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Knowledge Based Applications

Data verses information

Data comprises of a set of codes that have a structure. For example, you might have a set of integers (whole numbers) or a set of real numbers (numbers with a fractional part) or a set of strings (each string is made up of an ASCII character) and so on.

  • Here is an example of some data: 12, 45, 34, 23, 44, 91, 5
  • Here is another example of data: 12.66, 14.89, 3.65, 611.00, 723.04, 76.01
  • Here is yet another set of data: Fish, Chips, Sausages, Beans, Peas

Each set of data has a structure. What the data lacks, however, is an interpretation. What does the data mean? It is not until you are told that the first set of numbers refers to the number of cars sold by Cooper's Garage in each of the last 7 months that you have information. It is not until you are told that the second set of numbers refers to a bank customer's balance over the last 6 weeks that you have information. It is not until you are told that the third items in the list are the most popular sellers in the local chip shop that you have information.

Data is a set of coded, structured symbols. Information is when data is given a context.

Passive and interactive information systems

In the context of computing, an 'information system' is any computer system that has data in it that can be rearranged and accessed by users in the form of information. Information systems hold data on secondary storage devices, for example, on a CD or a hard disk. Sometimes, the data held on storage devices can be changed by users. Sometimes it cannot be.

If the information held in storage can be accessed but not changed, it is known as a 'passive information system'. An example of this kind of storage system would include an encyclopedia held on a CD. You can access the information on the CD. You can even search through it. But you can't actually change the information on it. Some information systems are known as 'interactive information systems'. This is because you cannot only access the information, you can change it, too. An example of this is a school's database of pupils used by the secretary. The secretary can access any pupil's details. They can even search through all of the pupils' records to find ones that match some particular criteria and they can change the details held on the database, for example, when a pupil moves house. Another example might be a shop's database of products. It can be searched to see what products are available and it can be changed, perhaps as part of a stock control system. Each time an item is scanned at the checkout the number of items available is reduced by one. New products can also be added to the database and ones that are no longer sold removed.

Management Information Systems (MIS)

A Management Information System, or MIS, is a piece of software that collects data from a range of sources and turns it into information appropriate to a recipient's needs to enable them to make decisions. A company usually has some managers who are responsible for the day-to-day running of a business. They need to make sure that there is enough stock, that the staff are well-trained and that the paperwork in the business is up-to-date, for example. There are also the strategic managers. Strategic managers are responsible for planning the direction the business will take, forecasting what will happen in the future, controlling the costs of the business, marketing the business and the products that they sell, ensuring that resources are sufficient for the business to be successful, to name but a few. Strategic managers may be at an area level or a national level or even an international level. Each type of manager, however, whether they are involved in the day-to-day management of a shop or are a strategic manager, has their own particular information needs that must be satisfied to enable them to carry out their job effectively. An MIS seeks to satisfy all of their individual information needs.

Different layers of management have different information needs

Consider a mobile phone chain of shops. Each shop will have a manager. Each shop manager needs to know how many of each type of phone they have in the stockroom. They need to know how many they sold last week, how much money they took in, who the best salesperson was and when to re-order (often done automatically) for example. In other words, each shop manager needs to have information relating to the operations within their own particular shop. An area manager, however, will not need to know the detail of what is happening in each shop. They will be concerned with summary financial information, to get an overall picture of sales in their area. They might want to know how much money each shop in their area took in last week in comparison to the target sales for that shop. The strategic managers at the head office will want summaries of each area. The financial manager will want financial summaries. The personnel manager will want summaries of the numbers of staff, the hours each worked, the cost of overtime and the like. The marketing manager will want specific information about one type of product that they have been heavily promoting. They may also want to see some graphs that compare their prices to their competitors over the last week. The sales manager may want to see a breakdown of total sales by salesperson or by product.

Different managers have different information needs

Each manager, then, has their own information needs. An MIS seeks to meet those needs by doing a number of things:

  • a) It will provide reliable information. If information given out by any system proves unreliable, managers will quickly abandon it. Once a system has lost the confidence of the people it is supposed to serve, it is very difficult to regain their trust.
  • b) An MIS will provide up-to-date information. Information has a 'shelf-life'. It's usefulness soon lapses with time. It can quickly be given the label of 'historical data' and be of limited use to managers trying to effectively run a business.
  • c) A good MIS will give the manager the information they need. Too little information and they won't have all of the facts upon which to make business decisions. Too much information, however, and they may not be able to find the facts they need. An MIS that gives a manager the information they need will potentially improve the quality of the manager's decision-making!
  • d) A good MIS will not only give a manager the right amount of reliable and up-to-date information. It will also present the data in a way that is best for that user. This may involve giving the manager a graph, a table of results or a written description, for example.
  • e) An MIS should be able to provide knowledge that previously took time to collect using other methods. This means that a manager could have more time to allocate to other activities, such as customer care or looking after their staff.
  • f) An MIS should be able to better illustrate trends in areas of business. This should help with any future planning that needs to take place.
  • g) Ultimately, an MIS should help a company to become more profitable and to give it an edge over all of their competitors. An MIS is not a data processing system. A data processing system takes raw data and processes it into a regular and well-defined form. It is not rearranged into different forms for different managers so that they can make better decisions.

Examples of data processing systems include:

  • Processing monthly bank statements for customers.
  • Processing employee payslips.
  • Producing a list of supermarket items that must be reordered.
  • Producing a list of people who have not paid their annual subscription to a club.
  • Producing a list of pupils in a class.

Examples of the output from an MIS include:

  • A report showing the prices charged for flights to New York by competitors.
  • A report showing how many mobile phones were sold in each shop in a chain.
  • A report showing how profits varied each month over the last year.
  • A report detailing the overtime worked in each supermarket in a chain of supermarkets.
  • A report showing how many customers each till operator dealt with in a shift.

Knowledge-based systems

A 'knowledge-based system' is a synonym of an 'expert system'. It is “an application of artificial intelligence to a particular area of activity where traditional human expert knowledge and experience are made available through a computer package” (British Computer Society, 'A Glossary of Computing Terms'). In other words, it is a piece of software that has a go at replacing experts' knowledge and experience. In this section, we will describe the components of the software that make up an expert system. In the next section, we will look at some typical applications. The components of knowledge-based software

Knowledge-based software systems have identifiable parts to them. These are:

  • The knowledge base.
  • The rule base.
  • The inference engine.
  • The user interface.

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