icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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Knowledge governance saves lives

About the double nature of data

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). Knowledge governance saves lives. About the double nature of data. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 10.3 (March). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-3.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). Knowledge governance saves lives. About the double nature of data. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 10.3 (March). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-3.html

London, 4 July 2021 - Two recent scandals in information management have crossed the space of my reflections during the past weeks.

The first is the Post Office Horizon IT system scandal, brought to the attention of the public opinion and the specialists because of a legal dispute that lasted two decades, involving something like 500 subpostmasters who were financially and emotionally ruined, with over two dozens even incarcerated for false accounting and theft they did not commit. Eventually, thanks to the aggregation of their witnesses and experiences, earlier this year, the High Court recognised that the IT system was "responsible" for the mistakes: it is not clear to me if any operative, technician, engineer or director working at Fujitsu on the design, development and maintenance of the Horizon programme for the UK Post Office has been or will ever been considered accountable for the disaster. Reports in the press talk about witness statements given by experts on behalf of the Post Office and the supplier the Judges have eventually discarded but also lack of documentation, missing data dictionaries, flaws in the "sort-of" XML and API code and basic records management standards. But I cannot see or hear from the multitude of sources that have now covered the case if and what countermeasures have been adopted by Fujitsu. The corporation managed to stay almost untouched by the legal proceedings and was even awarded a further £42.5m contract extension by the Post Office in April, in a move that sounds both absurd and unavoidable. In fact, the very nature of data and information management in the last two decades has been simply schizophrenic and resembling a race to nowhere, even in situations where the best skills and competences can be found and there is plenty of financial resources to cover bills, licences, salaries and security patches. Librarians, record and information managers or archivists do not exist, nobody has time to care about technical documents or requirements, software developers and information interaction designers need to work on the latest technologies and keep on learning with a focus on team cohesion and business demand at all times, no executive or project sponsor wants to hear tirades on accuracy or assurance criteria or risk management. Agile is a very short blanket, one cannot blame the method neither.

The other scandal was the very recent and fast incident that caused the sudden resignation of the former Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock. Few months ago Matt Hancock insisted in a plan for making health records of million of people shareable and publicly available for science and research and potentially also for commercial uses, through a multitude of apps and a public database, without not even asking for patients' consent, in a blitz amply criticised by doctors, patients and charities. Similar plans have been dismissed various times for the past twenty or thirty years, or attempted and then quickly decommissioned: the idea of making health records available to everybody is not new, is one of the most controversial of the entire history of IT systems and electronic health records, being evident that the risks of errors are multiplied by the increased number of subjects accessing, creating and treating patients data without a single point of control and assessment of their reliability, integrity, completeness or accuracy. I did not understand clearly if the Government plan has now been halted or just delayed but what has struck my attention was the apparent genuine, very naive and yet incompetent attitude with which the former Secretary of State (and with him presumably many scrupulous civil servants and advisers) was convinced that the pressure of the pandemic could justify the sense of urgency in dealing with such a terribly complicated and complex matter. And at the same time it seems that a sense of urgency led somebody to disclose Matt Hancock's personal data in a sort of "revenge policy": photos of him were handed to the press, revealing that Hancock not only had appointed his lover in a post of Non Executive Director months ago, a very inappropriate and yet uncriticised initiative, but he was even caught on CCTV while embracing and kissing her in the office where the pair should have staid at a much safer distance according to Covid rules, to say the least. It seems the poor man was given the opportunity to learn, fast, that it may happen that the aggregation of data allows the discovery of new knowledge but is not at all true that "Data Save Lives" in all circumstances. On the contrary, serendipity can kill and destroy your life in seconds with no notice, either because data are disclosed or because they are not, because they tell damaging truths or even more damaging lies. Who knows what strategy is the right or the wrong one at any given moment?! A computer algorithm perhaps? Or a set of behavioural norms and rules implemented by different communities in different cultures?

The two scandals can move people to various degrees of indignation and suggest there are lessons to be learned about the three V of big data (volume, velocity, variety) in any context, showing the appalling lack of data literacy at all levels.

What these two scandals say to me is that the civil society (including professionals) as well as the political class still have to develop an awareness of what we can call knowledge governance, the grammar of which should be made of both technical standards and behavioural norms.

From Tweets and photos shared through Instagram to anything we buy with a credit card, from medical records to movies and obviously accounting data, records of books or CCTV frames, everything can be run in a totally agile and very undocumented way, satisfying the thirst of data access and sense of belonging to a group of community of data sharers. But that does not create knowledge. Data can be left behind in territories where nobody is anymore responsible for their curation, starting snowballs effects that are detrimental for everybody, and yet they keep on ping-ponging among systems that we have made interoperable - therefore they appear technically trustable for integrity, or are categorised as such according to data frameworks. Worse, auditing trails can be destroyed or fabricated and mangled at any time by corrupted individuals.

It is not at all true that data save lives in all circumstances. Knowledge governance does.