Panlibus Blog

Archive for January, 2006

Collaborative context aware services again

Richard Veryard has come back with a further contribution to our discussion around context aware services. I remain intrigued by some of the possibilities here, especially when it comes to the collaborative aspects. Collaboration, here, might be in the traditional Web 2.0 sense of individuals collaborating, but applies equally to collaboration between organisations.

Although I was the one to float the notion, I’d agree with Richard that

“I’m not particularly interested in libraries selling me nappies” [or diapers, to those of you in that part of the world]

and, more importantly,

“I’m interested in ways that the library can serve me better (not just target me better) through an awareness of my context.”

Richard explores this notion a little with reference to his son’s mathematics project, and asks how close library systems are to the intelligence and awareness of context that we expect from library staff when we seek their help.

And, frankly, we’re not very close at all, are we? We could (although most of the time we don’t) do relatively simple things such as offering information on “New Books”, looking in the student registration system, and showing the History students new History books at the top of the pile, but how much smarter than that are we getting, outside the often fascinating but equally often unsustainable tinkerings of smart and committed individuals?

At a previous institution, I remember there was talk of looking in the staff and student record system to see whether or not a user had a visual impairment, in order to display a high visibility version of the portal by default to those most likely to benefit from it. There was also the related conversation around some sort of up-front ‘contract’ with staff and students, in which the uses to which any data they might opt to share would be put were clearly spelled out. I’m not sure how far they’ve gone with either idea, but the notion of the data contract was certainly an interesting one…

Here at Talis, work around Keystone [PDF] is addressing the enablement of communication between various systems across an organisation; whether that’s displaying library account details in a portal, or something richer down the road.

Richard ends with

“Ultimately, context-awareness takes us down a path of embracing user diversity. Not just user semantics, but user pragmatics. How much of the reader’s context can the library possibly deal with, and what other service providers might the library collaborate with? There are some seriously complex models here.”

There are indeed. Just how much do we need to know about an individual before being able to respond effectively to their context, how much of that knowledge do we already have, how much could we reasonably easily source from somewhere else, and how prepared would the individual in question be to allow this aggregation of data to take place?

When it comes to consciously permitting aggregation of data about ourselves, the fuss around things like the ID card here in the UK clearly demonstrates that neither clear and unambiguous convenience (hands up anybody who likes filling your name, address, and date of birth in on endless forms?) nor reasonably unambiguous statements about safeguards come close to denting the suspicion that someone, somewhere, is – or could be – up to no good with our personal information.

Might libraries be one of those places in which we can demonstrate real and tangible benefits to the individual from us aggregating data from and about them? Or are we too worried that provisions in legislation such as the USA’s Patriot Act might force us to surrender the data we gather to those less responsible than ourselves?

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The Broadband Divide… in pictures

Point Topics graphic, illustrating the UK broadband divide

We seem to quite like divides here in the UK. We have digital divides, social divides, and almost every other type of divide you might care to mention.

Now, it appears, we have a Broadband Divide. eGovMonitor reports on a new study from Point Topics (‘broadband analysts’, so no angle, clearly…) which reports on the take-up of broadband internet connections around the middle of last year.

I looked at their graphic for a bit, trying to work out why the highest penetration was a mere 25.2% in a country where Internet access is up around 60% (which side of 60 depends upon who you ask, how they phrased the question, and the direction in which the wind was blowing at the time).

Then I remembered. Dial-up. Its use was clearly so traumatic that I had suppressed the memory. But yes, just under half of the UK’s Internet users get online using a trusty dial-up modem. With our whizzy applications, and our streaming video, we sometimes forget them all too easily. And we shouldn’t. Maybe we should have our broadband connections and our 3G cards taken off us for a while, to remind us what it’s like. Do you really need that graphic? Is a Flash movie the best way to show that simple chart? There is, of course, a place for compelling visuals. There is a place for pushing the boundaries. Doing both of those, unless you do it carefully, is also known as needlessly alienating almost half of your potential users/patrons/customers/borrowers/whatever.

