Catalhoyuk diaries: In the absence of real world content…

…more diary entries from Catalhoyuk.
July 24, started late at night in tent. [but posted as July 25, 2007]
Spent some time whizzing things around in ArcGIS the past few days. I never get to play with GIS at work so it's quite fun. I need to talk to Cord and Dave about what views/tables they need in the database to link in the excavation and finds data. It's a shame we didn't get to experiment with bringing data across before Cord left but hopefully Dave and I can do a 'proof of concept' that she can play with when she gets back to site. Maybe skellies or X-finds, or just basic unit information as a first go.

Today was going to be a solid day of programming, but the power was out for three hours last night and two hours of lab time this morning, so I'm still catching up on the stuff I was going to finish last night.

Last night I wrote myself a note from the geek perspective about "I think the challenge of Catal is combining the reflexive, the uncertain, the indeterminate, with the rigorous requirements of structured recording in a database; and perhaps more importantly, convincing people that it's possible to design to allow for uncertainty and for multivocality" but in the light of day that sounds like pretentious tosh that could only have been thought up in the middle of the night. Well done me.

July 30, middle of the day.
It's really been quite hot, though just now a change is coming through and it's getting cooler. I'm such a (lab, not southern) jessie, I can't imagine what it's like working up on the mound – apparently it's been 48C in the south shelter. The feel of the coming storm reminds me of Melbourne but I bet the heat won't break after the storm like it would at home. I hope my borrowed tent doesn't blow away.

Very frustrated by the power cuts. I feel like I'm losing lots of work time to them. My list of things to do is getting longer and my time is getting shorter. I wish it was the other way around.

I've been documenting some of the database tables in preparation for an informal tutorial on database querying tomorrow. I say 'informal' but that's really just cos I don't have time to prepare so I'll wing it. Hopefully people will have some good examples. I think it'll also point out where we need to make improvements – putting all the relationships into the central database is probably the first thing to do, so that they automatically come through into the AllTables database. This will make it a lot easier for people to join tables as some joins will be created auto-magically for them. It's probably not worth documenting all the tables at the field level, but there are some (where the data type is different between old databases, for example) where it would be useful. The descriptions could also serve as synonyms to help people find the tables they need for their queries.

Update from Catalhoyuk

In the absence of real updates, I thought I'd post some of my site diary entries. The power has been very dodgy the past few days so I might do a big catch up on email and whatever in Konya on Friday (our day off). Interestingly, Blogger has decided to present me the site in Turkish, presumably based on IP location, because the language settings on the browser are English-only. So if things go a bit strange it's because I can't really see what I'm doing.

My first day on site this season. I feel like I've been pole-axed with tiredness after the trip out here, so I'm concentrating on catching up on Sarah's documentation [for her work on site this year] and generally remembering how everything works.

Just had a random thought, though it's a shame I didn't think of it at the start so we could tell everyone who's been on site over the season – any blog posts, photos or videos, blah blah blah, could use the same tag (like 'catal07') on public content, so it's easier to find everything from this season regardless of where it's held.

[And now that I'm posting this on a blog I suppose I should do that myself]

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I keep bouncing between looking at the Figurines and Ceramics databases.
I've been nabbing poor Chris whenever he comes anywhere near the computer room and asking questions about heat treatment and cores; he's been very patient.

We had a long meeting in the cafe on Sunday, and I re-jigged the recording structures afterwards. I think possibly last year's structure was too ambitious, given the time constraints on everyone – not only for building it, but for mapping data from old structures to the new and mostly for the time it takes to simply record the objects as it went into lots of technical detail that probably isn't sustainable at the moment.

With that in mind, I tipped the recording model on its head so that it's much more about observation than interpretation at this stage, particularly for colours and the various things that variations in colour indicate. For example, rather than breaking heat exposure down into manufacture, use, other events or post-deposition, for the moment it's enough to record that it's present. I've designed the forms to allow people to record the probable type of heat exposure (and how certain they are about it) if there's evidence to support it, but if there's no evidence either way they don't have to record a probable reason. The structures can be extended as we find out more about the raw materials around the site – I think they might change views on the intentionality represented by the presence of various inclusions.

