Information Bodyguards

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by current CityLIS student Stephanie McMullan. Inspired by the issues raised in the TV series ‘Bodyguard’, Stephanie considers the ethical implications of mass surveillance and grapples with the complex topic of digital rights and internet privacy. The original post can be read here.

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A little bit late to the party, last Saturday night I sat down to binge watch the BBC’s Bodyguard after a day of reading articles for my new postgraduate course. A drama about political double-dealing, murder and terrorism; I didn’t expect it in any way to apply to all the articles I had been reading for my Information Sciences course. However, outside of the web of murder and espionage another element of the drama caught my attention – RIPA 18, the fictitious “Snooper’s Charter” the Home Secretary is trying to pass.

The imaginary RIPA 18 is a bill that would give the government power to view accounts and search histories, come to conclusions about the people seeking out circumspect information and prosecute them, even retrospectively. Understandably, people in the show are up in arms about this intrusion into their privacy.

Nevertheless, while the Bodyguard sensationalizes the prevalence of murder and espionage in politics, it struck me how true to life governments access to our data is.

To many people the prospect of a Big Brother society is something that lives on the edge of our world; either in television, fiction or in far away states like Russia, China or even India. Or if people do think of the access the government has to our details it is easy to believe the adage “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.

However, this is becoming harder and harder to believe. A few weeks ago The Guardian published an investigation into the use of algorithms by local councils to predict child abuse in families. According to the article councils used personal details such as school attendance, arrears data, housing repairs and police records to determine at risk children. While done with the best of intentions this highly controversial use of personal data brings “the risk of accidentally incorporating and perpetuating discrimination against minorities” as “systems inevitably incorporate the biases of their designers”. Did the people whose information was processed consent to the use it was put to? Even if they did, should our data selves really be able to bring the fear of prosecution and suspicion into our offline lives?

And it’s not just the government who makes use of our private lives. In a scandal that could belong on the BBC the Cambridge Analytica exposé highlighted how much information is held by social media sites like Facebook and how much of ourselves we can reveal with something as simple as a ‘like’ or a personality test and how this information can be used to target our political sensibilities and influence world events. With the Facebook accounts of 87 million people leaked again this week we can only speculate to what use this data will be put to.

So if our data can be used to incriminate us and potentially change the outcome of democratic elections, is it not something we should be more aware of and take better care of?

It seems like the EU have finally tried to start answering these questions. With the newly enacted GDPR legislation individuals are being given greater rights to their data with the ability to request their information quicker, know what their data is being used for and apply for the “right to be forgotten”. Organisations meanwhile are being held responsible for data safe keeping, with huge fines hanging over their heads if data breaches aren’t properly handled.

Whilst this is a step in the right direction,”as it is often the case with complex legislation, the [GDPR] Articles leave grey areas of normative uncertainty uncovered” (Floridi, 2018). Therefore, the legislation is only as useful as the individuals who uphold and apply it. LIS professionals clearly sit within any framework that upholds data and information policies, so in many ways can shape the ethical form data protection takes under GDPR. As the custodians and retrievers of information in businesses and libraries they can help with the formation of information policies and ensure these are compliant with the law and ethically constructed to protect both the individuals and companies they serve. We need only look at the CILIP and IFLA ethical frameworks to see that information professionals are already thinking of these issues. Furthermore, as educators LIS professionals teach and instruct people at all levels from schools and universities to businesses and public services in a wide range of databases and systems and can ensure best practice is observed and people are informed of the best ways to protect themselves.

So in the new world of big data can library and information professionals be our bodyguard? I think so; though to the best of my knowledge none of us look like Richard Madden…

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Follow the Data

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

In this post Tim Darach gives a brief history of the origins of computing and identifies some of the key people involved in it’s inception. The original post can be read here.

***

The title for this post comes my attempt to gain an insight into the history of computing. I looked at how people used the technology of their time in order to process large volumes of information. I started out by seeking historical precedents for our current over-abundance of data:

“From Domesday Book and the beginnings of the English public records to the new forms of direct and indirect taxation of the fourteenth century, the pursuit of information had been integral to medieval government, and it was spectacularly energetic, closer to the seventeenth century, in the ‘age of plunder’ under the early Tudors.” (Slack, 2004)

So by no means the first example of information gathering in England is John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality, 1662, but it was “the seminal work which effectively founded not only political arithmetic [statistics], but also social statistics and historical demography” (Slack, 2004). Graunt collected and tabulated the historical records of births and deaths, the Bills of Mortality, from each London parish.

