ka-BOOM – the Information Age Explosion is upon us.

CNN.com has an interesting report on a study that was conducted by IDC, an industry think tank and research company, into the volume of information that we are creating and storing – and more importantly who is creating that information.

IDC estimates that the world had 185 exabytes of storage available last year and will have 601 exabytes in 2010. But the amount of stuff generated is expected to jump from 161 exabytes last year to 988 exabytes (closing in on 1 zettabyte) in 2010.

IDC estimates that by 2010, about 70 percent of the world’s digital data will be created by individuals. For corporations, information is inflating from such disparate causes as surveillance cameras and data-retention regulations.

The growth in ‘long tail’ activities like blogging and YouTube are contributors to this. Explosions can wind up as one of two things – an impressively awe inspiring fireworks display of elegance and beauty… or a shock and awe filled detonation. The fact that this explosion of information is being driven by individuals raises a significant risk that as the quantity increases the quality decreases. We are seeing elements of this risk in the recent story about the Wikipedia expert who was making it up as he went along and had lied about his credentials.

However, this issue of alleged experts with either non-existent qualifications or qualifications which may not be what they appear to be is not restricted to just the Internet – it is an off-line issue too. We really can’t ignore the Diploma mills churning out PhDs who might not have the level of skills one might expect from the title.

What can Information Quality professionals and Bloggers do to help maintain quality levels and keep collateral damage from this explosion to a minimum?

  • When blogging, first do no harm. Make sure you verify sources for your stories as much as you can and respond to any comments that report errors or innacurracies in your posts – in short act with the sort of standards we would expect from journalists (although which we might not always get)
  • Try and develop an understanding of good practices in terms of structuring your content (categories in WordPress are metadata for example)
  • As Microsoft said in a recent advertising campaign here in Ireland – “Information that cant be found is information that can’t be used”. Quality of information includes the quality of how that information is presented – designing your sites so they are accessible to people with visual problems is a good practice. Likewise having a logical structure on your site and your content is also important.

Reading the figures that IDC have produced (which incidentally used some proprietary internal research so might not be capable of being replicated in an independent study) makes me think of the advice that Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben gives him in the first Spiderman Movie… “With great power comes great responsibility”.

WordPress, Youtube, Wikipedia and similar tools have placed a great power in the hands of the wired individual. However just because it is on the web (no poor pun intended) it does not mean that the rules of the real world have switched off. Under the Common Law Tort of Negligent Misstatement there is a duty of care on all people who are providing information to ensure that that information is correct. Admittedly to succeed in suing someone for negligent misstatement you need to show that your reliance on the information and any loss you incur were reasonably foreseeable and that the person publishing the information owed a duty of care to you specifically (are you their ‘neighbour’ in a legal sense? Are you a class of person that the publisher of the information should have considered might be a consumer of their information?).

With great power comes great responsibilty. Dr Ben Goldacre, a columnist with the Guardian Newspaper in the UK, who’s article about questionable qualifications I’ve linked to above, ends that particular article in a very eloquent way that sums up why we need to ensure that we maintain quality standards as the volume of information available grows. I unashamedly pinch it because it is very good – I’ve just added some emphasis (please read the full article to put this in its original context)…

“I am writing this article, sneakily, late, at the back of the room, in the Royal College of Physicians, at a conference discussing how to free up access to medical academic knowledge for the public. At the front, as I type, Sir Muir Gray, director of the NHS National Electronic Library For Health, is speaking: “Ignorance is like cholera,” he says. “It cannot be controlled by the individual alone: it requires the organised efforts of society.” He’s right: in the 19th and 20th centuries, we made huge advances through the provision of clean, clear water; and in the 21st century, clean, clear information will produce those same advances.

Blog wisely. Blog well.