Nice information design/visualisation pattern browser

infodesignpatterns.com is a Flash-based site that presents over 50 design patterns ‘that describe the functional aspects of graphic components for the display, behaviour and user interaction of complex infographics’.

The development of a design pattern taxonomy for data visualisation and information design is a work in progress, but the site already has a useful pattern search, based on order principle, user goal, graphic class and number of dimensions.

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 ‘Everything RSS’ at MW2008

These are my notes from the workshop Everything RSS with Jim Spadaccini from Ideum at Museums and the Web, Montreal, April 2008. Some of my notes will seem self-evident to various geeks or non-geeks but I’ve tried to include most of what was covered.

It’s taken me a while to catch up on some of my notes, so especially at this distance – any mistakes are mine, any comments or corrections are welcome, and the comments in [square brackets] below are me. All the conference papers and notes I’ve blogged have been tagged with ‘MW2008‘.

The workshop will cover: context, technology, the museum sector, usability and design.

RSS/web feeds – it’s easy to add or remove content sources, they can be rich media including audio, images, video, they are easily read or consumed via applications, websites, mobile devices.

The different flavours and definitions of RSS have hindered adoption.

Atom vs RSS – Atom might be better but not as widely adopted. Most mature RSS readers can handle both.

RSS users are more engaged – 2005, Nielsen NetRatings.

Marketers are seeing RSS as alternative to email as email is being overrun by spam and becoming a less efficient marketing tool.

The audience for RSS content is slowly building as it’s built into browsers, email (Yahoo, Outlook, Mac), MySpace widget platform.

Feedburner. [I’m sure more was said about than this – probably ‘Feedburner is good/useful’ – but it was quite a while ago now.]

Extending RSS: GeoRSS – interoperable geo-coded data; MediaRSS, Creative Commons RSS Module.

Creating RSS feeds on the server-side [a slide of references I failed to get down in time].
You can use free or open source software to generate RSS feeds. MagpieRSS, Feed Editor (Windows, extralabs.net); or free Web Services to create or extend RSS feeds.

There was an activity where we broke into groups to review different RSS applications, including Runstream (create own RSS feed from static content) and xFruits (convert RSS into different platforms).

Others included rssfeedssubmit.com, aiderss.com, rssmixer.com (prototype by Ideum), rsscalendar.com and feedshow.com (OPML generator).

OPML – exchange lists of web feeds between aggregators. e.g. museumblogs site.

RSSmixer – good for widgets and stats, when live to public. [It looks like it’s live now.]

RSS Micro – RSS feed search engine, you can also submit your feed there. Also feedcamp.

Ideas for using RSS:
Use meetup and upcoming for promoting events. Have links back to your events pages and listings.

Link to other museums – it helps everyone’s technorati/page ranking.

There was discussion of RSSmixer’s conceptual data model. Running on Amazon EC2. [with screenshot]. More recent articles are in front end database, older ones in backend database.

RSS is going to move more to a rich media platform, so interest in mixing and filtering down feeds will grow, create personalisation.

Final thoughts – RSS is still emergent. It won’t have a definitive breakthrough but it will eventually become mainstream. It will be used along with email marketing as a tool to reach visitors/customers. RSS web services will continue to expand.

Regular RSS users, who have actively subscribed, are an important constituency. Feeds will be more frequently offered on websites, looking beyond blogs and podcasts.

RSS can help you reach new audiences and cement relationships with existing visitors. You can work with partners to create ‘mixed’ feeds to foster deeper connections with visitors.

Use RSS for multiple points of dissemination – not just RSS. [At this stage I really have no idea what I meant by this but I’m sure whatever Jim said made sense.]

[I had a question about tips for educating existing visitors about RSS. I’d written a blog post about RSS and how to subscribe, which helped, but that’s still only reaching a tiny part of potential audience. Could do a widget to demonstrate it.

This was also one of the workshops or talks that made me realise we are so out of the loop with up-to-date programming models like deployment methods. I guess we’re so busy all the time it’s difficult to keep up with things, and we don’t have the spare resources to test new things out as they come along.]

