Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Google and the Privatisation of Public Information


I never really understood why the places I work for like to spend so much time and money building their own search programs, to search the content that they have again spent so much time and money hiding away from public view in their own content management systems. I should explain that the places I have worked for are public services - like schools, colleges (TAFE) and Universities...

I guess more and more of them are choosing to operate like businesses and corporations rather than public schools, adopting the operative that all "their" content is "their" intellectual property and it is from the content that they make money. If only they would realise just how much their efforts to privatise their content and services are simply making them irrelevant.

This point is no better illustrated than with a recent observation I made of a number of staff member's actions to source information on topics of interest to them. Instead of diving into their institute's content management system and searching their unintuitive and therefore under used database, they headed straight for Google! Isn't that logical? Rather than limit what you find to the scarce "Intellectual Property" of their Institute, they headed straight for what they could find in a more public domain, through Google. And let's be honest here, who has used a more simple to use, feature laden, well managed search engine than Google? For free? And with such a variety of interesting results? But what happens to God sent things like Google if more and more educational institutions and public service agencies elect to hide “their” content behind firewalls, on their own servers, managed by their own inefficient content systems?… I guess a campaign to encourage staff to open it up to the public would need to happen… brave staff needed for that.

I'm guilty of not using Google to its full potential though. Just recently I started using the Google Alerts on stuff I need to know about. Google Alerts are email updates of the latest relevant Google search results based on your defined query or topic. How good, logical, and handy is that? I find it very handy from time to time.

For example, I'm just in the process of buying a new digital camera. The one I like has only just recently been released, and there are no reviews on it today. So I'll give it a week or 2 before I choose one, and ask Google to email me any new information on the camera I'm thinking to buy. So far, Google Alerts has been excellent - emailing me once a day, week or month on a number of topics. I couldn't help it, I also asked to be updated on any mention of my name too ;)

Also, Google Scholar enables you to search specifically for scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports from all broad areas of research. Use Google Scholar to find articles from a wide variety of academic publishers, professional societies, preprint repositories and universities, as well as scholarly articles available across the web.

And always a cut above, Google's new Gmail
"..As part of Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, we're testing an email service called Gmail.

Gmail is a free, search-based webmail service that includes 1,000 megabytes (1 gigabyte) of storage. The backbone of Gmail is a powerful Google search engine that quickly finds any message an account owner has ever sent or received. That means there's no need to file messages in order to find them again.

When Gmail displays an email, it automatically shows all the replies to that email as well, so users can view a message in the context of a conversation. There are no pop-ups or untargeted banner ads in Gmail, which places relevant text ads and links to related web pages adjacent to email messages..."

Now, I don't know why the Institutes I work for even bother setting up email servers now! Our email server is down at least once a week, I'm always getting nagged to clean up and archive, and its webmail sidekick is just a pain in the butt! Why don't they just give it up and start using Gmail? I'm sure that if they paid Google half of their savings for dropping their internal email servers, Google would do them special favours...

But back to my original opinion: why is it that public institutions, especially tertiary public education in Australia are blindly moving towards privatising their services and content on their own inefficient and expensive servers? Is it just plain old mismanagement, or is there some sinister strategy on their part? Is it a bunch of IT guys protecting their job descriptions, or are they a bit too comfy in the way they know and do things to consider a back step...?

Leigh

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