An example from 1715 of the tabulation of Diseases and Casualties – the process of collection and publication continued after Graunt’s death in 1674.
Note that one person was “planet struck”, killed by malign celestial influence; probably attributable to the total solar eclipse that took place that year.

Graunt’s inclinations are interesting, in answer to the question he poses himself:
“It may now be asked, to what purpose tends all this laborious bustling and groping to know…”
He gives this answer:

“…I might answer, that there is much pleasure in deducing so many abstruse and unexpected inferences out of these poor despised bills of mortality…” That is, for the love of knowledge, but then more seriously: “Now, the foundation or elements of this honest harmless policy is to understand the land, and the hands of the territory, to be governed according to all their intrinsic and accidental differences[…] I conclude that clear knowledge of all these particulars, and many more, whereat I have shot but at rovers, is necessary, in order to good, certain, and easy government […] But whether the knowledge thereof be necessary to many, or fit for others than the sovereign and his chief ministers, I leave to consideration.” (Graunt, 1662)

I now turn to Carl Linnaeus, eighteenth century Swedish naturalist, because of his use of paper based technologies – in particular paper slips resembling index cards – to organise his botanical and zoological specimens (Charmantier, 2014).
Linnaeus built up a large network of correspondents and former students – “apostles” – around the world, who sent him botanical samples. He was an “entrepreneurial genius in organising complex information networks in a peripheral European power” (Sörlin, 2006).
His networking and information gathering were dependent on, and part of, the increasingly globalised systems of the eighteenth century: postal communication, the ships and the offices of overseas trading companies, and government sponsored exploration (Charmantier, 2014).

He was so successful that it reached a point where he was overloaded. One of the strategies Linnaeus used to deal with the large amount of information he received in the last years of his working life – 1767 to 1773 – was to record information about the samples he received on slips of paper, similar to modern index cards. (Charmantier, 2014)

An example of one of Linnaeus’ Paper Slips (1767 – 1773), for Theobroma cacao the cocoa tree, the seeds of which are processed to make chocolate &c..
(Apologies to The Linnean Society for not using their website’s embed feature; the WordPress editor truncates the code.)

Actually, one of Linnaeus’ students, Daniel Solander, preceded Linnaeus in realising the practicality of using slips of paper to organise information. Solander moved to England and in 1763 was employed to catalogue the British Museum collection, where he used paper slips. After Solander died subsequent curators continued to use the cards; they were no longer the work of one individual, but represented the work of the institution (Charmantier, 2014).

Right, we are a long way from the computer, but one of the major computer companies, IBM, originates in the late nineteenth century, tabulating census data using punch cards, that is index cards with holes in, and the initial idea came from a librarian.

Young engineer, Herman Hollerith, went to work for the U.S. Census office in 1879, where as a “distraction” from his other work he computed life tables for Dr. John S. Billings. While doing this “his attention was drawn to the need for mechanical aids in census tabulation” (Hollerith, 1971). For the 1880 census 1,495 clerks produced 21,000 pages of reports from the census data using the tally system – whereby each census form was examined individually and check marks put in the appropriate box on a tally sheet again, again, and … &c. (Campbell-Kelly, 1996).
Hollerith’s daughters recall that their father got the idea for how to mechanise the tabulation process from Billings (a librarian of renown) who “suggested using cards with the description of the individual shown by notches in the edge of the card” (Hollerith, 1971).
His idea was to “record the census return for each individual as a pattern of holes […] on a set of punched cards […] It would then be possible to use a machine to count the holes and produce the tabulations” (Campbell-Kelly, 1996).

U.S. Census Bureau machine and operator, circa 1908, photo by Waldon Fawcett.
(The dials record the totals.)

