Friday, April 28, 2006

Poor use of rich data

Years ago when I worked at the shipping newspaper known as the Journal of Commerce, I was both fascinated and frustrated by the company's data product.
It was called PIERS. And it was full of information that made for compelling stories. But in one of those strange cultural disconnects that often happen at publishing companies, most of us in the editorial department weren't allowed to roam freely in the databases. We didn't have passwords. We couldn't get them.
Instead we had to submit a request to folks in the PIERS department, who would pull up the data we needed.

The end result, of course, was that we didn't ... couldn't ... take full advantage of PIERS. If we knew what we were looking for, we could request it. Thus our stories tended to have lots of good lists -- top imports at certain ports, etc. But we couldn't roam through the database itself. We couldn't play. We couldn't investigate. Thus we never "found" stories. We never stumbled serendipitously on to news.
I have a vague memory of asking for PIERS training and passwords and being told that the company didn't like to distribute the knowledge because of security concerns. Apparently the risk that someone could steal some of the data outweighed the chance that a reporter would use it.
Even more remarkable, I remember getting into an argument with someone at the company who didn't want to send copies of the transportation directories the company published to my office in Chicago. As much as I needed those lists of names and phone numbers to work my beat, this guy was worried about the postage. (I eventually convinced another reporter to steal a set and mail them to me.)

Years later I found myself working at Bloomberg News, where I found a very different situation. Bloomberg, wisely, made sure that every journalist in the company knew how to operate in the company's endless databases of financial information. And nearly every story ended with a "tour" -- a series of on-screen charts and graphics generated from Bloomberg data.
The result, of course, was that the staff produced more valuable work using material that competitors couldn't duplicate.
(It's worth noting that Bloomberg has its own security paranoia. Staff is banned from using Web sites that offer e-mail, for example. Internet use is monitored. And e-mail is blocked if it contains foul language.)

In recent weeks I've heard a lot of talk among B2B publishing executives about "rich data," the new buzzword for the databases owned by many a B2B magazine. And each time I hear the phrase, I wonder how many B2B journalists are able to access the data they need.
What are the policies at your company? Are reporters free to roam the Web? Does everyone have passwords to the company's databases? Does anyone have a password to competitors' databases? Does the company offer journalists the same training it offers data customers?

For a look at a piece about one of my fondest hopes, take a look at this post in which I predict that some wise B2B publisher will soon let people "mash up" the company's data to create all-new products.

For a look at what guest columnist Russell Perkins has to say about B2B and rich data, take a look at this piece on Magazine Enterprise 360, the site I produce with magazine legend Hershel Sarbin.

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