The sound of one bell clapping

Twitter is great. I found myself this evening discussing the psychology of alarms with Rob Karel of informatica. He had tweeted that a car alarm outside his office had been going off for an hour but his brain had filtered it out. This is not an uncommon reaction to bells and alarms and is the reason why I have a monitored alarm system in my home, a fact I will return to later.

Our neuropsychological response to alarms is pretty much the same as our response to any alert to risk. It is influenced by the same basic flaws in information processing in the limbic system of the brain, our “lizard brain”. If the danger is not one we are familiar with and it is not immediate we discount it to the point of ignoring it.

An alarm going off is an alert that something is happening somewhere else to someone or something else. Without a hook to make it personal it is just noise and it fades into the background. In the absence of a direct effect on us we tune out the distraction so our lizard brain can focus on other immediate risks – to us. An alarm = someone else’s stuff at risk.

This is why a measure of data quality needs to have an action plan associated with it so that the people in the organisation can tie the metric to a real affect and put a clear response plan into action. Just as how when a fire alarm goes off we know to go to the nearest exit and leave belongings behind or just as we know that if an oxygen mask drops in front of us on a plane we should tug hard and take care of our own mask first.

There is an alarm stimulus. There is a planned response that makes it personal to us. Alarm, something must be done, this is a thing, let’s do it.

But often Information Quality scorecards are left hanging. The measure of success is the success of measurement. Just as the measure of home security is often whether you have a house alarm. But a ringing alarm that has no action to be called to serves no purpose.

My home has a monitored alarm. If one sensor is triggered I get a phone call to check on me and alert me. If a perimeter sensor and an internal sensor are triggered together I get a call to let me know that there are police en route. Each time the alarm is responded to by a stranger with a planned response. My role is to cry halt at any time, gather data about the incident (was there someone calling to house who forgot alarm code? Is there a key holder on the way?), and generally coordinate the plan’s roll out.

What can we learn from this for how we design DG and IQ strategies? What is your planned response to an alarm bell ringing in your data?