?> INFOMATTERS | Applying a Third Force to the Architecture of Information

Athletics ruining tenure?

For those of us raised outside the US, the college athletics system has always seemed curiously serious, almost professional. Players are often treated like royalty, huge crowds attend games, and the media interest in ‘student’ athletes seems to draw little distinction between  amateur college players and the pros in the major leagues. That most of these students are also working towards degrees in various fields (though clearly not all fields) is considered a given, though questions about how they can do this while training and traveling as athletes tend to be brushed aside. Athletic teams are expected at all major universities and the ties with alumni fundraising are undeniable. As long as people feel good, the athletes don’t forget they are students first, and more than a few sports are supported, what’s not to like?

Well, the recent scandals at Penn and UNC suggest the story is not quite so rosy. Though different in nature, they both point to the problems of money corrupting the values of public universities. UNC’s revelation that more than 3000 students over 18 years had participated in what is now called a ‘shadow curriculum’, getting easy grades for coursework that was, to all intents and purposes, of no educational value just so they could stay in school to participate in athletics is being treated with all the shock-horror reaction the media can muster. But is anyone really surprised? I mean, this was going on for over a decade. It involved a Professor of Ethics. There was a network of advisers, faculty and coaches who enabled it. And now people ask if this is an isolated case? Yeah right. As Brian Roberts, Professor of Sports Law at IU commented, the only real distinguishing issue here is  ‘they just got caught’.

The real concern for some of us is the fact that good faculty stand by and let this kind of corruption occur. And the ‘we didn’t know’ defense won’t wash. This scandal originated, according to the Wainstein report, in an academic program. Last April, the retired UNC faculty group wrote an open letter through the alumni association asking why current faculty were so silent on this matter, accusing them of abdicating responsibility as a faculty. After combing through more than 1.6 million emails, the full extent of murky boundaries between academics and athletics is coming to light and it’s hard to really believe that nobody outside of the named culprits actually knew what was happening.  One suspects that among the real reasons for faculty silence on such matters might be the belief that few people in the upper administrations of a university want to admit that  dubious practices are occurring or to deal with the fall-out from well-resourced alumni and power brokers who are quite happy to maintain the status quo. In such a context, what faculty member wants to blow whistles or be labelled a trouble-maker. Pity, but one imagined that was what tenure might usefully be seen as protecting.

We live in an age of increasing compliance, but regulatory oversight cannot be a surrogate for correct behavior. And when education has been devalued to the point that a degree is a commodity item provided by an organization with a sport-based business model  then yes, one can rightly ask, where were those tenured faculty? Cowed by choice or by context, this is another example of the corrupting influence of non-educational forces on the academy. When the tenured stand for nothing except their own career comfort then we might truly ask if the tenure system is itself broken?


Austin Google Community Forum

Spent most of Monday afternoon at the Google Fiber community forum at the Palmer Center. Roughly 150 participants representing organizations proposed to receive 1gb  connections when Fiber is rolled out in Austin came to hear a few of us talk about the challenges and possibilities this offered. Amid all the hoopla about speed, I encouraged folks to remember that no matter how fast the ‘net gets, people are still people so their cognitive processing won’t get any faster, their reading and viewing habits will remain and we should all work on designing through community involvement not just data deluge. I enjoyed the events and am pleased to offer the opportunity for our students to get involved. I just wish, when speakers are told to prepare their talks to be no longer than five minutes, some would not conveniently blow through this limit and hog the stage for double this. Ah, but what was that I was just saying about people not getting any faster……

More iSchools on the way?

Fresh from approving the latest additions to the iSchool community (59 now) and having already marked out 10th conference in Berlin earlier this year, the iSchool movement might be considered a success on all normal measures. Of course, having new members now whose faculty members a decade ago were somewhat dismissive of the whole movement is certainly one other measure of maturity, I suppose. More impressive, to me at least, is the sense that new schools are being created, not just re-badged. To this end, there are plans at the University of Arizona to create a new iSchool which I learned about earlier this year.  That process is ongoing but I was particularly intrigued to see the announcement this morning that University of Colorado-Boulder was creating a new college, for the first time in decades,  that certainly has iSchool credentials: the new College of Media, Communication and Information. Of course, I prefer a simpler name than one that strives not to exclude any existing community by piling them into one long monicker, but let’s not quibble (they could have added a few more given the planned departmental structure!).  The call for a new dean speaks directly to the need for interdisciplinary collaboration across it’s departmental units and an integrated curriculum as a hallmark of the new college. It’s rare to see new colleges formed but in this field, Indiana and Penn State have done it well. Given the units involved, I have every expectation that the Boulder initiative will offer a program of similar impact in due course, though the noticeable absence of any computational group suggests this program might not be like any other to date.

