the asset at the level of infrastructure, the value of the network is not in the asset itself but in the information which travels on it. Nearly the whole of the economy relies upon the ability to transmit, receive and convert streams of digital data in close to realtime – whether it is the extraction of cash from an ATM, the use of a credit or debit card, sending an email, controlling a remote pump or switch, despatching or receiving aircraft or a mundane phone call.

All of the value that may be generated through any one of those activities is utterly reliant on the complex system described above. Its reliable operation defines the post‐industrial economy. Its resilience, including to a changing climate, is critical to national well‐being.

Key statistics outlining the role of ICT in the UK today

ICT Sector Key Statistics

  • The technology sector generates over £35 billion of Gross Value Added and employs
  • over 5 million people in the wider knowledge industries
  • 90% of our high street purchases are transacted using plastic cards which depends
  • on wired and wireless communications to work
  • £50 billion of consumer purchases and sales in Britain take place wholly online
  • Estimates suggest the ICT sector was responsible for around 2% of global carbon
  • dioxide emissions in 2007
  • The Energy Savings Trust in 2007 predicted that 45% of domestic energy usage
  • would be consumed by ICT
  • 98% of UK businesses rely on technology to power their day‐to‐day operations.
  • Estimates say 84% of UK businesses are heavily dependent on their IT systems. (PwC
  • Information and Security Survey, 2008)
  • Intellect estimate 4.2 million people in the UK work flexibly ‐ the vast majority of
  • these use broadband and other technology to work remotely
  • The Digital Britain sectors account for nearly £1 in every £10 that the whole
  • economy produces each year
  • Six of the top 10 global brands by value this year are in the digital sector
  • The IT professional workforce, alone, in the UK has almost doubled in the last 12
  • years: from 550,000 to around one million today
  • Over the next five years, the UK will require more than 140,000 new IT and Telecoms
  • professionals per year
  • On 15 June 2009, 20 hours of new content were posted on YouTube every minute,
  • 494 exabytes of information were transferred seamlessly across the globe, over 2.6
  • billion mobile minutes were exchanged across Europe, and millions of enquiries were
  • made using a Google algorithm.
  • In the high street, stock ordering, inventory control and the cash tills are all
  • completely dependent on electronic communications
  • In transport, the phasing of street traffic lights, the operation of railway signals and
  • points and the wireless systems that allow aircraft to take off and land safely all need
  • communications

Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Department of Business Innovation and
Skills (2009) Digital Britain

Intellect (2010) General Industry Fast Facts