Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Economics of Information Flow

I spent many years working with document management systems - software that would facilitate the distribution, flow and storage of information within an organization. I worked with both public and private institutions; large and small; everything from mid-size single office companies to extended multi-nationals; municipal, state and federal government to colleges and universities. And they all had somewhat unique patterns of information flow that were apparently driven less by their physical structure and management structure and more by the players who held positions of influence within the structure.

This holds true at a very granular level. The amount of and quality of information flowing in and out of any particular office is less about the function of the office than the management style of the person in the office. Anyway, over this time period I witnessed the growth and maturation of various internal proprietary email software systems and eventually with the opening up of the internet, the ubiquitous email systems of today.

Pay Attention!
How often we hear this dictum as we grow up. And there really is an underlying economics that plays out in information flow as we grow older. In a typical office environment you both create and read (consume) many items of information throughout the day. When you send a memo to someone, you are asking that they ‘pay’ attention to it. You are asking them to ‘spend’ time with it and they have to judge how much of their time it is ‘worth’.

The intended recipient looks for various clues to make these judgements, and as we moved from a world of paper documents sent via interoffice mail to the world of digital word processing and instantaneous email, the nature of these clues changed as well. In the paper world, I may judge how ‘formal’ a communication seems to be by how it is packaged… what kind of paper it is on… in a binder or not, and how it was sent to me.

As email systems evolved into a kind of dull uniformity with least-common-denominator functionality, a small set of meta-data sifted out as the only clues we have about such items. We can see a) From - who sent it, b) Title - what they called it (30 characters or less, usually), and c) When it was sent. Though it is little enough to go on, we clearly make decisions and prioritize how we view items based on these clues. Items from your boss likely get top attention; items you were expecting from someone or a title that hints at major organization changes grab your attention also.

Another reality though was the explosion of content. Email systems made it easy to create and distribute things, and even worse to forward items on to virtually any number of people. A physical inbox can only handle so many items before they topple out the side and onto the floor. An electronic one, however, has no such limit, but it easily stretches the limits of our abilities to deal with what’s in it!

The 1980s saw the explosion of inter-office email and the 1990s added email from the rest of the world through the internet. Yet we were given fewer clues than ever about the contents of each individual item. The beginning waves of spam added even more to the problem, since it often uses the from and title fields to grab our attention. There are now more emails sent per day than there are people on the planet! And the numbers will probably continue to grow.

Coupled with the rise of cell phone usage in the last decade, computer based instant messaging and the more recent rise of cell phone based SMS text messaging… we are increasingly flooded with information. Is it any surprise that we have a growing attention deficit disorder problem?

SNS Comes of Age
Our youth (and growing numbers of adults) seem to be seeking refuge in social networking software (SNS) such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn or others. They have more tools for creating connections with others and filtering out unwanted spam, and they offer many dynamic social networking tools as well. Many of the youth on MySpace indicate they no longer use email, but use only the equivalent messaging tools within the SNS.

The dramatic usage growth of MySpace (nearly the top visited site on the net) and Facebook (5 million new users in the past six weeks) definitely points to a growing trend, and recent calls for the development of common standards for social networking software sounds a lot like a replay of the call for email standards in the late 80s. Whatever direction this takes, we are rapidly becoming a society that though drowning in information seems to reflect a dearth of substantive human communication. Either the tools or filters to handle it better will have to evolve quickly!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Social Networks reflecting Class Divide

Social Networks have been a growing phenomenon for several years. I'm not sure what drives it, but certainly things such as the growing mobility of our population, ubiquitous net access, and the shifting workplace that no longer provide lifetime employment opportunities. Things such as this tend to leave society's youth with no sense of community.

I'm sure there are many forces at work here, and they will likely make for a compelling thesis by some aspiring doctoral candidate, but the facts are that there have been overlapping and dramatically growing 'social networking sites' (SNS) on the net for many years. Overlapping in the sense that as popularity wanes for one, it grows for another. And when that happens, one looks for the 'features' that make one SNS more attractive than another.

Friendster was one of the first... and it was more than moderately successful. But in 2004-2005 the MySpace phenomenon took the forefront. Growth (though understandably difficult to accurately measure) has been such that if MySpace was a country, it would be about the 10th largest in the World! Teens have flocked to the site, and stories about it became the biggest nightmare for parents - who typically didn't understand it at all. But regular nightly news stories warned us about predators lurking on MySpace... and instead of "it is eleven o'clock, do you know where your children are?" it became, "Are you familiar with your child's MySpace profile page?"

In 2005-2006 a new player came on the scene. Starting in the Ivy Leage schools on the east coast, Facebook had limited access since only members of a select group of high end universities could set up accounts. The site quickly opened up access to more and more schools and recently has opened up access completely - to anyone.

While MySpace is still the hot site for teens, Facebook has been attracting a lower and lower age range (instead of just college and post-college students). In fact, go into any high school and you will find some teens with MySpace accounts and groups and others talking only about their Facebook accounts and groups.

An Emerging Pattern?
What is kinda scary to me is that over the past couple of years a researcher, Danah Boyd, has started to see an emerging pattern in the use of the networks. In her June 24, 2007 paper she discusses the emerging pattern of class divide reflected in who chooses MySpace vs. Facebook.

Teens who see themselves as college-bound are setting up Facebook accounts while those that don't are using MySpace. While this is far too much a generalization, her observations are compelling. And I can see the same thing from a personal perspective - from people I know and work with.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise anyone that our societal visions of class distinction would play out in any online 'society'. SNS offer virtual grouping capabilities by definition... so it is natural that it will reflect the types of grouping we display in everyday life. We hang out with folks we feel comfortable around - usually because we have several things in common.

Army Impact?
One of the scarier things, though, is that earlier this summer the U.S. Army cut off access to MySpace thru its networks. There were many reasons given, but the fact seems to be that the MySpace users were most all enlisted ranks, whereas officers tended to set up Facebook accounts. Hmmmmm.

At a time when we give verbal homage to worrying about class division and achievement gaps, and supposedly celebrate diversity, isn't it interesting that our unspoken views of class distinction are playing out in our youth's choice of social networks?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

School Building Costs

Fort Wayne just completed a petition drive regarding funding for a project to upgrade the infrastructure and “repair” most of the school buildings within the Fort Wayne Community Schools system. The project scope and various funding alternatives were all discussed at open meetings over several months. Any concerned citizens certainly had opportunities to attend, ask questions, and be informed. A remonstrance was filed against the project and the resulting petition drive yielded a resounding “NO” which effectively killed the project for at least a year.

What was the ‘vote’ about?

Many have commented that the dollar amount of the project was the main issue. And much journalistic space and high-sounding rhetoric has been devoted to that point. But from one who walked door-to-door and spent hours listening to conversations with individual signers, I would have to say that the dollar amount of the project had little or nothing to do with the actual vote.

The voters fell into two basic camps – those who accepted that the project was necessary for the city’s future, and those who would have voted against any proposal put in front of them. Indeed, some openly stated that they were voting against the city’s Harrison Square project (which had been voted on by City Council, but not put in front of the voters); some voted to punish the school administration for not having spent prior years’ monies on these building repairs; some were voting against the city’s expenditures on upgrading the sanitary sewer systems; many were voting against the state legislature raising their property tax rates; some areas were voting against city taxes due to recent annexation; and yes, more than one person indicated they were voting against the school project because they couldn’t smoke in their favorite restaurant any more due to the city’s new smoking ban.

Lack of Awareness

There were, of course, many who were unaware of the project, the remonstrance and the petition drive. But far greater was the number of people with no apparent reasonable understanding of the reasons for, or scope of the project. The entire process of examining the building needs, scoping and prioritizing what needed to be fixed, and determining alternative financing had been open to the public, but people seemed ready and eager to grasp at dramatically unreasonable and sometimes silly reasons to be against the project. (… we were fixing buildings in Nebraska or in South Bend…?)

Lack of Leadership

During this period there was little direction coming out of the supposed leaders of the community, business or political. Candidates running for public office avoided taking a position. Business leaders (who supposedly might actually want to hire students coming up thru these schools) mostly remained quiet. A few who were outspoken against the project had their facts in disarray, but then it is easy to take schools to task these days…

Current facts about society

Once, the larger society shared the cost of raising and educating the next generation. These days, the responsibilities are falling more to individual families, and its breaking the middle class (see May, 2004 article in The American Prospect by Amelia Warren Tyaqi).

At a time when more families with children will file for bankruptcy than divorce, motherhood is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse. And, contrary to every popular assumption, the parents who find themselves in the bankruptcy courts are not the chronically poor.

Yet it still does take a village to raise and educate a child. And the responsibility to fund it lies jointly with the state legislature and with a board with local taxing authority. And local folks must pick up the tab.

Current facts about FWCS

The opposition stated that FWCS should spend money on academics, not buildings. If they really believe that then I request their assistance in lobbying the state legislature to balance the funding formulas such that FWCS gets its fair share of state funds. Currently FWCS receives less funding per student than any other urban district in Indiana, has the most diverse student population, and still it spends a higher percentage of its funds on academics than any other. I believe the academics argument was merely another smokescreen, but again, it is easy to take schools to task these days…

Compare to ACPL

Back in 2001, I carried a petition in support of the massive Allen County Public Library building project. It was just after 9/11 but there was a real sense of optimism that I felt going door-to-door. Sure this building project represented a tax burden, but there was a recognition that we have something very special in our libraries worth investing in.

Well you know, we have something very special in FWCS too; and something even more precious, our community’s children. But that sense of optimism isn’t there right now. People don’t have the faith in government. They don’t have faith that their jobs are secure. They are just ‘getting by’ on credit, and they feel like everybody’s trying to get a bite out of each dollar they have. Fort Wayne isn’t interested in investing in anything right now. Fort Wayne is holding on and diggin’ in. “I got mine, and to heck with you!” seems to be the rallying cry.

Facts about the schools’ condition

Whatever folks choose to believe, the fact remains that the school buildings have very real problems that need to be addressed. They will get worse; and things that are at first inconveniences, then problems, will become emergencies. And each emergency will cost more than what it would have cost to do it under this project.

What does it say…

What does it say about a community when its jail facilities are in dramatically better condition than its schools?