Friday, January 8, 2010

Get out and pull

Thu, Jan 7, 2010 at 4:45 AM I received an e-mail from the Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch train service. After greeting me by name, the mail went on to read, Door het winterweer zijn er meer treinen defect. Dat heeft gevolgen voor de dienstregeling. (Eng. 'Because of the winter weather more trains are out of service. This has consequences for the train schedules.') Of course, I appreciate the personalized warning and it would have been critical if I had needed to travel by train yesterday.

For me, this incident was an example of how information technology does help us as a society to be more efficient, cost-effective and perhaps even kinder to the environment. But now that the Nederlandse Spoorwegen has the possibility to broadcast a wide, personal warning and forestall hoards of cold and angry passengers on the platforms, doesn't that make it economic for them to operate on an even thinner margin--i.e., have even less resources on hand that they can swing into action in the case of weather emergencies? It's a slippery slope downwards to being in an even worse position to handle emergency situations. Are things more efficient, or have we just found another balance to inefficiency?

A little personalized knowledge is a dangerous thing. The 4:45 AM mail is, of course, going to be forwarded to bosses across the country -- I'm not coming in, or I'm going to be late today. Half the trains might still be running -- but is there any guaranteed that only half the train riding workforce has now flips into snow-day mode? The Nederlandse Spoorwegen is saving itself from weather problems with its information spreading, but it could actually be amplifying the weather problems for other sectors. What to do? I am certainly not going to advocate the fully personalized approach: The Nederlandse Spoorwegen knows every individuals's contribution to the overall economy and then only warns the less essential members away from trying to take the train on days that less trains are running. Perhaps I could live with the following 4:45 AM mail: 'Good Morning! We think that you want to go to Amsterdam this morning, if you leave the house in one hour there will be a train to Amsterdam picking you up on Platform 1 when you arrive at the station.' I suppose it would be most effective if the message was sent directly to my alarm clock.

But maybe we're not really moving towards putting our schedules entirely in the hands of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen. The final sentence of the 4:45 AM mail is perhaps the most important one: Kijk voor meer informatie op (Eng. 'Visit for more information.) The mail is not warning me off -- what it is is a gentle information push that is inviting me to go out and search for my own information and to make my own decision. There's something you might need to try to find out today, it says. It pushes me to go pull. It tells me that I might just have an information need.

The responsibility of search is to be able to respond in a flexible manner to searchers that have been moved to search by a prompted information need. But maybe my search system should be on the look out for me and be responsible for sending the 4:45 AM mail as well. The Nederlandse Spoorwegen could then attend to its business of getting all of the trains running again on schedule. They wouldn't have to even mention it, and we'd all be willing to get out and pull.