Context: Are You Confused? What Is Your Context?

April 21, 2017

Human utterances can be difficult to figure out. When I departed the sunny climes of Washington, DC, to take a job with the Courier Journal & Louisville Times Company, I found myself in a new “context.” Working on money losing database products was a different context for me.

Obviously, Louisville was not the zip zip Right Coast. The shift from consulting to doing was a different context. And there were others. Each context shaped my talking and writing.

To most native speakers of English, in the database unit of the Courier Journal, the word “terminal” referred to one of the ever reliable gizmos that connected to the super user friendly DEC 20, TIPS typesetting, and, of course, to the home brew content management system used for the companies money losing databases.

The context of the work unit made clear to someone working with the DEC 20 that the word “terminal” did not mean the airport terminal, the relative who was dying of a rare blood disorder, or the weird little wire holding thingy on my model train’s Lionel transformer.

Language and understanding does depend on context.

I read “Bog Data Context: Targeting Relevant Data That’s Fit for Purpose.” Let me tell you that I was excited to find that context is getting some Big Data love. I learned:

Context is critical.

Well, I agree. It is 2017, and the context idea has been around for many years.

The write up includes a graphic to explain the challenge of context:


The idea is that an entity named John Doe appears in different databases and apparently uses a number of social media services. How does a human or smart software figure out what data goes with each John Doe.

Yep, this is a problem law enforcement and intelligence professionals have been considering for many years. Other people want to match up people with data pertinent to a specific entity; for example, financial institutions, online matchmakers, and government immigration officials.

Unfortunately putting a person in a context with pertinent data is a bit of a sticky wicket.

How does one solve this apparently tough problem? I learned from the write up:

There needs to be a focus on relevant data.”

No disagreement from me. But focus is not solving the context problem.

The article meanders through a number of ideas which do not strike me as directly related to the problem of figuring out context and then the meaning of utterances of a particular person. My thought is that the write up is not really about context. The article wants to use buzzwords and jargon to give the impression that context is going to less of a problem if someone implements many processes and procedures. These range from figuring out how trustworthy a source of data is to matching “representational effectiveness” with a model of context.

I learned that data lakes must not become “data graveyards.”

Okay, good idea. But I thought the article was tackling the problem of context, figuring out the meaning from its particular location among key signals like geography, behavior, and the nitty gritty of language itself.

How confused was I? Pretty confused. Here’s the last paragraph of the context write up:

There are a lot of starting points, a lot of pathways, in managing information in this rapidly changing data landscape. As McKnight said, “beyond the mountain is another mountain,” and Patricio reflected that this is a “continuous cycle of processing and evaluation.” Our data lakes will not be static; cannot afford to become data graveyards. But keeping them from becoming so requires us to continually reflect on the business problems we are trying to solve, to ask questions of the data, to understand the context of the data, and to measure and evaluate the fitness of the data for our purposes. With Big Data context in mind, we can mature our organizations and make more effective data-driven business decisions.

No wonder context remains a challenge. What is easy is writing headlines for what is:

  1. Cooking up an earthworm of quotes as a post conference rah rah
  2. Making the write up fit the title
  3. Moving beyond the obvious.


Stephen E Arnold, April 21, 2017


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