Notes from ‘The API as Curator’ and on why museums should hire programmers

These are my notes from the third paper ‘The API as Curator‘ by Aaron Straup Cope in the Theoretical Frameworks session chaired by Darren Peacock at Museums and the Web 2008. The slides for The API as Curator are online.

I’ve also included below some further notes on why, how, whether museums should hire programmers, as this was a big meme at the conference and Aaron’s paper made a compelling case for geeks in art, arty geeks and geeky artists.

You might have noticed it’s taken me a while to catch up on some of my notes from this conference, and the longer I leave it the harder it gets. As always, any mistakes are mine, any comments corrections are welcome, and the comments in [square brackets] below are mine.

The other session papers were Object-centred democracies: contradictions, challenges and opportunities by Fiona Cameron and Who has the responsibility for saying what we see? mashing up Museum and Visitor voices, on-site and online by Peter Samis; all the conference papers and notes I’ve blogged have been tagged with ‘MW2008‘.

Aaron Cope: The API as curator.

The paper started with some quotes as ‘mood music’ for the paper.

Institutions are opening up, giving back to the communitiy and watching what people build.

It’s about (computer stuff as) plumbing, about making plumbing not scary. If you’re talking about the web, sooner or later you’re going to need to talk about computer programming.

Programmers need to be more than just an accessory – they should be in-house and full-time and a priority. It boils down to money. You don’t all need to be computer scientists, but it should be part of it so that you can build things.

Experts and consumers – there’s a long tradition of collaboration in the art community, for example printmaking. Printers know about all the minutiae (the technical details) but/so the artists don’t have to.

Teach computer stuff/programming so that people in the arts world are not simply consumers.

Threadless (the t-shirt site) as an example. Anyone can submit a design, they’re voted on in forum, then the top designs are printed. It makes lots of money. It’s printmaking by any other name. Is it art?

“Synthetic performances” Joseph Beuys in Second Life…

It’s nice not to be beholden to nerds… [I guess a lot of people think that about their IT department. Poor us. We all come in peace!]

Pure programming and the “acid bath of the internet”.

Interestingness on Flickr – a programmer works on it, but it’s not a product – (it’s an expression of their ideas). Programming is not a disposable thing, it’s not as simple as a toaster. But is it art? [Yes! well, it can be sometimes, if a language spoken well and a concept executed elegantly can be art.]

API and Artspeak – Aaron’s example (a bit on slide 15 and some general mappy goodness).

Build on top of APIs. Open up new ways to explore collection. Let users map their path around your museum to see the objects they want to see.

Their experience at Flickr is that people will build those things (if you make it possible). [Yay! So let’s make it possible.]

There’s always space for collaboration.

APIs as the nubby bits on Lego. [Lego is the metaphor of the conference!]

Flickr Places – gazetteer browsing.

[Good image on slide 22]: interpretation vs intent, awesome (x) vs time (y). You need programmers on staff, you need to pay them [please], you don’t want them to be transient if you want to increase smoothness of graph between steps of awesomeness. Go for the smallest possible release cycles. Small steps towards awesome.

Questions for the Theoretical Frameworks session
Qu from the Science Museum Minnesota: how to hire programmers in museums – how to attract them? when salaries are crap.
Aaron – teach it in schools and go to computer science departments. People do stuff for more than just money.

Qu on archiving UGC and other stuff generated in these web 2.0 projects… Peter Samis – WordPress archives things. [So just use the tools that already exist]

Aaron – build it and they will come. Also, redefine programming.

There’s a good summary of this session by Nate at MW2008 – Theoretical Frameworks.

And here’s a tragically excited dump from my mind written at the time: “Yes to all that! Now how do we fund it, and convince funders that big top-down projects are less likely to work than incremental and iterative builds? Further, what if programmers and curators and educators had time to explore, collaborate, push each other in a creative space? If you look at the total spend on agencies and external contractors, it must be possible to make a case for funding in-house programmers – but silos of project-based funding make it difficult to consolidate those costs, at least in the UK.”

