Friday, September 11, 2015

Library of Cards


On Thursday, September 10th, I had the honor and the pleasure to present at Access 2015. I've been to many Access Conferences over the years and each one has been a joyful experience. Thank you so much to those organizing Access YYZ for all of us.

Have you ever listened to the podcast 99% Invisible?

99% Invisible is a weekly podcast dedicated to design and architecture and the 99% percent of the invisible activity that shapes our experiences in the world.

They’ve done episodes on the design of city flags, barbed wire, lawn enforcement, baseball mascot costumes, and it’s already influenced my life in pretty odd ways.

If I was able to pitch a library-related design to host, Roman Mars for an episode, I would suggest the history of the humble 3 x 5 index card.

That being said, for this presentation, I am not going to present to you the history of the humble 3 x 5 index card.

That’s what this book is for, Markus Krajewski’s 2011 Paper Machines published by MIT Press.

Now, before I had read his book, I had believed that the index card was invented by Melvil Dewey and commercialized by his company, The Library Bureau. But Krajewski makes the case that the origin of the index card should be considered to go as far back as 1548 with Konrad Gessner who described a new method of processing data: to cut up a sheet of handwritten notes into slips of paper, with one fact or topic per slip, and arrange as desired.

According to Krajewski, when this technique goes from provisional to permanent – when the slips that describe the contents of a library are fixed in a book, an unintended and yet consequential turn takes place: it gives rise to the first card catalog in library history in Vienna around 1780.

Most histories of the card catalog begin just slightly later in time -- in 1789 to be precise -- during the French Revolution. The situation at hand was that the French revolutionary government had just claimed ownership of all Church property, including its substantial library holdings. It order to better understand what it now owned, the French revolutionaries started to inventory all of these newly acquired books. The instructions for how this inventory would conducted is known as the French Cataloging Code of 1791.

The code instructed that first, all the books were to be numbered. Next, the number of each book as well as the bibliographic information of each work were to be written on the back of two playing cards - and this was possible because at that time the backs of playing cards were blank. The two sets of cards are then put into alphabetical order and fastened together. One set of cards were to be sent to Paris, while a copy remains in each library.

On the screen behind me, you can see two records for the same book.

Again, my talk isn’t about bibliographic history, but I want to return back to the 16th century to Gessner for some important context. The reason why Gessner was making all those slips in the first place was to construct this, the Bibliotheca Universalis which consists of a bibliography of around 3,000 authors in alphabetical order, describing over 10,000 texts in terms of content and form, and offering textual excerpts. As such, Gessner is considered the first modern bibliographer.

And you can find his work on the Internet Archive.

Gessner’s Biblioteca Universalis wasn’t just a bibliography. According to Krajewski, the book provides instructions to scholars how to properly organize their studies through the keeping excerpted material in useful order. Gessner was describing an already established practice. Scholars kept slips or cards in boxes, and when they had the need to write or give a lecture or sermon, they would take the cards that fit their theme, and would arrange those thoughts and would temporarily fix them in order using devices such as the one pictured. This hybrid book has guiding threads that stretch over the page so that two rows of paper slips can be inserted and supported by paper rails.

Until the Romantics came around and made everyone feel embarrassed about taking inspiration from other people, it was not uncommon for scholars to use Scholar’s Boxes. Gottfried Leibniz actively used what was known as an excerpt cabinet to store and organize quotations and references.

Leibniz's method of the scholar's box combines a classification system with a permanent storage facility, the cabinet. So in a way this is similar to the use of Zotero or other citation management systems, but instead uses loose sheets of paper on hooks. The strips are hung on poles or placed into hybrid books

And that’s the reason why I wanted to start my talk with a brief history lesson. To remind us that there is a common ancestor to the library catalog and the scholar’s bibliography, and that is the index card.

So as we’ve learned, from as far back as Gessner’s 16th Century, writers have been using cards and slips of paper to rearrange ideas and quotations into texts, citations into bibliographies, and bibliographic descriptions into card catalogues.

You can still buy index cards and card boxes at my local campus bookstore. That’s because there are still authors today, who still use index cards to piece together and re-sort parts of their paper or novel, or they use and rearrange digital cards inside of such writing software tools such as Scrviner to generate new works.

Now, I don’t write this way myself. But I do use Zotero as one of the tools that I use to keep track of citations, book marks,  saved quotations, and excerpts of text that I have used or might use in my own work as a writer and academic librarian.

Zotero acts as an extension of your web reading experience and it operates best as an add-on to the Firefox browser. If you use Zotero, you can usually easily capture citations that one finds on a page either because someone who supports Zotero has already developed a custom text scraper (called a translator) for the database or website that you are looking at or that citation has been marked up with text that’s invisible to the human eye but can be found in the span HTML tags that surround the citation using a microformat called COinS.

Zotero also allows scholars to backup their citations to their server and in doing so, share their citations by making one’s library public on  Alternatively, scholars can share  bibliographies on their own website using the Zotero API which is so simple and powerful you can embed a bibliography styled with APA with a single line of code.

One of my favourite features of Zotero is not widely known. Zotero out of the box allows the scholar to generate ‘cards’ which are called ‘reports’ from your bibliography.  When I have a stack of books that I need to locate in my library, I sometimes find it’s easier for me to select and generate a report of cards from my Zotero collection rather than to search, select and print the items using my library’s expensive ILS system.

There is a terrible irony to this situation. As I learned from the Library Journal column of Dorothea Salo, the design problem given to Henriette Avram’s, the inventor of the MARC records was to have “computers print catalog cards.”

