Some ideas for location-linked cultural heritage projects

I loved the Fire Eagle presentation I saw at the WSG Findability event [my write-up] because it got me all excited again about ideas for projects that take cultural heritage outside the walls of the museum, and more importantly, it made some of those projects seem feasible.

There’s also been a lot of talk about APIs into museum data recently and hopefully the time has come for this idea. It’d be ace if it was possible to bring museum data into the everyday experience of people who would be interested in the things we know about but would never think to have ‘a museum experience’.

For example, you could be on your way to the pub in Stoke Newington, and your phone could let you know that you were passing one of Daniel Defoe‘s hang outs, or the school where Mary Wollstonecraft taught, or that you were passing a ‘Neolithic working area for axe-making’ and that you could see examples of the Neolithic axes in the Museum of London or Defoe’s headstone in Hackney Museum.

That’s a personal example, and those are some of my interests – Defoe wrote one of my favourite books (A Journal of the Plague Year), and I’ve been thinking about a project about ‘modern bluestockings’ that will collate information about early feminists like Wollstonecroft (contact me for more information) – but ideally you could tailor the information you receive to your interests, whether it’s football, music, fashion, history, literature or soap stars in Melbourne, Mumbai or Malmo. If I can get some content sources with good geo-data I might play with this at the museum hack day.

I’m still thinking about functionality, but a notification might look something like “did you know that [person/event blah] [lived/did blah/happened] around here? Find out more now/later [email me a link]; add this to your map for sharing/viewing later”.

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of making the invisible and intangible layers of history linked to any one location visible again. Millions of lives, ordinary or notable, have been lived in London (and in your city); imagine waiting at your local bus stop and having access to the countless stories and events that happened around you over the centuries. Wikinear is a great example, but it’s currently limited to content on Wikipedia, and this content has to pass a ‘notability’ test that doesn’t reflect local concepts of notability or ‘interestingness’. Wikipedia isn’t interested in the finds associated with an archaeological dig that happened at the end of your road in the 1970s, but with a bit of tinkering (or a nudge to me to find the time to make a better programmatic interface) you could get that information from the LAARC catalogue.

The nice thing about local data is that there are lots of people making content; the not nice thing about local data is that it’s scattered all over the web, in all kinds of formats with all kinds of ‘trustability’, from museums/libraries/archives, to local councils to local enthusiasts and the occasional raving lunatic. If an application developer or content editor can’t find information from trusted sources that fits the format required for their application, they’ll use whatever they can find on other encyclopaedic repositories, hack federated searches, or they’ll screen-scrape our data and generate their own set of entities (authority records) and object records. But what happens if a museum updates and republishes an incorrect record – will that change be reflected in various ad hoc data solutions? Surely it’s better to acknowledge and play with this new information environment – better for our data and better for our audiences.

Preparing the data and/or the interface is not necessarily a project that should be specific to any one museum – it’s the kind of project that would work well if it drew on resources from across the cultural heritage sector (assuming we all made our geo-located object data and authority records available and easily queryable; whether with a commonly agreed core schema or our own schemas that others could map between).

Location-linked data isn’t only about official cultural heritage data; it could be used to display, preserve and commemorate histories that aren’t ‘notable’ or ‘historic’ enough for recording officially, whether that’s grime pirate radio stations in East London high-rise roofs or the sites of Turkish social clubs that are now new apartment buildings. Museums might not generate that data, but we could look at how it fits with user-generated content and with our collecting policies.

Or getting away from traditional cultural heritage, I’d love to know when I’m passing over the site of one of London’s lost rivers, or a location that’s mentioned in a film, novel or song.

[Updated December 2008 to add – as QR tags get more mainstream, they could provide a versatile and cheap way to provide links to online content, or 250 characters of information. That’s more information than the average Blue Plaque.]

‘Finding yourself with Fire Eagle’ at WSG Findability

On Wednesday I went to the WSG London Findability event, and I’ve finally got the last of my notes up.

The final talk was from Steve Marshall, on ‘Finding yourself with Fire Eagle’.

