The Value of Information
Bonnie Anne Osif
Engineering Reference and Instruction Librarian
Penn State University Libraries
Librarian, Pennsylvania Transportation Institute
This paper addresses the very important topic of the value of information. It discusses the value of information using examples both with monetary values and without, and exploring both the tangible and intangible aspects of information. It reviews several studies that have looked at information and give some real life examples of the value of information from several different subjects.
There is an expression: for the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for the want of a horse, the rider was lost; for the want of a rider, the battle was lost; for the want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. From a small thing like a nail in a horseshoe, big, important results can happen.
In a similar way information can also make an important impact. It has value for organizations, and for the transportation field as a whole. Information is data with meaning. Combine information with experience, expertise, and context and it becomes knowledge – the basis of today’s knowledge-based economy.
This first example started with a small thing with a tragic result. It is not about transportation but it shows the value of information clearly.
One of the most famous US universities is Johns Hopkins, the leading school for medical research grants. In June 2001 a healthy young woman took part in a study of asthma. Within two days she had a reaction to the chemical she inhaled as part of the test and died. The question in the local paper, the Baltimore Sun said, “Could librarians’ help have prevented Hopkins tragedy.”
The answer is yes. The doctor doing the study had searched the lite#000rature but did not search it thoroughly and the information that would have warned him of the danger was missed. A complete search of the literature, which would have included the print indexes as well as the electronic, would have shown that there was evidence that the chemical caused lung and kidney damage. He missed the important articles.
The horseshoe nail was a missing journal article, the loss was the life of a young woman. The value of information in this case was beyond measure.
This is a very dramatic example of the value of information and the value of quality information research.
It is not just librarians who realize that information is of enormous value. Engineers and managers realize it too. That value can be measured in terms of money, time saved, avoidance of research that has been done already, increased efficiency, better decision-making, increased safety and lives saved. However, putting a real, a quantitative value on information has been almost impossible. A few examples that look at money are offered below. These examples can indicate an estimate of the value of information, but are still not the complete story.
But first, a personal anecdote: in 1994 one of the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute’s research associates came to the author with a question. She needed to know what types of snow plows were available because her research group needed to either find one in the literature or start a series of designs and tests to get one that could clear large amounts of snow and throw it far enough off the road in one pass. They were very interested in the height and the angle of the plow. A search of the literature found some articles that seemed to answer her questions. However, the most useful article was in Finnish and not translated. The article was obtained, and she was able to find all the details she needed from the charts and the pictures. It saved her ‘reinventing’ something that had been already been done very well and had been tested. The value, a great deal of time and effort. The value was never computed in terms of money but her group did not have to duplicate research, wasting time and money. This is a typical example that most transportation librarians can identify with. Another value resulted from this success – she is a very good library researcher, understands the value of information to her work and uses the library before starting a project.
Now consider some cases that do offer monetary values. The FHWA published a report in October 1998 that gives a number of examples. It is called the Value of Information and Information Services and is available on the Web through the US National Transportation Library http://ntl.bts.gov/
One of these examples concerns the New York Department of Transportation. They used the results of a literature search to develop a concrete mix for bridge decks. According to the New York DOT, the result is a bridge deck that will last twice as long as the previous deck mix and should have an annual life-cycle savings of almost 9 million US dollars. In addition to the savings for the state of New York, others can use this research, multiplying its value many times.
Louisiana State University did a study on heat strengthening of steel bridges. Illinois state DOT used this research to save $300,000.
Other examples include seismic studies from earthquake prone areas for both the design of new structures and for the retrofitting of existing bridges and buildings, pavement studies, speed studies, guardrails, crash tests, the list goes on and on.
Now consider the other side of this study – that of the information professional and their costs.
Several studies have been very important to this part of the picture. Probably two of the most famous names are Griffiths and King. Their 1993 study is still used frequently. While the figures are somewhat out of date, and the study was focused on the US, the study still gives a great deal of information.
Griffiths and King measured the value of special libraries. They considered
1) what it would cost to get information from other sources if the library was not used,
2) actual costs to run a library
3) what it would cost if the practitioners found the information themselves without the information specialist’s help.
The results, the benefits, ranged from a factor of 2.6 to 17. For example, an organization with 400 professionals could be estimated to spend $3300 per person to get the needed information without a library. A library could do the service better and would save the organization $1.32 million per year.
They computed that access to resources also saved time which ranged from 26% for journal articles to 50% for internal reports.
Time savings come about by avoiding duplication of effort, avoiding research that failed, finding corrections to other studies, providing modifications that work better, etc. Information resulted in significant savings of time, and time equals money.
Cost savings: the study indicated it was 2.3 times more expensive to get the information when there was no in-house library. Cost savings generated by libraries were valued at $310 per article read, $650 per book and $1090 per internal report read.
Jerry Baldwin of the Minnesota DOT has used the Griffiths and King study and computed that his library saves his organization over $800,000 per year in resources. The value of the reference services is almost $400,000.
When benefits and cost on investment are computed the value is $7.6 million with a benefits to cost ratio of 12:1 – a very good ratio for any unit of any business!
All of these attempts at putting a dollar value are very important. These are the figures that are needed by managers to justify information specialists and information resources. However there are other parts of the value of information picture that are equally important but more difficult to measure. While the financial studies are important and managers are correct in requesting these, it is essential to understand that they do not show the entire picture. A monetary value is hard to put on some things, yet these non-money issues add to the value of information. For example, how can a time or dollar value be put on the role of the savvy information specialist referring the engineer to the new article that is right on topic?
Consider a few examples which are sometimes overlooked.
Avoidance of a line of research. Information might indicate it is not worth looking at a process or material. This saves time, effort and money and is a value that is often overlooked. It is hard to compute a negative.
Connections between one line of research and another can be discovered during a review of the literature.
Relationships – partnering, mentoring, teamwork, both within and between organizations come about when research shows common interests. For example, at Penn State a professor who started his career on the artificial heart then teamed with other mechanical engineers to work on vehicle controls and later railroads.
Serendipity – finding something other than what was sought, or
where it was not expected to be found, yet the information is important.
Mention must be made of the importance of evaluation. It is difficult to know how one would quantify the importance of the evaluation of information, especially of information located on the Web, but it is extremely important and it is a cornerstone of the information specialist.
Interestingly, Frank H. Portugal in a 2000 book titled Valuating Information Intangibles says the returns computed for library services are some of the highest of any part of an organization. The library is one of the most profitable parts of the organization yet one of the first units cut when money is scarce. The return is many times the investment. Yet, these high numbers still don’t reflect the whole picture. So, from the numbers, from the bottom line, the value of information is very high and even without every benefit figured in it is still one of the best bargains available to an organization.
To these cases already mentioned, transport librarians could all add their own. Recently a graduate student was studying some issues in bridge design. A brief search with the librarian and he had the solution he needed. He had never used a database before and was going to look at books on the shelf until he found what he needed. He was saved a great deal of time and possible failure since there was no guarantee that he would find the book he wanted on the shelf, or locate the right page in the book by just browsing.
In another example, a researcher had heard of a report given at a conference in Singapore. He was convinced that the report could save him weeks of research, if it really covered what he thought it did. He didn’t actually know the paper but had the author’s name. The librarian tracked the conference paper but it was not available for loan. So, she found the professor in Singapore by searching the web, asked for a copy of the paper and had it in less than 15 hours. The researcher said it was exactly what he needed. The value – no monetary value was computed but the researcher said it was critical to his work.
To return to the first example, of the woman who died in the asthma study, another reason for using it was to show the complexity, the difficulty, of locating information. Skilled librarians can go to free resources on the web, search electronic databases and indexes that charge a fee, use print resources, personal files and the information that is in their heads or with colleagues. However, electronic access has not made it so easy that anyone can do it. In some ways it has made research more difficult. The example of the woman who died clearly shows the value of information and the value of finding appropriate information. Part of this is a value that is not in dollars or euros, but a very real value nonetheless. The example was in medicine but could have been in pavement, bridge design or vehicle safety.
These examples, those with a monetary value and those without, indicate that information is important. It is the cornerstone of research. Without quality, timely information research will repeat itself, lose time and money, and, sometimes, have tragic results.
A good metaphor for the library would be a lighthouse and the important information it provides the sailor. If the light disappears, the sailor can be in trouble. The light is information. This is another dramatic example of the value of information. We need to keep our information lighthouses shining.
George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This applies very much to information. If we don’t know what has been done, we are doomed to repeat the research with a waste of time, energy and money. Non-financial factors increase the value greatly. So, if we know, we move forward. Quality information guarantees that we move forward, we don’t reach roadblocks and dead ends. The value of information, in our fast moving world, is almost priceless.
Frank H. Portugal. Valuating Information Intangibles. Washington, DC: Special Libraries Association, 2000.
Value of Information and Information Services. Washington, DC: Federal Highways Administration, 1998.
Jose-Marie Griffiths and Donald Ward King. Special Libraries: Increasing the Information Edge. Washington, DC: Special Libraries Association, 1993.
Jerry Baldwin. “The Crisis in Special Libraries: An Overview and Case Study.” Sci Tech News 56 no. 2 (May 2004): 4-11.