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Managing Information: A Travel Planner’s Perspective

Data Overload

My mom is in her 80’s and she is the most orga­nized per­son I know. When I say orga­nized, I don’t mean that her socks are fold­ed more ele­gant­ly than yours. (They might be. I don’t know.) For me, orga­ni­za­tion is the abil­i­ty to access and exploit infor­ma­tion when you need to. My mom doesn’t use com­put­ers. She writes every­thing down. Address books. Cal­en­dars. Lists. She keeps scrap­books with doc­u­ments and pho­tos. When I query all of my fan­cy soft­ware, and I can’t find Aunt Betty’s phone num­ber, guess who I call. My mom grew up with paper, and she knows how to use it. My nephews and nieces on the oth­er hand, have nev­er suf­fered a paper cut, espe­cial­ly giv­en the for­mat of their new vir­tu­al edu­ca­tions. Me? I’m 55 and I got caught in between. I don’t own a print­er any­more, but I remem­ber the paper world, and for the first decade or so of my pro­fes­sion­al life I had actu­al inbox con­tain­ers on my desks. I sup­pose I must have had a rea­son­ably good ana­logue work­flow that got me through it, since I don’t remem­ber being fired. (Just yelled at a cou­ple of times.) 

As a pro­fes­sion­al trav­el plan­ner, I deal with a lot of infor­ma­tion, and with very few excep­tions, it’s elec­tron­ic. I deal with email, text mes­sages, data­bas­es, elec­tron­ic tick­et­ing, a pletho­ra of elec­tron­ic forms, and even elec­tron­ic pay­ments. With so much infor­ma­tion com­ing from so many dif­fer­ent sources, I would say that man­age­ment of infor­ma­tion is a greater chal­lenge now than ever. And I mean this in both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al contexts. 

With a back­ground in pro­fes­sion­al project man­age­ment, I want­ed to let you behind the cur­tain and share my thoughts with you about man­ag­ing infor­ma­tion in the third decade of the 21st Cen­tu­ry. I hope that even if this dis­cus­sion does not apply direct­ly to the chal­lenges that you face, there may be bits and pieces that pro­vide val­ue. Let me begin by say­ing that I have zero rela­tion­ship with any of the soft­ware prod­ucts that I men­tion below, oth­er than the fact that I have used or do use them personally. 

Let’s start straight away by kind of divid­ing this world into two pieces: pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and knowl­edge man­age­ment. This divide is slow­ly melt­ing away as tech­nol­o­gy allows us think about them both as dif­fer­ent sides of infor­ma­tion man­age­ment. By pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, I am refer­ring to the process of (steal­ing a phrase from David Allen), get­ting things done”. By knowl­edge man­age­ment, I am refer­ring to the process of cap­tur­ing, orga­niz­ing, exploit­ing, and shar­ing information. 

Let’s talk about how com­put­ers can help us tack­le pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. There are dozens and dozens of per­son­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tools (soft­ware appli­ca­tions) avail­able online. Some require you to down­load soft­ware while oth­ers sim­ply oper­ate as web appli­ca­tions. A major­i­ty of these tools are what we call cross-plat­form. In oth­er words, if I use the soft­ware on my desk­top com­put­er, the tool will work on my smart phone as well. At the very sim­plest lev­el, these tools allow us to record a task that we need to accom­plish, assign a due date, per­haps attach some notes to it, and see our task on a time­line. After using a vari­ety of these tools over the years, my favorite is Ever­note. For a very gen­er­al overview of how the appli­ca­tion works, click here.

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My Evernote user interface earlier this morning.

Ever­note is mar­ket­ed as a note tak­ing appli­ca­tion. When I begin plan­ning a new trip, I open a new note­book” (real­ly just a dig­i­tal fold­er), where I am going to store all of the infor­ma­tion for that trip. I will gen­er­ate trip notes for the trip fold­er in a myr­i­ad of ways. I can for­ward an email to Ever­note to include in the fold­er. I can cap­ture a screen shot. I can take a pho­to or a web clip­ping. I can cap­ture an audio record­ing. I can sim­ply type a new note. Some of these notes sim­ply con­tain infor­ma­tion about the trip that I may need access to in the future. How­ev­er, oth­er notes require action on my part. For those notes, I will assign a due date to the note and they will sub­se­quent­ly be dis­played in Ever­note as reminders”. The first thing I do in the morn­ing is to access my Ever­note reminders. These will show me all of the notes/​tasks that are due on a giv­en day, regard­less of what note­book (which trip) they are asso­ci­at­ed with. Ever­note is excep­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful in a con­ven­tion­al sense. It pro­vides many options for cap­tur­ing, and for access­ing my infor­ma­tion over time. Fur­ther­more, as men­tioned pre­vi­ous­ly, I have access to Ever­note on all of my dig­i­tal devices (com­put­er, tablet, phone, etc). Every­thing is stored in the cloud, mean­ing that I could lose all my devices, and my infor­ma­tion is still safe. All this being said, Ever­note is still just a fil­ing sys­tem with some neat tricks. Although I can search for infor­ma­tion across all of my fold­ers, infor­ma­tion is still filed in an old-fash­ioned hier­ar­chy. (That’s one of the things that make Ever­note so easy to grasp and use for my semi-dig­i­tal generation.) 

