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What Lies Beneath

It was called Lotus ‘Agenda” and I doubt many of you can remember it.

One of their more interesting products of the eighties, it wasn’t a popular product and in many way, it anticipated Lotus Notes as a free text database in the days when dBase and Paradox was really all you had to choose from.

What was good about Agenda was that you could take pieces of information such as “Bob drives a green car” and place it in a database. You could the create ‘Views’ for almost anything; “Green Cars’ perhaps or ‘Green Cars& Cambridge’ and Agenda would retrieve any and all information that matched such criteria. On reflection, it’s the kind of feature we take for granted on the Internet today, with Search Engines such as Google, “Simon Moores+Harley Davidson” perhaps but it was years ahead of its time in 1989 and a tragedy when Lotus Development killed it off after version 2.0, because it really was one of the first good examples of a real Knowledge Management product.

Watching the news today also reminds me that I once showed Agenda to the Police, who became really quite excited by the idea. No more yellow ‘Post it Notes’, somebody calls with information and you type a summary into the Agenda database. The trick after this is of course to construct a view that makes some sense and distills the good information from the background noise, which is of course a human talent or should be. After all, the Police have had ‘Collaters’ for years.

A good twelve years on and the Police are surrounded by sophisticated software and the heart-rending tragedy of the two missing ten year olds and the eyewitness account of a taxi driver illustrates technology’s greatest weakness, the surrender of common sense when information is processed directly into a computer.

Human beings can intuitively ‘perceive’ what piece of information is likely to be more relevant than another and products, such as Agenda in its early days, help make sense of apparently random items or accounts. Where it all goes wrong is when a human operator is given a vital piece of information, such as “I saw two children struggling in a green car” and instead of faithfully recording the details and then perhaps walking up to a detective and tapping him on the shoulder, with what should be a significant report, the operator simply moves on to the next call without comment, surrendering any true sense of responsibility and intuition to the invisible intelligence of the software behind the keyboard.

Increasingly, law enforcement agencies are turning to computing as a more efficient means of achieving results. Huge amounts of data are passed through systems and government would rather like the Police and the Intelligence agencies to have even more access to data to crunch in the search for evidence and patterns of unsocial and criminal behavior.

Sadly though, what seems to be happening is that the Police are unable to see “The wood for the trees” at times and detection rates are at their lowest in living memory. Clever software might be a remarkably efficient tool in the support of Police work but the presence of more Policemen with the very human tools of personal initiative and intelligence still seems to remain the key to the conclusion of any successful investigation

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