June 8, 2008

When just-in-time electronic documentation is a really good idea

Mark Logic basically makes an XML DBMS – confusingly called Marklogic without a space – optimized for document processing (including text search). Mark Logic’s main market is custom publishing – assembling documents on the fly, whether based on search or some other starting point.

Airlines put Marklogic to an interesting use: They create “electronic flight bags.” Apparently, flight crews typically carry a whole satchel of documents (flight bags) onto a plane, the precise contents of which frequently vary. Marklogic lets these be automatically generated in electronic form.

Well, in recent news it turns out that a $1.4 billion B-1 bomber crashed because a known prudent take-off/maintenance procedure hadn’t been followed. (Something about heating the components to evaporate water that otherwise destroyed the electronics.) This plane-saving had been discovered, but not propagated to all bases and maintenance crews responsible for the B-1. You think something like Marklogic might have helped?

To quote CNN.com,

However, a technique learned by some two years ago that had gone widely unknown and unadopted probably would have prevented the crash, Carpenter said. The technique essentially heats the sensors and evaporates any moisture before data calibrations.

“This technique was never formalized in a technical order change or captured in ‘lessons learned’ reports. Hence, only some pilots and some maintenance technicians knew of the suggestion,” according to Carpenter’s executive summary of the accident.

The report said, “The human factor of communicating critical information was a contributing factor to this mishap.”


2 Responses to “When just-in-time electronic documentation is a really good idea”

  1. Daniel Tunkelang on June 8th, 2008 12:40 pm

    Just-in-time electronic documentation is a really good idea–anyone who has worked in software development or consulting can tell you that! But having the information isn’t enough; the question is whether you can find the specific information you need.

    Printing out the documents deemed most likely to be relevant to a particular context is one way to address the findability issue, and has the virtue of being low-tech, but it seems to unnecessarily mimic the physical limitations of the flight bag.

    The scarcest resource for information seekers is not storage, it’s human attention. I’ve never worked on a flight crew, but I know that I’d rather have an interactive system that helps me hone in on my actual problem than be searching through a manual, however custom, that tried to anticipate all of the problems I might have.

    Not trying to ding Mark Logic here–just pointing out that custom publishing is hardly a panacea for information seekers.

  2. Curt Monash on June 8th, 2008 4:53 pm


    I really don’t think Marklogic prints out many volumes of documentation on paper, or otherwise makes it hard to get at. The core technology IS a kind of search engine, after all.

    I’ll confess to not having asked the exact product design. Perhaps somebody from Mark Logic can add some detail here.



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