As Salo says in her piece, “Avram was not asked to design a computer-optimized data structure for information about library materials, so, naturally enough, that is not what MARC is at heart. Avram was asked solely to make computers print a record intended purely for human consumption according to the best card-construction practices of the 1960s.”

Let’s recall that one of the reasons why Zotero is able to import citations easily is because of the invisible text of COinS and translators. 

The metadata that comes into Zotero is captured as strings of text. Which is great - a name is now tagged with the code AU to designate that the text should go in the Author field. But this functionality is not enough if you want to produce linked data.

Dan Scott has kindly shared the code to RIS2WEB that allows you to run it on an export of a bibliography from Zotero in doing so create and serve a citation database that also generates of linked data using Schema. Afterwards, you can add available URIs.

You can see the results of this work at

When I showed this to a co-worker of mine, she couldn’t understand why I was so impressed by this. I had to hit Control-U on a citation to show her that this citation database contained identifiers such as from VIAF: The Virtual International Authority File. I explained to her that by using these numeric identifiers - invisible to the human eye - computers will be able not only find matching text in the author field, they will be better able to find that one particular author.

So can we call Zotero a Scholar’s Box or Paper Machine for the digital age?

I think we can, but that being said, I think we need to recognize that the citations that we have are still stuck in a box, in still so many ways.

We can’t grab citations from library database and drop them into a word processor without using bibliographic manager like Zotero as an intermediary to the capture structured data that might be useful to my computer when I need format a bibliography. Likewise, I can’t easy grab linked data from sites like the Labour Studies bibliography page.

And we still really don’t share citations in emails or social media.

Instead, we share the URL web addresses that point to the publisher or third party server that host said paper.  Or we share PDFs that should contain all the elements needed to construct a citation and yet somehow still requires the manual re-keying and control c-ing and v-ing of data into fields when we want to do such necessary things as add an article to an Institutional Repository.

Common Web tools and techniques cannot easily manipulate library resources. While photo sharing, link logging, and Web logging sites make it easy to use and reuse content, barriers still exist that limit the reuse of library resources within new Web services. To support the reuse of library information in Web 2.0-style services, we need to allow many types of applications to connect with our information resources more easily. One such connection is a universal method to copy any resource of interest. Because the copy-and-paste paradigm resonates with both users and Web developers, it makes sense that users should be able to copy items they see online and paste them into desktop applications or other Web applications. Recent developments proposed in weblogs and discussed at technical conferences suggest exactly this: extending the 'clipboard' copy-and-paste paradigm onto the Web. To fit this new, extended paradigm, we need to provide a uniform, simple method for copying rich digital objects out of any Web application.

Now, those aren’t my words. That’s from this paper Introducing unAPI written by Daniel Chudnov, Peter Binkley, Jeremy Frumkin, Michael J. Giarlo, Mike Rylander, Ross Singer and Ed Summers.

This paper, I should stress, was written in 2006.

Within the paper, the authors outline the many reasons why cutting and pasting data is so infuriatingly difficult in our sphere of tools and data.

But what if there was another paradigm we could try?

In order to see how we might be possibly break out of the scholar’s box, I’m going to talk about a very speculative possibility. And in order to set us up for this possibility, I first need to talk about how cards are already used on the web and on our tablets and smart phones.

If you look around the most popular websites and pay particular attention to the design patterns used, you will quickly notice that many of the sites that we visit every day (Twitter, Facebook, Trello, Instagram, Pinterest) they all use cards as a user interface design pattern.

The use of cards as a design pattern rose up along with the use of mobile devices largely because a single card fits nicely on a mobile screen...

...while on larger surfaces, such as tablets and desktops, cards can be arranged in a vertical feed, like in Facebook or Twitter, or arranged as a board like Pinterest, or like a like a stack, such as Google Now or Trello.

This slide is from a slidedeck of designer and technologist, Chris Tse. The rest of this section is largely an exploration of Chris’ work and ideas about cards.

Case in point, Chris Tse states, the most important quality of ‘cards’ is that of movement. But by movement, he isn’t referring to the design’s apparent affordances that makes swiping or scrolling intuitive.

The movement of cards that’s really important is how they feed into content creation and content sharing and how cards feed into discussions and workflow.

(How cards fit into kaban boards and shared workflow software like Trello, is a whooooole other presentation)

Social media is collectively made up of individuals sharing objects - objects of text, of photos, of video, of slideshows - and they share these objects with friends and to a larger public. Each of these objects are framed - by and large - within cards.

It’s important to realize that the cards on the web are fundamentally more than just a just a design hack.  If you are familiar with Twitter, you may have started to see cards that don’t just feature 140 characters - you see playable music (such as from Soundcloud), slideshows that you can read through without leaving Twitter, and you can even download 3rd party apps from Twitter advertising cards. When the business press say that Twitter is a platform, it’s not just marketing hype.

As Chris Tse says, cards are more than just glorified widgets.  “When done right”, he says, “a card looks like responsive web content, works like a focused mobile app, and feels like a saved file that you can share and reuse". As “cards” become more interactive, he believe they will go from being just concentrated bits of content and turn into mini-apps that can be embedded, can capture and manipulate data, or even process transactions.
But why isn’t this more obvious to people? I think the reason why is that cards don’t really feel this way is that most cards can only move within their own self-contained apps or websites.

For example, Google Now cards work with your Google applications – such as your calendar - but doesn't know about the events that you've RSVPed in Facebook.

That being said, Google and Apple are working on ways into integrate more services into their services. In Google Now, I’m regularly offered news story based on my recent searches as well as stories that are popular to other readers who read similar stories using the Feedly RSS reader.

And this is a problem because it’s Google who is deciding whose services I can choose from for such card notifications.