I've spent the day reviewing the ceramics database structures with a view to normalising them, and also to fitting them into the shared clay recording system. It's a continuation of work from previous seasons but with the added pressure(?) challenge(?) that other teams will be using versions of the ceramics databases soon too, so it's really important to get the data structures right. Nurcan has been really helpful and her explanations of some of the changes have helped me think about the best solutions to her recording issues.

Journalists were out yesterday, we had our photo taken under the Catalhoyuk sign near the gate. Apparently it'll be in Wednesday's papers. I wonder if people in London could pick up copies in the off-licences around Green Lanes. 'Famous in Turkey' – sounds like a band name.

It's funny how the diary entries are starting to read like blog entries, and in a way they seem to be functioning a bit like a blog too, with people commenting on each other's entries. I almost feel like I should add a field so people can record which diary entry they're writing about alongside the units, etc, but would that be far too self-referential?

When the database goes back to London and is put on the web I think we should put an 'AddThis' button on the various diary, finds and excavation pages so people can add pages to social bookmarking sites, blogs, etc. If we sign up for an account we can see how it's used – I wonder how much activity that kind of 'passive' use would see compared to 'active' use like commenting on finds or excavation data. I really need to find out more about the barriers to participation for actively creating content. I'll suggest the 'AddThis' thing to Ian and Shahina if I get a chance.

I'm starting to really wish I'd had my hair cut before I left London because it's taken on a life of its own. Not that it really matters out here, I guess.

I'm off to Catalhoyuk for two weeks

I'm off to Çatalhöyük, Turkey, for two weeks, for the usual database analysis/design/development. I don't imagine I'll have any time to post updates, so you can make do with photos from previous years in the meantime.

Catalhoyuk 2004, 2005, 2006 photoset

A post from on lessons for content on YouTube, and by extension on 'informal' online content generally. In summary, be sincere.

But first here are a few reasons why BlendTec succeeded — reasons you ought to pay attention to before trying it yourself:

  1. It's funny. It's visually arresting. It's short. These are three qualities your videos must possess. Here's another company that also succeeded with a visually arresting video: Ray-Ban.
  2. It's authentic. These guys are geeks. Wright told me the CEO — Tom Dickson, who's featured in the video — is an engineer. It comes across. This stuff ain't slick, folks, and if it were it wouldn't work. (I love the proud and cheesy smile while he watches his company's blender reduce some object to dust.)
  3. It's original. Figure out what your unique value is. Then film it and put it up there. Don't copy Blendtec, or Ray-Ban, or Dove. This may be the hardest part.
  4. It actually connects to the value of the product. You see these videos and you can't help saying "Can that blender really do that? Maybe I should get one." And many people do. You could be a hit on YouTube with a video that doesn't connect to the value of your product, but that will help your ego a lot more than your sales.

From Speaking through YouTube,

Sometimes I think sincerity is regarded as daggy or unsophisticated, or just too simple to work; but I suspect it's part of the reason the participatory web has taken off.

More on the F word

I was thinking about all the fuss in the cultural heritage sector about Facebook on various museum-y discussion lists at the moment, and thought perhaps the off-line equivalent would be posts saying

"I've discovered this place where lots of young people hang out, interacting with each other in a really natural way. The thing is, institutions can't go there, only individuals. But this place is full of audiences we want to reach. So how can we engage with this new-fangled 'pub' thing?".

I guess what I'm asking is, is Facebook 'fit for [our] purpose' or are we just chasing it for the same reason marketers love youth social networking sites – it's a place where a hard-to-reach demographic hang out.

With that in mind, here's what Facebook does well:

…just how intrinsic the use of Facebook is today among younger scholars – grad students and junior faculty – in their scholarship and teaching. Facebook, for now, is often the place where they work, collaborate, share, and plan. Grad students may run student projects using Facebook groups; they may communicate amongst each other in inter-institutional (multi-university) research projects; they may announce speakers and special events to their communities.

I've been enmeshed recently in increasingly agonized conferences that concern themselves with "re-thinking scholarly communication" and grappling with understanding what tools might be used to facilitate new models of peer review, or facilitate research collaboration, or teaching — and all the while – of course – it has been happening anyway, using widely available tools that provide the flexibility and leverage that scholars have been seeking.

And here's why it's relevant to the cultural heritage sector:

…regardless of the ultimate fate of Facebook, the set of characteristics that it has established – the sense of community; user control over the boundedness of openness; support for fine grained privacy controls; the ability to form ad-hoc groups with flexible administration; integration and linkage to external data resources and application spaces through a liberal and open API definition; socially promiscuous communication – these will be carried with us into future environments as expectations for online communities.