Steve doesn’t work on Fire Eagle but made the Python library.

Fire Eagle is a service that helps you manage your location data.

Most location-aware applications have two parts – getting the location, and using the location.

Better model – distribute the location information, but the application getting the location still has to know who’s using it.

Even better model: a brokering service. Fire Eagle sits between any ‘getting’ applications and any ‘using’ applications, and handles the exchange.

[FWIW, ‘Fire Eagle is a brokering service for location data’ is probably the best explanation I’ve heard, and I’d heard it before but I needed the context of the ‘get’ and the ‘use’ applications it sits between for it to stick in my brain.]

So how does it work? In the web application context (it’s different for desktop or mobile applications):
Web app: app asks for Request Token
Fire Eagle: returns Request Token
Web app: user sent to Fire Eagle with token in URL
Fire Eagle: user chooses privacy levels and authorises app
Web app: user sent back to callback URL with Request Token
Web app: app initiates exchange of Request Token
Fire Eagle: Request Token exchanged for Access Token
Web app: app stores Access Token for user

You can manage your applications, and can revoke permissions (who can set or get your location) at any time. You can also temporarily hide your location, or purge all your data from the service. [Though it might be kept by the linked applications.]

How to use:
1. Get API key
2. Authenticate with user (OAuth)
3. Make API call

Locations can be a point or a bounding box.
Location hierarchy – a set of locations at varying degrees of precision.

[There was some good stuff on who could/is using it, and other ideas, but my notes got a bit useless around this point.]

In summary: you can share your location online, control your data and privacy, and easily build location services.

Question: what makes it special? Answer: it’s not coupled to anything. It plays to the strengths of the developers who use it.

‘Fire Eagle: twitter + upcoming + pixie dust’.

URLs are bookmarkable, which means they can be easy to use on phone [hooray]. It doesn’t (currently) store location history, that’s being discussed.

Qu: what’s the business model? Ans: it’s a Brickhouse project (from an incubator/start-up environment).

All methods are http requests at the moment, they might also use XMP ping.

Qu: opening up the beta? Ans: will give Fire Eagle invitations if you have an application that needs testing.

I had to leave before the end of the questions because the event was running over time and I had to meet people in another pub so I missed out on the probably really interesting conversations down the pub afterwards.

My notes:
Looking at their hierarchy of ‘how precisely will you let application x locate you’, it strikes me that it’s quite country-dependent, as a postcode identifies a location very precisely within the UK (to within one of a few houses in a row) while in Australia, it just gives you the area of a huge suburb. I’m not sure if it’s less precise in the US, where postcodes might fit better in the hierarchy.

I’ve also blogged some random thoughts on how services like Fire Eagle make location-linked cultural heritage projects more feasible.

‘Building websites with findability in mind’ at WSG London Findability

Last night I went to the WSG London Findability event at Westminster University, part of London Web Week; here’s part two of my notes.

Stuart Colville‘s session on ‘Building websites with findability in mind’ was full of useful, practical advice.

Who needs to find your content?

Basic requirements:
Understand potential audience(s)
Semantic markup
Accessibility (for people and user agents)
Search engine friendly

Content [largely about blogs]:
Make it compelling for your audience
There’s less competition in niche subjects
Originality (synthesising content, or representing existing content in new ways is also good)
Stay on topic
Provide free, useful information or tools
Comments and discussion (from readers, and interactions with readers) are good

Author or user-generated, or both
Good for searching
Replaces fixed categories
Enables arbitrary associations

Markup (how to make content more findable):
Use web standards. They’re not a magic fix but they’ll put you way ahead. The content:code ratio is improved, and errors are reduced.
Use semantic markup. Adds meaning to content.
Try the roundabout SEO test
Make your sites accessible. Accessible content is indexable content.

Markup meta:
Keywords versus descriptions. Tailor descriptions for each page; they can be automatically generated; they can be used as summaries in search results.
WordPress has good plugins – metadescription for auto-generated metadata, there are others for manual metadata.

