Opinion: The Age of Almost-Information
August 17, 1999
by Stephen Manes
(IDG) -- I'm looking for a hotel's phone number. I know the hotel's name. I know it's near the San Francisco airport. But when I search Yahoo's Yellow Pages, I come up empty.
Three other online directories do no better, so I end up surfing to the hotel chain's Web site and finding the number there. Considering the time I wasted, I'd have come out ahead by picking up the phone and paying for directory assistance. It's a typical tale of the Information Age: dubious information, bad information, or no information at all. Too many Internet start-ups seem to have taken their inspiration from Microsoft: More obsessed with stock price than product quality, they provide data that's often incomplete, inaccurate, or both.
Maps are a perennial problem. The databases simply aren't smart enough to get everything right. When I sought directions from my Seattle home to an address on a local island served only by two ferries, MapQuest calculated a route that would have sent me more than 30 miles out of my way. And in Boston it came up with an airport-to-hotel route that no one in the area would ever have recommended, and even then it omitted a tricky final turn.
Stuck in a limo in a traffic jam on the way to New York's JFK Airport, I tried the new Palm 7's wireless version of Travelocity to inquire whether my plane would be departing on time. The system assured me that it would, meaning I'd miss my flight. In reality, the plane had been delayed 45 minutes. I got onboard with plenty of time to spare.
True, I might have heard the same misinformation had I used my cell phone to call the airline. But who cares? It was yet another example of bad data masquerading as information. That's even worse than a simple "I don't know," which at least avoids implying they possess knowledge that they don't.
It's not just the raw content that causes problems; it's also the way the sites handle data. For instance, ordering a wedding gift from the Macy's online registry left me thoroughly frustrated. When I returned to the site right after I'd ordered the gift, the registry insisted the newlyweds still needed the pot I'd just sent. It took a phone call to learn that Macy's wouldn't remove the item from the wish list until it had shipped. So over the weekend any number of people could have ordered duplicates, inconveniencing themselves, me, and the newlyweds. Macy's had the data; it just didn't use it properly.
Microsoft's Expedia is equally amusing. Telling it to look for the cheapest flight on any airline often yields a higher price than telling it you want the cheapest flight on a single airline.
Is this some violation of Euclidean logic? Nope. The system simply gives more weight to departure time than to price. When you ask for a single airline, you get flights departing at a wider range of times -- and thus a better chance of finding a cheap ticket.
Not so smart
Data quality now seems about as important to the Web industry as software quality does to the computer industry. And usability? Fuggedaboudit! If you ask Weather.com to check the temperature in Boston, it will ask you which of six Bostons you had in mind. Call me wacky, but I'll bet 99.99 percent of the queries are for the one in Massachusetts. So how about putting that up on the screen as the default? You could always choose a different one if you're really looking for, say, Boston, New York.
Even a so-called breakthrough may not be. Ask Jeeves has been touted as a natural-language interface with smarts. But it does far better with the question "What's the population of Las Vegas?" than with "How many people are in the Las Vegas metropolitan area?" How smart is that?
Getting past the age of almost-information will take a commitment to quality and design that the computer industry has shown virtually no sign of embracing. Until then, assume that data on the Internet may almost be correct.
PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is cohost of Digital Duo, a new series on public television stations nationwide. For time and program information, visit www.digitalduo.com.
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