Here’s a Zen question: When does data become information? Is it when data is collected in some normalized form? Is it when some data can be related or correlated to other data in a well defined way? Or, is it only when it finally gets consumed by an application, crunched by business logic and finally presented to the end user in some structured context? I would argue some or all of these are necessary, but not sufficient. Data only truly becomes information when it informs. Digital data has to make that inductive leap from a digital device to the human perceptual apparatus, traverse the neural pathways and get synthesized by the brain. It’s only when someone experiences that cognitive “aha!” moment that we commonly refer to as knowledge or understanding.

And if so, collaboration only becomes possible when we can share context and information with each other. It’s not just about data. This is why user experience and presentation is a profoundly important aspect of information architecture. (If you’re not convinced on this point, treat yourself to some of Edward Tufte’s work. I find him far more convincing than I on this subject.) Even when information is available, however, distance in space and time remains as an obvious obstacles to human collaboration. Computers and networks can help overcome this obstacle—but only if the platform and application are up to the task. Just moving data from one place to another is not a solution. Let’s take health information as a concrete example.

One of the most important and fastest growing forms of electronic medical records (EMR) today is image data created from a growing variety of radiology devices. X-Rays, CT Scans, MRI, PET Scans, Ultrasound and others are producing an explosion of digital imagery in 2D, 3D and yes, recently even 4D. For example, if you have never heard of fMRI think of 3D time lapse photography for the brain; one that can show the flow of blood in the brain over time. Such images can be incredibly powerful medical tools--not only for diagnosis, but non-invasive screening, groundbreaking discovery, research, and especially collaboration.

Of course, the sheer size and complexity of such data create challenges up and down the technology stack including storage, searching, network transport, processing, and presentation. All of these challenges are relevant for collaboration over these images. But has this explosion in image data set off an explosion of information?

Recently, however, Interknowlogy has demonstrated what can happen if we address these challenges. Using both Microsoft Surface and Windows 7 multi-touch, this team has shown that completely interactive remote collaboration in real time with medical imagery is possible now. To see for yourself what is possible in this space you should check out this demo by Interknowlogy. [The video is large so it takes a few minutes to download but trust me—it’s worth the wait.]

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The Interknowlogy team has demonstrated that natural user interface (NUI) technology like multi-touch can support and enhance collaboration between users who are local or remote to one another. The ability to make annotations (telestration) on the fly is almost gratuitous. Wow! They have also demonstrated that this can be achieved across different form factors, using Surface devices and Windows 7 on a HP TouchSmart device. Given that Silverlight 3 supports multi-touch today, it is just a matter of time before some of this collaboration is possible in the browser.

To see something truly wondrous in all this, look beyond the wow factor for a moment. Anyone who has had the experience of helping a friend or relative manage a very serious illness may have had the frustrating experience of having to pick up a DVD with one of these images from one medical specialist and drive miles to deliver it to another medical specialist over the proverbial sneaker-net. Now, just imagine a world where your primary care physician, radiologists and other medical specialists could consult and collaborate with one another immediately, and form a plan of action from anywhere in the world. This marvelous vision is much closer than you think!