woman asleep on a chair in front of wall of business papers
woman asleep on a chair in front of wall of business papers
woman asleep on a chair in front of wall of business papers
woman asleep on a chair in front of wall of business papers
woman asleep on a chair in front of wall of business papers

Control Report from Jim Montague: Overcome overload

Oct. 3, 2022
Use aggressive prioritization to fish useful insights from data oceans

One of the best ways to get crying babies to sleep is by taking them for a stroller ride through the local shopping mall. I can confirm this from personal experience. After I failed by randomly driving around or putting the baby carrier on a vibrating washing machine, visiting the mall or another crowded venue often succeeded. The average baby can’t help but soak in all the sights, people, sounds, smells and other distractions. All of this sensory input combines with their existing tiredness to thankfully let them and their parents get some rest.

The same strategy works for journalists. We get energized and cranky if only a few crumbs of information are available or if we sense that something is concealed. However, if volumes of data are easily accessible and served on the well-known silver platter, we take it as a sign of transparency and quickly get bored and sleepy.

If I ever wanted to do something unethical or illegal, I’d release plenty of information about related activities, which would make it easier to hide crucial details of my malfeasance in plain sight. You can probably think of more than a few examples yourself. This goes along with the famous rule about bigger lies being easier to swallow.

Anyway, I’m fixating on the hazards of taking in input because researching this issue’s “Catching up to reality” cover story on data analytics (p. 32) reminded me of the obstacles that voluminous data can create and how it can unexpectedly prevent the very productivity it was supposed to enable. Linking thousands or millions of new and existing sensors and instruments to the Internet and cloud-computing services is turning firehoses of information into vast waterfalls with oceans of data going over every second. The sheer amount of data coming from many applications can drown any effort to understand them, gain useful insights, optimize efficiency and performance, and improve economic utility and living conditions.

However, even “drowning” might be the wrong word. This is because unceasing input means users never get a chance to integrate and make sense of what’s coming in, apply their critical thinking skills, decide what to do next and carry out useful actions. Of course, this is similar to psychologically afflicted hoarders that can’t move around in their houses, graduate students that can’t finish their degrees because they never stop researching and the rest of us on the Internet with its endless content at our fingertips but reportedly getting dumber all the time.

So, what can be done? Well, the firehoses obviously need to be turned down, but how this to be done without sacrificing essential details?

As usual, I’m no expert, but I’d recommend ruthlessly disposing of as much obvious and likely baloney as possible. This means heavy-duty triage and aggressive prioritization of all input and incoming data to quickly extract the few useful pearls and getting rid of everything else.

For (hopefully) responsible journalists, I’d argue we try to do this by slogging through boatloads of purely promotional blather to find specific experiences and details and boil it down into useful news, examples and advice that readers can use to make a difference in their daily work routines. Even in text, I try to remove as many unnecessary words and syllables as I can to give readers a break. Some drivel inevitably creeps in, but most of us try to keep it to a minimum.

Similarly, most of the end users, system integrators, suppliers and other experts I cover strive do to the same. To prioritize all the input they face, they tell less-experienced colleagues to zero in on the job they want to get done or the pain point they want to resolve, use it to determine what signals and parameters to extract and help them find the most appropriate data analytics software and support technologies.

Most importantly, I think prioritizing input must also be employed to give users a mental break in the action. This could give them and the rest of us a much-needed chance to revive our critical thinking skills, regain greater consciousness, and take better advantage of all the information trying to get in. And we might not even need a nap first.

About the author: Jim Montague

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. He can be contacted at [email protected].

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.