Personal (Information Management) is not (Personal Information) Management

I spent last weekend at the 2012 PIM workshop, located at CSCW 2012.  This was the 5th such workshop.  Appropriately for its setting, this one focused on “PIM in a socially networked world”—i.e., the aspects of PIM emerging in the interactions between multiple individuals.  The focus clearly highlighted the distance between two different notions of PIM.


Information About Me

Historically, PIM has studied the tools and techniques people use to work with their own personal information.  But with the emergence of social networks, many people discover that their personal information is being managed by other people.  Our tweets and Facebook status updates are clearly personal information, but we are publishing them for general consumption.  More thought provoking, one PIM attendee described her grandmother’s surprise and displeasure on discovering that she (the grandmother) had been tagged in several Facebook photos.  She wasn’t even on Facebook, yet this quite personal information was uploaded and being seen by others.  (Ironically, had she wanted to untag those photos, she would have had to join Facebook, and in doing so reveal other personal information.)

These examples highlight the aspect of PIM dealing with disclosure of personal information.  Many people would like to manage who sees what information about them and when they see it.  There is need for interfaces that help people understand and manage what they are disclosing and what others disclose about them.  This is not only a technical problem; clearly there are ethical, social, and legal questions that must be addressed: what rights do individuals have to limit the information disclosed about them, and how can those right be enforced?  Do we simply rely on social norms to prevent the inappropriate disclosure of personal information?  Should it be a requirement to notify people when their personal information is disclosed?  Should there be laws forbidding such disclosures in certain circumstances?


Information For Me

I generally focus on the other kind of PIM: tools that help people manage arbitrary information for their own purposes. Rather than being about the person, this can be impersonal information that has been brought into the user’s “orbit” by some task they have to do—data from or for work, news or entertainment they consume, or information they are managing on behalf of some other individual.  This is an incredibly broad class of information—just about every type of information can become part of your personal space.

For that reason, and because of the possible conflation with the previous “disclosure”-focused version, I find myself considering a different name than PIM: End User Information Management.   This phrase captures the crux of the problem—not the information being managed, but the person doing the managing.  It covers nearly every imaginable form of information, but unlike, for example, databases, transaction processing or scientific visualization, it focuses on problems encountered by end users without specialized training, and the tools and techniques that these non-specialized users can understand and use effectively.

I wish I could claim inventorship, but there is already some limited use of this term.  Gary Marchionini wrote a 1992 paper on “End User Information Seeking.”  Mark Gregory has a survey on End User Information Management tools.

This label connects nicely to End User Programming, a closely related field.  End users often have workflow tasks that could “easily” be accomplished by programming.  But most end users are unfamiliar with programming languages, approaches and tools.  End User Programming aims to develop more broadly usable tools that put at least some of the benefits of programming in the hands of regular users.  The UID group at MIT has contributed to this area with tools like Chickenfoot and Sikuli. Given the role of computation in effective information management, End-User Programming clearly has an important role to play in End User Information Management.

Perhaps the first serious end-user programming was Visicalc, the original spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet cells could hold multiple pieces of inter-dependent state, enabling the user to describe complex multi-stage computational processes without authoring a program. Debugging was also simplified: instead of having to trace an execution, users could see all stages of the computation simultaneously displayed in the many spreadsheet cells.

Interestingly, the spreadsheet has also turned out to be the dominant end user information management tool, allowing users to store databases with arbitrary schemas as spreadsheet tables.  A colleague once told me of an extensive study he performed (but was never permitted to release) showing that most spreadsheets did not contain numbers: they were being used as databases, not as calculation engines.   Despite the availability of more sophisticated database tools, even those with UIs such as Access, end users seem wedded to simpler spreadsheet relatives.  Spreadsheets’ use as databases has driven some evolution, as we now see spreadsheets offering sorting and filtering functionality not particularly relevant to their original accounting applications.


Untangling the Two

The two types of PIM are often considered together.  This is understandable; at first glance a lot of the information managed by end users is in fact personal information—contacts, calendars, messages, personal photos and other media.  But I believe that this is a deceptive connection.  The information challenges I face trying to organize my personal photo collection (clearly a PIM activity) share a lot with the challenges faced by a professional photographer organizing his portfolio, which in turn are similar to those faced by a biologist organizing his specimens or a salesman organizing his samples.  When I organize my music for pleasure, it’s obviously PIM; the very similar work I do organizing music to DJ at my Israeli Folk Dance session must also be considered PIM.

Both kinds of PIM benefit from separate consideration.  For (Personal Information) Management, it’s important to realize that this problem reaches far beyond the subject of the information.  My personal information appears in many places and is managed by many people, and beyond the basic technical problems there are broad issues of ethics and policy. Conversely, as we consider End-User Information Management, it’s important to recognize, that it’s a problem much broader than dealing with our calendars, email, and social media.  End User Information Management aspires to give users the ability to work with a tremendous variety of information types, often requiring significant domain expertise.  But it aims to provide these abilities to individuals who have no specialized skills as programmers or information designers.

So far, the common approach to this problem has been to completely dis-empower users, packing the entire information management process into rigid applications that do everything the way their developer thinks it should be done.  I think we can do better, leveraging more of users innate understanding of their information to manage it more effectively, without requiring them to become database engineers.  But how to do so is a subject for a different post.

3 Responses to “Personal (Information Management) is not (Personal Information) Management”

  • Barbara Burton says:

    I was also able to attend the PIM Conference in February (my first) and it was a great learning experience.
    PIM in a social context as we discussed does bring up implications that change the nature of what is being managed. The distinction of Information About Me and Information For Me as you lay out here is critical. Much of the information in a person’s “orbit”, which is the For Me type, is not personal at all, including content such as music and news. On the other side, much of the information that is not in a person’s “orbit” is highly personal, and about me, and includes content such as other people’s Facebook photos of them and all that consumption data tracked and collected by retail establishments. There is of course overlap in these orbits as you note.
    My understanding is that PIM is has mostly focused on Information For Me but the Information About Me sphere has been growing at a rapid clip. End User Information Management does clearly spell out the traditional task of PIM but I have found in my years of online products that not many individuals identify as “end users”. They just don’t see themselves in that way. What about Personal Management of Information (PMI) to reflect what individuals do with the content that they pull into their “orbits” and Management of Personal Information (MPI) to reflect what others do with our personal information? I feel a Venn diagram coming on…

  • Barbara,

    Either Personal Management of Information (PMI) or Management of Personal Information (MPI) gets down to what Personal Information is. So far the community defines it as: (I) controlled or owned by me, (II) about me without our control over it e.g. bank records, (III) directed toward me e.g. phone calls, (IV) sent or posted by me for others e.g. emails, web pages, (V) experienced by me e.g. a book in the library and, (VI) relevant to me but I haven’t discovered it yet.

    By your definition my mp3 library is not personal information; it is just general information that I managed in my personal way. But I also manage my bank statements and this is clearly my personal information (about me). So PMI includes both: personal and general. While MPI is only (personal) information about me managed by someone else.

    That’s fine, but you’d have to redefine the personal information definition.

    I like End user Information management. It captures who is managing information. But it doesn’t equal information “for me”. See my blog about it.

  • [...] post by my MIT academic advisor David Karger highlights this distinction in a blog, (Personal Information) Management vs Personal (Information Management) from over a year ago, in which he points out the vast variety of kinds of Information Management [...]