Taking Flight

The first year I lived in Vancouver, I delighted in watching a heronry of Great Blue Herons at the edge of Stanley Park. A heronry is where large groups of herons nest and raise and their young. This particular one, contained dozens of nests. It was raucously noisy and had a distinctive odor.

The Heronry in April

I loved watching these majestic birds throughout the season. Their distinctive silhouettes, like those of little old gnomes, perched in the trees. Or soaring gracefully through the air with their broad wings and stilt legs straight together. Looking almost like a winged dinosaur, or something reminiscent of ancient roots.

In the early days of spring, it was easy to see them through the bare trees. Each week I returned to watch the development. By the time the summer leaves filled out the branches, I knew how to spot the nests easily. By now, my eyes were focused on the fledglings. Their large size made them visible from the sidewalk.

I watched the fledglings, now oversized for the nests in just a few short months, clumsily beating their wings. They were practicing and building strength for the first flight. There is little room for failure on the first launch from the next. These birds had to get it right.

Driven by instinct and what they learned from observing, these fledglings slowly tested out their wings, heavy on their young frames. At first they could little more than perch themselves upright. Over time, they built the skills and knowledge to remain stable. Then familiarized themselves with their large wings, first learning how to hold them and move them before trying out the more advanced moves needed for flying.

Observing these fledglings, learning in stages, reminded me of how we acquire new skills. Once we master a new skill, it’s easy to forget about a time when we didn’t know how to it. A time when we had to slow down, take our time, familiarize ourselves with something new, and figure it out.

Skills are acquired over time, bit by bit. The pandemic is challenging us in new ways. This can make it difficult to see that at the same time, we’re also learning how to do something new.

The Disruption and Promise of the Pandemic

The pandemic has been a major disrupter. It’s unsettled almost every aspect of our lives in some way or another. As we’re heading into a second wave of the pandemic, it might seem strange to write about the promise of it. However, disruption brings about change and not all of it is bad.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a number of improvements made to businesses. For example, the other day I went to the bank. To reduce people inside, I was required to make an appointment. I made the appointment easily through my phone without creating a new account. I received a notification automatically shortly before it was my turn. No more waiting aimlessly in a line when I could be out running errands, drinking a coffee, or window shopping instead.

The Rise of Online Forms

In addition to new services springing up allowing us to make appointments for everything, online forms have improved dramatically. To be fair, online forms have been around for a long time. It’s just that before the pandemic, most of them were terrible. A lot of times, even as recently as February 2020, the online form was a poorly constructed Word document attached to an email. However, the pandemic has forced businesses to change this rapidly.

Now, all the forms I’ve had to fill out lately, are online. They’re easy to fill out. No downloading required or stumbling with clumsy, awkward Word documents. It’s fast, easy and mobile friendly.

It’s about time! I’ve always had a peeve about filling out miserably designed forms, or even worse, having to fill them out in paper. Printing, filling out, signing, scanning. Ugh.

The Rise of the E-signature

Another noticeable improvement has been the ability to e-sign documents. Some of this goes along with the improved forms. In many cases, agreeing to/accepting terms, counts as an e-signature. However, many forms now allow for end users to sign directly by using their finger, a stylus. Or sometimes even by scanning in a written signature and placing it in the right spot on the form.

I can only imagine how these innovations have improved things for businesses on the other end of things. I’m sure having online forms reduces typos and saves some poor worker from a lot of unnecessary data entry.

The Murkiness of Mail-In Voting

Growing up, my father instilled a strong sense of the importance of voting. I remember as a small child accompanying my father to vote. From a distance, I watched him enter the voting booth and pull a lever to close a thick, dark curtain. When I turned 18, I registered to vote.

Voting is important! As a woman, I take this right seriously. We’re encouraged to vote, but the process is so convoluted and inconsistent from State to State, that things get murky. Read more in an earlier blog about Why Mail-In Voting Is Problematic for the US Presidential Election.

Voting Instructions in My State

Last week I received voting instructions for the US Presidential Election via email. The body of the email outlined the process and included three documents:

  • A blank ballot (see below)
  • A list of candidates, including their parties and office, plus one question.
  • A certification statement with a note in bold under the instructions
    • Your vote will not be counted unless you sign this certificate and return it with your ballot BEFORE 8 P.M. ON ELECTION/PRIMARY DAY.

Essentially, I have to handwrite in my vote(s) on the blank ballot. Sign the certification statement. Enclose both in an envelope and write “Ballot Enclosed” on it.

The process seems simple, but a few things are missing.

The Weight of the Handwritten Signature

The certification statement includes the note about how to make my vote count. However, an important detail is not there. Having my vote count also depends on a comparison of two signatures. The signature from my voting registration form (sent separately) and the one on my certification statement.

The wrinkle is that I filled out my registration form electronically. I “signed” it with my finger, rather than a pen. After submitting the form electronically, I printed it out and mailed it in. Now I’m left wondering if the electronic signature will match the handwritten one closely enough for my vote to count.

I’m also left wondering, why we rely on such a system in 2020?

The technology to collect and accept electronic (and digital) signatures has been around for over a decade. Why do we still put our faith in all this paper and handwritten signatures?

Will my vote count? I’ll have to wait until November.

As for others, the mail-in process varies from State to State. Things will be murky on election day.

The Problems with Personalization

Technology, combined with big data collection, now make it possible to provide you with personalized experiences, choices, advertisements, etc. The most apparent way many of us interact with this is through targeted advertising. Or with the promise to analyze our habits and provide insights. This process starts when a company collects our data through devices (e.g., wearables, mobile, etc.).