Markup titles and headings:
Make them good – they’ll appear as bookmark etc titles.
One H1 per page; the most meaningful title for that page
Separate look from heading structure.

Markup text:
Use semantically correct elements to describe content. Strong, em, etc.

Markup imagery:
Background images are fine if they’re only a design element.
Use image replacement if the images have meaning. There are some accessibility issues.
Use attributes correctly, and make sure they’re relevant.

Markup microformats:
Microformats are a simple layer of structure around content
They’re easy to add to your site
Yahoo! search and technorati index them, Firefox 3 will increase exposure.

Markup Javascript:
Start unobtrusive and enhance according to the capabilities of the user agent.
Don’t be stupid. Use onClick, don’t kill href (e.g. href=”#”).
Use event delegation – no inline events. It’s search engine accessible, has nice clean markup and you still get all the functionality.
[Don’t break links! I like opening a bunch of search results in new tabs, and I can’t do that on your online catalogue, I’ll shop somewhere I can. Rant over.]

Performance and indexation:
Use ‘last modified’ headers – concentrate search agents on fresh content
Sites with Google Ads are indexed more often.

Hackable URLs are good [yay!].
Avoid query strings, they won’t be indexed
Put keywords in your URL path
Use mod_rewrite, etc.

URI permanence:
“They should be forever”. But you need to think about them so they can be forever even if you change your mind about implementation or content structure.
Use rewrites if you do change them.

De-indexing (if you’ve moved content)
Put up a 404 page with proper http headers. 410 ‘intentionally gone’ is nice.
There’s a tool on Google to quickly de-index content.
Make 404s useful to users – e.g. run an internal search and display likely results from your site based on their search engine keywords [or previous page title].

Robots.txt – really good but use carefully. Robots-Nocontent – Yahoo! introduced ‘don’t index’ for e.g. divs but it hasn’t caught on.

Moving content:
Use 301. Redirect users and get content re-indexed by search engines.

Tools for analysing your findability:
Google webmaster tools, Google analytics, log files. It’s worth doing, check for broken links etc.

Think about findability before you write a line of code.
Start with good content, then semantic markup and accessibility.
Use sensible headings, titles, links.

WSG London Findability ‘introduction to findability’

Last night I went to the WSG London Findability event at Westminster University. The event was part of London Web Week. As always, apologies for any errors; corrections and comments are welcome.

First up was Cyril Doussin with an ‘introduction to findability‘.

A lot of it is based on research by Peter Morville, particularly Ambient Findability.

So what do people search for?
Knowledge – about oneself; about concepts/meaning; detailed info (product details, specs); entities in society (people, organisations, etc.)
Opinions – to validate a feeling or judgement; establish trust relationships; find complementary judgements.

What is information? From simple to complex – data -> information -> knowledge.

Findability is ‘the quality of being locatable or navigatable’.
Item level – to what degree is a particular object easy to discover or locate?
System level – how well does the environment support navigation and retrieval?

Wayfinding requires: knowing where you are; knowing your destination; following the best route; being able to recognise your destination; being able to find your way back.

The next section was about how to make something findable:
The “in your face” discovery principle – expose the item in places known to be frequented by the target audience. He showed an example of a classic irritating Australian TV ad, a Brisbane carpet store in this case. It’s disruptive and annoying, but everyone knows it exists. [Sadly, it made me a little bit homesick for Franco Cozzo. ‘Megalo megalo megalo’ is also a perfect example of targeting a niche audience, in this case the Greek and Italian speakers of Melbourne.]

Hand-guided navigation – sorting/ordering (e.g. sections of a restaurant menu); sign-posting.

Describe and browse (e.g. search engines) – similar to asking for directions or asking random questions; get a list of entry points to pages.

Mixing things up – the Google ‘search within a search’ and Yahoo!’s ‘search assist’ box both help users refine searches.

Recommendations (communication between peers) – the searcher describes intent; casual discussions; advice; past experiences.
The web is a referral system. Links are entry doors to your site. There’s a need for a relevancy system whether search engines (PageRank) or peer-based systems (Digg).

