Ren Pope is the Owner and Principal of Info-Do based out of Washington DC. He has over 25 years of leadership and vision in the information science field. Ren has held various positions including speech and policy writing, modeling and simulation, and designing knowledge management systems.
Ren focuses his passion for information sciences, where he designs content management systems perfecting the use of taxonomies, ontologies, and concept maps as well as overall information modeling to ensure the intent of design endures in the product. For this interview with the Synaptica team Ren shares his views on the theory and practice of information sciences.
Tell us about you and your early experiences.
Ren: My passion for information started first with my mother. My mother worked in the public health arena as a statistician dealing with high volumes of data. She helped to found one of the first medical health care provider companies.
In the 80s, she worked with quality control and assurance for working with health care statistics and data. When I was about 13, she brought home a computer to work from home. I helped her configure it and started to work with databases and understand data structures and queries. I caught the data bug and was hooked.
Another passion of mine is writing. When I went to college, I majored in technical writing. We were preparing digital documentation and data representation through documentation. The semester I graduated the internet was emerging and we started making web pages and looking at web design.
At college, I took part in the United States Commissioning Program for the Air Force. My first role with the US Air Force related to information management. This gave me a great opportunity to explore different types of information technology and management.
”“Don’t force technology on people without understanding the impact and their capabilities.”
Where did you go next?
Ren: One of my first responsibilities was in charge of the flight simulator and its organization. We had three full-sized aircraft simulators and dealt with a lot of geospatial flight data. Working with a development team, we were able to develop realistic visual data of the entire world. One of my last roles with the Air Force was within the Command Center for the Department of Defense’s communication networks. Through this, you see not only the information infrastructure of one of the largest networks in the world but the actual operational management of the knowledge management system. I spent nine years with the US Air Force before moving into the quasi-commercial world of defense contracting for the government.
I joined the Department of Homeland Security, which at the time was no more than two years old. Everything was being developed and built from scratch. You needed to think like an architect, looking at systems for content management and design. This was a period when information architecture was emerging. Suddenly we were dealing with the growth of content and knowledge. This can be overwhelming, dealing with massive amounts of information and data. It’s an issue we still navigate today. Sometimes, I think a content strategy approach manages this challenge more effectively versus a systems approach, particularly on the structural side of managing content.
We had a pool of 200 people creating content. We had to make it easy to access and incorporate research and other resources such as data that they needed in order to make that content. We had to make sure that it was correct because this is content that essentially deals with people’s lives. It needs to be factually correct. Then you have the issue of sharing and publishing the information in the right format for the customer. Some prefer document form, others web-based. The content needed to be flexible and adaptable.
The next career step for me was a senior role in managing a knowledge management system for counter-terrorism. I had about 100 people working in developing and maintaining this system in a demanding environment. A lot of people do not know what it takes or understand how to develop, create, and maintain information management systems, and how to use them. Many senior leaders and managers of the people who used the knowledge management system wanted the most leading-edge tools available to analysts. In the US, we had a popular TV show called “24.” There was a character within the show called Chloe. Chloe was an analyst, a computer savant who was always two steps ahead of the hero. Chloe could do it all — hack on a closed-circuit TV system, break into alarm systems, and decrypt a satellite. For many of the senior leaders, they had the perception that this is the average analyst. They have multiple degrees in computer science and simply work magic.
The reality is analysts tend to be history majors who can have issues using technology; word processing and spreadsheets are the extent of their expertise with computers. I call this the “Chloe effect,” where senior leaders expect analysts and other knowledge professionals to be computer savants. Analysts must deal with layers and layers of complexity in the data and information they use throughout the analytical process. They need to take certain steps in a particular order to ensure the integrity of the information they are analyzing.. Analytical thinking is thorough, researched, and rigorous.
These types of issues have shaped my understanding of user behavior. Do not force technology on people without understanding the impact and their capabilities. We need to understand our user’s capability and consider their thought process, the means and ends. What is it that we need to do? Why do we have to go through these steps? We should implement technology that helps to support these questions, not add layers of complexity just to get a result.