I would love to learn to more about my habits. I would love to improve my life with the latest and greatest technology. However, using all these services requires us to give up something. That something is our privacy, personal information, and intimate knowledge of our habits. That’s one of the problems.

Additionally, many of these analyses occur through algorithms. As end users, we often have a low understanding of how these algorithms work. While the results may look promising, or fancy, it doesn’t mean they’re accurate. Or meaningful to us. And it doesn’t mean that we can base decisions on them.

An inherent danger with algorithms is that sometimes they only provide us with more of the same. For example, social media news feed suggestions are often flooded with similar articles/headlines to ones you’ve viewed in the past. Or ones viewed by your connections.

Another challenge with algorithms is how many people “game the system.” This means people intentionally post flashy, sensational content to get noticed and go viral. Usually it works, which is why so many people continue to do it. It’s also one of the main ways disinformation and misinformation spread so quickly.

One of my primary concerns is always the retention of our personal data. Check out last week’s posting, The Internet of Things and Data Retention Policies, for more details.

And on another level, this level of personalization is kind of creepy! A few months ago, which watching TV, I was convinced that the commercials related directly to my internet shopping. In no time I discovered that my TV had in fact been monitoring my searches. The commercials were targeted advertising. I disabled the monitoring in the settings.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

Check your settings on all your devices. Investigate how to prevent data collection and sharing.

If you do want to use a service:

Read the EULAs (End-User License Agreements) or Terms of Service. Ask questions. Read the FAQs. Make sure you agree with the terms presented.

The Internet of Things and Data Retention Policies

Using Internet of Things (IoT) devices can be beneficial and productive. However, it’s important to understand how everything works. To start, here is a definition of the IoT.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines IoT as: “the networking capability that allows information to be sent to and received from objects and devices (such as fixtures and kitchen appliances) using the Internet“. Popular examples of IoT include things like the Nest thermostat, lights, automatic pet feeders, cars, speakers, etc. Basically, “smart” anything is probably part of the IoT.

The potential with IoT is enormous. For example, benefits of the Nest thermostat include regulating house temperatures. This means not keeping an empty house heated. Essentially, it’s a way to monitor your usage, make predictions, and adjust. All of which translates to saving energy and money, in the long run.

Other examples of IoT include wearable devices. Many wearable devices track health data. Some devices can monitor heart rates, stress levels, daily activity, etc. While these devices can be useful, do you feel comfortable having your personal health data collected, stored, analyzed, etc. by a third party?

Plans are in progress to build “smart” cities. Smart cities could include elements like parking spots to alert drivers where one is available. Or things like smart sidewalks that could heat up to melt snow and ice.

The conveniences offered are attractive, but they come at a price. The true cost of personal data collection and usage is difficult to calculate.

The Downside of the IoT

As a Records and Information Management (RIM) professional, I always consider the negative side of IoT. My primary concern is the volume of collected data and opaque data retention/usage policies. Although using the IoT seems attractive, assessing the whole process is important, too.

Often, as end users, we don’t always understand what data is collected. We’re often unaware of how long the company keeps data. Or its exact use.

Good Questions to Consider When Purchasing IoT Products/Services

Consider the questions below so you can make an informed decision.

  1. What data is being collected?
  2. How will this data be used?
  3. Does the company share data with any third parties?
  4. How long will the data be retained?
  5. Is data retained, after you stop using the service or device?
  6. Are you in control of deleting data?
  7. How is your privacy and personally identifiable information (PII) protected?

How to Label Things Properly

While retrieving something from storage, I happened to notice a box in my neighbor’s cage. I read the label and instantly experienced three different, but distinct emotions.

  1. As a records and information management (RIM) professional, I inwardly groaned. Nobody would ever find anything in that box. Or even think to open it with such a cryptic description.
  2. Also as a RIM professional, I chuckled! I can still recall some of the worst box names I ever saw. My favorite was “From the 5th drawer in the cabinet behind Nicki’s desk”.
  3. As a fellow human just wanting to get some stuff in storage, I nodded compassionately and with understanding. Before I worked in RIM, I labeled my boxes the same way. Years after I had moved, I found boxes of books at my mother’s house labeled with similar descriptions, such as “books from the bottom shelf,” “books from the 4th shelf,” etc. At the time of packing, the contents of each shelf was most memorable by the location. Years later, the description was meaningless.

Why Labeling is so Important

To people who don’t work in my profession, I probably seem uptight and anal about labeling. I can understand this perspective. Similar to how I felt when I packed up my bookcase, the box descriptions were for me. I would always remember them because it was my system. However, labels are one of the primary ways we find things easily. This includes other people and our future selves.

In my field, we do a lot of records retrievals. Sometimes the retrievals are for documents created decades earlier. The descriptions matter. A lot. Trust me. Sometimes we would search for hours (or days) to find the right documents because they were labeled with poor descriptions like “Jimmy’s important stuff,” or “Planning misc.”

Tips for Creating Meaningful Labels

When creating meaningful labels that will still resonate years later, content and context count.

Be concise – focus on content and contextual keywords that describe your items

Be clear – write descriptions that make sense at the time and for the future. For example, instead of a random location, like “the cabinet behind Nicki’s desk”, use an address. Write out acronyms! You think you will always remember what they stand for, you won’t.

Avoid using the word “miscellaneous” or “misc.” or any other form of it. You think you know what this will mean later, you won’t.