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FreePint Blog1997-2007: A Decade of Find, Use, Manage, Share

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By Tim Houghton


On the evolutionary scale, 10 years isn't even a blip, not a blink, not a breath in. It's hardly anything at all. But on the information scale, especially in the years from 1997 to 2007, a decade is a new mountain range, a new species, a new world.

FreePint has been covering this evolution revolution from tip to tail, keeping up with changes in the business information industry as they've happened. Now, as we celebrate our 10th birthday, we've invited four top experts in their fields of finding, using, managing and sharing information to explain what these changes mean from a distance.

By the time you read this, the landscape is likely to have evolved again - who knows what earthshaking ideas are rippling forth? Until then, here are the hottest trends in the last 10 years. We'll keep an eye on the seismograph while you read.

Use By Tim Houghton

Tim HoughtonThe blindingly obvious information trend of the last decade has been the development of the Internet and the continued growth of computing and digitization, which has led to a vast increase in the volume of information. A study by researchers at Berkeley University back in 2003 reckoned the global stock of information was increasing by 5 Exabytes per annum (that's 5,000 million Gigabytes).

But whilst the sheer volume of information has increased, many of the techniques employed to solve business problems - in other words, 'use' information - haven't changed. Spreadsheets are still a basic tool of analysis. Graphs are still a standard of visualisation. More complex techniques like regression analysis and scenario planning were around well before 1997.

Nevertheless, there are a few significant trends that emerge from the last 10 years in the field of using information. Here they are:

Business Planning Software

Large firms have been able to run sophisticated analyses of sales, cashflow and inventory since the adoption of the mainframe. But increasingly such systems can be used by any size firm, thanks to the growth and democratisation of enterprise analysis software. Think SAP for small businesses and Web-delivered systems like

Social Information Usage

Web 2.0 and social media are obviously all the rage right now, but actually using information collaboratively in a professional context has moved through two distinct phases. In simple terms, the period 1997-2002 saw increased collaboration within the enterprise via intranets. And post 2002, we have seen increased collaboration outside of the enterprise via blogging and extranets.

Semantic Web

In 1998 Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founders of the Web, wrote about his hopes for 'a logical web of data' or a Semantic Web. Nearly 10 years on, his vision has been partly achieved. Think how XML helps firms share data or RSS helps researchers track news. Or how open API's enable mash-ups of related data. This is leading to very great changes in the use of information whereby machines can read and analyse information from multiple sources in real time.

Meaning-Based Computing

This is, in a way, the next step on from the Semantic Web. It involves computers actually extracting meaning from text in order to suggest relevant articles, conduct automated summarisation of articles and so on. In other words, it is computers 'using' information in ways humans used to. Important companies in the field include Corpora and Autonomy.

Computing-Based Decision Making

The logical conclusion of the ever-greater usage and digitisation of information is that computers can use information to make their own decisions. This for me is the most exciting and controversial development of the last 10 years. In many fields from medical diagnosis to bond trading computer systems have started to outperform their human peers. It was 1997 when IBM's Deep Blue computer beat the greatest chess player of modern times Gary Kasparov. Read Ian Ayre's fascinating new book 'Super Crunchers' to see why computers may soon be writing film scripts.

Looking forward to the next 10 years is always hard but the rise of computerised analysis and decision making seems set to continue. Does this leave no room for the talented human being to use data? Certainly not, for it is people that write the algorithms that data-processing machines use. And there is still a place for intuition and creativity. Fortunately, humans aren't obsolete just yet.


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