Igeneric Thoughts Archives: Practice

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Getting people to want to read...


November 9, 2004

I gave a Keynote at this year's Talis conference in Birmingham today. I spoke about the disconnect between public bodies as holders of valuable content and those members of the public who seek to discover and engage with that content.

One positive example of offering buried content to users where they happen to be was that of Jon Udell's LibraryLookup tool. This is a simple bookmarklet that allows a user to view a book on Amazon and, with a single click, check to see if their local library has a copy. In principle, brilliant. Unfortunately (and this isn't Jon's fault), the majority of the UK library sites that I tried returned an incomprehensible error code rather than either the book in question or an understandable description of a fault. Even in some of the cases where the search was successful, the libraries concerned clearly hadn't anticipated such a link deep into their site (bypassing the brand-heavy home page), as I ended up on a page devoid of branding (which library am I at, again?) or navigation. Still, at least they showed that they had a copy of the book. Why, though, do organisations continue in the mistaken belief that I want to visit their endless websites, or that I want to navigate them sequentially from the top (the homepage), through diverse intermediate steps before arriving at a page that may or may not provide the resource I was seeking?

I also briefly mentioned the excellent whichbook.net, which is well worth a look.

Another Keynote speaker did it - and sites like it - far more justice.

Rachel Van Riel, Director of Opening the Book, spoke about the work of her organisation in finding innovative ways in which to encourage reading. She, too, highlighted simple limitations in many public library catalogues and pointed to their origins as collection management tools for trained staff physically located in the library building. For users coming across the library online, poor branding and a lack of basic information such as how to join or find the library create poor first impressions.

Through sites such as whichbook.net, Opening the Book is now working aggressively to make books and reading more accessible and relevant to those beyond what public libraries may long have considered their core demographic. These sites recognise that many people do not necessarily have a specific title or author in mind when looking for something to read, meaning that traditional library interfaces may not help. Further, web users often wish to be entertained and engaged, and the web itself may offer a means to make library offerings relevant to new markets.

whichbook.net, for example, was funded by the New Opportunities Fund (now the Big Lottery), and allows the user to select a variety of criteria (happy/sad, easy/demanding, etc) upon which a number of books will be selected for them. These books may include reviews by other readers, and a link is provided to click through and see if the book is available in your local (UK) library.

Variations on this theme, all aimed at different audiences, include www.givemeabreak.org (which adopts a short-break metaphor to bilingually engage 16-30 year olds in Wales), www.whatareyouuptotonight.com (aimed at 16-25 year olds in the East Midlands of England, and featuring a 'Blind Date' option that delivers an unknown book matching certain criteria to the reader's nearest library for collection), and www.4ureaders.net (offering different interfaces for boys and girls in south-central Scotland).

Each offers an interesting and engaging interface onto dry library data, each works to encourage people to read - and to try new authors and subject matter - and each links through to real books held in local public libraries. Brilliant.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 21:54 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (1)

Syndication for the Masses ?


September 28, 2004

Sites such as this one make use of RSS (RDF Site Summary, Really Simple Syndication, whatever) as a way to push content (like this article) out to people who may never visit the site itself. This is known as syndication, and the streams of articles from a particular site are called feeds. This site, for example, offers two feeds.

Instead of remembering to visit an RSS-capable web site to see if anything has been added, readers may view it using a tool on their computer such as NetNewsWire or via a web-based aggregator such as Bloglines. The (slightly) more technical can use tools such as RSS-xpress Lite from UKOLN to embed these articles into web pages on their own sites. In both cases, any changes to the site are delivered to the user's selected tool automatically.

Both of these approaches are actually pretty straightforward, but they still require a reader with the confidence and desire to go out and download NetNewsWire or sign up for Bloglines.

In that context, the announcement of a new beta of MyYahoo! is actually pretty important. This beta brings the power of syndication to any user of Yahoo!'s services, allowing them to sign up to feeds from their favourite football teams, pop groups, libraries (?!) or whatever, all in an interface with which they are comfortable and that they use regularly. When MyMSN and the other comparable portal sites follow suit, the sort of access to timely and focussed snippets of news that the NetNewsWire/ Bloglines/ et al aficionados have benefited from for some time will be available to anyone who goes online from home, and who has never bothered to change their web browser's home page from the MyYahoo!/ MyMSN/ MyWhatever installed as the default by their Internet Service Provider.

News from Yahoo!'s SearchBlog, and being discussed here and lots of other places.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 16:19 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Public access to the Internet outside libraries


September 28, 2004

In preparing for a Scottish Executive retreat later this week, I have been reading a number of preparatory documents.

One that caught my eye was an evaluation of something called the Public Internet Access Point Initiative by Hall Aitken.

This initiative, begun in 2002, has created more than 780 public internet access points (some 1,750 computers, plus associated peripherals, furniture and training) in pubs, shops, leisure centres, businesses, etc where users can get online free or affordably.

Supplementing the People's Network roll-out of Internet-enabled computers to 557 public libraries across Scotland (and libraries elsewhere in the UK, of course), the Executive is now in the enviable position of being able to state that 95% of urban Scots are within one mile of public internet access, and 93% of those in rural areas are within five miles. There's also a useful (although not very usable, given the audience!) tool to help you find nearby access points.

The report goes into quite a lot of detail, exploring where the access points are located, how easy they are to use, and what the experience of using them is like.

I found it worrying, for example, that a series of 'mystery shopper' visits by the evaluation team found that less than 70% of access points sited in commercial or community premises were easy to find, just over 50% of access points in those locations were rated as visible to new visitors, and almost half of all the access points surveyed were not considered accessible to those in wheelchairs or with prams or pushchairs. I wonder if the imminent enactment of statutes from the Disability Discrimination Act (from 1st October?) will change things here?

As with wireless hotspots in coffee shops and the like, it appears that access points are denoted by rather unobtrusive window stickers, rather than something more visible to the casual passer-by. Most of the users appear to be repeat visitors, but I wonder how many people are half-heartedly thinking about getting online, but never manage it because they fail to find the computers?

The report also highlighted concerns with the level of support given to new users of the Internet, something with which public libraries seem to be coping better, on the whole. The report doesn't mention this, but I wonder if these access points refer beginners to their local library for more support?

Awareness and use of the access points within six sample areas was interesting, with 16% - 36% of those surveyed (average 28%) having heard of their local access point, and 1.5% - 7.5% (average 3.97%) having used it. 56% of access point users in urban areas were aware that their local library also provided access, whilst this figure dropped below 50% in rural areas.

Many users of the access points have other means of access to Internet, including access to computers in their home. Despite this, it would appear that the initiative has been successful in reaching those without access of their own and those who might not feel comfortable in some of the other public spaces, such as libraries. For example, 14% of users were unemployed, a figure that is more than three times the unemployment rate in Scotland.

78% of those surveyed claimed that their Internet skills had improved since they started benefitting from the access point, and over 45% said that they had tried new activities online rather than simply continuing to do the same things.

All in all, pretty good. The Scottish Executive are currently considering the report, before deciding how to move forward with the scheme.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 15:51 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Latest internet stats from the Office of National Statistics


September 28, 2004

According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, 12.8 million UK households are online; that's 52% of UK homes wired up in one way or another.

Also in the release, 58% of adults in the mainland UK had used the Internet in the three months prior to being asked (in July). 82% of those went online at home, and 42% connected from their place of work.

37% of adults asked (in July) had never been online, of which 48% didn't want to or didn't see the need to.

54% of these non-users (21% of all adults) chose to agree with the statement

“I have not really considered using the Internet before and I am not likely to in the future.”

We therefore would appear to have a healthy - and improving - level of repeat use in the home and elsewhere, but a significant body of people with whom we need to engage if we are to have any hope of building an inclusive Knowledge Society.

Item publicised via ONS' RSS feed.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 14:57 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Guardian on blogging in academia


September 23, 2004

Jim McClellan has a piece in today's Online, looking at some of the uses to which blogs are being put in academia.

It still seems to be driven by interested individuals, and I wonder if the time is right for some more official engagement with what's being done and what might be possible?

Notification from Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 10:42 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Piece on Creative Commons and BBC Creative Archive in Media Guardian


September 21, 2004

Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing draws my attention to a piece in the Media Guardian [free registration required] in which Becky Hogge takes a look at the BBC's exciting Creative Archive project and talks to Stanford's Lawrence Lessig about the Creative Commons licence that is part of what makes it so paradigm-changing.

Thousands of hours of BBC footage, rights cleared so that you can view it it, share it, and reuse it yourself in a range of non-commercial ways. The first tranche of content should be available to view in the Autumn.

Article posted - eventually! - from a train whizzing up the East Coast mainline, courtesy of GNER's disappointingly flaky on-train Wi-fi network. Nice idea, but I'm not paying for it again until it works.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 18:32 | Make or Read Comments(1) | TrackBack (1)

Brewster Kahle's Bookmobile


September 16, 2004

Yesterday, I was in the Hague.

I was there to present a "Reality Check" on current efforts to digitise cultural content, as part of Strategies for a European Area of Digital Cultural Resources, organised under the Netherlands' Presidency of the European Union.

Other reality checks were from David Bearman and Brewster Kahle, and both had challenging and fascinating viewpoints to expound.

David, for example, was arguing that excessive standardisation or regulation of our online activities will only act to stifle creativity. He pointed to lessons from previous technologies, where it often took more than a decade for a real understanding of potential uses to emerge. He also pointed to evidence from real users of the Internet, and their apparent embracing of it as a facilitator of networking, of communication. They blog, they chat, they mail, and they share. How do we fit with that, rather than imposing our world view upon them and their interactions with our content?

Brewster talked about the ongoing efforts of the Internet Archive to preserve snapshots of the Internet, and to offer it up for search via the Wayback Machine.

He also discussed work that the Archive has been doing with their Bookmobile. This is the public face of an ongoing effort to digitise out-of-copyright books, and to make them available to people cheaply and conveniently. Brewster reckoned that it costs around $10 to digitise one of these books. Visitors to a Bookmobile (touring in the USA, India and Egypt at present) select the book they want, have it downloaded via satellite to the Bookmobile and printed out - there and then - in a process that Brewster reckons costs around $1 per book. The quality is remarkable, as is the convenience.

Imagine the potential. Every public domain book, available to anyone, readable online or downloadable in order to print and bind their very own copy.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 17:00 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

City Heritage guides now available


September 16, 2004

The 24 Hour Museum this week unveiled its City Heritage Guides.

Produced with funding from DCMS' Culture Online, the site offers in-depth access to information on ten English cities, as well as providing mechanisms for local groups and individuals to contribute their views.

News from a Wired-GOV release

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 15:01 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (5)

Opening up information


August 26, 2004

One of the issues often raised in the context of the Common Information Environment is that of allowing access to information and resources through multiple channels, and in ways suited to the user and their needs rather than to the providing organisation(s).

I was in Edinburgh earlier this week, and spent some time with SCRAN. Amongst a range of interesting activities with which they are engaged, they offer some examples of exactly what I mean.

Their content, largely the result of some £10,000,000 of public funding through the Millennium Commission, is available on their own web site. There, users can search for items and group them in different and interesting ways as ‘albums’. These albums can be disclosed to others so, for example, a class teacher could prepare albums of relevant material for their class.

The SCRAN database also exists as a Z39.50 target. This means that it’s available for searching alongside resources from related organisations, as demonstrated by HEIRNET’s HEIRPORT system.

Content from the SCRAN database is also offered up via services branded and delivered by a range of other agencies involved in heritage, tourism, and related areas.

Finally (for this post, anyway), the ability to search SCRAN’s database can be dropped into almost any web site, anywhere, thanks to a small snippet of code.



send detailsclear details

With their new web site coming, and a range of activities that seem wholly in line with the Igeneric vision, I look forward to seeing much more from this excellent resource, which really seems to have grasped the idea that the end user should not need to know that SCRAN - or their website - exists in order to make use of quality SCRAN-managed content.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 17:04 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Blogging in schools


August 20, 2004

Yesterday’s New York Times has an interesting piece on the use of weblogs in a US Second Grade class.

The piece discusses a few examples of use, and some of the pros and cons. According to the article, one school district in Cincinnati plans to require teachers to maintain blogs after they complete a course of training.

Is anyone aware of examples from British Primary schools?

Item picked up a few places, including Stephen Downes’ OLDaily.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 08:54 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Search engines good enough?


August 12, 2004

"Some 87% of search engine users say they find the information they want most of the time when they use search engines."

So says a memo on search engine usage in the USA from the Pew, on the basis of a phone survey of 1,399 Internet users earlier this year.

I do, too. Doesn't mean I don't want the results to be better though.

Information from the Pew Internet and American Life Project's RSS feed.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 16:03 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

British Library website 'confusing'


August 11, 2004

A recent report from the UK's National Audit Office (NAO) commends the British Library on the quality of much of the content on its website, visited by over 2,000,000 people per year. However, the report picks up on a perception that the site can be difficult to navigate, and that it overly reflects the organisation of the institution rather than the needs of a visitor.

Hardly a criticism only for the BL, as it seems a depressingly common problem.

Item read in 6 August's e-Government Bulletin

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 21:57 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (3)

Contextualising castles for Daniel


July 23, 2004

For anyone who's seen me present the Igeneric's "Daniel scenario", I'm sure you'll agree that this little gem would have gone quite a way towards meeting his needs.

Thank you yet again, 24 Hour Museum!

Contextualisation rules...

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 18:19 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Personalising the online experience that we offer


July 23, 2004

I forgot to mention this work, which was published a week or so ago.

Nicky Ferguson, Seb Schmoller and Neil Smith were commissioned by the JISC to look at the place for personalisation within the services offered by the JISC. Their completed report is now online and makes for interesting reading; and not just for the JISC, but for everyone interested in personalising the information they present to users.

In the context of Demos’ work around personalised engagement with public service, current Government interest in “choice”, and Igeneric ambitions towards user-focussed integration of existing services, various types of Personalisation are going to be important. It will be interesting to see whether public sector experiences can counter the rather negative image that personalisation now has in the private sector (with the notable exception of Amazon, of course).

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 13:11 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (2)

Understanding Search...


July 4, 2004

I've just found this fascinating piece, A Day in the Life of BBCi Search, written by Martin Belam at the BBC, who should know.

There are a number of interesting pieces of evidence in the article. The one I found hardest to believe was that only one in twelve searches have incorrect spelling. Really? Does this say something about the users of BBC online services, or about my lack of faith in users' ability to spell?

The follow-up piece, How Search can help you understand your audience is also good, taking a look at how services might be improved.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 21:54 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (0)

Irish treasures online


July 3, 2004

Like David, I was in Dublin last week for a very interesting cultural heritage event as part of Ireland's presidency of the EU.

I gave a paper there, and bemoaned the fact that I couldn't get hold of any high quality images of Irish artefacts from Irish sources (I had to use the British Museum's COMPASS).

After the event, Anthony Edwards at Clare County Library got in touch, and told me about Riches of Clare. An excellent resource, and one I shall definitely turn to next time I get invited to talk about things Irish... Thank you Anthony, and I'm happy to put the record straight here.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 00:21 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (2)

An easy way to get RSS feeds onto your website


June 25, 2004

Feedroll offers a free service that allows you to easily insert any RSS or ATOM feed straight into a bog-standard website, simply by cutting and pasting a little bit of Javascript.

The site even allows you a high degree of control over the look and feel of the feed. Very nice.

Posted by Oliver Smith-Toynes at 21:55 | Make or Read Comments(0) | TrackBack (2)


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