The Importance of Information Needs: From Rambo movies to the COVID-19 vaccine

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Our world produces an extraordinary amount of data & information that cannot be (of course) be managed and approached in the normal, everyday way. Consider the numbers: McKinsey Global Institute Research (2017), for example, predicted that there will be 44 zettabytes (ZB) of data produced in 2020; IDC (2019) ups the ante a bit and predicts that in 2025 the connected internet of things (IoT) will produce nearly 80ZB of data. Fine, why not? But what will happen to our information needs? What kind of information-orientated problems will we be solving? And more importantly, how will we solve them in the face of this tsunami of data?

This Information Ninja post is about is about how we might handle our future information needs, and why is important to think about what actually we need to solve / find. The second part of this post is about information overload and why it is ever more dangerous for our society.

Firstly, what is an “information need”? It is a crucial part of an information literacy. A sound definition of information literacy is provided by the American Library Association: ‘Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” To be information literate, then, one needs skills not only in research but in critical thinking.’ To put it another way, an information need is your ability to recognise when you lack information, to have the knowledge of where to find the information (the information source), to be able to use the information source effectively (search & find), analyse the relevancy of it and use the information to remove the lack of information (i.e. the information need is solved).

Sounds simple? It’s not. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Imagine that you are watching the latest Sylvester Stallone Rambo movie when suddenly you think: “Wow, this Last Blood movie is really amazing, but I wonder when the very first part of this Rambo series was created?” This is a simple example of an information need. The answer is obviously quite easy for you if you are a fan of Stallone’s movies, or you know the specific information source where you can find factual information about movies and movie creators (e.g. IMDB), or you just Google it, or Bing it.

Here are the three different scenarios:

  1. If you are a fan, you have knowledge of the answer as a part of your long-term memory which is a primary information source.
  2. If you know the particular information source, you have knowledge where to search for this information, and e.g. the movie database is your secondary information source.
  3. You have knowledge about search engines and you must know keywords and query logic (e.g. Boolean) to get relevant results. Of course, at present we know that Google (or Bing) both work as secondary information sources (see the image below) and help us with their search algorithms.

Some more examples will consider how to solve some slightly more difficult information needs.

Information Need: A vaccine for the COVID-19

Since the beginning of 2020 we have faced an almost unprecedented challenge: how to cope with and manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Among all the measurements, restrictions and critical situations, one global information need is being discussed: “Is there a vaccine for this disease, or when will a vaccine be available?”

Right now, we might be tempted to dwell on the difficulty of the second part of this question: when will the vaccine be available? However, the first part is also not so easy to answer. Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. There is a critically high demand for a vaccine, but the process of research & development is dependent on many legal and regulatory steps including clinical testing, verification, and approval by numerous different authorities.
  2. Even if we don’t want to accept the idea, we need to consider that business is also at work and intense negotiations, including lobbying, are already in train.
  3. Intellectual property rights (e.g patents) are a crucial factor. To own them, or not to own them, determines the level of control in the future.

So, this information need is quite a complex entity when compared to the Rambo movie information need. But still, the principles are the same. We need to be able to identify the source, use it, analyse the results and, ultimately, solve the need.

The source question is the most difficult at present, because there is no one single source that can provide us with verified answers about the existence of the vaccine, or when it will be available. And even if we do suggest some good sources as examples in this post, it definitely won’t be the final set as far as data and information production frequency are concerned. What really matters is the time of publishing.

So, if we need to know whether there is a vaccine or not, we can visit news aggregators such as Kaiser Health News, RealClear Health, Google News (Health) and many more, and these mainstream surface web sources all say that there is no vaccine ready at the beginning of May 2020. For potential verification we need to go to the more scientific-orientated community sources such as Microsoft Academic or Google Scholar.

The results also show us a couple of other medicine-orientated sources where we can continue to search for answers: medRxiv and bioRxiv are preprint sources; preprint, or preliminary reports are not peer-reviewed at the time publication and should not be considered as a verified state-of-the-art solution. But even with this definition, we should definitely consider them as a relevant first insight for solving the specific problem — the COVID-19 vaccine in our example.

Finally, in order to monitor when any possible COVID-19 vaccine will be confirmed, we need to focus on evidence-based-medicine sources. One of the most well-known is the Cochrane Library, now also focused on coronavirus developements. We also need to consider clinical trials. ClinicalTrials.gov provides advanced filtering of results, so when the COVID-19 vaccine is finally ready for marketing, it will appear here, along with all the relevant documentation.

To sum up, the ability to work with your own information needs is a critical part of your intellectual process, with many different requirements. However, it is an important part that should not be underestimated. If you think about your information needs from the perspective of source, analysis and use you will save yourself a lot of time, which has to be a good thing, no?

Manyika, J. (2017). A Future that Works: AI, Automation, Employment, and Productivity. McKinsey Global Institute Research, Tech. Rep, 60.

IDC, (2019). The Growth in Connected IoT Devices Is Expected to Generate 79.4ZB of Data in 2025, According to a New IDC Forecast. Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS45213219