Monday, February 23, 2015

Is Gibbs' team info literate? The information literacy of #NCIS

Workplace information literacy is all the vogue, and so I offer an information literacy analysis of a team of workers who have to solve impossible information problems on a weekly basis: the NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) team headed by Special Agent Jethro Leroy Gibbs. In case you never watch NCIS, it is a hugely successful TV series in which they solve crimes involving a (dead) navy person. I will focus on the ur-team, headed by Gibbs, rather than the flibbertigibbet spinoff series. After iterative conversations with the data (i.e. I’ve watched a lot of NCIS) I am able to offer the following analysis, using the framework of the SCONUL 7 pillars of information literacy.

“Okay, let's get to work!”

Pillar 1: “Identify the information need”? Check! No sooner has a dead marine washed upon the beach/ been discovered by a courting couple/ inexplicably flumped out of the sky, than Gibbs is barking away at people demanding names, and cause and time of death. And the team keeps reviewing and identifying new information needs all the way through the episode until the perp finally breaks down under Gibbs’ merciless interrogation.

Pillar 2: “Scope “ – so that’s “Can assess current knowledge and identify gaps” (Check! the team act as one to share what they know and then scatter to do whatever it is they do best), “understands what types of information are available” (Check! do they ever stand round wondering where on earth to look next? "Heck no!"), and “Demonstrate the ability to use new tools as they become available” (Check! there is NO database or hard disk inaccessible to the combined wizardry of Abby and McGee. Even DiNozzo can manipulate a camera, laptop and wifi when circumstances dictate (vide the case of the man stabbed with a knitting needle in the airborne aircraft lavatory; pictures zoom to Abby and Ducky before you can say “so the air hostess is the hit man!”).

Pillar 3: “Plan: construct strategies for locating information and data” Check! This is most evident when the team plan how to collect physical and personal evidence, whether it’s Ducky contemplating how to get the corpse to tell him how the murder was committed, or Ziva and Gibbs deciding how to get into the suspect’s home and snag his toothbrush for a DNA test. The elegant search strategies used to extract information from the plethora of digital sources are usually taken as read. Although Abby and McGee sometimes can’t resist filling in the systematic detail, Gibbs soon reminds them that it’s only the answers he’s interested in.

Pillar 4: “Gather: locate and access the information and data they need” Check! and double check! Gibbs and his team have access to every conceivable information source known to man. They use satellites and tiny cameras, they use huge great video suites and petite mobile phones, they track all kinds of objects all around the world using amazing networky gizmos, they use news databases, and bank records, and can hack into any database after the most minimal effort, they can call on their own vast and infallible memories, they have extensive personal networks of people just dying to do them favours. If by any chance the person/object/database doesn’t happen to be in Washington DC, only a small amount of jokey posturing will see them on a flight to Iraq, or Paris, or Mexico to scoop up the info in person.
The only element lacking here is “understanding the difference between free and paid for resources”. As far as I can see, the only way Gibbs and co. ever pay for information, is, now and then, with a certain amount of personal angst (e.g. having to say “please” to the FBI).

Pillar 5: “Evaluate”. This is one where I pondered a while. Most of the information they get from official databases (fingerprints! tox screens! phone records! service records!) simply gets accepted as correct, unless there’s a plot device about falsifying something. However, the team do “Critically appraise and evaluate their own findings and those of others”, principally when gathered round the screen next to Gibbs’ desk fighting over who is going to feed him the latest juicy fact. As well as contesting each others’ findings (i.e. making snarky remarks and snatching the digital pointer), they are always subject to Gibbs’ devastating critique (notably “yer think?” and “so that’s all you got?”). After all, Gibbs’ Rule #3 is “Never believe what you are told. Double check.”
The most air time is, again, devoted to evaluating personal sources. The team itself is trustworthy (except when fighting personal vendettas, carrying out orders from Mossad, or protecting a close relative, obviously). People the team knows and trusts are mostly good information sources, although TV cliche dictates that periodically one or other of the team will be Horribly Disallusioned when it turns out their girlfriend/boyfriend/mentor/old commanding officer is liar and a cheat.
Other people can only be identified as good or bad information sources once they’ve been marched to the interview room for ritual humiliation by one of the team, whilst a random selection of  team-mates indulge in light banter behind the 2-way mirror.

Pillar 6: “Manage: Can organise information professionally and ethically”. They must be super-efficient at organising information, as the only things they lose are embarrassing personal items (leading to much humorous byplay) or files stolen by someone Up To No Good. However, this pillar seems to be the one blot on their information literate copybook. Does Gibbs’ team “Demonstrate awareness of issues relating to the rights of others including ethics, data protection, copyright, plagiarism and any other intellectual property issues”? I think not! McGee hacks into everything, the gun-toters of the team hack into people’s houses, and obviously Ducky and Mr Palmer hack into the corpses, though the latter is really just routine forensics. Now and then national security is mentioned, and sometimes someone will wonder whether all this is right. However, generally speaking ethical information behaviour isn’t allowed to stand in the way of wrapping up the case before the credits whump in.

Pillar 7: “Present: Can apply the knowledge gained: presenting the results of their research, synthesising new and old information and data to create new knowledge and disseminating it in a variety of ways”. Check! and triple check! They always solve the case: job done. How the results are disseminated will depend on the plot point. The team may end the episode soulfully watching a complete fabrication being broadcast on the ZNN news channel (e.g. the bullet-riddled demise of Director Shepard, reported as a nasty domestic accident, possibly involving blazing chip fat), or getting the warm fuzzies (e.g. watching the wife and fatally-ill son of a dead hero helicopter pilot being respectively stoic, and cute: and were it not for the investigative powers of Gibbs’ team, that hero would have been branded a coward!)

What is perhaps most awesome is the way they combine their individually awesome talents to become a mega-awesome whole. Remember, Gibbs' Rule #15 is “Always work as a team”. He is an archetypal manager in his information behaviour: he sets clear goals, provides incentives (e.g. buckets of carbonated beverage; though not being shouted at is usually enough for DiNozzo), he demands summarised intelligence and regular updates (“what yer got?”), he prefers personal communication (“speak to me Abs”), disdains unnecessary detail (“speak English!”), and combines his personal knowledge base, his gut feeling and the vast streams of information from his team to arrive at a decision (“Gibbs is always right!”).
The rest provide complimentary sets of skills, knowledge and personal contacts. Abby and Ducky are the most expert experts in the world in space and don’t have to do trivial things like read the literature to keep up to date. However, they do go to conferences (mostly for people to cluster round them and ask for autographs, I imagine) and if their gigantic brains fail to identify an appropriate solution, they always know some other expert who will come up with the goods. If an information source is trying to run away, Ziva can exercise her skills in hitting people. DiNozzo is good at putting evidence in bags and noticing quirky things that turn out to be really, really important.

So, I think that pretty well demonstrates that the NCIS team are A1 information literate (apart from that pesky ethical thing, which I’m sure Gibbs would discount with a quick whack to the back of the head). In fact they could be rechristened the Navy’s Completely Information-Literate Service.

Does anyone know Gibbs’ phone number, so I can ring up to propose it? I’m sure he’d love that. He’s always so open to unsolicited suggestions for change.

Pictures by Sheila Webber, taken in Second Life. Those with eagle eyes will have spotted that there are 2 rule 3s. This is Gibbs. He makes up the rules.

1 comment:

Patricia Dean said...

Love it, thanks for sharing :)