Shadows Out of Time

You may recall that on Halloween I mentioned that the Bodleian had released a mini choose-your-own-adventure-like adventure game book, available freely online. I decided that this didn’t go quite far enough and I’ve adapted it into a hypertext game, below. (This was also an excuse for me to play with Chapbook, Chris Klimas‘s new under-development story format for Twine.

Shadows Out of Time: A Bodleian Choose Your Own Destiny Story

If the thing you were waiting for before you experienced Shadows Out of Time was it to be playable in your browser, wait no longer: click here to play the game…

Further reading: IFDB entry.

Notes from #musetech18 presentations (with a strong “collaboration” theme). Note that these are “live notes” first-and-foremost for my own use and so are probably full of typos. Sorry.

Matt Locke (StoryThings, @matlocke):

  • Over the last 100 years, proportional total advertising revenue has been stolen from newspapers by radio, then television: scheduled media that is experienced simultaneously. But we see a recent drift in “patterns of attention” towards the Internet. (Schedulers, not producers, hold the power in radio/television.)
  • The new attention “spectrum” includes things that aren’t “20-60 minutes” (which has historically been dominated by TV) nor “1-3 hours” (which has been film), but now there are shorter and longer forms of popular medium, from tweets and blog posts (very short) to livestreams and binging (very long). To gather the full spectrum of attention, we need to span these spectra.
  • Rhythm is the traditions and patterns of how work is done in your industry, sector, platforms and supply chains. You need to understand this to be most-effective (but this is hard to see from the inside: newcomers are helpful). In broadcast television as a medium, the schedules dictate the rhythms… in traditional print publishing, the major book festivals and “blockbuster release” cycles dominate the rhythm.
  • Then how do we collaborate with organisations not in our sector (i.e. with different rhythms)? There are several approaches, but think about the rhythmic impact.

Lizzy Bullock (English Heritage, @lizzybethness):

  • g.co/englishheritage
  • Partnered with Google Arts & Heritage; Google’s first single-partner project and also their first project with a multi-site organisation.
  • This kind of tech can be used to increase access (e.g. street view of closed sites) and also support curatorial/research aims (e.g. ultra-high-resolution photography).
  • Aside from the tech access, working with a big company like Google provides basically “free” PR. In combination, these benefits boost reach.
  • Learnings: prepare to work hard and fast, multi-site projects are a logistical nightmare, you will need help, stay organised and get recordkeeping/planning in place early, be aware that there’ll be things you can’t control (e.g. off-brand PR produced by the partner), don’t be afraid to stand your ground where you know your content better.
  • Decide what successw looks like at the outset and with all relevant stakeholders involved, so that you can stay on course. Make sure the project is integrated into contributors’ work streams.

Daria Cybulska (Wikimedia UK, @DCybulska):

  • Collaborative work via Wikimedians-in-residence not only provides a boost to open content but involves engagement with staff and opens further partnership opportunities.
  • Your audience is already using Wikipedia: reaching out via Wikipedia provides new ways to engage with them – see it as a medium as well as a platform.
  • Wikimedians-in-residence, being “external”, are great motivators to agitate processes and promote healthy change in your organisation.

Creative Collaborations ([1] Kate Noble @kateinoble, Ina Pruegel @3today, [2] Joanna Salter, [3] Michal Cudrnak, Johnathan Prior):

  • Digital making (learning about technology through making with it) can link museums with “maker culture”. Cambridge museums (Zoology, Fitzwilliam) used a “Maker in Residence” programme and promoted “family workshops” and worked with primary schools. Staff learned-as-they-went and delivered training that they’d just done themselves (which fits maker culture thinking). Unexpected outcomes included interest from staff and discovery of “hidden” resources around the museums, and the provision of valuable role models to participants. Tips: find allies, be ambitious and playful, and take risks.
  • National Maritime Museum Greenwich/National Maritime Museum – “re.think” aimed to engage public with emotive topics and physically-interactive exhibits. Digital wing allowed leaving of connections/memories, voting on hot issues, etc. This leads to a model in which visitors are actively engaged in shaping the future display (and interpretation) of exhibitions. Stefanie Posavec appointed as a data artist in residence.
  • SoundWalk Strazky at Slovak National Gallery: audio-geography soundwalks as an immersive experiential exhibition; can be done relatively cheaply, at the basic end. Telling fictional stories (based on reality) can help engage visitors with content (in this case, recreating scenes from artists’ lives). Interlingual challenges. Delivery via Phonegap app which provides map and audio at “spots”; with a simple design that discourages staring-at-the-screen (only use digital to improve access to content!).

Lightning talks:

  • Maritime Museum Greenwich: wanted to find out how people engage with objects – we added both a museum interpretation and a community message to each object. Highly-observational testing helped see how hundreds of people engage with content. Lesson: curators are not good judges of how their stuff will be received; audience ownership is amazing. Be reactive. Visitors don’t mind being testers of super-rough paper-based designs.
  • Nordic Museum / Swedish National Heritage Board explored Generous Interfaces: show first, don’t ask, rich overviews, interobject relationships, encourage exploration etc. (Whitelaw, 2012). Open data + open source + design sprints (with coding in between) + lots of testing = a collaborative process. Use testing to decide between sorting OR filtering; not both! As a bonus, generous interfaces encourage finding of data errors. bit.ly/2CNsNna
  • IWM on the centenary of WWI: thinking about continuing the crowdsourcing begun by the IWM’s original mission. Millions of assets have been created by users. Highly-collaborative mechanism to explore, contribute to, and share a data space.
  • Lauren Bassam (@lswbassam) on LGBT History and co-opting of Instagram as an archival space: Instagram is an unconventional archival source, but provides a few benefits in collaboration and engagement management, and serves as a viable platform for stories that are hard to tell using the collections in conventional archives. A suitably-engaged community can take pride in their accuracy and their research cred, whether or not you strictly approve of their use of the term “archivist”. With closed stacks, we sometimes forget how important engagement, touch, exploration and play can be.
  • Owen Gower (@owentg) from Dr. Jenner’s House Museum and Garden: they received EU REVEAL funding to look at VR as an engagement tool. Their game is for PSVR and has a commercial release. The objects that interested the game designers the most weren’t necessarily those which the curators might have chosen. Don’t let your designers get carried away and fill the game with e.g. zombies. But work with them, and your designers can help you find not only new ways to tell stories, but new stories you didn’t know you could tell. Don’t be afraid to use cheap/student developers!
  • Rebecca Kahm @rebamex from Pelagios Commons (@Pelagiosproject): the problem with linked data is that it’s hard to show its value to end users (or even show museums “what you can do” with it). Coins have great linked data, in collections. Peripleo was used to implement a sort-of “reverse Indiana Jones”: players try to recover information to find where an artefact belongs.
  • Jon Pratty: There are lots of useful services (Flickr, Storify etc.) and many are free (which is great)… but this produces problems for us in terms of the long-term life of our online content, not to mention the ethical issues with using services whose business model is built on trading personal data of our users. [Editor’s note: everything being talked about here is the stuff that the Indieweb movement have been working on for some time!] We need to de-siloise and de-centralise our content and services. redecentralize.org? responsibledata.io?

In-House Collaboration and the State of the Sector:

  • Rosie Cardiff @RosieCardiff, Serpentine Galleries on Mobile Tours. Delivered as web application via captive WiFi hotspot. Technical challenges were significant for a relatively small digital team, and there was some apprehension among frontline staff. As a result of these and other problems, the mobile tours were underused. Ideas to overcome barriers: report successes and feedback, reuse content cross-channel, fix bugs ASAP, invite dialogue. Interesting that they’ve gained a print guides off the back of the the digital. Learn lessons and relaunch.
  • Sarah Younaf @sarahyounas, Tyne & Wear Museums. Digital’s job is to ask the questions the museum wouldn’t normally ask, i.e. experimentation (with a human-centric bias). Digital is quietly, by its nature, “given permission” to take risks. Consider establishing relationships with (and inviting-in) people who will/want to do “mashups” or find alternative uses for your content; get those conversations going about collections access. Experimental Try-New-Things afternoons had value but this didn’t directly translate into ideas-from-the-bottom, perhaps as a result of a lack of confidence, a requirement for fully-formed ideas, or a heavy form in the application process for investment in new initiatives. Remember you can’t change everyone, but find champions and encourage participation!
  • Kati Price @katiprice on Structuring for Digital Success in GLAM. Study showed that technical leadership and digital management/analysis is rated as vital, yet they’re also underrepresented. Ambitions routinely outstrip budgets. Assumptions about what digital teams “look” like from an org-chart perspective don’t cover the full diversity: digital teams look very different from one another! Forrester Research model of Digital Maturity seems to be the closest measure of digital maturity in GLAM institutions, but has flaws (mostly relating to its focus in the commercial sector): what’s interesting is that digital maturity seems to correlate to structure – decentralised less mature than centralised less mature than hub-and-spoke less mature than holistic.
  • Jennifer Wexler, Daniel Pett, Chiara Bonacchi on Diversifying Museum Audiences through Participation and stuff. Crowdsourcing boring data entry tasks is sometimes easier than asking staff to do it, amazingly. For success, make sure you get institutional buy-in and get press on board. Also: make sure that the resulting data is open so everybody can explore it. Crowdsourcing is not implicitly democratisating, but it leads to the production of data that can be. 3D prints (made from 3D cutouts generated by crowdsourcing) are a useful accessibility feature for bringing a collection to blind or partially-sighted visitors, for example. Think about your audiences: kids might love your hip VR, but if their parents hate it then you still need a way to engage with them!

An Unusual Workday

Some days, my day job doesn’t seem like a job that a real person would have at all. It seems like something out of a sitcom. Today, I have:

  • Worn a bear mask in the office (panda in my case; seen below alongside my head of department, in a grizzly mask).
    Bears in the office
  • Chatted about popular TV shows that happen to contain libraries, for inclusion in a future podcast series.
  • Experimented with Web-based augmented reality as a possible mechanism for digital exhibition content delivery. (Seen this thing from Google Arts & Culture? If you don’t have an AR-capable device to hand, here’s a video of what it’s like.)
    Virtual Reality at the Bodleian
  • Implemented a demonstrative XSS payload targetting a CMS (as a teaching tool, to demonstrate how a series of minor security vulnerabilities can cascade into one huge one).
  • Gotten my ‘flu jab.

Not every day is like this. But sometimes, just sometimes, one can be.

The Mystery Button-Box

Earlier this year I found a mystery cable. But today, I’ve got an even bigger mystery. What the hell is this?

Box with two keyhole-shaped "buttons" and a power cord.
It’s a… thing?

I found it in a meeting room at work, tucked away in a corner. Aside from the power cord, there are no obvious interfaces to it.

"Buttons" on the button-box.
There are two keyhole-shaped “buttons” which can be pressed down about 2cm and which spring back up (except when they jam, but I think they’re not supposed to).

My best bet is that it’s some kind of induction-based charger? I imagine some kind of device like a radio microphone or walkie-talkie that can be pushed-in to these holes and the button “spring” is just about closing the hole when it’s not in use. But the box is old, based on the style of plug, cable, and general griminess of the hardware… not to mention that it’s got a stack of PAT test stickers going back at least 11 years.

Bottom of the mystery button-box.
No real markings anywhere on it: there’s a small hole in the (metal) base and PAT test stickers.

I’ve plugged it in and tried “pressing” the buttons but it doesn’t appear to do anything, which supports my “induction charger” hypothesis. But what does it charge? I must know!

Edit: The only Electrak I can find make lighting control systems. Could it be something to do with lighting control? I can’t find anything that looks like this on their website, though.

Edit 2: Ah-hah! Looks like it’s some weird kind of electrical socket. You put the key-shaped plug in and “twist”.

Electrak plug
The plugs apparently look something like this, although I can’t find any here.

Edit 3: Hang on a minute… the most-recent PAT test sticker indicates that it was tested in… November 2019. Now my working hypothesis is that this is some kind of power supply system for a time machine we haven’t yet built. I’ve asked a number of colleagues what it’s for (i.e. what plugs into it) and nobody seems to have a clue.

How To Set Up an OSRM Server on Ubuntu 14.04

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

How To Set Up an OSRM Server on Ubuntu 14.04 | DigitalOcean (DigitalOcean)

The OpenStreetMap project consists of raw map data, collected and aggregated by thousands of users. This tutorial covers the configuration and maintenance of a web service using Open Source Routing Machine (OSRM), which is based on the OpenStreetMap d

The OpenStreetMap project consists of raw map data, collected and aggregated by thousands of users. However, its open access policy sparked a number of collateral projects, which collectively cover many of the features typically offered by commercial mapping services.

The most obvious advantage in using OpenStreetMap-based software over a commercial solution is economical convenience, because OpenStreetMap comes as free (both as in beer and as in speech) software. The downside is that it takes a little configuration in order to setup a working web service.

This tutorial covers the configuration and maintenance of a web service which can answer questions such as:

  • What is the closest street to a given pair of coordinates?
  • What’s the best way to get from point A to point B?
  • How long does it take to get from point A to point B with a car, or by foot?

The software that makes this possible is an open-source project called Open Source Routing Machine (OSRM), which is based on the OpenStreetMap data. Functionalities to embed OpenStreetMaps in Web pages are already provided out-of-the-box by APIs such as OpenLayers.

While slightly dated, I found this guide to be really valuable in my effort to set up a server that could spit out fastest walking routes around Oxford to support a PWA-driven tour of places relevant to J. R. R. Tolkien’s life, at my “day job”.

Review of Tower of the Five Orders

This review of Tower of the Five Orders originally appeared on Google Maps. See more reviews by Dan.

This iconic Oxford landmark is named for the architectural characteristics of each of its five floors. Each exhibits a different order – or “style” – of classical architecture: from bottom to top – tuscan, doric, ionic, corinthian and composite. Part of the joy of “discovering” the tower, visiting as a tourist, comes from the fact that despite it’s size it’s unlikely to be the first thing you see as you enter the quad: coming in from the Great Gate, for example, it won’t be until you turn around and look up that you see it… and even at a glance you won’t necessarily observe its unusual architecture unless you’ve been told to look specifically at the columns.

Map of 51.7541207,-1.2539526

When One Library Steals From Another

When I first started working at the Bodleian Libraries in 2011, their websites were looking… a little dated. I’d soon spend some time working with a vendor (whose premises mysteriously caught fire while I was there, freeing me up to spend my birthday in a bar) to develop a fresh, modern interface for our websites that, while not the be-all and end-all, was a huge leap forwards and has served us well for the last five years or so.

The Bodleian Libraries website as it appeared in 2011.
The colour scheme, the layout, the fact that it didn’t remotely work on mobiles… there was a lot wrong with the old design of the Bodleian Libraries’ websites.

Fast-forward a little: in about 2015 we noticed a few strange anomalies in our Google Analytics data. For some reason, web addresses were appearing that didn’t exist anywhere on our site! Most of these resulted from web visitors in Turkey, so we figured that some Turkish website had probably accidentally put our Google Analytics user ID number into their code rather than their own. We filtered out the erroneous data – there wasn’t much of it; the other website was clearly significantly less-popular than ours – and carried on. Sometimes we’d speculate about the identity of the other site, but mostly we didn’t even think about it.

Bodleian Library & Radcliffe Camera website
How a Bodleian Libraries’ website might appear today. Pay attention, now: there’ll be a spot-the-difference competition in a moment.

Earlier this year, there was a spike in the volume of the traffic we were having to filter-out, so I took the time to investigate more-thoroughly. I determined that the offending website belonged to the Library of Bilkent University, Turkey. I figured that some junior web developer there must have copy-pasted the Bodleian’s Google Analytics code and forgotten to change the user ID, so I went to the website to take a look… but I was in for an even bigger surprise.

Bilkent University Library website, as it appears today.
Hey, that looks… basically identical!

Whoah! The web design of a British university was completely ripped-off by a Turkish university! Mouth agape at the audacity, I clicked my way through several of their pages to try to understand what had happened. It seemed inconceivable that it could be a coincidence, but perhaps it was supposed to be more of an homage than a copy-paste job? Or perhaps they were ripped-off by an unscrupulous web designer? Or maybe it was somebody on the “inside”, like our vendor, acting unethically by re-selling the same custom design? I didn’t believe it could be any of those things, but I had to be sure. So I started digging…

Bodleian and Bilkent search boxes, side-by-side.
Our user research did indicate that putting the site and catalogue search tools like this was smart. Maybe they did the same research?

 

Bodleian and Bilkent menus side-by-side.
Menus are pretty common on many websites. They probably just had a similar idea.

 

Bodleian and Bilkent opening hours, side-by-side.
Tabs are a great way to show opening hours. Everybody knows that. And this is obviously just the a popular font.

 

Bodleian and Bilkent sliders, side-by-side.
Oh, you’ve got a slider too. With circles? And you’ve got an identical Javascript bug? Okay… now that’s a bit of a coincidence…

 

Bodleian and Bilkent content boxes, side-by-side.
Okay, I’m getting a mite suspicious now. Surely we didn’t independently come up with this particular bit of design?

 

Bodleian and Bilkent footers, side-by-side.
Well these are clearly different. Ours has a copyright notice, for example…

 

Copyright notice on Bilkent University Library's website.
Oh, you DO have a copyright notice. Hang on, wait: you’ve not only stolen our design but you’ve declared it to be open-source???

I was almost flattered as I played this spot-the-difference competition, until I saw the copyright notice: stealing our design was galling enough, but then relicensing it in such a way that they specifically encourage others to steal it too was another step entirely. Remember that we’re talking about an academic library, here: if anybody ought to have a handle on copyright law then it’s a library!

I took a dive into the source code to see if this really was, as it appeared to be, a copy-paste-and-change-the-name job (rather than “merely” a rip-off of the entire graphic design), and, sure enough…

HTML source code from Bilkent University Library.
In their HTML source code, you can see both the Bodleian’s Google Analytics code (which they failed to remove) but also their own. And a data- attribute related to a project I wrote and that means nothing to their site.

It looks like they’d just mirrored the site and done a search-and-replace for “Bodleian”, replacing it with “Bilkent”. Even the code’s spelling errors, comments, and indentation were intact. The CSS was especially telling (as well as being chock-full of redundant code relating to things that appear on our website but not on theirs)…

CSS code from Bilkent University.
The search-replace resulted in some icky grammar, like “the Bilkent” appearing in their code. And what’s this? That’s MY NAME in the middle of their source code!

So I reached out to them with a tweet:

Tweet: Hey @KutphaneBilkent (Bilkent University Library): couldn't help but notice your website looks suspiciously like those of @bodleianlibs...?
My first tweet to Bilkent University Library contained a “spot the difference” competition.

I didn’t get any response, although I did attract a handful of Turkish followers on Twitter. Later, they changed their Twitter handle and I thought I’d take advantage of the then-new capability for longer tweets to have another go at getting their attention:

Tweet: I see you've changed your Twitter handle, @librarybilkent! Your site still looks like you've #stolen the #webdesign from @bodleianlibs, though (and changed the license to a #CreativeCommons one, although the fact you forgot to change the #GoogleAnalytics ID is a giveaway...).
This time, I was a little less-sarcastic and a little more-aggressive. Turns out that’s all that was needed.

Clearly this was what it took to make the difference. I received an email from the personal email account of somebody claiming to be Taner Korkmaz, Systems Librarian with Bilkent’s Technical Services team. He wrote (emphasis mine):

Dear Mr. Dan Q,

My name is Taner Korkmaz and I am the systems librarian at Bilkent. I am writing on behalf of Bilkent University Library, regarding your share about Bilkent on your Twitter account.

Firstly, I would like to explain that there is no any relation between your tweet and our library Twitter handle change. The librarian who is Twitter admin at Bilkent did not notice your first tweet. Another librarian took this job and decided to change the twitter handle because of the Turkish letters, abbreviations, English name requirement etc. The first name was @KutphaneBilkent (kutuphane means library in Turkish) which is not clear and not easy to understand. Now, it is @LibraryBilkent.

About 4 years ago, we decided to change our library website, (and therefore) we reviewed the appearance and utility of the web pages.

We appreciated the simplicity and clarity of the user interface of University of Oxford Bodlien Library & Radcliffe Camera, as an academic pioneer in many fields. As a not profit institution, we took advantage of your template by using CSS and HTML, and added our own original content.

We thought it would not create a problem the idea of using CSS codes since on the web page there isn’t any license notice or any restriction related to the content of the template, and since the licenses on the web pages are mainly more about content rather than templates.

The Library has its own Google Analytics and Search Console accounts and the related integrations for the web site statistical data tracking. We would like to point out that there is a misunderstanding regarding this issue.

In 2017, we started to work on creating a new web page and we will renew our current web page very soon.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter and apologies for possible inconveniences.

Yours sincerely,

Or to put it another way: they decided that our copyright notice only applied to our content and not our design and took a copy of the latter.

Do you remember when I pointed out earlier that librarians should be expected to know their way around copyright law? Sigh.

They’ve now started removing evidence of their copy-pasting such as the duplicate Google Analytics code fragment and the references to LibraryData, but you can still find the unmodified code via archive.org, if you like.

That probably ends my part in this little adventure, but I’ve passed everything on to the University of Oxford’s legal team in case any of them have anything to say about it. And now I’ve got a new story to tell where web developers get together over a pint: the story of the time that I made a website for a university… and a different university stole it!

“Jump Man” from Footprints Tours Oxford making people jump around outside the Bodleian Library

If you’re a tourist on one of “Jump Man” of Footprints Tours’ tours, I’m sure that the obligatory “jump for a photograph” moment at the end is a fun novelty. However, the novelty quickly wears off when you work in one of the library offices right next to their usual spot, and the call of “3… 2… 1… JUMP!” is the loudest thing you hear all day, each day, throughout the summer season.

Also available on YouTube.

EEBO-TCP Hackathon

Last month I got the opportunity to attend the EEBO-TCP Hackfest, hosted in the (then still very-much under construction) Weston Library at my workplace. I’ve done a couple of hackathons and similar get-togethers before, but this one was somewhat different in that it was unmistakably geared towards a different kind of geek than the technology-minded folks that I usually see at these things. People like me, with a computer science background, were remarkably in the minority.

Dan Q in Blackwell Hall, at the Weston Library.
Me in the Weston Library (still under construction, as evidenced by the scaffolding in the background).

Instead, this particular hack event attracted a great number of folks from the humanities end of the spectrum. Which is understandable, given its theme: the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) is an effort to digitise and make available in marked-up, machine-readable text formats a huge corpus of English-language books printed between 1475 and 1700. So: a little over three centuries of work including both household names (like Shakespeare, Galileo, Chaucer, Newton, Locke, and Hobbes) and an enormous number of others that you’ll never have heard of.

Dan Q talks to academic Stephen Gregg
After an introduction to the concept and the material, attendees engaged in a speed-networking event to share their thoughts prior to pitching their ideas.

The hackday event was scheduled to coincide with and celebrate the release of the first 25,000 texts into the public domain, and attendees were challenged to come up with ways to use the newly-available data in any way they liked. As is common with any kind of hackathon, many of the attendees had come with their own ideas half-baked already, but as for me: I had no idea what I’d end up doing! I’m not particularly familiar with the books of the 15th through 17th centuries and I’d never looked at the way in which the digitised texts had been encoded. In short: I knew nothing.

Dan Q and Liz McCarthy listen as other attendees pitch their ideas.
The ideas pitch session quickly showed some overlap between different project ideas, and teams were split and reformed a few times as people found the best places for themselves.

Instead, I’d thought: there’ll be people here who need a geek. A major part of a lot of the freelance work I end up doing (and a lesser part of my work at the Bodleian, from time to time) involves manipulating and mining data from disparate sources, and it seemed to me that these kinds of skills would be useful for a variety of different conceivable projects.

Dan Q explains what the spreadsheet he's produced 'means'.
XML may have been our interchange format, but everything fell into Excel in the end for speedy management even by less-technical team members.

I paired up with a chap called Stephen Gregg, a lecturer in 18th century literature from Bath Spa University. His idea was to use this newly-open data to explore the frequency (and the change in frequency over the centuries) of particular structural features in early printed fiction: features like chapters, illustrations, dedications, notes to the reader, encomia, and so on). This proved to be a perfect task for us to pair-up on, because he had the domain knowledge to ask meaningful questions, and I had the the technical knowledge to write software that could extract the answers from the data. We shared our table with another pair, who had technically-similar goals – looking at the change in the use of features like lists and tables (spoiler: lists were going out of fashion, tables were coming in, during the 17th century) in alchemical textbooks – and ultimately I was able to pass on the software tools I’d written to them to adapt for their purposes, too.

Dan Q with two academic-minded humanities folks, talking about their hackathon projects.
A quick meeting on the relative importance of ‘chapters’ as a concept in 16th century literature. Half of the words that the academics are saying go over my head, but I’m formulating XPath queries in my head while I wait.

And here’s where I made a discovery: the folks I was working with (and presumably academics of the humanities in general) have no idea quite how powerful data mining tools could be in giving them new opportunities for research and analysis. Within two hours we were getting real results from our queries and were making amendments and refinements in our questions and trying again. Within a further two hours we’d exhausted our original questions and, while the others were writing-up their findings in an attractive way, I was beginning to look at how the structural differences between fiction and non-fiction might be usable as a training data set for an artificial intelligence that could learn to differentiate between the two, providing yet more value from the dataset. And all the while, my teammates – who’d been used to looking at a single book at a time – were amazed by the possibilities we’d uncovered for training computers to do simple tasks while reading thousands at once.

Laptop showing a map of the area around Old St. Paul's Cathedral.
The area around Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was the place to be if you were a 16th century hipster looking for a new book.

Elsewhere at the hackathon, one group was trying to simulate the view of the shelves of booksellers around the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, another looked at the change in the popularity of colour and fashion-related words over the period (especially challenging towards the beginning of the timeline, where spelling of colours was less-standardised than towards the end), and a third came up with ways to make old playscripts accessible to modern performers.

A graph showing the frequency of colour-related words in English-language books printed over three centuries.
Aside from an increase in the relative frequency of the use of colour words to describe yellow things, there’s not much to say about this graph.

At the end of the session we presented our findings – by which I mean, Stephen explained what they meant – and talked about the technology and its potential future impact – by which I mean, I said what we’d like to allow others to do with it, if they’re so-inclined. And I explained how I’d come to learn over the course of the day what the word encomium meant.

Dan Q presents findings in Excel.
Presenting our findings in amazing technicolour Excel.

My personal favourite contribution from the event was by Sarah Cole, who adapted the text of a story about a witch trial into a piece of interactive fiction, powered by Twine/Twee, and then allowed us as an audience to collectively “play” her game. I love the idea of making old artefacts more-accessible to modern audiences through new media, and this was a fun and innovative way to achieve this. You can even play her game online!

(by the way: for those of you who enjoy my IF recommendations: have a look at Detritus; it’s a delightful little experimental/experiential game)

Output from the interactive fiction version of a story about a witch trial.
Things are about to go very badly for Joan Buts.

But while that was clearly my favourite, the judges were far more impressed by the work of my teammate and I, as well as the team who’d adapted my software and used it to investigate different features of the corpus, and decided to divide the cash price between the four of us. Which was especially awesome, because I hadn’t even realised that there was a prize to be had, and I made the most of it at the Drinking About Museums event I attended later in the day.

Members of the other team, who adapted my software, were particularly excited to receive their award.
Cold hard cash! This’ll be useful at the bar, later!

If there’s a moral to take from all of this, it’s that you shouldn’t let your background limit your involvement in “hackathon”-like events. This event was geared towards literature, history, linguistics, and the study of the book… but clearly there was value in me – a computer geek, first and foremost – being there. Similarly, a hack event I attended last year, while clearly tech-focussed, wouldn’t have been as good as it was were it not for the diversity of the attendees, who included a good number of artists and entrepreneurs as well as the obligatory hackers.

Stephen and Dan give a congratulatory nod to one another.
“Nice work, Stephen.” “Nice work, Dan.”

But for me, I think the greatest lesson is that humanities researchers can benefit from thinking a little bit like computer scientists, once in a while. The code I wrote (which uses Ruby and Nokogiri) is freely available for use and adaptation, and while I’ve no idea whether or not it’ll ever be useful to anybody again, what it represents is the research benefits of inter-disciplinary collaboration. It pleases me to see things like the “Library Carpentry” (software for research, with a library slant) seeming to take off.

And yeah, I love a good hackathon.

Update 2015-04-22 11:59: with thanks to Sarah for pointing me in the right direction, you can play the witch trial game in your browser.