Thursday, November 01, 2012

Information vs. Data

Did everybody have a fun and spooky Halloween?

I'm pre-posting this on Sunday in case the Frankenstorm, aka Hurricane Sandy, knocks out our electricity between now and Thursday. A scary prospect because we have a well, whose pump runs on electricity, so no power means no running water. The last time we lost electricity, for almost 4 days after a storm earlier this year, our portable generator worked reliably. We're hoping it will do the same this time or, better yet, that we won't need it.

A column by Jean Marbella in today's Baltimore SUN discusses the media focus on the approaching hurricane. Everywhere we turn, we hear and see warnings and advice about how to deal with the potential disaster. In winter, the similar public reaction to every predicted snowstorm in this area is a running joke. (Time to stock up on bread and toilet paper!) Marbella asks whether the modern 24-7 news blitz at times like this gives us more information or just more anxiety. We feel compelled to pursue every minute-by-minute update. "But have you noticed," she muses, "how the more you read these days, the less you're reassured?" She also quotes Richard Saul Wurman, who wrote a book about "Information Anxiety" back in 1989, on the distinction between "information" and "data." Data alone, mere facts, don't benefit us without context and interpretation. Facts alone, a deluge of unprocessed raw material, can overwhelm instead of informing. True information "is power. It reduces your anxiety," says Wurman.

I'm grateful for the Internet and the up-to-the-minute weather forecasts and event closing notices we have access to nowadays. The media have improved our public and personal response to Nature's vicissitudes in ways I wouldn't want to live without. But how much news is too much?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt