Is Context More Important Than Content?

Alan Belniakbusiness, General24 Comments

Content is king, as they say.  While that may be true in terms of helping establish raw importance or ranking, that factor quickly slides down the ranks when the content soon swells beyond fathomable volumes.  Making sense of it (or rather, determining if there is even sense to be made) is where the real value lies when having tons of content.

I’m going to explain what I mean by way of analogy, so stay with me.

Ever since I can remember, there have been traffic reports via helicopter on the radio.  In Massachusetts (USA), there is a local AM radio station that touts ‘traffic on the threes’, meaning every ten minutes, at the ‘3’ mark, a 60-second traffic report is given.  It’s structured in the same general sequence every time: routes north of the major cities, then south, then west and east.  If you tune in late, or don’t pay full attention, you miss your route, and have to wait another ten minutes.  Back when this was introduced, this was likely heralded as a huge improvement or innovation to what was in place before (nothing) because it gave drivers a sense of the road conditions.  But the sequential reporting nature of it and the ‘wait every ten minutes’ meant that if you were absent-minded, or at a junction where you needed to make a decision, you were out of luck.

A few years ago, the State Department of Transportation (again, in Massachusetts) began delivering quasi-on-demand traffic reports to end-users (versus broadcast).  The premise: call 511 from a mobile phone, and enter a route number to get the traffic conditions for a particular route.  This was a huge improvement over the helicopter system for many reasons.  Firstly, no longer did one need to wait for the ‘threes’ to get a report.  Secondly, the notion of sequence is dismissed – one could enter mostly any route one wanted to, and the report was delivered.  Thirdly, this is a demand-generated system.  The DOT could see which travel routes garnered the most (or fewest) traffic condition requests, since this was a pull technology versus a push technology.

“Grand!” one might say.  But, this, too, has its shortcomings.  For me, I take two major highways to and from work.  Hearing the traffic report on one route as being free and clear is great, except if the traffic on the other route is jammed solid.  At that point, it almost doesn’t matter if the first route is wide open – I’ll be delayed.  If I don’t check each leg, I don’t get the complete picture.  Yes, you might say – check each, and then decide.  And I do.  But it still lacks that something to pull it all together.

Enter the notion of traffic maps, some even color-coded a handy green/yellow/red (to align with a common US traffic signal color-coding system).  These are served up on websites (some are even the same as the parent company of the traffic helicopter reports!), and many are available via mobile/smart phone – the largest innovation in this field, in my opinion.  Why?  Now, at one’s fingertips, one is presented with a complete view of the road conditions.  One can make a much more informed decision about travel routes when accessing data that is relevant from point A to point B, in whichever digestible sequence one desires, on the user’s demand (and not on the threes), and likely more accurate (the data can be pushed out to an application almost real-time).

In each case, relatively speaking, the same data is core to each solution, but the presentation and the manner in which it is accessed radically changes the value of that information. When one has the complete context of the traffic on the roadway system, one can make a much better informed travel decision.  One can decide which routes to take or not take, where to detour, and understand the cumulative impact ahead of time, rather than real-time.

Context, among content, is king.  I might have three terabytes of data on traffic volume and queue theory, but knowing how the saturation flow rate and platoon factor/type relates to traffic signal timing is important to me.  Simple search (or even complex search) will highlight the number of occurrences of a given value or phrase in a document or library, but parsing and understanding the context of that – how one item relates to another, and how the relevant importance of those two factors change – is far more valuable than the content itself.

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image sources: Google search screen capture; How Do I Use 511 Massachusetts; iPhone capture of an INRIX Traffic report