Information 4.0 – a primer for technical communicators

Information 4.0 represents the next step in how we will document technical information, one in which the process of technical communication can be as high-tech as the subjects that we document.

A few decades ago, we documented high-tech subjects in surprisingly low-tech ways, using typewriters and paste-up. That changed when word processing entered technical communication around 1981, followed by HTML-based online documentation in the late 1990s. Now, Information 4.0 is set to take us further along that path.

In this three-part series aimed at techcomm professionals, guest author and the founder of Hyper/Word Services Neil Perlin will cover:

  • What Information 4.0 is, and the context in which it arose and exists
  • Some of Information 4.0’s leading technologies
  • Information 4.0’s potential impact on technical communication.

Information 4.0 – out of Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is a model for factory automation and data exchange that arose in Germany in 2011. It’s based on the IoT (Internet of Things), AI (artificial intelligence), the cloud, metadata using RDF (Resource Description Framework from the Worldwide Web Consortium) plus a new standard called iiRDS (International Standard for Intelligent Information Request and Delivery), and various other technologies.

The goal is to create factories with machines that are self-governing through, in part, ‘context sensing’, like an oil-drilling pipe that can detect metal fatigue and call for servicing on its own. (For more examples, see Context sensing and Information 4.0 by Ray Gallon.)

Much of the information component of Industry 4.0 will be machine-to-machine communication with no human involvement – and little place for technical communicators other than documenting its use cases and standards. But some of Industry 4.0’s technologies also apply to general technical communication, in the form of Information 4.0.

What is Information 4.0?

Information 4.0 is an umbrella term for the future of technical communication, and the technologies and trends that will make it work. The core characteristics of content under Information 4.0 are:

  • real-time
  • ubiquitous
  • online availability
  • context-awareness.

For example, let’s say that you are responsible for carrying out a pre-flight aircraft check. Some of the items on the checklist vary depending on whether the air temperature is above or below freezing. In the past, there were two checklists, one for above freezing and one for below, but the two were so similar that there was a risk of accidentally using the wrong one. To reduce the risk of using the wrong checklist, the two were combined into one that listed the tasks in an IF… THEN… ELSE… format, for example: ‘If temp above freezing, then do A, else do B.’ But that was still subject to misinterpretation because it contained instructions for all scenarios and thus could be misread.

Under Information 4.0, pilots might use one checklist whose instructions automatically change depending on the temperature. The temperature can change quickly, so the instructions must be quickly updated and quickly made available.

We can draw several inferences from this example:

  • There must be a way to find the context – here the temperature – and pass that information to a processor.
  • The processor must quickly locate the relevant information and turn it into a usable form.
  • The information must be accurate.
  • The information must be created in ways that can vary depending on its context in the larger checklist.
  • The information must be passed to users in a way that’s appropriate for the devices they use.

These inferences form the core of Information 4.0 and fall into four main areas – content creation and categorisation followed by content retrieval and delivery. In our second post, published tomorrow, I will be looking further at Information 4.0 in these areas and some of the likely effects on technical communication.

Image: (CC) Pixabay

Neil Perlin has 39 years’ experience in technical communication. He is the founder of Hyper/Word Services, which provides training, consulting and development for online formats and tools, and is the author of eight books on computing – his latest, Writing Effective Online Content Project Specifications, was released in January 2018. Neil has been a columnist for STC and IEEE and is a popular conference speaker, recently at TCUK 2015 (keynote) and TCUK 2017. He founded and ran the Bleeding Edge stem at the STC Summit, and was STC’s representative to the W3C from 2002 to 2005. He is a Fellow of the STC. You can contact him at nperlin@nperlin.cnc.net or on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (@NeilEric).

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