Information Art

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With all the information floating out there on the web and within our companies, it is hard to make proper sense of it. True, web searches are getting more and more intelligent and the semantic web will surely bring us closer to our information than ever before, but it will still be very difficult to […]

With all the information floating out there on the web and within our companies, it is hard to make proper sense of it. True, web searches are getting more and more intelligent and the semantic web will surely bring us closer to our information than ever before, but it will still be very difficult to get just what we need and nothing more.
Last week, I was discussing an approach to resolving the Solvency II issue with a client. Regulatories require that insurance companies get a better grip on the risks they run. Much like Basel II for banks. Now this is a must-do project with a be-ready-by date, so one would think that we would trim off all the fat and just go for the essentials. Anything more will slow down the process and increase the risk of meeting targets: Be Agile, not fragile. But the client had other ideas: while we’re at it, there’s more information I want to gather.
Now, I’m not against information, or against more information. But information is not data. Information is much more than data. If you want information, you will have to be precise. Your definitions must be right on target. Anything fluffy will get you data, not information. This client has 15+ subsidiaries from which the information needs to come, all in different countries. If no proper definition is given, we will end up with 15+ different types of data. So my advice here is: focus on what is needed for Solvency II; that will be difficult enough.
To illustrate that leaving out information, even if it is based on undisputed facts, can be a good thing, even brilliant, I would like to draw your attention to Mr. Henry (Harry) Beck. You can google him, but here’s a link.
Mr. Beck worked for the Underground Group in the early 20th century. Beck was on a temporary contract and could be dismissed on quite short notice. In spite of that, he challenged the way in which information was provided to the traveller. The London underground (or Tube) maps were full of details and accurate to precision. Fact! Lots of them. In fact, they were so precise that they either had to be very big or sectioned. The biggest difficulty was that the branches were reaching far into the suburbs, while the action (changing stations) all happened on a relatively limited area: the centre of London. So even though very accurate, the traveller struggled with the maps. The interesting centre was too small to be read.
Beck decided to remove one fact from the equation: the geographical dimension. Brilliant. Information Art. His reasoning still holds. Travellers on the underground are not interested in the geography as much as they are interested in the lines they are on, the stations along those lines and most importantly where the lines meet so that they can switch trains.
And there we have it. Look closely at the needs of the traveller (or the manager or the regulator) and decide which information is of relevance and which is not. That’s Information Art.
Beck produced his first sketch of his map in 1931. Many sketches followed over the years, also due to the expansion of the London Underground. Nowadays we see the modern version and indeed many metro lines across the world have adopted the ideas put down by Beck.
Someone who also left out a lot of information, was Barnett Newman. His painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III only contains pure red, yellow and blue (the title gives it away). No figures, no landscape. This seems to overdo it a bit, but then again, its Art, not Information. As a matter of fact, it is supposed to make us think, not blindly consume. And thinking is good. Also about our stuffy sales figures and boring Defect reports. On the face of it, its all numbers. They need to come alive. They need room to show their, well, information. Like small plants on forest floors: they blossom to life when the big trees are taken down.
There is more we can do with information: we can play around with it. We can show our sales figures on maps, we can then use colours to highlight risk-zones and we can have it played across time. Wouldn’t it be neat to see how your typical trendy sales start in, say, London and then slowly spread out to other parts of the country? It would be great if you could take that information and use it for supplying the shops. Someone who used colors on a map to show the poverty areas in London, 1889, was Charles Booth. And here’s his map. Similar maps brought to light that certain waterpumps in London were the cause of diphteria.
Some nice examples on manipulating one dimension is of course playing with time. Slow it down and you can see details you never even imagined. Speed it up and you can see daily or seasonal trends, loop it and you have time to study it. Don’t overdo it, though. Don’t go wild and let the novelty take over the function
To return to our client: we will need to separate the Must haves from the Should haves and the Could haves. With this MoSCoW approach we can try to get as much as we can but quickly discard of anything that is not directly contributing to solving the problem at hand and is slowing us down. Agility is what we need.
Now to Cap it off, here’s a reduced version of the above.
Use restraint when gathering information. Too much information will distract the user from the task at hand and will have an additional price-tag.
There. I knew I could do it.

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