Following my time working in counter-terrorism, I worked as part of an Enterprise Architecture team. This was a little different than trying to give information architecture support for a specific project or an application or website. We looked at information across an entire organizational enterprise and helped them to build their information roadmap for the next 10 years.
I learned about metadata, information sharing, and working across multiple enterprise organizations. The various channels were both business– and information-based. You needed to be able to translate data created for different purposes and underlying technologies within the organization to reflect the diverse needs of these channels. At the time, it felt like we were herding cats.
We had about 10 organizations we provided information services for. Collating and delivering all of their information in a timely manner was a major task. It could take months to pull together the content, and by the end of this period, the information landscape might have changed. It was a constant rework of trying to get all of the information and document it. Sometimes, we were more like information archaeologists rather than simply information architects, trying to find where all of the information was buried within an organization rather than creating information. In the end, being able to see the full scale of the infrastructure was very, very satisfying.
Tell us about your current role.
Ren: Initially I took on another role related to research and development. I kind of put off the idea of working on my own for a while. Eventually, after a few more career changes, I felt I had gone as far as I could. I have ideas and experience, and have developed methodologies and practices. Now I get to choose my client base and identify who I would like to work with.
I set up my consultancy Info-Do last year. My consultancy is incubated within a communications group looking to provide information database public relations based in Washington, D.C. They brought me in to assist them and it provides a base for office space and support.
Together, and with Synaptica, we are working with a ground-breaking and visionary healthcare client. Traditionally, healthcare is clinical and scientific. This endeavor has a more holistic and complete approach. We look at the social, artistic, and aesthetic; everything that involves the patient, not just the clinical scientific aspects. The ability to take diverse domains of knowledge and to merge them coherently. The scale and opportunities of the project were one of the reasons why I reached out to Bob Kasenchak, a member of the Synaptica team. Being able to tap into that type of knowledge and (exploit it) is key to the customer. We are looking at Graphite as an option.
The client has expressed interest in searching within images. I’m looking to work with Synaptica and its tools to design the information architecture and implement certain design components. It is similar to working in a design studio: you are using information and data as your raw material model, similar to a structural architect, to build the model.
My goal is to take that rudimentary information and build a cohesive design model that you can present to clients. This kind of developed framework brings a new approach to information architecture. Therefore, you feel a sense of the products because the tool can be part of that. It is a framework; you’ve got this great method using a semantical tool. I am working with both Dave Clarke and Bob Kasenchak to explore what the software can do with graphic images and various kinds of analysis.
Tell us about your work with controlled vocabulary.
Ren: I was the information architect for a software company developing content management software. As a senior consultant, I got hands-on with controlled vocabularies. I built an enterprise-level framework for the controlled vocabulary of an organization. The clients already had their controlled vocabularies built and they used community-based vocabularies as well. My role was to implement the system to be able to amalgamate the vocabularies and ingest them into the content management system. This meant making intermediary metadata and transforms to translate the vocabularies for the users.
There were several factors we needed to take into consideration: make sure the community-controlled vocabulary and the local vocabulary worked together without losing information or adversely transforming that knowledge. We also needed to make sure the vocabularies remained current, while still accommodating legacy content. We are constantly testing to make sure that it works. The worst thing you can do is set it down and leave it alone. You need to keep nurturing it and feeding it.
The approach that I have created to information architecture incorporates all the aspects of knowledge management and enterprise architecture that I have experienced. I look deeply at the architecture and design of the information, and the environment the information will be used in. I’m looking at some methods and tools that can be a core piece of this, where I can take a set of information and data and design it in a studio environment, similar to a structural architect…taking the raw material to make a model of a building. Taking these rudimentary elements and building a cohesive design and model can then be presented to clients. This gives you a developed framework for showing and demonstrating how it can work.
Governance and maintenance: when you design something, it needs to work for the user but you have to design it to be sustainable and easily governed. We don’t talk about this enough. Governance can be complex, but it is needed. Governance is a bit like gasoline. You need just the right amount to make it go and make it work, but not too much or it will blow up. It’s a fine balance.
