EDITOR'S DESK: Better searches still need good data

Thomas R. Temin

Do burgeoning search technologies less-en the need for discipline in structuring databases?

That question seems to be popping up a lot lately, as ever-smarter search engines make possible astonishingly accurate returns, in even fairly trivial pursuits. Just the other day in the Washington Post, a story detailed how a chef found a great recipe by typing 'tofu oranges cauliflower' into Google.

True, too, is that you can find a lot of pinpoint information from and about government via the popular search engines.

As government continues to grapple with the technological issues of interagency data sharing, it is tempting to abandon the painstaking work required to build structured databases and tagging schemas and instead make everything subject to search engines, letting them do the heavy lifting.

But they're not the same.

I often play a high-end electronic keyboard. It has a button called 'arpeggiator.' This function helps effect arpeggio-style note sequences. But the device is no substitute for solid technique in real arpeggios, any more than the 'accordion' stop will turn you into Myron Floren (Google that).
With this and similar aids, you have at best only coarse control over what comes out.

This is analogous to searching versus carefully structuring data and the painstaking work needed to work out rules, taxonomies, tagging and relationships for sharing data'data that's purely relevant to the context of the sharing, and sharing only among parties that need and have a right to the data.

My hunch is that agencies will have to spend time in pursuit of both techniques. After all, computer power won't stop improving. The brute force method of searching the vast sea of Internet data will grow faster and smarter. That same power, though, will also be employed to automate execution of complex algorithms that mimic, but hugely amplify, human thought in gleaning patterns and information from carefully structured data stores. Search technology will reduce, but not eliminate, a lot of homework.

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