UW News

February 3, 2005

Fighting technology with technology: Personal information management

Once upon a time, life was simple.

Then your memos, meetings, songs, pictures, addresses, videos and tonight’s lasagna recipe got scattered into an ever-expanding universe of mobile digital gadgets with different formats.

Now where is that soccer photo?

“We are pulled in a lot of different directions,” said William Jones, an associate research professor in the Information School. “Our information is fragmented.”

This causes genuine distress, Jones said, not to mention lost business productivity costing billions.

Fighting technology with technology, Jones late last month convened the world’s first major workshop on Personal Information Management, bringing together international scholars in cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, information science and other specialties.

The goal: To generate solutions by mixing together different disciplines, while shaping PIM, as it is called, into a field in its own right.

“Who needs this? Everybody does!” said Maria Zemankova, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Information and Intelligent Systems, which funded the conference. “It’s preposterous to talk about enterprise information systems, or about homeland security, if people cannot manage their own information spaces.”

Also taking part were researchers from the business world, including mega-rivals Google and Microsoft, which are investing heavily in searching and other tools to unscramble the information mess.

How did it come to this?

Information School Dean Mike Eisenberg opened the three-day conference on Jan. 27 by reminiscing about the early days of e-mail.

“It was fun, it was liberating,” Eisenberg said. “Now it’s oppressive.”

E-mails flooded in faster than anyone could act on them, yet they left recipients afraid to toss them out in case the information was needed later on.

Meanwhile, each newly arriving e-mail became a powerful distraction from the task at hand, leading conference participant Steve Whittaker of England’s University of Sheffield to propose installing “executive assistant” software that could warn anyone e-mailing you that you were too busy to accept any messages right now.

And then came the problem of deciding which e-mails to share, and how widely. Given the ease of spreading digital data, one approach might be a system that automatically reports back on who is viewing your documents, said Jonathan Grudin, with Microsoft Research.

Other proposed remedies to personal information chaos — most now in the prototype stage — include a system that automatically ranks a file’s importance by such measures as a how long the user has spent on that topic.

“Even simple things can make a profound difference,” said Jones, who with Information School colleague Harry Bruce presented a prototype “Universal Labeler” for corraling a wide variety of data into an improved folder system.

The labeler is a product of the pair’s NSF-supported Keeping Found Things Found project, which for four years has been studying how actual users deploy Web bookmarks and other tools to store and find information..

Jones and Bruce and their Information School graduate students have discovered that many people are burdened by “information closets” of old, abandoned information that clutters their computer desktops and various folder arrangements.

Solving the problem takes not just technical savvy, but inventing technology that’s in tune with the habits of the human mind.

“What this is fundamentally about is sending information to yourself — information that you may need later on,” Jones said. “It’s like throwing a ball into the future, and having it fall into your hands again later at just the right time and place.”