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Friday, June 22, 2012

Language, Information, Data and Quality

Hat in Puddle
Hat in a Puddle
Language is a slippery thing.  For many years I conducted my life in the firm belief that if I were only precise enough in my selection of vocabulary, clear enough in my choice of syntax, I could convey an idea without ambiguity to any audience.

I have frequently been disappointed with the result. There is a force at work that allows people in the audience to navigate their own way through the meaning of my language.
Those in the data and information industry are accustomed to thinking of meaning as the semantic of the data.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The dictionaries are full of semantics.  We can choose from a rich set of words (semantic tokens) to describe the situation represented in the picture above.  Note that we can change the meaning of the set of semantic tokens by several non-verbal (without words) methods including tone and inflection.  For example "hat in a puddle" has a different meaning than "hat in a puddle" or "hat in a puddle."

When we talk about semantics, we mean the meaning denoted by the words.  Alas, as humans we must also deal with the connoted meaning that each of us associates with the words.  Words and collections of words invoke in us memories, hopes , desires that are not part of the semantic but are part of the meaning.

The situation is very much like the puddle above.  Most people will accept the puddle at "face value" and simply avoid it so as not to get wet or muddy.  Others will make assumptions and develop expectations based on their personal experience with puddles.  Some of these will not change course, especially if their experience and their current situation allows them to expect that they won't get muddy.  Note that a new dimension was just introduced--a temporal dimension that allows us to react differently now than we might have an hour ago.

Appearance is Not Meaning
All Meaning Not Apparent
A man walking along a road saw a hat in a puddle and recognized the hat as one usually worn by his neighbor.  He thought to pick it up and return it.  When he picked up the hat, however, he saw the face of his neighbor.  He asked whether the neighbor needed help.  "I'm all right.  I've got my horse under me," was the reply.

The face value of words (and appearances) is accepted by most people and used to support decisions of all kinds.

Poets understand that meaning is not conveyed by words.  "Wait a second!" you say, "Poetry is composed of words."  We're both correct.  The meaning of a poem (or a story) is created by all the images, memories, hopes, dreams and desires that those words evoke in us.  This is why everyone who makes rhymes is NOT a poet and why everyone who has a command of vocabulary and syntax is NOT an acclaimed author.

This is the world in which we attempt to improve data quality.  While we may aspire to improve the quality of the semantics, it seems clear that we will never influence the quality of meaning.  This is, perhaps, what "fit for intended purpose" tries to convey.  What if the semantic tokens were musical notes instead?  What if they were colors or smells?  Would we be as confident?

What if we ceased our attempts to control the perceptions of an audience and instead created ways for our audience to explore the boundary between semantics and meaning?

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