“The 1890 census was processed in two and a half years compared to seven for the previous census” (Campbell-Kelly, 1996).
So although initially developed to deal with a specific problem punch card tabulators then went on to be “used for processing large amounts of data in many business firms during the first half of the twentieth century” (Yates, 1993).

“““““““““““““““““““““““““““““

Birch, T., 1759. A Collection of the yearly bills of mortality, from 1657 to 1758 inclusive. Together with several other bills of an earlier date.

Campbell-Kelly, M., Aspray, W., ACLS Humanities E-Book, 1996. Computer: a history of the information machine, 1st ed. Basic Books, New York.

Charmantier, I., Müller-Wille, S., 2014. Carl Linnaeus’s botanical paper slips (1767–1773). Intellectual History Review 24, 215–238. https://doi.org/10.1080/17496977.2014.914643

Graunt, J., , Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index and made upon the bills of mortality. 1662

Hollerith, V., Hollerith, H., 1971. Biographical Sketch of Herman Hollerith. Isis 62, 69–78. https://doi.org/10.1086/350709

Slack, P., 2004. Government and Information in Seventeenth-Century England. Past & Present 184, 33–68. https://doi.org/10.1093/past/184.1.33

Sörlin, S., 2006. Science, Empire, and Enlightenment: Geographies of Northern Field Science. European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire 13, 455–472. https://doi.org/10.1080/13507480600893155

Yates, J., 1993. Co-evolution of Information-Processing Technology and Use: Interaction between the Life Insurance and Tabulating Industries. Business History Review 67, 1–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/3117467

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Waves of Light – Colour as Information

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by Alexander Bell, and first appeared on his blog on September 16th 2018. Alexander considers how colour can be read as information and the communicative aspects of colour. 

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What do you see when you look out into the world? Do you notice auric gold ribbons of sunlight dappling through the leaves of a tree and feel the warmth of a happy memory? Are your eyes satiated by the plump scarlet flesh of a summer sweetened tomato? Do you move when you see the icy optic viridian of a traffic light signalling you to go?… Everyday life is full of fleeting glances of colour, and though the smallest may seem transient or abstract, these visual signs can grant a wealth of information.

A question of colour

Colour has always left a tint in my life; from studying at art school and creating artworks, to communicating my research, recalling my strongest memories, and shaping the way I interact with the world. Even now as I walk the steps into Librarianship, I aid creative arts students with their contextual research, and must think seriously and practically about colour. I have encountered queries that have ranged from ‘Do you have any information on the colour red and how painters have used it?’ to ‘Do you have information on fashion designers who have subverted the use of white in bridal couture?’. Colour is a powerful visual language and a primary tool for artists to create and communicate information. So what is colour as information? Is it truthful and evidential, or is it subjective and ambiguous? By looking introspectively at the facets of colour, perhaps it can tell a better story of information itself, what it is, and how it can be communicated.

Splitting open the sunbeam

Before I start wandering dreamily over the shades of blue, let us first apply some exacting science. Colour is the subjective physiologic interpretation of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. As a ray of light enters your eyes, bright ambiences or images, produced in the retina, are sent to the brain and interpreted as a set of chromatic sensations. The reason different things appear different colours, are because like tides passing through the ocean, light travels in waves too. (Evans, 2017). While some things absorb some wavelengths of the visible spectrum, others are sent bounding off into the heavens. Blue light for example, is scattered in all directions by tiny molecules in the air of the Earth’s atmosphere. This light travels in short, small waves, and when it touches your eyes and your brain processes the data, the sky appears to breathe out an all-encompassing colour blue. The absence of these light waves at night is also what turns the sky into a black cauldron, enabling us to see the glitter of distant stars. In this sense, the colour we really perceive something to be is precisely the colour it isn’t, that is, just the segment of the spectrum that is being reflected away. (St Clair, 2016).

Colour as information

Colour is a very sophisticated neural process and the specific biochemical reaction results in the organisation of what is conveyed or represented by the arrangement or sequence of light. (Nichols, 2014). It is evidential so surely it must be information? Information is notoriously mercurial, it exists in abundance, and like running water it takes shape and significance depending on the environment and need. The father of information theory Claude Shannon (1993) was hesitant with definition, stating

“it is hardly expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field”.