Measuring relevance (effectiveness):
Precision – if it retrieves only relevant documents
Recall – whether it retrieves all relevant documents.

Good tests for the effectiveness of your relevance mechanism:
Precision = number of relevant and retrieved documents divided by the total number retrieved.
Recall = number of relevant and retrieved documents divided by the total number of relevant documents.

Relevance – need to identify the type of search:
Sample search – small number of documents are sufficient (e.g. first page of Google results)
Existence search – search for a specific document
Exhaustive search – full set of relevant data is needed.
Sample and existence searches require precision; exhaustive searches require recall.

Content organisation:
Taxonomy – organisation through labelling [but it seems in this context there’s no hierarchy, the taxon are flat tags].
Ontology – taxonomy and inference rules.
Folksonomy – a social dimension.

[In the discussion he mentioned eRDF (embedded RDF) and microformats. Those magic words – subject : predicate : object.]

Content organisation is increasingly important because of the increasing volume of information and sharing of information. It’s also a very good base for search engines.

Measuring findability on the web: count the number of steps to get there. There are many ways to get to data – search engines, peer-based lists and directories.

Aim to strike a balance between sources e.g. search engine optimisation and peer-based.
Know the path(s) your audience(s) will follow (user testing)
Understand the types of search
Make advertising relevant (difficult, as it’s so context-dependent)
Make content rich and relevant
Make your content structured

I’ve run out of lunch break now, but will write up the talks by Stuart Colville and Steve Marshall later.

Fun with Freebase

A video of a presentation to the Freebase User Group with some good stuff on data mining, visualisation (and some bonus API action) via the Freebase blog.

If you haven’t seen it before, Freebase is ‘an open database of the world’s information’, ‘free for anyone to query, contribute to, built applications on top of, or integrate into their websites’. Check out this sample entry on the early feminist (and Londoner) Mary Wollstonecraft. The Freebase blog is generally worth a look, whether you’re interested in Freebase or just thinking about APIs and data mashups.

Google release AJAX loader

From the Google page, AJAX Libraries API:

The AJAX Libraries API is a content distribution network and loading architecture for the most popular open source JavaScript libraries. By using the Google AJAX API Loader’s google.load() method, your application has high speed, globaly available access to a growing list of the most popular JavaScript open source libraries including:

Google works directly with the key stake holders for each library effort and accept the latest stable versions as they are released. Once we host a release of a given library, we are committed to hosting that release indefinitely.

The AJAX Libraries API takes the pain out of developing mashups in JavaScript while using a collection of libraries. We take the pain out of hosting the libraries, correctly setting cache headers, staying up to date with the most recent bug fixes, etc.

There’s also more information at Speed up access to your favorite frameworks via the AJAX Libraries API.

To play devil’s avocado briefly, the question is – can we trust Google enough to build functionality around them? It might be a moot point if you’re already using their APIs, and you could always use the libraries directly, but it’s worth considering.

Notes from ‘How Can Culture Really Connect? Semantic Front Line Report’ at MW2008

These are my notes from the workshop on “‘How Can Culture Really Connect? Semantic Front Line Report” at Museums and the Web 2008. This session was expertly led by Ross Parry.

The paper, “Semantic Dissonance: Do We Need (And Do We Understand) The Semantic Web?” (written by Ross Parry, Jon Pratty and Nick Poole) and the slides are online. The blog from the original Semantic Web Think Tank (SWTT) sessions is also public.

These notes are pretty rough so apologies for any mistakes; I hope they’re a bit useful to people, even though it’s so late after the event. I’ve tried to include most of what was discussed but it’s taken me a while to catch up.

There’s so much to see at MW I missed the start of this session; when we arrived Ross had the participants debating the meaning of terms like ‘Web 2.0’, ‘Web 3.0’, ‘semantic web, ‘Semantic Web’.

So what is the semantic web (sw) about? It’s about intelligent and efficient searching; discovering resources (e.g. URIs of picture, news story, video, biographical detail, museum object) rather than pages; machine-to-machine linking and processing of data.

Discussion: how much/what level of discourse do we need to take to curators and other staff in museums?
me: we need to show people what it can do, not bother them with acronyms.
Libby Neville: believes in involving content/museum people, not sure viewing through the prism of technology.
[?]: decisions about where data lives have an effect.

Slide 39 shows various axes against which the Semantic Web (as formally defined) and the semantic web (the SW ‘lite’?) can be assessed.
Discussion: Aaron: it’s context-dependent.

‘expectations increase in proportion to the work that can be done’ so the work never decreases.

sw as ‘webby way to link data’; ‘machine processable web’ saves getting hung up on semantics [slide 40 quoting Emma Tonkin in BECTA research report, ‘If it quacks like a duck…’ Developments in search technologies].

What should/must/could we (however defined) do/agree/build/try next (when)?

Discussion: Aaron: tagging, clusters. Machine tags (namespace: predicate: value).
me: let’s build semantic webby things into what we’re doing now to help facilitate the conversations and agreements, provide real world examples – attack the problem from the bottom up and the top down.

Slide 49 shows three possible modes: make collections machine-processable via the web; build ontologies and frameworks around added tags; develop more layered and localised meaning. [The data (the data around the data) gets smarter and richer as you move through those modes.]

I was reminded of this ‘mash it‘ video during this session, because it does a good jargon-free job of explaining the benefits of semantic webby stuff. I also rather cynically tweeted that the semantic web will “probably happen out there while we talk about it”.

Play with your customer profiles

It’s a bit early for a random Friday fun link, but this Forrester ‘Build Your Customers’ Social Technographics Profile‘ interactive counts as work too.

Companies often approach Social Computing as a list of technologies to be deployed as needed — a blog here, a podcast there — to achieve a marketing goal. But a more coherent approach is to start with your target audience and determine what kind of relationship you want to build with them, based on what they are ready for. You can use the tool on this page to get started.

You can pull down menus to change the age group, country and gender of your target audience, and the graph below updates to show you how many are in each ‘Social Technographics’ group.

The definitions of the ‘Social Technographics’ groups are given in a slideshow.

Hat tip to Nina Simon. [Update to get Nina’s name right, I’m very sorry!]

Notes from geeKyoto

Quick and dirty notes from geeKyoto, held at Conway Hall, Saturday May 17, 2008. These are pretty much as entered on my phone. The theme of the event was vaguely ‘we broke the world, how can we fix it?’. This isn’t strictly a post about IT, but there were lots of good presentations and discussion about visualisation, data sharing, communication, building online community, IT enabling communication, some excellent websites and examples of APIs in use. There was also something about re-connecting with offline communities with a ‘secular sabbath’.

Christian Nold: in-between the individual and the masses is group and community. Lots on mapping emotions as people walk around.

Alex Haw: spatial control and methods for losing it. Surveillance. Run through stuff. Making the surveillance visible with scaffolding. Re-displaying movement, occupancy. Visualising financial transactions database on physical space. Re-scaling. Coding information analysis. Performance.

Simon Downs, Moixa. Modern design is responsible for climate change, so it should also fix it. Universal design so can upgrade chips instead of throwing out computer when operating system upgrades. Change behaviours with low overhead, easy methods e.g. put balloons on monitors that have been left on overnight. Local dc not remote ac power. How can design work to stop people throwing things away? Batteries rechargeable on USB ports. Disposability is unsustainable. When you buy a phone in China the chargers are standardised so you don’t need to manufacture/buy all the accessories again. Consumers make changes, not governments, in what they buy. There was a question and discussion re price of the USB-chargeable battery.

