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DIKW: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

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Here’s the thing…data is useless.

Now, given what we do—or are at least perceived by the world at large to do—I should probably qualify that, huh? Honestly, though, I think the statement can stand on its own. While data seems like it’s useful, it’s trash, and this fact causes me no end of angst. We’re constantly referred to as “data providers”, even by members of our own team and marketing collateral, but in actuality we do not provide data.

We don’t provide data because it’s useless, meaningless, without value. Data is a collection of unrelated facts, the “product of observation”, with no meaning beyond its own existence. At their most basic levels, our products and services provide information, and go up from there. We’re information providers, and—much more importantly—knowledge providers. If you’re a data-geek, those distinctions and the DIKW “knowledge hierarchy” concepts probably aren’t new and the next bits are going to seem a bit “Applied Information Science 101” to you—go on and bail, my feelings won’t be hurt. If you’re not a data-geek, but interested enough in information science for business or other reasons to be reading this blog, it’s probably a good distinction to start making. Note: if you are a data-geek and you haven’t read Ackoff’s “From Data to Wisdom”—go read that instead of this.


  • I have three Things.
  • One of the Things is reddish-brown, two Things are grey.
  • One Thing weighs about two tons, one Thing about 10lbs., and one about 20g.
  • One Thing has a trunk, one Thing has a tail, and one Thing has a publicist. Yep, a publicist.

No fair drawing correlations and/or conclusions yet! “Data” is exactly what you see there in that pile. We now have some facts (and even that’s an assumption at this point) about three “Things”. That’s it, no more, no less. That’s data. See what I mean? Useless. So if data is useless, what the hell are we doing? Well, if you take data and apply some processes to clean it, standardize it, and create some relationships between its constituent bits and pieces, you get information.



1 reddish-brown 10lbs. has a publicist
2 grey 20g has a tail
3 grey 2 tons has a trunk

I’d argue that this stuff—information—is only mildly less useless than data, but it’s a start. It’s organized and has at least the potential(!) for allowing us to manufacture knowledge from it. It’s important only because if you get this part wrong, then any derivative knowledge is also suspect. Truthfully though, unless you know what you’re doing this stuff is almost more dangerous than raw data (more on that in a minute). The only reason we provide it in this form is because some of our customers have the desire and acumen to manufacture their own knowledge, and just want to make certain that they have the very best raw materials for doing so, and advice on the best way to go about the process.

But that begs the question, what is knowledge? Basically, you take your set of information and apply a cognitive process to it, one which actually draws correlations and conclusions, hypothesizes causal relationships, etc. This is done using a variety of mechanisms, which all boil down to human analysis. Algorithms, models, simulations—at the end of the day it’s just what some human being or a group thereof decided would be a useful way to process information into knowledge, signal from noise.



1 reddish-brown 10lbs. has a publicist tabby cat
2 grey 20g has a tail mouse
3 grey 2 tons has a trunk elephant

Well, that’s much more useful! It tells us what each of the entity-instances (records) is, and some of their attributes (fields). Feeling warm and fuzzy, now? Here’s the punchline: this last table, the one describing the knowledge we rendered from the information, which was in turn cobbled together from the data…as described herein, it has the potential to be both incorrect and incomplete. Remember the old adage about “it’s not what you don’t know that messes you up, it’s what you know that isn’t so?” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

So how could our example be wrong? In the knowledge set we drew the, not unnatural, conclusion that #3 was an elephant. What if it’s a Chrysler 300? That fits the available information (grey/2 tons/trunk). It could be something else altogether, though. How might our example be incomplete? In #1 we correctly assessed the “Thing” to be a tabby cat, but failed to differentiate it as Morris the Cat (ergo, the publicist)—a fairly important piece of knowledge, and a conclusion that might have realistically been drawn by a sophisticated enough model. Now take it up a step, to the information. What if the aggregation process failed and the #2 record has the trunk, #3 the tail? Well the probability that #3 is, in fact, an elephant just increased. But maybe #2 is actually Stuart Little, or Fievel. I mean, how many other mice do you know with trunks?

Which brings us to wisdom. Wisdom is basically a local phenomenon—strangely topical given that the focus of recent conversations in the RE.net seems to be revolving heavily around localism as the most significant agent/broker value proposition. I’ve heard it phrased as “local knowledge”. Not to belabor the semantics, but I feel the phrase “local wisdom” is more applicable.

I mean, we have knowledge. From evaluating the information Onboard organizes from the data that we aggregate, I “know” that the schools are “great” in an area, and maybe I can therefore help home-buying parents find a starter home. The local agent, though, can tell them that the HOA for the home they’re looking at just voted in a real PITA who hates kids and doesn’t let them ride their bikes without sign off in triplicate, and that speeding seems to be a problem. You probably won’t find that in our databases. Yet :-).

For the purists, I know I skipped Ackoff’s “Understanding” layer—formally defined as the “appreciation of why”, as opposed to “who, what, where, when, and how”, and nested between knowledge and wisdom. This is by design. First, the common wisdom (loaded word in this context) in information science circles seems to be to steer away from some of the more…metaphysical aspects connoted by his treatment of the subject. Second, if you look at my treatment of the “Knowledge” layer you’ll see that I tend to combine in the one layer both the deterministic processes defined by Ackoff’s version and the probabilistic/interpolative processes he espouses for his “Understanding” layer. I don’t really see the benefit in a separation, and actually feel that the cognitive processes involved are complimentary enough to warrant combination as a matter of course. And if he doesn’t like it, he can just come find me, huh? Battle Royale!

What’s the point of all this? The point is that data is useless, information is only as good as the systems and assumptions used to process it, and the quality of a knowledge set is a factor of both its constituent information and the cognitive processes used to manufacture that knowledge. Ultimately, the way you determine whether a “data provider” is worth a damn is by looking at the people who make up the team which aggregates and organizes that data into information, and whose grey matter and diligence is responsible for transforming that refined information into useful knowledge.

Final note: this shouldn’t be construed as the only legitimate treatment of knowledge management, or as a comprehensive description of our thought processes at Onboard. In many ways this methodology is limited, and doesn’t—at least not intuitively—take into account the dynamism inherent in knowledge of any significantly useful complexity. My intention was to use this as an introduction into the amount and nature of thought that goes into creating knowledge, and identify the sharp difference between a product and “data”. Data may be fungible, but knowledge…is…not. And, knowledge-wise? I’ll put our team up against anyone else’s.

As for wisdom? It’s probably overrated, and almost certainly to remain a uniquely ineffable human endeavor. We’re working on it though. This’ll have to do for now:

Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST…
Wisdom is the domain of the Wis

– lyrics from Frank Zappa’s rock opera, “Joe’s Garage”, Act III, Scene XVI


Written by liamdayan

August 20, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Local Media Blogs & Real Estate

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A Cornucopia of Local

A Cornucopia of Local

The New York Times, in a bid to stay relevant in the new media environment, has weighed in on the phenomenon of local place-blogging:

Suburban bloggers, though, spawned a subgenre of narratives about diaper changing, neighbor trouble, temporary traffic snags and other subjects rarely considered worthy of publication in previous eras.

Back then, it was hard to tell whether these lonesome scribes could sustain the chore over the long run, and if they did, what sort of audience they might attract.

Nearly a decade later, bloggers in the suburbs are starting to answer those questions. Many have let their sites go untended, but a few have built serious local journalism operations, while others have developed a following on certain topics and bask in the muted limelight of Internet fame. These survivors offer newly minted bloggers a pixilated blueprint for how to rise above the chaos of the blogosphere. For readers, the blogs are providing news in ways unseen in traditional local news media.

Interestingly enough, not one of the local blogs that the Times profiled was written by a real estate agent. Granted, this may be the result of bias on the part of “journalists” to highlight those blogs that are “newsy” in nature. But there may be something more going on here.

In fact, I believe every real estate blogger should take a good hard look at the websites mentioned in the article: Baristanet, Red Bank Green, Hoboken411, WestportNow, and New Haven Independent. Unless your hyperlocal blog is getting 82,000 monthly visitors (the number that Baristanet.com gets), you might want to think about emulating what is obviously working.

For myself, what immediately stands out that differentiates these local blogs from realtor local blogs is that they are media companies and operated as such by media people. The most important impact of this is that these blogs are relevant for people who are not looking to move into the neighborhood. They are relevant for people who just live there.

In contrast, most local realtor blogs are completely irrelevant to current residents. As a result, they cannot offer the kind of news, insights, and a feel for actually living in that town that the local media blogs can.

I mentioned in the comments of this post that I really liked Perri Feldman’s NJRealEstateWire site. And I do, so take the critique with that in mind. The problem here is that while I appreciate the site as someone in the real estate industry, I have no reason to bookmark it and visit it as a resident of Millburn — a town that Perri covers. As it happens, Millburn doesn’t have a local media blog like Baristanet, but if it did, I would bookmark it and visit it constantly.

Just as a comparison, look at the top three most recent posts right now on the frontpage of NJRealEstateWire and on Baristanet:

NJRealEstateWire has:

Baristanet.com has:

Is there any question that if I were interested in getting the feel of a town, I would get more out of Baristanet (for Montclair area) than out of NJRealEstateWire (for Millburn area)?

The sad thing here is that the local realtor blogs end up working against its goals: reaching people who are interested in a particular neighborhood and its goings-ons. It’s impossible to brand yourself as a local expert in the community when the local people aren’t reading your blog, and there is no conversation going on.

Look again at the number of comments on Baristanet, and compare that to the number of comments your typical local realtor blog generates. There is no comparison.

What’s ironic — perhaps tragic — about this is that perhaps the local realtor is often best suited to be running a local media blog. As part of her job, the local realtor is going to know quite a bit about the feel of a neighborhood, the shops, the city council actions, schools, in short — what’s going on. But because she aims so much at trying to sell houses and getting leads off her blog, she will end up producing content that most people are completely uninterested in reading.

At the same time, as licensed real estate professionals, realtors are under certain regulations that the non-realtors are not. They have to be careful about what they say or write about a particular area in a way a journalist does not. What to do?

Free Advice

Keeping in mind that advice is often worth what you’ve paid for it, here are my thoughts.

1. Decide what business you are in when blogging

Are you in the home-selling business when you’re blogging? Or are you in the local media business? Decide, then act accordingly. This could mean that you setup a separate operation for your local blogging and avoid tainting it with overt commercialism. Or it could mean that you focus simply on realty blogging, understanding that you will be at a major disadvantage when up against a real local blogger.

2. Create an Ecosystem for your Local Blogging

Since most realtors are actually in the business of helping people buy and sell homes, it doesn’t make much sense to start a second job in local media. This means that realistically, what you need to do is to create an ‘ecosystem’ of local blogs in your neighborhood. Encourage someone to start a local media blog, with both content (you can write about local real estate issues) and with cash (advertise on their local blog). Reach out to other people who may be able to write about one aspect of your town, then bring it all together under one local media operation.

Just because you can’t directly compete with the likes of Baristanet does not mean that you have to cede the real estate advice area to someone else. Become the local real estate columnist and write all about the local market, constantly.

For example, like this.

3. Separate our your professional marketing and your blogging activities

Make sure you have a website for your brokerage operations — a clean, well-designed brochureware/search site that is aimed at those who are looking for representation. At the same time, don’t let your blog become just an advertising platform for your brokerage business. I can’t think of a quicker way to lose credibility than to use your blog to overtly troll for business. This is also the hardest thing to do.

Even we here at Onboard Informatics have issues with this. When you’re passionate about your business, you can’t help talk about it. Our mantra here is to use the blog simply to converse and communicate, but sometimes, we find it hard not to talk about our services and products. So cut yourself some slack, but at the same time, remember to at least try and maintain a Church and State separation.

Local blogging is the next wave. People are inherently more interested in news that affects them personally. But what they want to hear about is local media — news, opinions, etc. Real estate only plays a part of that picture — an important part, but still only a part.

So start talking to your neighbors — form that ecosystem. And give your neighbors (and visitors) what they’re looking for.


Written by -Rob

August 20, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Geo-Marketing: Possibilities

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Ooo, pretty colors!

Ooo, pretty colors!

One of the more interesting things I’ve heard at Inman SF in July was in hallways and during the Q&A of sessions. Apparently, a number of brokers are seeing an increase in foreign buyers of U.S. real estate. This is something that has been going on for a while, as this series on Inman illustrates, especially in the higher-end luxury market, but we are apparently starting to see foreign buyers spreading out of the top end luxury markets.

The response from the brokerage industry, of course, is an understandable desire to do some international marketing. If 15% of your customers are coming from Germany, it certainly makes sense to do some advertising in Berlin.

By all means, do international advertising. But while you’re at it, consider applying the same concepts to your local marketing as well.

Geo-marketing is not something that only applies to strangers from a strange land, where you are automatically thinking about where your buyers are coming from, and what you’d want to tell them in order to have them contact you. This notion can and should apply to your domestic, local clients as well.

A number of Onboard Informatics’ clients get detailed neighborhood data from us, including some of the best local neighborhood boundaries. What I’ve found a bit odd is that while our financial clients tend to use that data for internal data analysis, our real estate clients almost never do. They use neighborhoods only to enable consumer tools, such as local neighborhood search. Such hyperlocal search is a wonderful tool for consumers, so we encourage our clients to enable it. The utility of neighborhood information, however, is not limited simply to using it on your website.

With relatively simple GIS systems, a brokerage can map where their customers are coming from, especially if you have access to detailed neighborhood boundary information that can be uploaded to the GIS system. That could lead to some interesting insights.

For example, let’s say you’re a broker in suburban NJ. You know that some percentage of your buyers are coming from Manhattan, fleeing the extraordinary housing prices in the City (over $2m for a 2BR condo in June of 2008). You take your customer list over the past three or four years, and upload them into the GIS and map them to specific neighborhoods (you do have the former addresses of your clients, right?). You discover that over half of your buyer customers are hailing from downtown — specifically, Soho and Tribeca. This is shocking because you always thought of your buyers as people who work on Wall Street and live in cramped little boxes in some anonymous building in the Upper East Side.

Im too sexy for this blog.

I'm too sexy for this blog.

That insight can completely transform the way you do advertising. Perhaps instead of talking about proximity to Wall Street, you start talking about how your town is a community for artists, designers, and creative people. You update the look and feel of the ad to appeal more to the hip downtown lifestyle, instead of to the suits and power ties of the Wall Street crowd.

Even if you are in a market that doesn’t have pre-defined neighborhoods, you can apply your own knowledge of local neighborhoods to create useful geo-marketing templates. Most towns can be divided into distinct areas with their own flavor, neighborhood personality, and demographics — income, education, profession, etc. Most GIS systems will allow you to define your own ‘neighborhood area’ — then overlay it on top of the underlying data. If you know that there’s a new shopping mall going in somewhere, for example, you could make a custom neighborhood for a 5-minute drive time radius and start sending postcards to the houses in that area letting them know the value of their houses are about to go up (or maybe down, I suppose, depending on the mall and the neighborhood).

The saying that all real estate is local is true. But it is also true that all customers are local. As real estate professionals, we’re all very aware of a property’s location, characteristics, features, and so on. Many realtors are experts when it comes to their local market, and yet are novices when it comes to their customers.

So think about geography. Consider what you can do with neighborhood data, not just for your website visitors, but also for your own marketing and business operations.

(Okay, caveat time: even the simplest GIS system can be a bit of a bear to operate, while the more powerful systems require significant training. If you’re an Onboard client — please contact your Account Manager to find out about our custom GIS capabilities.)


Written by -Rob

August 4, 2008 at 7:08 pm

On Localism & Future of Online Real Estate

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Ajax and Cassandra

Ajax and Cassandra

Over at my personal blog, I started one of those Cassandra deals speculating on the future of ActiveRain network now that Trulia has launched a blog platform. Since that post went up, I had a chance to sit down with Jonathan Washburn, the founder of ActiveRain, and learned a thing or two. A followup post was necessary. But more I thought about it, more it seemed appropriate for the OnBlog, as my thoughts on the situation are relevant to our clients past, present and future.