The different interpretations, misunderstandings, and misuses of information are more evident now we are living in such a hyperconnected and information sharing society. This is what Floridi (2014) describes as the 4th revolution, where contemporary life has become immersed within a swirling cloud of data. The news, social and digital media, technology, and analytics, all filter swathes of data and downpour us with varying types of information. Whether we like it or not, there is not a part of our lives now were we don’t get soaked in the stuff.

Floridi’s (2010) General Definition of Information (GDI) is a single map of informational concepts and this nifty model is now commonplace in fields that reify information, to be organised and disseminated, such as the library and information sciences. By applying this model across domains, we can start to decode complex information and think of it as a structure of data + meaning. Using this model, we can also start to understand non-textual forms of information, beyond the frame of the written word. Although not always obvious, images, objects, and even performances containing the same pattern of data + meaning, can be credible sources of information.

Our understanding of the many practical uses of colour to communicate, has in turn enabled us to interpret and transcribe everything, from mundane objects to the illimitable architecture of the cosmos. Even though it seems impossible to imagine a world where the colour of something could not be used to visualise, describe, inform or understand, the textual use of colour has historically entered the written language very slowly. The ancient Greeks, with all their beautiful and poetic prose, never had a simple word for the colour blue. The seas and skies of their world were described as ‘wine-dark’, ‘starry’ or ‘of lead and bronze’. (Michela-Sassi, 2017). Similarly, in the middle ages there existed no word for the colour orange, and today there are desert tribes in Africa who have six words for the colour red, and yet no single one for green. (Fletcher, 2001). Through the eyes of observation and understanding, it has become clear that every culture has its own way of understanding, organising, classifying, and communicating with colour. This is not due to varying biology of the human eye, but because colour is subtle and prompts varying emotional responses, all according to varying social, political and cultural contexts. The complexity of colours conveys numerous types of information from feeling, relationships and contrasts, dramas and tensions, to the very nature of matter and its processes and transmutations. Once understood and harnessed, colour can be used to suggest temperament, class, vocation and hierarchy, and as such can define, differentiate and blend well formed data. (ARAS, 2010). There are entire industries that use and are highly dependent on libraries of colour to communicate information; it can be applied to weave a piece of clothing as equally as a work of art, design or product, and logo or brand.

Shades, hues, and tints of information

Colour as information triggers different responses. It can be environmental, a cold fact, usefully and efficiently giving meaning to data. A red light is a signal or warning, a well-placed green on a topographic map distinguishes land from water, and a green banana turned yellow is ripe to eat. (Tufte, 1990). What is more interesting, particularly for the business of artists, is that colour can be a tool of subtle visual communication. It can draw from cultural knowledge and create a story, trigger or carry deeply truthful or emotive information, invoke a memory, stimulate the senses, and rouse the soul. It can also be unnatural, juxtaposed, playful, and subverted to change to the status quo. (Paul, 2017). It can be both truthful and universal as well as highly subjective and interpretive. Understanding information, and the many forms it possesses, is especially important for library and information professionals. It is after all our responsibility to collect, protect, preserve, manage and disseminate meaningful information to society. To understand information, context and critical thinking are therefore paramount. It is our ability to critically evaluate its contents, that allows us to judge its meaning, purpose, and be able to act on it. As with any language, the language of colour and information is learned. By widening the understanding and teaching of visual and information literacies, Librarians can bring clarity to a deluge of information and assist researchers with applying more creative and practical ways of giving meaning to data.

So perhaps then when you walk to work in the morning, you may take the time to notice some colour in your day and think more about what it is telling you. Let the amber corona on the edges of leaves whisper to you that autumn’s hand is near. Read the gaudy yellow billboard at the bus stop you always walk past. Stand in front of an abstract painting, or the bright cerulean sky and let the colour wash over you. Life is showered with waves of light, colours, sensations, and complexity, and you will begin to see that even in the mundane there is information to be read and little bit of magic.

 

References:

Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (2010) The book of symbols: reflections on archetypal images. London, UK: Taschen. p636.

Evans, G. (2017) The story of colour: an exploration of the hidden messages of the spectrum. London, UK: Michael O’Mara Books Limited. p14-15.