Continuing the discussion about the benefits of an in-house developer team, post-Museums and the Web, Bryan Kennedy wrote a guest post on Museum 2.0 about Museums and the Web in Montreal that touched on the issue:

More museums should be building these programming skills in internal teams that grow expertise from project to project. Far too many museums small and large rely on outside companies for almost all of their technical development on the web. By and large the most innovation at Museums and the Web came from teams of people who have built expertise into the core operations of their institution.

I fundamentally believe that at least in the museum world there isn’t much danger of the technology folks unseating the curators of the world from their positions of power. I’m more interested in building skilled teams within museums so that the intelligent content people aren’t beholden to external media companies but rather their internal programmers who feel like they are part of the team and understand the overall mission of the museum as well as how to pull UTF-8 data out of a MySQL database.

I left the following comment at the time, and I’m being lazy* and pasting here to save re-writing my thoughts:

Good round-up! The point about having permanent in-house developers is really important and I was glad to see it discussed so much at MW2008.

It’s particularly on my mind at the moment because yesterday I gave a presentation (on publishing from collections databases and the possibilities of repositories or feeds of data) to a group mostly comprised of collections managers, and I was asked afterwards if this public accessibility meant “the death of the curator”. I’ve gathered the impression that some curators think IT projects impose their grand visions of the new world, plunder their data, and leave the curators feeling slightly shell-shocked and unloved.

One way to engage with curatorial teams (and educators and marketers and whoever) and work around these fears and valuable critiques is to have permanent programmers on staff who demonstrably value and respect museum expertise and collections just as much as curators, and who are willing to respond to the concerns raised during digital projects.

There’s a really good discussion in the comments on Bryan’s post. I’m sure this is only a sample of the discussion, but it’s a bit difficult to track down across the blogosphere/twitterverse/whatever and I want to get this posted some time this century.

* But good programmers are lazy, right?

Talking to IT students about the cultural heritage sector, and a small ‘woot’

I’ve just written a report of a visit I made with June (our diversity manager) and Bilkis (our web content manager) to Kingston University to talk to students from the Faculty of Computing, Information Systems and Mathematics about the role of IT professionals in museums.

The full post is on the Museum of London blog (‘Why should IT students consider working in cultural heritage?‘) but I thought it was worth linking to here because the discussion raised lots of interesting questions that might benefit from a wider audience:

How can we engage with our audiences? How would you challenge us, as a museum, do to a better job? Is there obvious stuff we’re missing? Do you have an idea for a project a museum could work with you on? Do you want to contribute to our work? Do you have any more questions about museum jobs?

On a more theoretical level, what effect might new methods of collecting objects or stories have – does it create a new kind of visibility for content from IT literate people with reliable access to the internet? How can we engage with people who aren’t comfortable online?

I think I got more out of the session than the students did, and it’s nice to think that one or two of them might consider working in a museum when they graduate.

And the small ‘woot’? This blog has been listed as an example of a ‘programming and development blog’ in the ComputerWeekly.com IT Blog Awards 08. I have no idea how that happened, but it’s very flattering.

How I do documentation: a column of bumph and a column of gold

All programmers hate documentation, right? But I’ve discovered a way to make it less painful and I’m posting in case it helps anyone else.

The first trick is to start documenting as soon as you start thinking about a project – well before you’ve written any code. I keep a running document of the work I’ve done, including the bits I’m about to try, information about links into other databases or applications, issues I need to think about or questions I need to ask someone, rude comments (I know, I look like such a nice girl), references, quick use cases, bits about functions, summary notes from meetings, etc.

Mostly I record by date, blog style. Doing it by date helps me link repository files, paper notes and emails with particular bits of work, which can otherwise be tricky if it’s a while since you worked on a project or if you have lots of projects on the go. It’s also handy if you need to record the time spent on different projects.

I just did it like this for a while, and it was ok, but I learnt the hard way that it takes a while to sort through it if I needed to send someone else some documentation. Then I made a conscious decision to separate the random musings from the decisions and notes on the productive bits of code.

So now my document has two columns. This first column is all the bumph described above – the stuff I’d need if I wanted to retrace my steps or remind myself why I ended up doing things a certain way. The second column records key decisions or final solutions. This is your column of gold.