From Working in Facebook, O'Reilly rader.

There's a post on Museums and Social Networking Sites that is nicely timed given the 'should museums be on Facebook' discussions on the UK Museums Computer Group and Museum Computer Network mailing lists. I particularly liked the following:

[M]useums that venture haphazardly into the wilderness of social networking sites may end up looking stiff and frozen. Institutions need to enter these spaces with firm answers to these questions:

  • What audience(s) are we trying to reach, and why?
  • What information do we want to convey to these people?
  • What actions do we want them to take?
  • Demographically, where do these constituents congregate online?
  • Do these virtual spaces provide the tools that will allow us to circulate our message?
  • Do the sites then provide ways for users to circulate our message without too much futher effort from us–that is, do the sites allow for percolation, or will our message merely appear for a moment and then pass quickly from users' radar?

I would add, is it an appropriate space for instutitions or is it a personal space?

The post also points out one of the major problems with Facebook groups that's been irritating me for a while – they don't notify you of new content, whether as an RSS feed, Facebook notification or in email. The Groups page doesn't even order groups by those with the most recent wall or discussion posts. No wonder groups languish on Facebook – most seem to collect members easily, but hardly anyone actually posts any content on them. There are always barriers to participation on social software or reasons why more people lurk than post, but if people don't know new content has been added, they'll never respond. It's a step backwards to the world of checking to see if sites have new content – who does that now we have RSS?

And just because I like it: when xkcd and wikipedia collide.

Collected links and random thoughts on user testing

First, some links on considerations for survey design and quick accessibility testing.

Given the constraints of typical museum project budgets, it's helpful to know you can get useful results with as few as five testers. Here's everybody's favourite, Jakob Nielsen, on why you can do usability testing with only five users, card sorting exercises for information architecture with 15 users and quantitative studies with 20 users. Of course, you have to allow for testing for each of your main audiences and ideally for iterative testing too, but let's face it – almost any testing is better than none. After all, you can't do user-centred design if you don't know what your users want.

There were a few good articles about evaluation and user-centred design in Digital Technology in Japanese Museums, a special edition of the Journal of Museum Education. I particularly liked the approach in "What Impressions Do People Have Regarding Mobile Guidance Services in Museums? Designing a Questionnaire that Uses Opinions from the General Public" by Hiromi Sekiguchi and Hirokazu Yoshimura.

To quote from their abstract: "There are usually serious gaps between what developers want to know and what users really think about the system. The present research aims to develop a questionnaire that takes into consideration the users point of view, including opinions of people who do not want to use the system". [my emphasis]

They asked people to write down "as many ideas as they could – doubts, worries, feelings, and expectations" about the devices they were testing. They then grouped the responses and used them as the basis for later surveys. Hopefully this process removes developer- and content producer-centric biases from the questions asked in user testing.

One surprising side-effect of good user testing is that it helps get everyone involved in a project to 'buy into' accessibility and usability. We can all be blinded by our love of technology, our love of the bottom line, our closeness to the material to be published, etc, and forget that we are ultimately only doing these projects to give people access to our collections and information. User testing gives representative users a voice and helps everyone re-focus on the people who'll be using the content will actually want to do with it.

I know I'm probably preaching to the converted here, but during Brian Kelly's talk on Accessibility and Innovation at UKMW07 I realised that for years I've had an unconscious test for how well I'll work with someone based on whether they view accessibility as a hindrance or as a chance to respond creatively to a limitation. As you might have guessed, I think the 'constraints' of accessibility help create innovations. As 37rules say, "let limitations guide you to creative solutions".

One of the points raised in the discussion that followed Brian's talk was about how to ensure compliance from contractors if quantitative compliance tests and standards are deprecated for qualitative measures. Thinking back over previous experiences, it became clear to me that anyone responding to a project tender should be able to demonstrate their intrinsic motivation to create accessible sites, not just an ability to deal with the big stick of compliance, because a contractors commitment to accessibility makes such a difference to the development process and outcomes. I don't think user testing will convince a harried project manager to push a designer for a more accessible template but I do think we have a better chance of implementing accessible and usable sites if user requirements considered at the core of the project from the outset.