Fletcher, A. (2001) The art of looking sideways. London, UK: Phaidon Press. p53.

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p19-24.

Floridi, L. (2014) The 4th revolution: how the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p13-17.

Michela-Sass, M. (2017) ‘The sea was never blue’. Aeon. Available at: https://aeon.co/essays/can-we-hope-to-understand-how-the-greeks-saw-their-world (Accessed: 30th August 2018).

Nichols, W. (2014) ‘The Sense, the Body and the Big Blue’, in Blue Mind. London, UK: Little, Brown & Company. p88-89.

Paul, S. (2017) Chromophilia: the story of colour in art. London, UK: Phaidon Press. p11.

Shannon, C. (1993) Collected papers. New York, USA: IEEE Press.

St Claire, K. (2016) The secret lives of colour. London, UK: John Murray Publishers. p13-15.

Tufte, E. (1990) Envisioning information. Connecticut, USA: Graphic Press.

 

Illustrations:

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p30, diagram.

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CityLIS News: Child and adolescent literature, literacy, and library services

We are pleased to announce that we are adding a new elective module to the choices available to our MSc/MA Library Science students. The new module addresses LIS concepts as they relate to children and adolescents, and it will be available from the academic year 18/19.

The new module will be delivered by Visiting Lecturer Jen Aggleton, who introduces herself and the module content in this post.

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Jen Aggleton is a qualified teacher and librarian with several years’ experience working in children’s services. She is in the final stages of a PhD in Education and Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge, and lives in a small flat which she shares with a cat called Mogget and far too many books.

***

Over the years I have worn several professional hats – a teacher hat, a librarian hat, and a children’s literature scholar hat. These hats all have their own individual style and charms, and like all of the most interesting fashion items, wearing one, or another, or all three at once, made me feel differently about the work I was doing at the time. For the module I will be teaching at City, ‘Child and Adolescent Literature, Literacy, and Library Services’, all three of those hats will be worn, and passed around the students to try on as well.

Any public service which involves working with children and adolescents inevitably comes up against competing priorities. There are the practical concerns, such as organisation of spaces, collection management, budgets. There are the theoretical concerns, such as how we conceptualise literacy and literacies, and the role of the library in supporting these. And above all, there are the ideological concerns. Whose values and priorities do we follow when delivering services? Those of a school, or the current government? Our own professional judgement about what we think children need or want? What about the views of the children themselves?

Readers of folklore or fairy tales will recognise the power of threes, and in this course we will frequently be exploring things from three different angles. Alongside the three concerns mentioned above – the practical, the theoretical, and the ideological – we will also be looking at three main elements at the heart of child and adolescent library services: those of literature, literacy, and service delivery. And because whilst two threes are powerful, but three times three is unstoppable, we will be exploring these themes across three different types of library: the public library, the school library, and the academic library.

Due to the complex nature of delivering library services for children and adolescents, this course will be rooted in debate. We will be discussing the position of children and adolescents within society, and students will be encouraged to reflect upon their own constructions of childhood. We will explore long-established concepts such as Jacqueline Rose’s idea of the ‘impossibility’ of children’s fiction, as well as contemporary movements such as the We Need Diverse Books campaign. We will ask what it means to be literate in the 21st century, and how libraries can support the development of multiliteracies. We will consider how the space and organisation of a library influences engagement, and how we can evaluate and improve our services. Students will be asked to consider the role of libraries in supporting and extending the current and future national curricula. We will engage with ideas about why we read, what Reading for Pleasure really means, and how we can best support it. We will consider whose voices are heard in service delivery, and how libraries can work to respect children’s rights amidst competing priorities.

None of these issues have single, or simple, solutions. This course aims to enable students to engage with these ideas, evaluate them, and adapt them into context-specific working practices which they can apply in their own professional roles. By the end of the course students should be able to identify what hat is in charge of any aspect of their service delivery, and whether they need to swap hats, add hats, or create new hats altogether.

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If you would like to study with CityLIS, take a look at our course pages, and look out for announcements about our regular open evenings. Follow us @CityLIS on Twitter.

https://www.city.ac.uk/department-library-information-science/information-studies-scheme

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