Having worked out where half the users went (they’re the ones still waiting for the map image to load), a closer look at the actual data represented on the map showed a truly weird spread of penetration.

OK, so high broadband penetration in big cities makes sense (been available for longer, ‘right’ kind of people, etc), as do significant levels of take-up in the commuter strip around places like London, but what about all those home workers in Wales, East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and the like? Why are they not showing?

All I can assume is that the survey was done on a Tuesday. Tuesday is the day you need to park at railway stations in the middle of the night if you want a space. Tuesday is, therefore, clearly the day that all those remote workers travel to the office for more Post-It Notes. And Tuesday is also the day that there wouldn’t be any broadband users in East Yorkshire. Take me, for example. I’ll be in Birmingham. QED.

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Libraries411.com – another example of placing libraries on the map

A fair number of library bloggers are talking about Libraries411.com at the moment, and it is of course a site we’ve been playing with here for a little while, too.

Like earlier demonstrators from Talis (LibMap and parts of Whisper, for example), OCLC and others, it harnesses the capabilities of third party mapping services and plots information relating to libraries on the map in a way that’s so much more useful than the bare postal addresses we’re used to receiving from finder services.

I particularly like the way this application switches reasonably well between Google and Yahoo! mapping; I may still prefer Google Maps right now, but we should be able to use whichever of the two is best for a given problem, or ditch both of them should something better come along. And maybe the searcher should choose their favourite, rather than having to use ours?

The site only covers public (not academic or corporate) libraries, and only those in the USA and Canada, but it’s a nice example of capabilities that are becoming increasingly within reach of each and every library. It also includes a feature allowing individual libraries to add themselves if they’re not already featured.

Search a catalogue straight from the map with the Directory

I do think that taking the approach we have, with a Directory of libraries powering a Platform upon which we and others are then free to build a wealth of services, offers more potential in the long term than ‘just’ a database of library locations linked to a map. The Directory, for example, handles things like query structure in order to allow the inclusion of a simple ‘search’ box within the balloon that Google Maps pops up over a library. That knowledge could, equally, be used to pass queries from any other kind of interface deep into the library system. The Directory keeps a watchful eye on your visible (web site) and invisible (Z39.50, etc) interfaces, and informs those who need to know when something goes wrong. The Directory offers a single point to inform of any change, instantly updating any Directory-dependent applications anywhere in the world in order to keep them current, running, and valuable. The Directory offers potential to link in other information such as opening hours, reading groups, collection strengths and more.

A number of people have been exploring the possibilities in this area. Libraries411 appears to be the first to get out into the wild with something approaching a service. Before too many more waste time, money and effort gathering very similar data with which to build a differently valuable solution, maybe we should take a serious look at the sort of Directory model that Talis has been talking about, and see if we can’t drum up a little more cooperation around the best ways to proceed here.

We are all competing with someone, implicitly or explicitly. But there are some areas where cooperation makes more sense. Can we collect ‘core’ data once, in a standard and structured form, and then make it available for all sorts of applications to use? Can we work together on the data structure and on some of the web services or APIs to query those data? If we could, the value and differentiation would come in terms of what we did with the data you entrusted to us; not how many of you we happened to have stuck address details for into a database. It’s a different model. Surely it’s a better model?

Are you on the map yet? Is it our map, OCLC’s map, Libraries411’s map, or someone else’s map? Wouldn’t you rather be on all of them, ideally for less pain and more gain than was involved in getting you on one before today? Talk to us. Talk to the others. Agitate for common solutions. Common doesn’t mean bland. Common doesn’t mean hostage to fortune. Common means money and effort saved on the boring backroom stuff that can be expended on building the rich applications that all this data is meant for. Common means an end to expensive closed clubs taking your data off you, and then charging you for the privilege of seeing it again. Just seeing where your library is might be ‘cool’, but it really is only the beginning.