This way I can quickly run down the items in the second column, organise it by area instead of by date and come up with some good documentation without much effort. And if I ever want to write up the whole project, I’ve got a record of the whole process in the column of bumph.

You could add a third column to record outstanding tasks or questions. I tend to mark these up with colour and un-colour them when they’re done. It just depends how you like to work.

It’s amazingly simple, but it works. I hope it might be useful for you too. Or if you have any better suggestions (or a better title for this post), I’d love to hear them.

Notes from Advanced Web Development: software strategies for online applications at MW2008

These are my notes from the Advanced Web Development: software strategies for online applications workshop with Rob Stein, Charles Moad and Edward Bachta from the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Museums and the Web 2008 (MW2008) in Montreal. I don’t know if they’ll be useful for anyone else, but if you have any questions about my notes, let me know.

They had their slides online before the presentation, which was really helpful. [More of this sort of thing, please! Though I wish there was a way to view thumbnails of slides on slideshare so you can skip to particular slides.]

The workshop covered a lot of ground, and they did a pretty good job of pitching it at different levels of geekdom. Some of my notes will seem self-evident to different types of geeks or non-geeks but I’ve tried to include most of what they covered. I’ve put some of my own comments in [square brackets].

They started with the difference between web pages and web applications, and pointed out that people have been building applications for 30 years so build on existing stuff.

Last year’s talk was about ‘web 2.0’ and the foundations of building solid software applications but since then APIs/SDKs have taken off. Developers should pick pieces that already work rather than building from the bottom up. The craft lies in knowing how to choose the components and how to integrate them.

There are still reasons to consider building your own APIs e.g. if you have unique information others are unlikely to support adequately, if you care about security of data, if you want to control the distribution of information, or if a guarantee of service is important (e.g. if vendors disappear).

Building APIs
They’re using model driven development, using xmlschema or database as your model.

Object relational mappers provide object-oriented access to a database. Data model changes are picked up automatically and they’re generally database-agnostic so you can swap out the back end. Object relational mappers include Ruby, Hibernate (also in .Net), Propel and SQLAlchemy.

IMA use Hibernate with EMu (their collections management system) and Propel. They’ve built an ‘adaptive layer’ for their collection that glues it all together.

Slide on Eclipse: ‘rich client platform’, not just an IDE. Supports nearly every language except .Net; is cross-platform.

Search
Use full-text indexes for good search functionality. They suggest Lucene (from apache.org) or Google gears. Lucene query types offer finer control than Google e.g. fielded searching [a huge draw for specialist collections searches], date range searching, sorting by any field, multiple index searching with merged results. Fast, low memory usage, extensible. Tools built on Lucene include Nutch (web crawler) and Solr – REST and SOAP API.

Bite size web components and suggestions for a web application toolkit
Harking back to the ‘find good components’ thing. Leverage someone else’s work, and reduce dev/debugging costs – in their experience it produces fewer errors than writing their own stuff.

Storage – Amazon, Nirvanix, XDrive, Google, Box.net. Use Amazon S3 if accessed infrequently cos of free structure.

Video – YouTube, Revver, blip.tv also have developer interfaces. The IMA don’t host any video on their website, it’s all on YouTube.

Images – Flickr, Picasa. [But the picasa UI sucks so please don’t inflict that on your users!]. Flickr support for REST, SOAP, JSON.

Compute (EC, Amazon web service) – Linux virtual machines. Custom disk images for specific requirements. Billable on use. See slides on costs for web hosting.

Authentication services – OpenID, OAuth.

Social computing
Consider social computing when developing your web applications – it’s evolving rapidly and is uncertain. Facebook vs OpenSocial (might be the question today, but tomorrow?). Stick with the eyeballs and be ready to change. [Though the problem for museums thinking about social software applications remains – by the time most museums go through approval processes to get onto Facebook it’ll be dead in the water. Another reason to have good programmers on staff and include content resources in online programs, so that teams can be more flexible while still working within the overall online strategy of their organisation.]