Adrian Hon, Naomi Alderman: Secular Sabbath. Changing state of anything electrical isn’t allowed, so instead people have meals with friends, read, go for walks, have conversation, sleep, singing. It facilitates relationships. Tested impact on environment, change in usage of devices. A really good point: behavioural changes in environmental energy don’t have to be a sacrifice. Take a day off, get over feeling you’ll miss something. Recommendations: invite friends over for monthly secular Sabbath. Chat, walk, good food. No TV, phone, computers. Don’t travel unless walk. Enjoy a sense of place. Travel can turn into ‘work’, be stressful. Day of rest is good and the environment benefits, yay. Bikes are ok too. It helps you prioritise your day, because you can’t do stuff, only think. [It’s a bit like earth hour, which was quite nice not only in terms of participating in something big but also because it meant remembering that conversation is good and doesn’t require any additional power. But a secular Sabbath also means friends must be nearby or stay overnight, this might limit it to very good friends unless you somewhere comfortable to put them up. I wish there was a non-religious equivalent for ‘sabbath’. That said, I really loved this idea. Even having an offline night sounds like a good idea – I could read or garden instead.]

Avoiding mass extinction: “If all the energy data in the world were accessible, what would you build?”. Dashboards on energy consumption. API. Aggregates data and metrics. Your energy identity. Fed from lots of data sources. Credit card transactions have calculated carbon footprint! Remit to measure all energy in world. Data owned by providers, they’re a neutral platform. 75% of change doesn’t require new technology. Action to measure and compare, design new life, innovate. People aren’t interested in comparisons with the national average, but they do compare themselves with their neighbours. Look to industry for mass production models for energy devices. Make energy *the* performance metric. Questions/discussion: they publish their methodologies on wiki; question about using the tax system to motivate change. Taxes are currently on good things not bad things.

Vincenzo and Bruno from Central St Martins on sustainable development. Sustainable tourism, consumerism. Bruno: play in a changing public realm. Sustainable communities. Observe behaviour and subtle clues to help discover problems. Swings at bus stops! [Cool in so many ways].

Futurelab, beyond current horizons. Images of the future, how and what we think about the future influences what the future becomes. [I wonder if they could be involved with bathcamp?] Thoughts from public. Name-checked blog called Paleofuture. ‘Choose the future you want because it won’t happen if you don’t’.

DIY Kyoto. Create awareness by empowering the individual. Focus on positive messages. Then offer practical solutions. Tangible visualisation of electricity usage: Wattson. Feedback on your usage. Holmes. Download last 28 days data. [It’s expensive for an individual but it would be great for a business, put it somewhere like a reception desk where everyone passes it to encourage people to help reduce electricity usage.]

Africa, communications. ICT4D. Kenya, falling apart within 24 hours of election. People in rural areas were the ones who missed out on information. Government, broadcasters, problematic. People used phones, internet. When the internet meets politics. Erik Hersman, Africa and IT. People reporting problems, putting it on map. Small agile projects are more effective than big slow ones in this environment.

Bryony Worthington, emissions trading. Buy permits back and remove from system, campaign for more caps. Take control, expose issue to public scrutiny, provide potential for mass collaboration and mobilisation. is new campaign to bring emissions trading into public domain. Bring personal responsibility to companies who are trading, real names and addresses. Compare allowance against emissions.

James Smith. Can software save the planet? Socially responsible software. Carbon diet. Visualise your usage. Do the Green Thing: making being green fun, empowering, gives status. Online community around monthly actions. They had a really good list of simple but clever actions you could do. Building a volunteer community of green geeks. Google group: green-web-uk. Using free software and open standards.

Government/policy guys. They did a bar camp at google. Sliding scale from community of trust to universe of discourse, and the problems this creates in getting the right information to the right people when they need it. People in authority have trouble admitting they don’t know everything, asking outside their circles for information is problematic as it can be seized on for political gain (so a bit like some experts in all fields then). They looked to open source for models.

2gether08 – conference later this year. Proposers. Enablers, supporters -> convene -> delivery. Open process. Mapping networks, comparing mapping afterwards to see if event was a success.

[Somewhere along the line I tweeted ‘programming at work/home is like a mullet, .Net business in front, OSS party in the back’. Clearly my brain was starting to fade.]

From discussion: Ch 4 have two twitter feeds from news service, exploring possibilities.

Arctic explorer Ben Saunders: think about what you’re doing with the tiny amount of time we have in your life. Referenced Bill Bryson on how many hours we have in our lifetime, think about what you’re doing with each one. No-one else is the authority on your potential.