First, J-Dub (you Washingtonians ought to get the reference) pointed out that ActiveRain isn’t exactly a slouch in the consumer traffic side of things — as he clarified in the comments to the post, ActiveRain and Localism got 2.3 million visits in the last 30 days, and he said some 80%+ of that is consumer traffic. Second, he charted out a future view of online real estate that is rather convincing. It goes something like this (and I’m probably not doing full justice to his views):

  • Consumers want listings above all else
  • But listings are everywhere
  • Hence, listings are a commodity
  • Differentiation can only come from original content
  • ActiveRain has 100,000 dedicated local real estate professionals who love creating original content, especially about their local market
  • Adding listings to ActiveRain & Localism isn’t the most difficult thing in the world, especially if the trend towards aggregation and syndication continue
  • Adding original content, however, is extremely difficult and time-consuming
  • Therefore, Localism will dominate all

You know, that’s a pretty convincing point of view. Strategically, it’s sound. There is a trend towards listings aggregation and syndication — a trend that is taking far, far too long to develop, to be sure, but one that has the force of inevitability behind it.

However, strategy is only as good as the execution. And this is where I, as a member of Onboard Informatics, can offer some thoughts that are relevant to all of our clients (and future clients). Read the rest of this entry »

How many metrics do you need? The metrics rule of minimums.

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The Metrics Rule of Minimums: The number of metrics needed is the minimum to accurately indicate state.

There are a quite a large number of metrics that can be generated from a single project that could end up in a status report (I’ll dig into details in a subsequent post). As the head of Onboard Informatics’ Project Management Office (PMO), I am responsible for developing reporting and measurement standards for ALL projects. There are just too few hours in the day to maintain all those measurements and reports! I needed a guideline for our group to limit metrics development and maintenance effort but report status accurately. The metric rule of minimums seemed to fit the bill. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by James John Wilson

July 25, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Measuring the Value of Information, Part 2 – Know Your Salesperson

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The first action you should take when you begin to look for a new or replacement product should be to determine what your current needs are and make your choice accordingly. It makes no sense to structure your business around what is available to you; it should always be the other way around. This may seem obvious but it is not always an easy question to answer.

What should a sales person be doing while you are in the evaluation stage of your journey? Well, in the case of local information, a salesperson should be a consultant and a wealth of knowledge not only about the products that they offer but in the industry in which they work in. Any company that provides local level information should stress the importance of their sales team being experts in consultation for their clients.

Consultative Sales – long term, sustainable relationship selling

It focuses on clients’ needs and vision, then can offer creative solutions that add value to a business relationship. It’s all about the relationship and value, not price. Many salespeople talk about using consultative sales techniques but the truth is it must be part of your company’s sales culture to be an effective strategy. It is in nobody’s best interest for a potential client to wind up with something that is not in line with their current and future business needs. This puts two very important skills that are imperative for any sales person to have: observational and visionary skills.

In a retail model, consumers spend millions of dollars every day on merchandise and often form their impression of a store by evaluating its sales force. Therefore, retailers stress the importance of providing courteous and efficient service to remain competitive. For example, when a customer wants an item that is not on the sales floor, the salesperson may check the stockroom, place a special order, or call another store to locate the item. This methodology also fits with a good sales team. The more they know about their clients’ business model the better the recommendations they can give for how to enhance it. Clearly, the sales representatives do prior research on every firm they approach. That goes without saying. They should obtain information through detailed questions and evaluate each clients needs and then help to fulfill them with detailed product lines.

Nobody should want to sell you something for the sake of selling it. Their success is directly tied to their clients’. Doing a proper job on the sales front is what leads to a lifelong client that is extremely satisfied with the products they get from you; not just the pricing that goes along with it.

To understand where your business is today is something that most sales people have a hard enough time doing. To envision the many different paths they could go down is something that cannot be taught. Its instinct and feel. We look at our clients’ business three, five, or ten years down the line. We feel that is what separates a good sales force from the rest of the industry. You must assess what your client’s current needs and capabilities are, along with addressing the future to deliver an appropriate yet scalable solution for a growing business.

Takeaway: The questions a sales professional asks you are sometimes more important then the goods or services they are trying to sell you.

-Patrick Healy, Sr. Account Manager
-Josh Butler, National Sales Manager

Written by Patrick Healy

July 21, 2008 at 11:45 pm