Developing on Facebook
Facebook API – REST-based API. Use their developer platform – simpler than original API calls. JSON simpler than XML responses. Facebook Query Language (FQL) reduces calls to API. Facebook Markup Language (FBML). HTML + Facebook specific features, inc security controls and interfaces features. [There’s a pronoun tag with built-in ‘they’ if not sure of gender of person. Cute.] Lots more in their slides.

Widget frameworks
Widgets are the buzzword that hasn’t quite taken off. The utility isn’t quite there yet, so what are they used for? Players are Google, Netvibes (supports more platforms including Apple Mac dashboard, Yahoo, iGoogle, etc) but is Adobe AIR the widget killer? Flash-based runtime for desktop apps. e.g. twhirl. Run as background processes, and can access desktop files directly, clipboard, drag and drop. [I downloaded the AIR Google Analytics application during the session, it’s a good example.]

Content management
The CMS is the container to put all the components together. A good CMS will let you integrate components into a new site with a minimum of effort. [Wouldn’t that be nice?] Examples include Joomla, WordPress, Drupal, Plone.

There aren’t slides for the next ‘CMS tour’ bit, but they gave some great examples.

Nature holds my camera: they tried visitor blogging with a terminal in gallery so people could ask questions.

They talked about the IMA dashboard. [I asked a vague question about whether there was a user-driven or organisational business case for it – turns out it was driven by their CEO’s interest in transparency, e.g. in sharing how they invest monies, track stats and communicate with their visitors. It helps engender trust and loyalty e.g. for donors. Attendance drives corporate sponsorship so there was a business case. It’s also good for tracking their performance against actual actions vs stated goals.]

The advantages of using a web application toolkit – theromansarecoming.com took $50,000 to build for a four month exhibition. It hit the goals but was expensive. [The demo looked really cool, it’s a shame you don’t seem to be able to access it online.]

Breaking the Mode was built using existing components on the technical side, but required the same content investment i.e. in-house resources as The Romans Are Coming. The communication issues were much better because it was built in-house – less of a requirement to explain to external developers, which had some effect on the cost [but the biggest saving was i re-usable component] – the site took 25 hours to build and IT staff costs were about $1000. [So, quite a saving there.]

They demonstrated ‘athena’, the IMA’s intranet. It has file sharing and task management and is built on drupal, looks a bit like basecamp-lite but without licensing issues. “Everything you do in a museum is project-based” and their intranet is built to support that.

There was discussion about whether their intranet could be shared with other museums. Rob Stein is a firm believer in open source and thinks it’s the best way to go for museum sector. They’re willing to share the source code but don’t have the facilities to support it. There’s a possibility that they could partner with other institutions to combine to pay small vendors to support it.

[I could hear a sudden burst of keyboards clicking around me as the discussion went onto pooling resources to create and support open source applications for stuff museums need to do. Smaller museums (i.e. most of us, and most are much smaller than MoL) don’t have the resources for bespoke software or support but if we all combined, we’d be a bigger market. Overall, it was a really good, grounded discussion about the realities and possibilities of open source development.]

Back to the slides…

Team Troubles
[It was absolutely brilliant to see a discussion of teamwork and collaboration issues in a technical session.]

Divide and conquer – allow team members to focus on area of expertise. Makes it easier to swap out content and themes.

They’re using MVC – Model (data management), Controller (interaction logic), View (user internface). They had some good stuff on MVC and the web in their slides (around 77-79). They also discussed the role of non-technical team members.

Drupal boot camp
[This was a pretty convincing demo of getting started with Drupal and using the Content Construction Kit (CCK) to create custom content types e.g. work of art to publish content quickly, though I did wonder about how it integrated with ORMs that would automatically pick up an underlying data structure. Slide 103 showed recommended Drupal modules. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a CMS. If you’re on Windows, check out bitnami for installation.]

Client side development
“The customer is always right”
They talked about the DOM (document object model) and javascript for Web 2.0 coolness.
They recommended using Javascript toolkits – more object-orientated, solve cross-browser issues, rapid development. Slide 109 listed some Javascript toolkits and they also recommended Firebug.

Interface components
They should be re-usable, just like the server-side stuff. They should some suggestions like reCAPTCHA, image carousels and rating modules. Pick the tools with best community support and cross-platform support.

