A Scientist Might Create Information, but an Information Professional Makes it Useful

As part of the strategic process of changing the name of the UW-M School of Information Studies undergraduate program from a B.S. in Information Resources to a B.S. in Information Science & Technology, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about marketing messages to best communicate what our major is, what value our graduate add, and how we can be differentiated from other programs (such as computer science or MIS).

One thing I try to instill on my students is how the role of an information professional is to utilize systems to gather information, organize it, make it understandable and useful, turn it into useful knowledge, and communicate it to guide decision-making and other vital functions. From this loose definition, I’ve arrived at a few (rough) catchphrases to try to market our degree’s new identity:

  • Some build systems. An IST grad makes systems work.
  • An engineer might focus on what a system can do. An IST grad looks at what people can do with the system.
  • IST: Building decision systems.
  • IST: Developing information systems to make your business work.

And so on, with some struggles.

But today, I think I found a new slogan.

In Milwaukee, we felt the magnitude-5.0 earthquake struck the border region of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. This was quite an unusual event for Milwaukee, especially for a quake so far away. Those in the upper floors of our office building on campus could feel the building sway; some reported bookshelves shaking and other items rocking in their office. Uncertain what was happening, many of us evacuated the building. Figuring it was some kind of earthquake, I took that opportunity to walk over to the Geosciences Department on campus to see if anything was recorded on the University’s seismometer.

Sure enough. So, being the social media/info-geek that I am, I snapped a photo of the display with my phone and posted it to Twitter. By the time I’d walked back to my office, my Facebook status update (sorry, friends only) already had reactions and confirmation that it was indeed an earthquake from Canada.

Meanwhile, I was contacted by someone from the front office at the College of Arts & Sciences (which houses Geosciences), asking if they could repost my picture on their Facebook page. Of course, that’s what social media is for. So, they posted it, thanking me for providing the image (although the phrasing could cause people to believe I’m a professor in Geosciences). Then, I discover that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s article about the quake also uses my photo, but this time correctly identifying me as a faculty member at SOIS.

Now, I have no problem with my photo being used. But some noteworthy items come to light in this episode:

  1. It’s interesting that the campus academic unit called to ask for permission before reposting my image, while the for-profit media company did not, apparently having no qualms about using others content for their own “reporting”.
  2. It’s even more interesting that apparently no one in Geosciences felt it necessary to issue some kind of official release of data regarding the quake and the university’s official monitoring results. They’re the one’s with the equipment and expertise. I’m just a geek that knew where the seismometer was located and had a camera phone. Why is the university and the local media left to rely on my image (complete with my reflection on the glass) to document this event? What good is the public display of the university seismometer if the information isn’t shared or distributed?

This final point returns us to the search for a suitable catchphrase to explain what our IST program is offering. While the geologists have the equipment and expertise to create information (the seismic graph), the information has only been distributed and made useful by an intervention by an information scholar (me) and my online social networks.

Thus, I have a few new catchphrases:

  • A scientist might create information, but an information professional makes it useful.
  • Anyone can make information, but an IST grad makes it work.


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