Black Box In The Cloud

A black box is any device or system that receives input, processes it, and produces output, in a way that is mysterious and incomprehensible to the user. The user does not know how it works, just that it works.

A black box can be summed up as:

Input -> [Black box] – > Output

Examples of black boxes abound: cars, TVs, cell phones, home appliances, computers, and so on. We don’t know exactly how these things work, but simply take it for granted that they do.

Now, from the perspective of our employees and clients, a technical communicator is a black box, as follows:

  • Input: specification sheets, old documents, product reviews, emails, notes, assorted conversations, tall tales, rumours and innuendos 
  • Black box: the thoughts and actions of the technical communicator, and the tools used 
  • Output: technical documentation

A more common black box is the one on an aircraft. It is called, appropriately enough, a black box, although it is actually yellow to make it easier to find.

An aircraft’s black box records its critical flight data, so that if the aircraft crashes, there’s a record of events leading up to the crash. If the black box can be found, it can help crash investigators determine the cause of the accident.

The main flaw of this design is that someone actually has to find the black box. If there’s no black box, you’ll just have a black hole of data.

A Canadian company named Star Navigation Systems Group has developed a remarkable solution: a new black box. Instead of storing data within the box, the data is transmitted via satellite to a monitoring station.

It no longer matters if the black box is lost or destroyed, because the data is already “on the ground”. More importantly, if there’s a problem on the plane, an text alert is automatically sent to the appropriate people. This could be a life-saving alert, as it could allow technicians to solve a mechanical problem before it becomes a full-blown disaster.

Viraf Kapadia, the chief executive of Star Navigation Systems, explains it well:

“Say you’re the vice-president of engineering for Air Canada and you’re at an aviation show or conference. Something goes wrong with one of your aircraft of high priority, then you will receive an email on your computer with WiFi or your BlackBerry telling you exactly what is wrong in plain English.

“It is reactive versus proactive. The Black Box is very important when a plane goes down or a plane has had a problem and they want to do a postflight analysis, but that is always going to be after the fact. Our box is there watching in real time all the time so if there is an issue that needs to be addressed it can be immediately as opposed to t-minus one second which is then boom and crash.”

To sum up: the two important things which distinguish the new black box from the old are:

  • the location of the information – the information is stored separately from the aircraft, instead of inside the aircraft
  • the timeliness of the information – the information is transmitted and reviewed in real time, as instead of after the fact

Traditional documentation suffers the same two drawbacks of the old black box: its location and timeliness. Most documentation is stored locally on the writer’s computer. The writer can only review and update their documentation if they are physically at their computer.

In addition, most documentation is only updated when the product itself is updated and redistributed. Any important changes to a guide have to wait until the next release.

By contrast, a web-based content management system that regularly and automatically publishes its content online does not have these limitations. A writer simply logs in securely to the system no matter where they are located or even what computer they are using. Changes can be made anywhere and anytime. Content is regularly and automatically updated on a website that users can also access anywhere.

The end result is like the new black box: a system that can be accessed anywhere, and which distributes data immediately (or almost immediately).

Examples of these new information systems include web-based website and document management systems, such a Google Sites and Google Docs. But even better are cloud technical writing tools such as ClickHelp that allow you to develop and manage documentation from anywhere using a web browser.

Any web-based tool that allows you to create, view, edit and manage information would qualify, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and, of course, blogs. In fact, I have already updated this blog entry after posting it.

The old black box was in the clouds, literally.

The new black box, and, it is hoped, all important information, is no longer in the clouds, but on The Cloud.