We do indeed live in a world of “Bright Shiny Objects.” That’s what Bill Schrier, Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer, tells us in his article in the June 2011 issue of Municipal World, which has just gone to press. Information technology is pervasive in our everyday lives, with new gizmos and gadgets competing for our attention at every turn.
It’s not just about the physical “toys,” of course. It’s increasing about the applications that allow us to do everything from making a grocery list by scanning barcodes in our cupboards (see <www.mightygrocery.com>) to finding the nearest washroom. (Further to my comment in the May issue about the scarcity of public washrooms in New York City, check out <www.nyrestroom.com> – also available on your iPhone – to help guide you to the nearest facilities when you’re in the Big Apple!)
And, it’s increasingly about the information. Information that comes at us from a variety of traditional and new media sources, including social media. It seems that the morning paper and nightly news are no longer enough to satiate our need to know what’s happening in the world. News (and noise) is broadcast 24/7. Twitter friends (and trends) keep us up-to-date on events around the world as they happen.
Some of these things have value, enhancing our productivity and quality of life (as <www.nyrestroom.com> surely must). Some of the most valuable, and useful, information is held by our governments, at all levels, including local. In his article (also in the June issue), IT consultant and open government advocate Aaron McGowan discusses the open data movement, and how freeing the information is allowing those governments who “take the leap” to benefit from all kinds of new collaborations and applications that they might never have dreamed possible. Communities and citizens are reaping the rewards.
For one example, see <www.emitter.ca>. Aaron is part of the cross-Canada team who built this application, which helps you to track pollution in your neighbourhood using data from Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory. (You can read Aaron’s blog about the application here: <http://govinthelab.com/emitter-ca-an-example-of-an-open-data-application>.) The program is still in BETA while they work out the kinks, but it gives you an idea of the just some of the potential that exists when information is made publicly available in a useable format – and how it might be transformed into something extremely valuable to citizens.
With applications like this, it’s easy to see how data can greatly improve our lives. Sometimes, however, the benefit of all this information may be questionable. Dr. Nick Bontis is a business professor at McMaster University and author of the book Information Bombardment: Rising Above the Digital Onslaught. His research found that the average office worker receives 84 emails per day, 90 percent of which are useless. And yet, 75 percent of us will check our emails while on vacation and on weekends. “People are afraid to sever themselves from the Web,” says Bontis. “Super-connectivity causes stress, depression, anxiety, and lost efficiency. What’s worse is that our insatiable appetite for knowledge will never be quenched no matter how many new tools and websites are developed.”
As Bill Schrier points out in his article, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish glitter from gold. That’s true organizationally, and it’s also true individually. For your own life, for your own work, and for your own health you must choose your channels wisely – and perhaps put a limit on how many you choose.
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