The apps on your smart phone live in a walled garden where things are more beautiful and more cultivated, but it is a place that is cut off from the open web.

The fall of the open web and the rise of the walled garden is not a trivial problem. We should not forget that if you want your app to be available on an iPhone it must be in the Apple Store and the content of your app will be subject to the Apple Review process and Apple will take a 30% cut of what your app sells for.  Content within apps curtail various forms of free and freedoms.

To bridge this split of the open web and the walled app garden, Chris Tse founded The mission of Cardstack is to “To build a card ecosystem based on open web technologies and open source ethos that fights back against lock-in.”

CardStack wraps single-page JavaScript applications as a reusable ‘card’ that can be embedded in native apps and other web apps. According to Chris, HTML5 cards will be able to move between apps, between devices, between users and between services.

CardStack itself is comprised of other JavaScript libraries, most notably Conductor.js and Oasis.js and I cannot speak anything more to this other than to repeat the claim that these combined libraries create a solution that is more secure than the embedded content than the iFrames of widgets past.

But notice the ‘Coming Soon’ statement in the top left hand corner? CardStack is still in beta with SDKs still being developed for iOS and Android systems.

Despite this, when I first stumbled upon Chris Tse’s presentations about Cardstack, I was really excited by his vision. But the crushing reality of the situation settled mere moments later.

Yes, a new system of cards to allow movement between siloed systems that could work in mobile or desktop environments, that would be wonderful - but wasn’t it all too late?

And what does it mean if we all collectively decide, that it is all just too late?

One of the challenges of promoting a new sort of container is that you can really show it off until you have some content to contain. You need a proof of concept.

When I checked in later to see what Chris was doing as I was drafting this presentation, I learned that he was now the CTO of a new platform - that he confirmed for me is built using Cardstack as a component.

This new platform has its origin from the art world’s Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference. The Seven on Seven conference pairs seven visual artists with seven technologists for a 24 hour hackjam and in 2014, artist Kevin McCoy was paired up with technologist Anil Dash.

McCoy and Dash were both interested in improving the situation of digital artists whose work can be easily be copied. With copying, the provenance of a digital work can be lost and as well as the understanding of what was original and what has been modified.

They talked and worked on a proof of concept of a new service that would allow visual artists to register ownership of their digital work and transfer that ownership using blockchain technology - that's the technology behind bitcoin.

Over a year later, this idea has grown into a real platform that is private beta and is set to be released to the public this month.

I think two things are particularly awesome about this project. First the platform also allows for artists to decide for themselves whether the license for their work in the creative commons or requires a royalty and whether derivatives of their work is allowed.

The other thing I love about this project is its name. If you look at the top left hand of this screen you will find that the name of the platform is spelled m-o n-e-g-r-a-p-h. The platform is called MONOGRAPH.

And as we now know, you build a monegraph with cards.

We need to remember that the library and the bibliography are connected by the card.

As we continue to invest in crucial new endeavors in the digital realm, I think it's essential that librarians find new ways to surface our resources and allow them to be shared socially and to find the means by which scholars can save and sorting and re-use these resources that they find from our collections.

We are part of a generative process. Cards of single ideas that are arranged and stacked build theses, which in turn, build papers, books which, in turn, form bibliographies which fill libraries.

I would like libraries to find a way to back to Gessner’s Bibliotheca Universalis, a place where the library and the scholar were both connected.

After all...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Advice from a Badass: How to make users awesome

Previously, whenever I have spoken or written about user experience and the web, I have recommended only one book: Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.

Whenever I did so, I did so with a caveat: one of the largest drawbacks of Don’t Make Me Think is captured in the title itself : it is an endorsement of web design that strives to remove all cognitive friction from the process of navigating information. This philosophy serves business who are trying to sell products with a website but doesn’t sit well with who are trying to support teaching and learning.

Today I would like to announce that I hereby retire this UX book recommendation because I have found something better. Something several orders of magnitude better.

I would like to push into your hands instead a copy of Kathy Sierra’s Badass: Making users awesome. In this work, Kathy has distilled the research on learning, expertise and the human behaviors that make both of these things possible.

You can use the lessons in Badass towards web design. Like Don’t Make Me Think, Badass also recognizes there are times when cognitive resources need to be preserved, but unlike the Don’t Make Me Think, Badass Kathy Sierra advises when and where these moments in specific points should be placed in the larger context of the learner’s journey towards expertise.

You see, Badass: Making Users Awesome isn’t about making websites. It’s about making an expert Badass.

In her book, Sierra establishes why helping users become awesome can directly lead to the success of a product or service and and then builds a model with the reader to achieve this. I think it’s an exceptional book that wisely advises how to address the emotional and behavioural setbacks to learning new things without having to resort to bribery or gamification, neither of which work after the novelty wears off. The language of the book is informal but the research behind the words is formidable.

One topic that Badass covers that personally resonated was the section on the Performance Progress Path Map as a key to motivation and progress. I know that there is resistance in some quarters to the articulation of of learning outcomes by those who suspect that the exercise is a gateway to the implementation of institutional standards that will eliminate teacher autonomy, or eliminate teachers altogether. But these fears shouldn't come into play as it doesn't apply in this context and should not inhibit individuals from sharing their personal learning paths.

The reason why this topic hit so close to home was because I found learning to program particularly perilous because of the various ‘missing chapters’ of learning computing (a phrase I picked up from Selena Marie’s not unrelated Code4Lib 2015 Keynote, What Beginners Teach Us - you can find part of the script here from a related talk).

I think it’s particularly telling that some months ago, friends were circulating this picture with the caption: This is what learning to program feels like.

There’s a real need with the FOSS moment to invest into more projects like the Drupal Ladder project, which seeks to specifically articulate how a person can start from being a beginner to become a core contributor.

Furthermore, I think there’s a real opportunity for libraries to be involved in sharing learning strategies, especially public libraries. I think the Hamilton Public Library is really on to something with their upcoming ‘Learn Something’ Festival.

Let’s not forget,

The real value of libraries is not the hardware. It has never been the hardware. Your members don’t come to the library to find books, or magazines, journals, films or musical recordings. They come to be informed, inspired, horrified, enchanted or amused. They come to hide from reality or understand its true nature. They come to find solace or excitement, companionship or solitude. They come for the software.

While the umbrella concept of User Experience has somewhat permeated into librarianship, I would argue that it has not traveled deep enough and have not made the inroads into the profession that it could. I’ve been thinking why and I’ve come up with a couple of theories why this is the case.

One theory is that many academic librarians who are involved in teaching have a strong aversion to ‘teaching the tool’. In fact, I’ve heard that the difference between ‘bibliographic instruction’ and ‘information literacy’ is that the former deals with the mechanics of searching, while ‘information literacy’ addresses higher-level concepts. While I am sympathetic to this stance (librarians are not product trainers), I also resist the ‘don’t teach the technology' mindset. The library is a technology. We can, and we have, taught higher level concepts through our tools.

As Sierra states, “Tools matter”.

But she wisely goes on to state:

“But being a master of the tool is rarely our user’s ultimate goal. Most tools (products, services) enable and support the user’s true -- and more motivating - goal.

Nobody wants to be a tripod master. We went to use tripods to make amazing videos.”

The largest challenge to the adoption of the lessons of Badass into the vernacular of librarianship is that Badass is focused squarely on practice.

“Experts are not what they know but what they do. Repeatedly.”

A statement like the above may be quickly dismissed by those in academia as the idea of practice sounds too much like the idea of tool use. (If it makes you feel better, dear colleagues, consider this restatement in the book: “Experts make superior choices (And they do it more reliably than experienced non-experts).”

Each discipline has a practice associated with it. I have previously made the case that the librarians regular activity of searching for information of others at the reference desk was the practice where our expertise was once made (the technical services equivalent would be the cataloguing of materials). 

But as our reference desk stats have plummeted (and our catalogue records copied from elsewhere), I still think the profession need to ask ourselves, where does the our expertise come from? Many of us don’t have a good answer for this, which is why I think so many librarians - academic librarians in particular - are frequently and viciously attacking the current state of library school and its curriculum, demanding rigor. To that I say, take your professional anxieties out on something else. A good educational foundation is ideal, but professional expertise is built through practice.

What the new practice of librarianship is from beyond the reference desk is still evolving. It appears that digital publishing and digitization is becoming part of this new practice. Guidance with data management and data visualizations appears to be part of our profession now too. For myself, I’m currently trying to level up my skills in citation management and its integration with the research and writing process.

That's because there has been more fundamental shift in my thinking about academic librarianship as of late that Kathy’s book has only encouraged. I would like to make the case that the most important library to our users isn’t the one that they are sitting in, but the one on their laptop. Their collection of notes, papers, images and research materials is really the only library that really matters to them. The institutional library (that they are likely only temporarily affiliated with) may feed into this library, but its contents cannot be trusted to be there for them always.

For an example, consider this: two weeks ago, I helped a faculty member with an Endnote formatting question. As I looked over her shoulder, I saw that her Endnote library on her laptop contained hundreds and hundreds of citations that had been collected and organized over the years and how this collection was completely integrated with her writing process. This was her library.

And despite not having worked in Endnote for years, I was able to help her with formatting question so she could submit her paper to a journal with its particularly creative and personal citation style. It seems that I have developed some expertise by working with a variety of citation managers over the years.

I wouldn’t call myself a Badass. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

And I’m working on helping others finding and becoming their own Badass self.

It’s been many years now, and so it bears repeating.
My professional mission as a librarian is this: Help people build their own libraries.

Because this is the business we’ve chosen

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The update to the setup

In my last post, I described my current computer set up. I did so to encourage a mindfulness in my own practice (I am not ashamed of writing the previous sentence - I really do mean it). Forcing myself to inventory the systems that I use, made two things readily apparent to me. First, it is abundantly clear that not only am I profoundly dependent on Google products such as Google Drive, almost all of the access to my online world is tied together by my Gmail account. I aspire to, one day, be one among the proud and the few who are willing to use alternatives such as Owncloud and Fastmail just to establish a little more independence.

But before even considering this move, I first needed to address the second glaring problem that emerged from this self-reflection of my setup: I desperately needed a backup strategy. Massive loss was just a hard drive failure or malicious hack away.

As I write this, my old Windows XP computer is sending years worth of mp3s, documents and digital photos to my new WD Book which I bought on recommendation from Wirecutter. When that’s done, I’m going to copy over my back ups of my Google Drive contents, Gmail, Calendar, Blogger, and Photos that I generated earlier this week using Google Takeout.

I know myself well enough that I cannot rely on making regular manual updates to an external hard drive. So I have also invested in a family membership to CrashPlan. It took a loooong time for the documents of our family computers to be uploaded to the CrashPlan central server but now the service works unobtrusively in the background as new material accumulates. If you go this route of cloud-service backups, be aware that its likely that you are going to exceed your monthly data transfer limit for your ISP. Hopefully your ISP is as understanding as mine who waved the additional costs as this was a ‘first offense’ (Thank you Cogeco!)

My next step? I’m going to re-join the Archiveteam.

Because history is our future.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Setup

For this post, I’m going to pretend that the editors of the blog, The Setup (“a collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done”) asked me for a contribution. But in reality, I’m just following Bill Denton’s lead.

It feels a little self-indulgent to write about one’s technology purchases so before I describe my set up, let me explain why I’m sharing this information.

Some time back, in preparation for a session I was giving on Zotero for my university’s annual  technology conference, I realized that before going into the reasons how to use Zotero, I had to address the reasons why. I recognized that I was asking students and faculty who were likely already time-strapped and overburdened, to abandon long-standing practices that were already successfully working for them if they were going to switch to Zotero for their research work.

Before my presentation, I asked on Twitter when and why faculty would change their research practices.  Most of the answers were on the cynical side but there were some that gave me some room to maneuver, namely this one: “when I start a new project.”  And there’s a certain logic to this approach. If you were starting graduate school and know that you have to prepare for comps and generate a thesis at the end of the process, wouldn’t you want to conscientiously design your workflow at the start to capture what you learn in such a way that it’s searchable and reusable?

My own sabbatical is over and oddly enough, it is now at the end of my sabbatical in which I feel the most like I’m starting all over again in my professional work. So I’m using that New Project feeling to fuel some self-reflection in my own research process, bring some mindfulness to my online habits, and deliberate design into My Setup.

There’s another reason why I’m thinking about the deliberate design of research practice. As libraries start venturing into the space of research service consultation, I believe that librarians need to follow best practices for ourselves if we hope to develop expertise in this area.

As well, I think we need to more conscious of how and when our practices are not in line with our values. It’s simply not possible to live completely without hypocrisy in this complicated world but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for praxis. It’s difficult for me to take seriously accusations that hackerspaces are neoliberal when it’s being stated by a person cradling a  Macbook or iPhone. That being said, I greatly rely on products from Microsoft, Amazon, and Google so I'm in no position to cast stones.

I just want to care about the infrastructures we’re building….

And with that, here’s my setup!


There are three computers that I spend my time on: the family computer in the kitchen (a Dell desktop running Windows 7), my work computer (another Dell desktop running Windows 7), and my Thinkpad X1 Carbon laptop which I got earlier this year.  Grub turned my laptop into a dual boot machine that I can switch between Ubuntu and Windows 7. I feel I need a Windows environment so I can run any ESRI products and all those other Mac/Windows only products if need be.

I have a Nexus 4 Android phone made by LG and a Kindle DX as my ebook reader. I don’t own a tablet or an mp3 player.

Worldbackup Day is March 31st. I need to get myself an external drive for backups (Todo1).


After getting my laptop, the first thing I did was investigated password managers to find which one would work best for me. I ended up choosing LastPass and I felt the benefits immediately. Using a password manager has saved me so much pain and aggravation and now my passwords are now (almost) all unique. Next, I need to set up two factor authentication for the services that I haven’t gotten around to yet (Todo2).  

With work being done on three computers, it’s not surprising that I have a tendency to work online. My browser of choice is Mozilla but I will flip to Chrome from time to time. I use the sync functionality on both so my bookmarks are the automatically updated and the same across devices. I use SublimeText for my text editor for code, GIMP as my graphics editor, and QGIS for my geospatial needs.

This draft, along with much of my other writing and presentations are on Google Drive. I spend much of my time in Gmail and Google Calendar. While years ago, I downloaded all my email using Mozilla Thunderbird, I have not set up a regular backup strategy for these documents (Todo3). I’ve toyed with using Dropbox to back up Drive but think I’m better with an external drive. I have a Dropbox account because people occasionally share documents with me through it but at the moment, I only use it to backup my kids Minecraft games.

From 2007 to 2013, I used delicious to capture and share the things I read online. Then delicious tried to be the new Pinterest and made itself unusable (although it has since reverted back to close to its original form) and so I switched to Evernote (somewhat reluctantly because I missed the public aspect of sharing bookmarks).   I’ve grown to be quite dependent on Evernote to save my outboard brain. I use IFTTT to post the links from my Twitter faves to delicious which are then imported automatically into Evernote.  I also use IFTTT to automatically backup my Tumblr posts to Evernote, my Foursquare check-ins saved to Evernote (and Google Calendar) and my Feedly saved posts to Evernote. Have I established a system to back up my Evernote notes on a regular basis? No, no I have not (Todo4).

The overarching idea that I have come up with is that the things I write are backed up on my Google Drive account and the library of things that I have read or saved to future reading (ha!) are saved on Evernote.  To this end, I use IFTTT to save my Tweets to a Google Spreadsheet and my Blogger and WordPress posts are automatically saved to Google Drive (still in a work in progress. Todo 5). My ISP is Dreamhost but I am tempted to jump ship to Digital Ocean.

My goal is to have at least one backup for the things I’ve created. So I use IFTTT to save my Instagram posts to Flickr. My Flickr posts are just a small subset of all the photos that are automatically captured and saved on Google Photos.  No, I have not backed up these photos  (Todo 6) but I have, since 2005, printed the best of my photos on an annual basis into beautiful softcover books using QOOP and then later, through Blurb.  My Facebook photos and status updates from 2006 to 2013 have been printed in a lovely hardcover book using MySocialBook.  One day I would like to print a book of the best of my blogged writings using Blurb, if just as a personal artifact.

Speaking of books, because I’m one of the proud and the few to own a KindleDX, I use it to read PDFs and most of my non-fiction reading. When I stumble upon a longread on the web, I use Readability’s Send to Kindle function so I can read it later without eyestrain. I’m inclined to buy the books that I used in my writing and research as Kindle ebooks because I can easily attach highlighted passages from these books to my Zotero account. My ebooks are backed up in my calibre library. I also use Goodreads to keep track of my reading because I love knowing what my friends are into.

I subscribe to Rdio and for those times that I actually spend money on owning music, I try to use Bandcamp. I’m an avid listener of podcasts and for this purpose use BeyondPod. Our Sonos system allows us to play music from all these services, as well as TuneIn, in the living room.  The music that I used to listen to on CD is now sitting on an unused computer running Windows XP and I know if I don’t get my act together and transfer those files to an external drive soon those files will be gone for good.. if they haven’t already become inaccessible (*gulp*) (Todo 8).

For my “Todo list” I use Google Keep, which also captures my stray thoughts when I’m away from paper or my computer. Google Keep has an awesome feature that will trigger reminders based on your location.

So that’s My Setup. Let me know if you have any suggestions or can see some weaknesses in my workflow. Also, I’d love to learn from your Setup.

And please please please call me out if I don’t have a sequel to this post called The Backup by the time of next year's World Backup Day.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Teach for America. Code for America. Librarianing for America

On Friday the 13th, I gave the morning keynote at the Online Northwest Conference in Corvallis, OR. Thanks so much to the organization for inviting me.

Last October, I was driving home from a hackathon when I heard something extraordinary on the radio. Now, as human beings, we tend to get over-excited by coincidence - it’s a particular cognitive bias called the frequency illusion - you buy a gold station wagon and suddenly you see gold station wagons everywhere (yes, that’s my gold station wagon behind me). But that being said, I  still contend that there was something special about what I heard and when I heard it. Because you don’t hear people talking about Open Data on the radio very often.

So here’s the brief backstory.  The local technology incubator in partnership with the local hackerspace that I’m involved with was co-hosting a week long hackathon to celebrate Science and Technology Week.  I was just returning from its kick-off event where I had just given a presentation on the role of licensing in Open Data.  This particular hackathon was a judged event, with the three top prizes being a smart watch, admission to an app commercialization seminar, and an exclusive dinner with an expert in the commercialization of apps -- which was kind of odd since the data sets that were provided for the event were sets like pollution monitoring data from the Detroit River, but hey - that’s the part of the challenge of making commercial apps out of open data.

While it has been said that we are now living in the age of Big Data, only the smallest subset of that data is explicitly licensed in such a way that we the citizen can have access and can make use of it without having to ask permission or buy a license.  I’m the lead of Open Data Windsor Essex and much of my role involves explaining what Open Data is because it’s not largely understood. Because I’m talking to my fellow librarians, I’m going to give you a very abbreviated version of my standard Open Data explainer:

One of the most common definitions of Open Data comes from the Open Knowledge Foundation: Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone - subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.

So, using this definition, a creative commons license of CC-BY : which means that the work has been designated in the creative commons as free to use without requiring permission as long as there is attribution is given is considered Open Data.  But CC-NC which stands for Creative Commons Non-Commercial is not considered Open Data because the domain of use has been restricted.

We in librarianship talk a lot about open source, and open access, but even we don’t talk about open data very much. So that’s why I was so surprised when there was a conversation coming from my car radio on the importance of Open Data.  Granted, I was listening to campus Radio - but still, I think I reserve the right to be impressed by how the stars seemed to have aligned just for me.

The show I was listening to was Paul Chislett’s The Shake Up on CJAM and he was interviewing Paula Z. Segal, the lead executive of a Brooklyn-based organization called 596 Acres. Her organization builds online tools that makes use of Open Data to allow neighbours to find the vacant public land hidden in plain sight in the city as the first step in the process of turning them into shared resources, such as community gardens.  Perhaps not surprising to you now, but in 2011 there was 596 acres of such empty lots in Brooklyn alone.

Segal was telling the radio host and the listening audience that many communities make data - such as data that describes what land is designated for what purpose - open and accessible to its residents. However, most citizens don’t know that the data exists because the data is contained in obscure portals, and if even if they did find the data, they generally do not understand how to handle the data, how to make sense of it and how to make it meaningful to their experiences.

Now when I heard that and whenever I hear similar complaints that the promise of Open Data has failed because it tends to add power to already powerful, I keep thinking the same thing - this is a job for librarians.

It reminds me of this quote from open government advocate, David Eaves:

We didn’t build libraries for a literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have public policy literate citizens, we build them so that citizens may become literate in public policy.

This brings us to the theme of this morning’s talk- which is not Open Data - although I will express today's theme through it largely because I’m back from a year’s sabbatical immersed in the topic and it’s still difficult for me to not talk about it. No, today I would like to make a case for a creating a nationwide program to put more librarians into more communities and into more community organizations. I have to warn you that I'm not going to give you any particulars about what shape or scope of what such a program could be; I'm just going to try to make a case for such an endeavor. I haven't even thought of a good name for it. The best I can come up with is Librarianing for America. On that note, I would like to give a shout-out to Chris Bourg for - if not coining the word librarianing - for at least, bringing to my attention.

And I very much hope that perchance the stars will align again and this theme will complement the work that I am very much looking forward to hearing today at Online Northwest : about digitally inclusive communities, about designing and publishing, about being embedded, about sensemaking through visualization, about enhancing access and being committed to outreach.

Before I continue I feel I should disclose that I’m not actually American.  I grew up across the river from Port Huron, Michigan and I now live across the river from Detroit, Michigan.  I literally can see Detroit from my house.

And Detroit is the setting for my next story.

A quick aside first - my research interest in open data has been largely focused on geospatial data as well as the new software options and platforms that are making web mapping much more accessible and viable for individuals and community groups  when compared to the complex geographic information systems commonly known as GIS -  that institutions such as city governments and academic libraries tend to exclusively support.

I mention this as a means to explain why I decided to crash the inaugural meeting of Maptime Detroit that happened in early November last year.

Maptime is time designated to making maps. It is the result of kind volunteers who find a space, designate a time, and extend an open invitation to anyone who is interested to drop in and learn about making maps. It started in San Francisco a couple of years ago and now there are over 40 Maptime Chapters around the world.

Now, when I went to the first Maptime Detroit event, there wasn’t actually any time given to make maps. For this inaugural meeting, instead there was a set of speakers who were already using mapping in their work.

Not very many people know that Detroit has an amazing history of citizen mapping initiatives  - the map behind me is from The Detroit Geographical Expedition from their work Field Notes Three from 1970.  I think you could make a case that another kind of community mapping outreach work is starting to emerge again through the many community initiatives that are supported by mapping that is happening in Detroit today. 

Many of the organizations who are doing community mapping work were presenting at Maptime Detroit including Justin Wedes, an organizer from the Detroit Water Brigade.

As you might already know, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013 with debts somewhere between $18 to $20 billion dollars.  The city is collapsing upon itself at a scale that’s very difficult to wrap one’s mind around. 

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is currently conducting mass water shut offs in the city which will affect over 120,000 account holders over an 18 month period at a rate of 3,000 per week. This will account for over 40% of customers who are using the Detroit Water system. As 70,000 of those accounts are residential accounts, it is thought that 200,000-300,000 people could be directly affected.

The Detroit Water Brigade coordinates volunteers efforts in the distribution of bottled water to affected neighbours as well as acts an advocate for the UN recognized human right to water on behalf of Detroiters.

But at Maptime Detroit, Justin Wedes didn’t begin his talk with his work in Detroit. Instead he began his presentation by speaking about of his experiences with Occupy Sandy.  In October of 2012, while New York’s FEMA offices were closed due to bad weather, veterans from the Occupy Wall Street community came forward and used their organization skills to mobilize ground support for those who needed it most. At first, Occupy Sandy was using free online services such Google Spreadsheets and Amazon’s Web Registry to collect and redistribute donations but by the end of their work, they had started using the exact same software that the city of New York uses for dispatching resources during disasters.

Wedes described the work of the Detroit Water Brigade and as he did so, he also told us how very different his experiences were in Detroit as compared to his ones in New York after Superstorm Sandy. After Sandy hit, he told us, those New Yorkers who could help their more badly damaged neighbours did so with great enthusiasm and that help was well received.  With the water shutoffs in Detroit, however, Justin feels there is an underlying sense of shame in accepting help and the response from the community at large is more restrained.  When he said this, the first thing that came to my mind was an article I had read years ago by Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s Magazine. In that article, which was later expanded into a book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Solnit makes an observation humanity opens itself to great compassion and community when a disaster is brought on by weather but this capacity is strikingly less so when that disaster is man-made.

There are many reasons why this water shut-off situation in Detroit came about and I'm not going to go into them, largely because I don't fully understand how things got to become so dire. I just want to draw attention to the tragic dynamic at hand: as the problems of Detroit grow - due to less people being about to pay for an increasingly costly and crumbling infrastructure, the capacity of the city government to deal with the worsening situation in turn, is also reduced.

What I believe should be of particular interest to us, as librarians, is that there has been a collective response from the philanthropic, non-profit community organizations along with businesses and start-ups to help Detroit through the collection and sharing of city data for the benefit of the city as a whole. Data Driven Detroit does collect and host open data, but it also hosts datasets that are collected from public and private sources as a means to create “clear communication channels back and forth between the public, the government, and city service providers.”

One of the more striking datasets that's both explorable through a map as well as available for download as open data, is Detroit Property Information through the Motor City Mapping project.  In In the fall of 2013, a team of 150 surveyed the entire city and took photos and captured condition information for every property in the city of Detroit. According to their information at this given moment, of Detroit's 374,706 properties surveyed, 25,317 are publicly owned structures. Of those, 18,410 are unoccupied, 13,570 require boarding up, and the condition of 2511 of these buildings are so poor that demolition is suggested.

Now, I can only speak for myself, but when I see these kind of projects it makes me want to learn the computer based wizardry that would allow me to do similar things.  Because while I do enjoy the intellectual work that's involved with computer technology, what really inspires me is this idea that through learning to program, I can gain superpowers that take masses amount of data and do some good with them at the scales of a city.

In short, I want to have to the powers of Tiffani Ashley Bell.  Tiffani heard about the plight of water-deprived Detroiters last July and after being urged on by a friend, she sat down and came up with the core of The Detroit Water Project in about four hours.  The Detroit Water Project pairs donors with someone in Detroit with an outstanding water bill and makes it possible for these donors to directly contribute to their water bill. Since the project started in July, over 8000 donors have paid $300,000 directly towards water bills.

Now, while I think this project is incredibly valuable and very touching as allows donors to directly improve the situation of one household in Detroit, the project admittedly does not change the dynamics involved that gave the grievous situation at hand. 

So what is to be done? How can we combine the power of open data, computer code, and the intention to do good to make more systematic changes?  How can we support and help the residents and the City of Detroit doing the good work that they already do?

This where I think another organization comes in: Code for America.

Code for America believes it can help government be more responsive to its residents by embedding those who can read and write code into the city government itself.  It formed in 2009 and it works by enlisting technology and design professionals to work with city governments in the United States in year long fellowships in order to build open-source applications that promote openness, participation, and efficiency in government.

In other words, it's a combination of service and app building that is paid for by the city, usually with the help of corporate sponsors. Each year Code for America selects 8-10 local government partners from across the US and 24-30 fellows for the program through a competitive application process.

In 2012, the Knight Foundation and Kellogg Foundation funded three Code for America fellows for a residency in Detroit.  These Code for America fellows worked with the Detroit Department of Transportation to release a real-time transit API and build the TextMyBus bus notification system which launched in September of that year.

In addition to TextMyBus, the fellows also built an app called Localdata to standardize location-based data collected by data analysts and community groups. "Localdata offers a mobile collection tool with a map interface as well as a paper collection option that can be scanned and uploaded for data syncing." This particular project joined the Code for America Incubator and has since expanded into a civic tech startup company.

In my mind, Code for America can be thought of as a scaled up version of a civic hackathon. If you aren't familiar with hackathons, they are a generally weekend affair in which participants work solo or in groups to code a website or app that ostensibly solves a problem. Sometimes there are prizes and sometimes the event is designed as a means to generate the first concept of a potential start-up. Hackathons can be a good thing - you might remember from the beginning of my talk that I sometimes help out with them which I means that I endorse them - but I do admit that that have their limits (many of which are described in this blog post behind me).  For one, it’s simply not reasonable to expect that a weekend of hacking is going to result in a wonderful app that will meet the needs of users that the programmers have likely not even met.  But, with good event design that strives incorporates mentorship, workshops, and opportunities to meet with potential users of said apps, hackathons can be a great start towards a future collaborations.

Code for America also incorporates mentorship and training into its process. Those selected for a fellowship begin at an institute in San Francisco where fellows receive training about how local government and agencies work, how to negotiate and communicate as well as how to plan, and focus their future code work.  That being said, Code for America has its own limitations as well. This particular article gently suggests that Code for America may - in some instances - seem to benefit the fellows involved more than the cities themselves.  For one, it costs a city a lot of money - $440,000 - just to support a set of Code for America fellows for a year and then, after they leave, the city needs to be able to have the capacity to support the care and feeding of the open source apps that have been left behind.

Which makes me think.

If only... if only....

If only there were people who could also help cities help their communities who didn’t have to be flown in and disappear after a year. If there was only some group of people who could partner with cities and their residents who already had some experience and expertise in open data licensing, and who understood the importance of standardizing descriptors in datasets, who were driven to improve better user experience, and who understood that data use requires data literacy which demands both  teaching and community outreach.

Friends, this is work that we - librarians can be doing.  And our communities need us. Our cities need us.

Furthermore, I don't know whether you've noticed but every year emerges another an amazing class of passionate and talented freshly minted librarians and we are simply not building enough libraries to put them in.

So I think it’s time to work towards making our own Librarianing for America.

I don’t think it’s possible to model ourselves directly on Code for America. It’s not likely we are going to find cities willing to pay $440,000 for the privilege to host 3 librarians for a year.  At least, not initially. Let’s call that our stretch goal.

We can start out small. Perhaps librarians could participate in one of the 137 Code for America Brigades that bring together civic-minded volunteers to work together via meetups.  There are a variety of other organizations that also draw on civic minded volunteers to work together towards other goals including the Open Knowledge Foundation, hack4good, CrisisMappers, and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

Or perhaps we can follow the lead of libraries such as the Edmonton Public Library, York University Libraries, The Chattanooga Public Library, and  the University of Ottawa, who have all hosted hackathons for their communities.

This is a slide that’s admittedly out of context. I took it from a Code for America presentation and I'm not sure how precise this statistic of 75% is to their project and even whether it can be widely applied to all projects. But, I do think it is safe to say that programming code is only as good as its data is clean and meaningful.

And I say this because I don't believe that librarians have to know how to program in order to participate in Librarianing for America. I believe our existing skillset lends itself to the cause. Our values and our talents are greatly under appreciated by many, many people including librarians themselves.  

But it appears that that the talent of librarians is starting to be recognized. The City of Boston  recently was awarded a Knight Foundation grant for the specific purpose of hiring a librarian as part of a larger team to turn the City of Boston’s many Open Datasets into something findable, usable, and meaningful by its residents.

And perhaps we can learn and expand on the work of ILEAD USA.

ILEAD stands for Innovative Librarians Explore, Apply and Discover, and it is a continuing education program that is supported by grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and has librarians from ten states who are involved in this program

ILEAD USA gathers librarians together with the goal to develop a team projects over a nine month period through a combination of intermittent face-to-face meetings and online technology training sessions. At the end of nine months, each team presents their project to the entire ILEAD USA audience, with the goal of either sustaining these projects as ongoing library programs or directly applying the knowledge gained from ILEAD USA to future collaborative projects.  

Now when I first proposed this talk, I was unaware of the work of the ILEAD program. And since then I’ve had the pleasure to speak with the its project director on the phone. I asked her if she was familiar with Code for America and she told me no, although she did know about Teach for America. 

I don’t know about you, but to me, ILEAD sounds a little bit like Librarianing for America to me. Or at least it sounds like what one possible form that it could take.

Or it could be that Librarianing for America could be a placement service that matched and embedded librarians with non-profits. The non-profits could gain from the technical and material experiences of the librarian and the librarian would be able learn more about the needs of the community and form partnerships that can only occur when we step outside of our buildings.

I don't think it's so far-fetched. Last year, my local hackerspace received three years of  provincial funding to hire a staff coordinator to run a number of Open Data hackathons, host community roundtables and pay small stipends to community members who help in our efforts to making open data from the non-profit community more readily available to the community they serve.

Now it just might be the Frequency Illusion, but I prefer to think it is as if the stars are aligning for libraries and their communities..  At least they appear so when I look up towards our shared horizon. 

Thank you all for kind attention this morning and I very much look forward to spending this day librarianing with everyone here at OnlineNorthwest..