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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Information Radar

For many of the roles and projects you will be involved in, part of what you need to be able to do is to put yourself in a continuous learning mode. You need information radar that continuously scans for new, quality information that you should be aware of. And certainly, you have to be able to quickly commit it to your metamemory.

Information Addiction

Let me start this topic with a word of caution. Most of you reading this are infovores. When you find new nuggets of information, you get a chemical reaction in your brain much like an opium hit. This reaction causes you to seek more information. In other words, you are quite literally an information addict. Be careful about feeding your habit.

Assess Information Sources

For this reason, I always start any new task, project, role with an honest assessment of whether I really need to be actively tuned into information and what information that is.

You should also periodically go back to your top-down strategy, assess your specific information objectives and then make a deliberate assessment of different information sources. Which newspapers, magazines, journals, news sources, blogs should you look at, how often, how high a priority is this?

Also assess current information sources to see which can be removed. Managing your RSS Feeds has some good suggestions on how to do assessment in an ongoing basis using quarantine folders.

With that caution, here are some thoughts on the methods and tools I use as part of my information radar.

RSS Readers

A central tool for my information radar is my RSS reader. It allows me to gather information from all kinds of sources (blogs, publications, wikis, calendars, etc.) If you are new to the world of RSS readers and subscribing to blogs, here are some good starting points.

Skim and Remember

In Stop Reading - Skim Dive Skim, I proposed that for most of the information we come across via our information radar, we will not read it. Instead we will, skim, dive, skim. And then quickly add it to our better memory.

Remembering content I've seen via my RSS Reader has changed a bit over the past few years. I used to use Keep New or Favorites to save items that I thought were interesting but that I didn't have time to read or process at that moment. I found that it scattered a big part of my memory into another source, so I've stopped using these techniques.

Thus, while I'm scanning I have three levels of remember ready to apply:

1. Visit Pages - If a post, article, etc. looks like it might ever be worth remembering, then I visit the page and skim it there so it goes into Google History. Posts that you have seen in your reader but not visited are not in Google History. They are searchable via the RSS Reader, but that requires that you remember how your originally encountered the information. I believe I'm better off with fewer places to search for things I've seen.

2. Tag Page - If while skimming the article you visited, it looks like something I might need later (future anticpated information need), then I save/tag it in delicious.

3. Notes / Blog - As I skim dive skim, I often will take notes into working documents or blog posts about anything that is interesting. I do this more to help me process the material. But it also helps to surface it again. Make sure you save a link to the source as well.

Information Trickles

For information needs where I want a trickle of information to be coming through and if I miss something "interesting" its not a problem. I'm looking for filtering the content to find the best stuff within a narrow range.
  • Aggregator Blogs. These folks scan through content in a given area and point you to the stuff they feel is most interesting. The three that jump to mind in the world of learning and eLearning are: OL Daily, Big Dog Little Dog, and eLearning Learning.
  • Delicious Popular. Use delicious popular such as this shows web pages that many people are tagging with a particular tag. There is a feed for any delicious page including the popular pages.

Information Floods

For areas where I want to be fairly actively engaged in a continuous flow and there's a greater need to see most everything, I use:
Other Tools
  • AideRSS - can be used to limit a given blog or set of blogs to the top few.

For me, blogging fits into more than one category. I'm choosing to put it here as I most often use it as a means of processing information that I come across as part of my continuous learning strategy. It definitely moves beyond a simple information radar and into something more. It also is a big part of my networking and community strategy.

As a starting point

Taking Notes

As an alternative to blogging, another option to help remember and process what you are finding through your information radar is the act of taking notes. There are a variety of tools that you can use. I hate to say it, but I still use notepad or Word. Since I rely on desktop search, they work okay for me. My guess is that in another year I'll have a different answer.

Independent of the tool, research shows that the act of taking active notes - not verbatim notes but higher level cognitive notes - while you are receiving information improves encoding. Thus, its fair to assume (though I don't have research proof on this) that while you are skim-dive-skimming active note taking means greater encoding.

Several people have suggested to me that it's significantly easier to take notes on paper while reviewing online. Ummm ... no it's not. Keep a narrow window open alongside your browser that allows you to copy and paste and add your notes. Oh, and make sure you include the URL. I hate it when I find my notes but then have to search for the page again in my bookmarks or via Google search.

By the way, this is the same technique I use when I'm talking to someone on the phone or in a meeting. A narrow window for capturing real-time thoughts works well for me. Oh, wait, am I talking about better memory now or information radar. I guess it's both.

A big part of effective information radar is doing more than just having it temporarily pass by your eyeballs.

It's adding it to memory and processing it appropriately.

Other Posts in the Series


V Yonkers said...

This is an interesting insight into how you handle information. However, I don't think this would work for me. For one thing, I tend to not be so linear in my information filtering as you are, nor am I such a systematic thinker. I think that each person needs to find their own way of being productive and there needs to be various models depending on the person's way of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Maybe historically "infovores" are the people who not only are addicted to information, but they love to also share that information with others.

Since not everyone shares our information addiction, maybe people like us are destined to be come librarians, researchers, teachers, etc. What do you think?

Tony Karrer said...

@Virginia - I agree that people need to find their own way, but I also believe that's often used as an excuse for not reflecting. I'd love to hear other methods that people use for these things.

@Gina - That's an interesting statement. I wonder what the relationship is between people who are info addicts and those who are information sharers. Likely sharers are also addicts, but I bet some people are much more into sharing who don't necessarily consume a lot.

Makes me wonder.

I do think you are right that librarians, researchers, teachers are very likely infovores. On the other hand, I'm not quite so sure that these same people are necessarily sharers by nature. In fact, maybe you've just pointed to a potential disconnect.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Karrer -- thanks for including us!

Our feed customizations can also help. In addition to winnowing down a feeds posts to the ones with the most engagement, you can also add topic filters in case there's a specific topic that a blog or other site covers that you want to keep tabs on. (Or one you want to weed out specifically.)