”“Governance is a bit like gasoline. You need just the right amount to make it go and make it work, but not too much or it will blow up. It’s a fine balance.”
Tell us about your interest in ontologies.
Ren: Ontological thinking: this is a term I use and owe to a colleague. I mentioned it in a presentation and developed the concept into a workshop. I’ve always been enamored by Eastern philosophy and art. Ontological thinking is a philosophy, a classical philosophy. Greek philosophers came up with ontology and in a great time; it was the philosophy of the proof of determining what is real and what is not. Human beings are real, cars are real. But what about abstract things such as emotions like love, happiness, or a color like red? These are abstract things; we talk about them but we can’t hold them in our hands.
Many of us, at least here in the United States, when we think of metaphysics, we think of crystals or going off to a retreat, or perhaps levitating over the ground. The true study of metaphysics is the way to be able to describe things. Modern practical applied ontology is not only proving whether something is real or not but being able to describe its existence and how it relates to other things. It’s not enough to say a human is real. A human has dimensions; we interact with other humans, animals, environment, or computers.
”“Modern practical applied ontology is not only proving whether something is real or not but being able to describe its existence and how it relates to other things. It’s not enough to say a human is real. A human has dimensions, we interact with other humans, animals, environment, or computers.”
This approach is beneficial to the information science and information technology realm. The better you can describe something, the better you can search for it. You can organize the information around it. This is ontological thinking.
Another aspect is knowing. Classical philosophers determined that emotions are real but they are abstract. Humans are concrete. This notion in ontology is important because we deal with computers. We are dealing and working with a virtual world, one which is very abstract and has no rules. One of our roles as an Information Architect is defining those rules of the information within the system.
Ontological thinking helps us look at a problem and understand the information. How do we deal with this within the virtual world and interact as physical human beings? Certain things are both abstract and concrete at the same time.
Where do you see your sector developing?
Ren: I think the Information Architecture industry is still in its adolescence. We are a fitful teenager and we don’t know what we want to do with ourselves. I believe that IA is going to branch out from simply application and website design into different types of information. Information architects can do wonderful things. I say to colleagues “just imagine if you apply IA principles to meeting design. Meetings could be improved, efficient with the information you reviewed, improved through advanced ways of expressing information through graph databases and science.”
We need to integrate information architecture into the business sector. One of our biggest challenges is the majority of organizations don’t address this. They look at their current information structure and the way they see it – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. IT has taken over information technology. I would like to see IA broaden itself into leadership organizations and corporations. Organizations need to focus on the information as well as the enterprise.
Streams of data and information are everywhere and could come via the new Internet of Things, such as vehicles or appliances. Not just how something works or if it’s happy, rather how it interacts with other connected things. I did a talk in Australia on user experience using the example of the vacuum cleaner. What is it doing? What is its relationship with your refrigerator? The refrigerator is likely to be the tallest appliance in your home. It has a commanding view of everything that is going on. It can help your cleaner identify where it’s missed a spot. The cleaner might have a sensor for pollen levels. If it communicated with your neighbors’ vacuum cleaner, they could raise an alert for people with severe allergies. Information moves from being a user experience to an experience of things. I think this is another place we are moving to.
”“Make sure you are part of it, participate, and be involved in the process. It’s not something you can simply outsource “
What words of advice would you share with someone starting an IA project?
Ren: The first thing to remember is “do no harm.” It’s a medical expression but when you are trying to implement a new system, you want to make sure that it is complementary to the effort, not overbearing. This means that you have to look at the overall project; not only what is the user facing but who is going to maintain what you build? Will your system adapt over time? Be consistent and thorough with your designs and master the art of designing or have a design method within your methodology.
There are a couple of practical things needed. You need to master information and understand language. Be able to distill it down. Know how language expresses itself and how we communicate. How to construct and deconstruct language in a different sense. Understanding language and understanding people and how they use information. Finally, understanding how things relate to each other and express themselves.