Visualizing, saving time and promoting insight

An interesting recent paper by Luciano Floridi, doyen of the philosophy of information, and his colleagues Min Chen and Rita Borgo asks what information visualization, one of the hottest topics in the information sciences over recent years in really for. Their answer is an intriguing one; it is not, as most visualization enthusiasts would have us believe about “gaining insight”; rather it is about saving time. As they cogently argue, an expert, given a set of relevant data, will find the interesting patterns in it sooner or later; appropriate visualization just helps them to do it more quickly and efficiently. This seems very good sense; but were I an information visualizer, I might feel a little deflated. Surely my expertise is about finding new knowledge and understanding in the data, not just about speeding the process up a bit.

However, I fancy I see an analogy here, perhaps even an interesting one. ‘Saving time’ has been a major justification for information systems and services for all kinds: from the use of expert ‘information professionals’ to the provision of collections, datasets and interfaces of all kinds. The claim here is not that the ‘end user’ (as we used to call them) would be necessarily unable to find what they need themselves; rather than someone with a particular expertise and efficiency in searching, or in providing and customizing the necessary tools, will be able to get the task achieved much more quickly. Time saving has been claimed as a major impact in recent studies of health information services, special libraries, and academic libraries, but its importance has been recognized for many decades. ‘Save the time of the reader’ is Ranganathan’s Fourth Law, after all.

Although I have been happy enough myself to use ‘time saving’ as a measure of success in studies of the value and impact of information systems and services, I have always felt a little ambivalent about it. Surely that’s not all there is to information specialism; is it even the main thing? I have always liked the idea of information systems and services as providing insight and understanding, promoting creativity and stimulating innovation; not just saving a bit of time.

However, we can learn further lessons from the visualization example. Floridi and his colleagues point out that ‘insight’ is rather difficult to define and to measure; time saved is much readily quantifiable. And the argument that a system ‘will save you time’ is more likely to be accepted by experts on the data in question that suggestion that it “will give you ideas you had not though of’.

So perhaps this is the best strategy from information service providers in general; promote time saving as an objective metric for the value of information services, and one which will not provoke skepticism in the way that claims for ‘promoting innovation’ may do. But, quietly, do not give up on the idea that the main role for the information sciences is the promotion of understanding and insight, however difficult to measure these may be.

One thought on “Visualizing, saving time and promoting insight

  1. “The main role for the information sciences is the promotion of understanding and insight, however difficult to measure these may be.”

    That’s an idea worth fighting for! Thanks for this post, David.

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