CSS boilerplates
Treat CSS like another software component of web design and standardise your CSS usage. Use structured naming for classes and divs in server-side content generation. Check out oswd.org for free templates.

XML in the real world
They demonstrated Global Origins (more on that and other goodness at www.ima-digital.org/special-projects) which uses XML driven content.

Questions and discussion
I asked about integration with legacy/existing systems. Their middleware component ‘Mercury’ binds their commercial packages and other applications together. e.g. collection management system extraction layer. [This could be a good formalised model for MoL, as we have to pull from a few different places and push out to lots more and it’s all a bit ad hoc at the moment. I think we’ll be having lots of good discussions about this very soon.]

Some discussion about putting pressure on vendors to open data models. It’s a better economic model for them and for museums.

Their CEO is supportive of iteration (in the development process). The web team is cross-department, and they have new media content creators.

[I was curious about how iterative development and the possibility of making mistakes work with their brand but didn’t want to ask too many questions]

They made the point that you have a bigger recruiting pool with open source software. [Recruiting geeks into museums has been a bit of a conference meme.]

They give away iPods for online surveys and get more responses that way, but you do have to be aware that people might only give polite answers to survey questions so pay close attention to any criticism.

The IMA say you should be able to justify the longevity of projects when experimenting. Measure your projects against your mission, and how they can implement your mission statement.

So, that’s it! I hope I didn’t misrepresent anything they said.

“On creativity”

It’s written for designers, but I think it’s also extremely relevant to geeks.

Plus, it’s a useful article to help me explain to friends why I love what I do – it’s a chance to solve interesting problems and to try and do something better every day in a particular environment (they get the bit about working with fantastic content and people straight away).

It also presents a good argument for ‘constraints’ such as accessibility and standards.

A List Apart, On Creativity:

Creativity is technical and analytical, not expressive (as in self-expression). It is a filter through which perception and output pass, not a receptor or an infusion (as in the case of inspiration). Creativity may require or be enhanced by inspiration, but the two are distinct forces. (These facts are vital in discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate descriptions and applications of creativity.)

Creativity is an inborn capacity for thinking differently than most, seeing differently, and making connections and perceiving relationships others miss. But most importantly, it is the ability to then extrapolate contextually useful ways of employing that data: to create something that meets a specific challenge. By this definition, creativity is merely a tool; it does not convey skill. For a dedicated few, though, this inborn capacity is then further augmented by certain disciplines, including:

  • ongoing curiosity,
  • the desire and habit of looking more deeply into things than others care to,
  • the habit of comparing stimulus with result, and
  • a habit for qualitative discrimination.

If you are a designer worth your salt, you know that no design project begins with creativity. Instead, it begins with client- and/or context-specific discovery, and lots of research to help you understand the fundamental nature of the challenges at hand. All designers must guard against the urge to invest in specific creative ideas before becoming intimately familiar with the contextual landscape of a design project.

In a post titled, What is Web 3.0?, Nicholas Carr said:

“Web 3.0 involves the disintegration of digital data and software into modular components that, through the use of simple tools, can be reintegrated into new applications or functions on the fly by either machines or people.”

And recently I went to a London Geek Girl Dinner, where Paul Amery from Skype (who hosted the event) said
“the next big step forward in software is going to be providing the plumbing, to provide people what they want, where they want …start thinking about plumbing all this software together, joining solutions together… mashups are just the tip of the iceberg”.

So why does that matter to us in the cultural heritage sector? Without stretching the analogy too far, we have two possible roles – one, to provide the content that flows through the pipes, ensuring we use plumbing-compatible tubes so that other people can plumb our content into new applications; the second is to build applications ourselves, using our data and others. I think we’re are brilliant content producers, and we’re getting better at providing re-usable data sources – but we often don’t have the resources to do cool things with them ourselves.

Maybe what I’m advocating is giving geeks in the cultural heritage sector the time to spend playing with technology and supplying the tools for agile development. Or maybe it’s just the perennial cry of the backend geek who never gets to play with the shiny pretty things. I’m still thinking about this one.