Although I intend to con­tin­ue to use Ever­note as a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tool well into the future, the dig­i­tal land­scape is chang­ing. As tools evolve, we are going to see much more pow­er­ful appli­ca­tions, that require much less action on our part. Some of this is due to the emer­gence of AI, but much of it is sim­ply the evo­lu­tion of bring­ing our infor­ma­tion man­age­ment process­es in line with how our brains func­tion. Many of these approach­es are not new. Mind map­ping, for exam­ple, was around long before the infor­ma­tion age, and is avail­able to us now via a wide range of soft­ware appli­ca­tions. Mind map­ping can serve as both a brain­storm­ing and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tool, allow­ing the brain to build the kind of con­nec­tions for which it is inher­ent­ly designed. How­ev­er, a new field of soft­ware is emerg­ing that promis­es not only to make us more pro­duc­tive but to help us man­age and lever­age our infor­ma­tion in ways that were not pre­vi­ous­ly avail­able out­side of your own brains. 

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Very simple mind map example. As with our actual thought processes, ideas and plans are interconnected.

A New Approach

This new field is built around the con­cept of Per­son­al Knowl­edge Man­age­ment (PKM). Let me explain it through my expe­ri­ence in mil­i­tary. There have been (and remain to some extent) var­i­ous cat­e­gories of infor­ma­tion that pro­vide val­ue to deci­sion mak­ers. These cat­e­gories include human intel­li­gence, geospa­tial (loca­tion) intel­li­gence, tech­ni­cal intel­li­gence, imagery intel­li­gence and sev­er­al oth­ers. Infor­ma­tion is gath­ered in each of these cat­e­gories. Think of the cat­e­gories as silos. So, for exam­ple, we could search through the silo of infor­ma­tion on human intel­li­gence to per­haps dis­cov­er infor­ma­tion about a per­son. We could search through the geospa­tial silo to find data about a place. How­ev­er, it was (and still is in many cas­es) up to a human ana­lyst to be able to make the asso­ci­a­tion between that per­son and a giv­en place. That asso­ci­a­tion is what makes the two pieces of pre­vi­ous­ly sep­a­rat­ed infor­ma­tion valu­able. And with all that infor­ma­tion avail­able, but stored in dis­tinct silos and for­mats, can you imag­ine all of the poten­tial asso­ci­a­tions that are missed? This same type of infra­struc­ture con­strains not only the mil­i­tary, but indus­try as well, as lead­ers of large com­pa­nies strug­gle to make sense of data that can­not read­i­ly be con­nect­ed. Recent­ly how­ev­er, new approach­es and tech­nolo­gies have evolved that have start­ed to break down the bar­ri­ers between these silos of infor­ma­tion. We are now able to take infor­ma­tion that was stuck in spe­cif­ic silos and throw it unstruc­tured” into one big buck­et where it can exist togeth­er and can be exploit­ed in new ways. 

To under­stand this new approach, it’s impor­tant to under­stand the con­cept of enti­ties”. An enti­ty can be a place, or an idea, or a per­son, or a col­or. It could be a soc­cer team, or a book. All of these are enti­ties. Once we define our enti­ties, the soft­ware (appli­ca­tion) can show us all of the rela­tion­ships that exist between those enti­ties in this com­bined buck­et of data. This allows us to draw new con­clu­sions about our envi­ron­ments because it is show­ing us con­nec­tions that we often did not know exist­ed, hid­den lines between peo­ple, ideas, places, etc. These asso­ci­a­tion expo­sure capa­bil­i­ties can be excep­tion­al­ly valu­able in a num­ber of fields, espe­cial­ly sci­en­tif­ic research. Recent­ly, these new tools have start­ed to trick­le down from indus­try and gov­ern­ment and are now avail­able to us (in a crud­er form) at the per­son­al level. 

One exam­ple of this is the Roam Research (RR) appli­ca­tion. Like Ever­note, RR is a note tak­ing appli­ca­tion. In oth­er words, it’s a place where you store stuff you think is impor­tant. Maybe a phone num­ber. Maybe your dai­ly jour­nal entry. Maybe a reminder to stop by the post office tomor­row. Maybe even your thoughts on a bot­tle of wine. The dif­fer­ence is that, unlike Ever­note, there are no fold­ers and no stor­age hier­ar­chies. Every note is just that: a note. All notes are equal. RR finds the con­nec­tions between the enti­ties in your notes. These pre­vi­ous­ly unseen lines between things” will sur­prise you and give you remark­able insight, allow­ing you to lever­age what you already know in new ways. This, as I men­tioned ear­li­er, is how the brain works. It is con­stant­ly mak­ing these asso­ci­a­tions among enti­ties in your con­scious and sub-con­scious. Like your brain, the more you put into RR, the more asso­ci­a­tions it will dis­cov­er. (For advanced users, RR offers the avail­abil­i­ty to fil­ter revealed asso­ci­a­tions as well, allow­ing us to cus­tomize the asso­ci­a­tions that are most impor­tant to us.)

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One of my RR note collections. This diagram is referred to as graph. In this case, I have asked RR to highlight (in blue) all connections with my nephew.

Roam Research offers a free tri­al fol­lowed by a $15 per month sub­scrip­tion. For a sim­i­lar pro­gram at no cost, con­sid­er Obsid­i­an. At this point, I am using PKM tools main­ly for research, while I use more con­ven­tion­al tools like Ever­note for pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. There is some­thing com­fort­ing to me about hav­ing all the infor­ma­tion about a client’s trip in a spe­cif­ic fold­er. At the same time, I know that these emerg­ing flat” PKM sys­tems will allow me to main­tain the rela­tion­ship between the doc­u­ments in a giv­en trip file”, while also allow­ing me to gain new insights regard­ing my clients’ des­ti­na­tions, trav­el providers and many oth­er fea­tures of a giv­en trip. Even­tu­al­ly I will make the tran­si­tion, but as I said, I am 55. I remem­ber paper. I’m just try­ing to keep up.