Perhaps more seriously, the connections between communications and information schools is one to consider. There are several such colleges in the US, formed through mergers motivated by efficiencies rather than intellectual synergies, and it must prove somewhat comforting to university administrators to lump smaller  independent units into larger singletons when finances are tight. However, while communications and information might appear natural bedfellows on some measures, there are some very real differences and both academic traditions are themselves somewhat odd entities often originally created from the assemblage of even smaller academic programs in previous, resource-challenged times.  If the barriers between communications and information scholars are fading, the question to ask is if this is a process that evolves from natural scholarly advances in our theories and methods for addressing human activities in the 21st century or if this is more often a sign that on the surface, these areas look so alike to administrators that they might as well lump them together. One suspects there are strong views on either side, but we rarely hear them expressed, at least publicly.   And for what it’s worth, don’t imagine I think that only one of these routes is the appropriate path – sometimes just putting groups together can have real and previously unimagined benefits if handled appropriately. We shall see.  In the meantime, I recommend everyone reads Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines and applies those insights to the information field.






How to publish a paper in easy steps

It’s never been easier to be a scholar — just take a look at this invitation I received from a journal:

Dear Dillon, Andrew,

It’s a great honor to select out and read your article titled Inventing HCI: The grandfather of the field in INTERACTING WITH COMPUTERS from thousand of articles. The theme History; Brian Shackel; Foundations; Review of your article is very attractive. We wonder if you get any new progress of your research or do any new study in your research field.

Till now, there are totally 380 Special Issues with varied topics presented in SciencePG:


The interesting points here: That paper of mine they like so much, was a memorial piece for a former colleague. Hard to imagine that I would have new research progress on this. Further down the invitation I learn that if I agree to edit one of their journals, I can publish two papers FOR FREE. And wait, there’s more….I can publish further papers after this at a 30% discount. Ah yes, scholarship meets commerce, is this what people want when they ask academia to be more entrepreneurial?


Seven great ideas for writing research papers

Running my writing studio again this fall for iSchool doc students, I am always on the look out for good ideas or support material for writing. Most of the stuff out there is pretty harmless but not very useful either. Here’s a pleasant exception (though I do need to point out this is really about smaller conference papers) . Over to you, Professor Jones:

Laughing just to keep from crying?

I find the coverage in the US media of the awful conflict in Gaza to be depressingly unbalanced. Even NPR has difficulty getting the perspective of all sides and most TV news commentators seem far to willing to toe a soft line when it comes to asking hard questions. Seems others are thinking the same. Fascinatingly, this clip is the work of a comedic actor from the UK who is more than a little insightful in his commentary. Take it away, Russel Brand:

Snowden interviewed in the Guardian — listen and learn

Oops, no irony intended, I am sure.

Open access publication grows in acceptance?

Taylor and Francis have just released their second annual “Open Access Survey, June 2014,” which gauges scholars opinions toward open access publication. The results reveal growing belief that open access offers wider circulation and higher visibility than publication in a traditional subscription journal, though some residual doubts that citation impact follows accordingly. There is still some strength in the view that open access journals might be lower quality, and on top of it all, there seems little doubt in scholars’ minds that academic papers will still be the main output of research in 10 years time. Plus ca change?

Anyway, lots of interesting data points in the final report, some attempt at significance testing of trends across both years of the survey, but very little synthesis or analysis of the resulting data beyond bald reporting. But hey, that’s big data.

And the tweets go wild……

Twitter data offers another measure of fan behavior…..here’s the traffic picture when that second US goal went in last night…….

Frightening stuff at the Patients Privacy Rights Summit

In DC this week for the annual PPR Summit — and just when you think you’ve heard it all about breaches of privacy and our lack of control over our own data, each year there are new findings which reveal how low we have sunk.  A Utah police officer on a major data-fish downloading the prescription data for every employee in a paramedical group to see who is receiving what treatments in an effort to generate suspects in a possible minor loss of medication. Your own health data being sold and accessed every day is now a reality. Your searches on specific health issues being used to flag you as ‘concerned’ and therefore subject to targeted marketing and worse.  Lots of hot air from the White House about ethics and health data while simultaneously surveilling every citizen.

Depressing as the stories may be, the bigger problem seems to be finding common ground on solutions. I’m hearing a lot from lawyers and policy specialists but little from the perspective of the consumer like you and me, other than how negatively we are impacted. The law will prove important here but in one sense the genie is out of the bottle and it’s hard to see how ordinary people can engage in meaningful acts to control  their own data. I think the doctor-patient interface is going to be crucial but the complicated nature of the processes involved and the profits involved in capturing and mining this type of data presents some real challenges in designing better information systems.