A healthy Information Ecosystem for all

This year I have to up my game with various new challenges in my professional roles. At the same time, we are all living and breathing news, information, knowledge and insight that are shared or published on a daily basis in our leisure, social, cultural and business activities. I am now SLA Europe President for 2020 and in practice, this means that I use, disseminate and think about information and knowledge as a professional for about 10-12 hours on most days. It doesn’t stop there – I have a family and various other commitments but if you know me, you will be aware I also consume information in my downtime via social media and news channels. There is a lot to notice in the information ecosystem I am going to talk about on here. However, all is not perfect in this complex and interconnected information ecosystem and there is always so much work to do to maintain the nutrients and care to make sure that information does not become disinformation, misinformation or event a parasite. Information professionals act as gatekeepers, angels, knights and custodians of best practice, and when it comes to information should be recognised for our passion, integrity and commitment to the cause and purpose.

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Information is like the glue that holds together many aspects of life – it is energy and a kinetic flow for all human interactions. Thus understanding information ecosystems and how it is manifested in humanity, processes and communities is important for the healthy state on any of these levels and forms. We must acknowledge that information is power, and we must guard and protect it from being compromised, corrupt or worst – extinct!

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It is not difficult to define the information society (as I have done on my blog before) when we are consuming information and sublime messages in various tradition media, and now the ubiquitous digital landscape with the proliferation of technology and social media. I chose the word ‘ecosystem’ to relay the interconnectivity of information and knowledge but also because it was used frequently for the 15 years in the arrival of Web 2.0 and the digital revolution. However, in my recent research on the topic, it seems that a lot has been written about the ‘information ecosystem’ that is definitely having an impact on all of us – from farmers in a rural part of the world to a busy city dweller in an urban environment. We all become part of this ecosystem, and so it needs to be healthy and maintained for the benefit of the good fight.

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There are a few definitions I found on ‘information ecosystem’, but the most comprehensive is for a study from Internews – Centre for Innovation and Learning: “the term “information ecosystem” is used to describe how local communities exist and evolve within particular information and communication systems. Within these systems, different types of news and information may be received from outside then passed on to others— through word of mouth, key community members, phone, the Internet, and the like. An examination of an information ecosystem looks at the flow, trust, use and impact of news and information. An information ecosystem is not a static entity; it is by nature constantly evolving and changing. Nor is it a discrete form; it can be defined at many levels, from global to national to community to interest-based groupings within communities”.

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This encapsulates my thoughts on information being almost 24/7 on our conscious and unconscious lives. From word of mouth, key discussions, smartphones, the internet, traditional media and content (in whatever format). There are many sources of valuable content for information professionals but is also consumed in our private time. It is also adopted in most people of the world and in all forms of life. The digital revolution has had the same impact on society that the industrial revolution had on mankind.

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In this Guardian article, the writer Lydia Polgreen critiques the current wellbeing of this information system with issues such as fake news, consumerism, manipulation and other ills: ‘the creation of tools that allow anyone to be their own publisher has made it possible for new voices to reach large audiences around the world … The collapse of the information ecosystem has already wreaked havoc on our political systems. It has undermined democratic elections. It has shaken basic trust in institutions”. This is the situation when information is an asset and information is power – information is used to push us in detrimental directions that are not objective or beneficial for our own wellbeing or that of the wider society. Trust and integrity are some of the practices that need to be maintained and injected when this ecosystem breaks down. This is when information professionals and experts who have an interesting in keeping high standards are essential for up-keeping the status quo in the industry and for all purposes.

The Web consists of numerous Web communities, news sources, and services, which are often exploited by various entities for the dissemination of false or otherwise malevolent information. Yet, we lack tools and techniques to effectively track the propagation of information across the multiple diverse communities, and to model the interplay and influence between them. Also, we lack an understanding of how Web communities are exploited by bad actors (e.g., state-sponsored trolls) that spread false and weaponized information.

Being an ‘information ecosystem’, one media is reliant on another for this to function correctly. I read an article that the loss of a good information ecosystem may also affect journalists, advertising and other media-related industries. There are issues such as Bots and ad-blockers that will deter true digital advertising and therefore endanger roles within the industry, but also decrease advertising revenue. It is argued that we get less foreign news as news organisation close down, whereby thousand of journalists have lost their jobs, and few new agencies that remain may have their own agendas. We may have to rely on news from social media sites and our own networks. However this network information is not varied, consistent, may lack credibility and analytical qualities that journalistic training may provide. It is not all doom and gloom – there are challenges but Deloitte writes that new digital landscape gives companies more opportunities to harness data-driven and analytics with can then be used for better strategies and performance.

If I could, I would add an eleventh commandment to the first ten: Thou Shalt Not Distort, Delay, or Withhold Information. You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.

– Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

As a librarian and information professional, we are reliant on research using information systems, books and content in all formats. Hey, we got to do, what we got to do to get that information! Obviously, we need good sources and relationships with researchers, writers, publishers and information providers. It is also an opportunity and necessity for us to share information face to face.

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Recently, I was invited to a Breakfast Briefing hosted by The Economist Intelligence Unit at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly. It was mind-blowing, insightful and enlightening to hear the global risk impact by an expert Economist on the topical issues that will be affecting us. With the growth in numbers affected by the Coronavirus Covid-19 in the last month, it has been a true demonstration of globalisation with the virus affecting persons from different territories who were resident or travelling to these areas. This is a classic ‘spiral and escalation’ example of the information ecosystem that we rely on for our news and current awareness. So here is a perfect example for us as we listen to a world-class economist talking about the top five global risks in person, but also launching a well-researched report, later providing customers with a webinar…and anyone can keep abreast of their analysis from their social media feeds. Being a client of the EIU gives us value-added content and services, but as information professionals, we also use their sources for reliable and evidence-based information and insights to pass on to our own customers. This to me is a perfect example of an information ecosystem in my role.

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In the Spring I am also planning a Knowledge Café with David Gurteen and Dominic Kelleher, Knowledge Management Guru. This will highlight the need for face-to-face conversations and the techniques by business leaders in resolving issues and relaying tacit knowledge and insight to other individuals. The best aspect of the Knowledge Café is that is non-hierarchical and information can flow freely and without barriers especially away from technologies in an informal environment. This is another healthy form of the information ecosystem.

So how beneficial is your information strategies, governance and work plan?

In the workplace, an information ecosystem with information professionals at the helm is a value-added asset and gives companies the competitive edge. I write this from my own professional experiences and recollection, but I am only just reading in ‘Business Information Review’ that a Reuters’ report in 1995 entitled Information as an Asset’ concludes that ‘The digital revolution is here – few assets are as critical as accurate and timely information. In tomorrow’s information society information is the dominant commodity’. Rosemary Nunn also points out in the article the innovation ecosystem and knowledge management: A practitioner’s viewpoint’: Leveraging the knowledge of the human capital in your organisation is one of the best ways to drive innovation’. There is a real benefit to ensure a health airway of knowledge and innovation and she suggests that you ‘Don’t leave innovation to chance, develop an innovation strategy and define your innovation ecosystem. If you don’t know what you know, how do you know you are being innovative – define your knowledge map and engage in activities to curate knowledge across your organisation’.

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Information professionals work hard massaging and alleviating knowledge across organisations as well as other similar functional roles like communications teams. Information as an asset has to be managed with flair but practical such as this advice for leaders on Brexit …‘make sure your business is as strong and organized as it can be from within. Get on top of your information. Ensure you have a clear, current and accurate understanding of your market, customers and competitors. Develop the skills of your staff at all levels. Senior management that feels in control of the nuts and bolts of the business will be in the best position to enter into new enterprises with confidence.

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In the digital age of social media, professional motivations and intentions require an effective information strategy that is based on integrity and standards to nourish, build and maintain an ecosystem of trust and reliability within the landscape. It is great that there have been concerns and conversation about fake news, online abuse, cyberbullying, Bots, et cetera in some of the literature I have read and noticed. There is evidence of the negative aspects such as fallouts and untruths within the ecosystem that we will continue to have, even before the digital age. It is just more intense now! And like some contagious disease or natural disaster – we must remain vigilant of the danger and consequences for all of us.

In wrapping up, the information ecosystem is a truly living organism that reaches inside all of us in one way or another. It is essential for our own wellbeing, though it may be vulnerable to risks and damage, it should be cared and nurtured so that it benefits us all throughout its flows and life span.

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