Out-of-the-box: Pertinent informationby R. James

Business Information Review




Out-of-the-box: Pertinent information

Roger James

University of Southampton, UK


Elections are a time at which objective fact vies with opinion and emotion leading up to the decision to vote. In the UK, the recent general election results proved to be a major surprise – one in which the hard data of the opinion polls and the questions asked in the focus groups were at odds with the expressed behaviour of the electorate. Before the pundits ‘regroup’ and the political groups re-establish their claimed hegemony over our intentions there is much to learn. For information scientists it is to recognize that the ‘dark arts’ of political campaigning contain many valuable techniques for effective information delivery and many lessons where information is irrelevant.


Business failure, decision-making, emotional blindness, emotional influence, information behaviour, information delivery, information receivers, information value

Information good

My bias is evident from these articles. I am an information technologist working from a belief that rational information will improve our lives and save the world. I suspect that readers of Business Information Review will hold similar attitudes and, as Al Gore might claim, emotional factors are just an ‘inconvenient truth’.

As readers of this column will know, I am working in genomic research at the vanguard of ‘big data’. One of the ethical challenges concerns feedback from these investigations – whether we should feedback known pathogenic genes identified in patients. This is not as simple as it seems, as the ethical concerns cover the genes identified with the disease being studied (the pertinent findings) but also deleterious genes found elsewhere in the person’s genome (the secondary findings). The ethical considerations are at many levels: what has the subject agreed to, for research what are the requirements of care and if the sequence data predict a disease for which there are, as yet, no symptoms, should the subject be informed?

Business Information Review is aimed at a readership of information scientists not experts in medical ethics, but the parallel of pertinent findings lies with pertinent information. Does our work in information delivery inform and reinforce known pathologies or is the information we provide a worry and a distraction?

Many years ago, I remember listening to a podcast from

National Public Radio, where the speaker explained the dilemma of thought itself – ‘that mankind was the only species clever enough to plan for the future and stupid enough to worry about it’. Whilst this may not be an accurate assessment it does crystallize the dilemma – that our thinking embedded in our information allows us to do great things but comes with a downside, sometimes at great cost.

My own vivid demonstration of this was with our children: In the early days of the mobile phone, they travelled by train to school. Before they had a mobile phone we did not expect to hear from them or speak to them during the day. As soon as they had their phone and we heard of travel problems, we would try to ring for reassurance but more often than not this would increase our anxiety when the phone was not answered. (We learned later that the schools confiscated the phone to prevent classroom disturbance.)

Informing the electorate

In the UK, we have recently elected a new five-year parliament in our general election. In the event, the result was unexpected based on the electoral sample polls and the political pundits. It has been suggested, by the winners, of course, that they knew where the result was headed from their internal resources, and it has been asserted, also by the winners, that the losing Labour Party lived in a false information bubble of its own making. It was the same bubble

Corresponding author:

Roger James.

Email: roger@rogerjames.net

Business Information Review 2015, Vol. 32(2) 90–92 ª The Author(s) 2015

Reprints and permission: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav

DOI: 10.1177/0266382115592528 bir.sagepub.com at UNIV OF LETHBRIDGE on September 28, 2015bir.sagepub.comDownloaded from inhabited by the political pundits and provided the demonstrably false impression which led to predicting a very close election result.

Whilst the events of the election are topical, and before it passes into folklore, it is worth exploring the facts. Central to the Conservatives’ success was their campaign strategist, Lynton Crosby, an Australian who after a short career in Australian politics became a strategist first in

Australia and from 2005 to the Conservatives (much less successfully in 2005 but successful here in the election of the London Mayor). Remarkably, Crosby presented his approach to students at a rare public masterclass, for the

Patchwork Foundation, an independent political charity.

The usually secretive Australian’s hour-long talk is available online,1 but fewer than 2000 people have watched it.

Crosby makes a simple case. The electorate is of three groups:  those who will vote for you,  those who can be persuaded to vote for you, and  those who will never vote for you.

He advises to concentrate your efforts on the middle group. Crosby then discusses data and makes the case for specific questions to the electorate on who they would vote for rather than the vague aspirational opinion poll questions much loved by focus groups. It is an information-led approach but one with very clear objectives, with a focus on the behaviour of the effected individual.

The digital election?

This contrasted with the losing Labour Party who, buoyed by their own internal and focus group conversations, seemingly convinced themselves of their position. In the run-up to polling, they boasted of their ground army, how many voters they had talked to and about how they were the masters of social media. Labour too brought in an external advisor,2 Matthew McGregor, with a track record as the digital strategist in the US for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign.