By JASON LEWIS and ALISON KITCHENS
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (November 15, 2011)—Web users need to vastly improve their online research skills in order to take advantage of growing stores of data on the Internet, a group of leading information thinkers said Monday.
"The digital divide has typically been a distinction between those who have computers and those who don't," Dan Russell, director of user happiness at Google, said at a panel on the future of information at the University of Maryland. "There is also a divide about people who know how to search."
Citing a study that over 90 percent of Americans don't know how to search for a word or phrase within a Web page, Russell said that lack of information literacy has made it difficult for the public to take full advantage of online information.
"You have got to take on this challenge for yourself in becoming literate in your own information technology," he said.
Russell's job takes him into the homes of regular Google users, where he tries to figure out why they can't find the information they want using the search engine.
For many, the problem comes from a lack of knowledge about the types of information that can be found online, he said. Many users are unaware that they can search entire books Google has digitized or find event calendars.
"We have to figure out how ... we provide information for these people. How do we accommodate their particular needs, their particular strengths?" he asked.
In addition to finding information from secondary sources, the panel discussed how cell phones and new wearable technologies are making it easier than ever for people to collect and store information about themselves online.
Users can tap into that data for self-improvement. For example, wearable devices that measure heart rate can help people improve their health, said Mary Czerwinski, research area manager of the visualization and interaction research group at Microsoft.
But widespread adoption of those tools could be hindered by privacy concerns, she said. Czerwinski said users need to be assured that the personal information they provide using these Web-based services will be protected.
"We have to ask ourselves how comfortable we are with organizations shaping your experience on the web," she said.
The growth of social networks has made users more comfortable with sharing personal information on the Web, said Abdur Chowdhury, former chief scientist at Twitter.
"Sharing of information in a free and open way is going to make us more and more aware of the world in which we live," Chowdhury said.
He cited the outpouring of assistance to Haitians after the earthquake in 2010 as an example of information sharing being used to accomplish goals that could have not been met otherwise, like fundraising.
"It is just no longer sharing about what happened, but it is reaching out to what happened," he said.
The panel was hosted by the Future of Information Alliance, a multi-disciplinary group that studies the evolving role of information in society. The Future of Information Alliance is a University of Maryland partnership involving the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the College of Information Studies and other colleges at the university.