Personal information management

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Another year is coming to a close, so I find myself turning to the idea of personal information management (PIM) — trying to figure out what I do well and what I could do better in managing the information that flows through my fingers, literally or digitally.  The term itself is somewhat debated, with some emphasizing the personal rather than business, others emphasizing the information management, and others suggesting end user information management is a better term for the stuff that must be managed by people.  There are certain principles that define PIM:

  • search
  • find
  • encounter
  • interpret
  • decide to keep or not
  • file and organize for re-use
  • re-access
  • use

Personally, I find the decide to keep or not keep step to be the most daunting.  And being able to re-access information in a prompt manner is most important to me.

A blogger for Scientific American specified four principles that guide PIM for her:

  1. Identify the types of things you are trying to organize
  2. Keep things simple
  3. Set up automatic tools
  4. Consistency

The Signal blog of the Library of Congress recently highlighted a curriculum for a personal digital archiving workshop that was developed in Georgia.  Such efforts point out not only that PIM is a growing field but that archivists recognize the necessity of providing leadership in the field of PIM.  As long as the archival world is embracing the concept of a continuum model of records, and many records are now being created in born-digital formats, we also must embrace the role of archivists in shepherding people to be good digital stewards who create and maintain items that can be appropriately accessioned into archival collections.

If you need more information on PIM, here are some suggestions:

  • Jan Zastrow provides a simple definition of PIM and includes a great list of other references
  • Purdue University has a good LibGuide (though it’s slanted towards citation management)
  • William Jones wrote an article entitled “Finders, Keepers?” that focuses on the questions of whether and how to keep information
  • for a much more academic approach, the Haystack project out of MIT researches information access, analysis, management, and distribution
  • if you need a term for the stuff you collect that eludes your management systems, try “information scraps” on for size
  • if in the end you decide you prefer your current state of disorganization, take heart in David Weinberger’s Google TechTalk, “Everything is Miscellaneous

Crowdsourcing public records requests

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The discussions about using body cams in the law enforcement community have continued this week.  NPR’s Morning Edition aired a piece entitled “Transparency vs. Privacy.”  The transparency comes from laying bear the interactions of police with the public.  But Martin Kaste interviewed the Chief of the Los Angeles police department, who said while videos would be made available for legal cases, privacy concerns would prevent their widespread distribution.  The confidentiality provisions that apply to law enforcement records are numerous.

The man in Seattle who made a public records request for all police videos has now been identified.  Timothy Clemans explained his rationale to Kaste: “If we make all these videos public and people really start watching them, that any inappropriate use of force and bias policing will eventually go away because there’ll just be so many people complaining all day long.”  But instead of fighting the request, the chief operating officer of the Seattle police department has taken the novel approach of enlisting Clemans and other techies to help devise a way to redact information from the police videos that should not be made public.  Clemans has suggested a method for blurring people’s identities in videos.  The Seattle PD hosted a hackathon in the hopes of generating more ideas of how to balance transparency with privacy.  While it will still take some time to parse the results, the Seattle Times reported the COO considered the event a success.  Obviously Seattle has the advantage of being located in a tech hub — it will be interesting to see whether other localities are able to coordinate similar sorts of events to harness the power of digital activists and whether the solutions proposed in Seattle get wider usage.

By the way, Clemans has withdrawn his public records request.

Body cams and public records

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Surveillance cameras are omnipresent, and many people now see body cameras and dashboard cameras as mechanisms for protecting police officers and citizens alike.  With numerous recent incidents calling into question the actions of law enforcement officers, some have called for increased use of cameras by police as a means to guarantee accountability — and though no one really says it out loud, the clear underlying principle is a belief that people act differently when they know others are watching.

President Obama recently announced an initiative to increase the usage of body cameras by police departments.  It’s part of a broader effort to train officers in the principles of community policing that will, hopefully, lessen tensions between the law enforcement community and the communities they are pledged to protect.

Absent from most of these discussions about body cams is a recognition of how public records laws will intersect with their use.  The widespread usage of surveillance cameras is recent enough that there’s little consensus about the appropriate retention period for these recordings — you can check out another blog post I wrote for a variety of examples.  Before Obama’s announced initiative, the Seattle police department was considering cancelling its plans to outfit every officer with a body cam because of concerns about the avalanche of public records requests that would likely be sparked by their introduction.  This fear was largely created by a summer effort by an anonymous requestor to get copies of any and all video held by Washington police departments.  This requestor apparently is both trying to encourage transparency and to call attention to the public records laws of the state of Washington.  Although Obama’s pledge of funding would help to purchase cameras for the use of police, the departments themselves would be responsible for bearing the financial burden of filling public records requests related to the footage generated by these cameras.

Accountability.  Transparency.  Funding.  Community.  Privacy.  There are many issues interwoven in this debate, so it will be interesting to watch and see how this plays out.

Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014

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In January, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) proposed a bill (H.R. 1233) that was recently signed by President Obama (on November 26th).  One significant change has to do with the definition of public records, a power that is now vested in the Archivist of the United States (AOTUS):

“The Archivist’s determination whether recorded information . . . is a record . . . shall be binding on all Federal agencies.”

This is a significant change from allowing Federal agencies to determine for themselves whether materials are appropriate to be preserved.  In writing about this bill, Douglas Cox, an attorney and Associate Law Library Professor at the City University of New York School of Law offered this analysis:

“To be clear, the Archivist neither has the funding, nor the personnel, nor the appetite to look over the shoulder of every federal employee to micromanage whether each email is, or is not, a record, but this bill, once signed by the President, will give the Archivist an important power that should not be left to rot on the vine.”

In the press release from the National Archives and Records Administration, there is no emphasis given to this new power granted to the Archivist of the United States, so it will be interesting to follow the progress of how AOTUS exercises this new authority.

This new law will also change the process of releasing the papers of former presidents, providing 60 days for review and allowing only one extension of 30 days.  This provision should dramatically alter the landscape of presidential documents that become public twelve years after the conclusion of an administration.

One other interesting provision mandates that emails that government employees send regarding government business must be preserved by official records systems, even if the emails originate in private accounts.  Of course, the mechanics for accomplishing this directive are not clear.  Another point to watch in the future.