Talis is doing this anyway. We want to do it in partnership. Ask us about it. I think you might be pleasantly surprised by some of the answers you get.

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Collaborative context aware services

Richard Veryard responds to my post about those RSS-powered displays in Ian Dolphin’s local supermarket, and opines;

“Where this stuff gets interesting is when the process becomes truly open and collaborative. Does the supermarket have exclusive control over the messages that are displayed on its screens, or do we start to see something more radical? To what extent does technological openness entail business openness?”

Firstly, I should probably apologise to Richard (whose blog I subscribe to) for not including a link to his context-aware services post in my original entry; I knew I’d been reading about such things somewhere, but couldn’t remember where. Now, hopefully, I’ve corrected that oversight.

Returning to his point, I’m intrigued. Does this just mean advertising (there are four bars of Dairy Milk and a box of Creme Eggs in Ian’s basket, next to the Chardonnay; the display pops up an ad for his local gym), or might this collaboration go further?

What might you want or expect your supermarket to target you with, if it knows about what you are putting in your basket/trolley, and can target messages at you via the increasingly ubiquitous displays dotted around the store?).

Translate it to a library. What might the library target you with, knowing your borrowing history? Borrow a book on baby names, and get an e-mail offering you a voucher for money off Pampers at your local Sainsbury’s? Borrow a book being discussed in the local reading group next week, and receive an invitation?

Your immediate reaction is probably one of wariness or disquiet, possibly even distaste. Move past it. Is there an opportunity here? Like the internet in the ads AOL is running here right now, context-aware services and effective leveraging of prior knowledge can be used for good as well as bad. Can we find the good, whilst protecting against the bad?

Karen Schneider says librarians are getting frisky

Karen Schneider

In a post to the LITA blog, Karen Schneider yesterday observed;

“If there is one meta-trend I am seeing right now, it is this: librarians are getting frisky. We’re talking back, questioning authority, and in some cases taking names and kicking booty, as Andrew Pace did recently with the NCSU catalog (Andrew, can we call your OPAC ”Miss Piggy“?) and as the UC system did with its must-read, put-this-under-your-pillow, OMG-this-is-hot BSTF Report. It’s no longer enough to say ”the ILS sucks.“ It’s ”The ILS sucks and this is what we’re doing about it.“ It’s not just saying we need to do less cataloging and more tagging, but actually following through with the transformations. It’s saying we need to stop treating library services like a monopoly operation and act as if we have competitors–as indeed we do, as many funding battles in this country have demonstrated. It’s taking the issues to the road, as is happening with Library 2.0.”

Some of those involved with the library world (whether librarians or not) are, anyway, but we need to be careful that the echo chamber that is the blogosphere doesn’t make those of us on the inside think that all this undeniably good stuff is creating louder bangs [stretching the echo chamber analogy quite worryingly] out in the wider world than it actually is.

Karen’s closing point perhaps says it well;

“My only negative trend … is that libraries continue to be glacially slow in adopting new technologies. We know it’s not just money; attitude and openness (as well as sheer knowledge) play roles as well. Let’s hope that some of the friskiness of the techno-vanguard sifts into libraries at large.”

Turn away from your computer. Ask the person nearest to you what ‘RSS’ or ‘Library 2.0′ are. Ask them why the UC report [PDF] is so great, what’s special about the new NCSU catalogue, or why they can’t wait to get their hands on components like those shown in Whisper. On your journey home tonight, ask the same questions to someone who doesn’t work with you. See? We’ve got work to do, folks.

I pretty much agree with what Karen is saying, though. It is refreshing and most welcome to see a growing number of increasingly vocal proponents of ideas that have been whispered about, often for years. It is even better to see a sudden flurry of examples that show us where we’re right, where we might need to rethink our ideas a little, and where we might evolve towards next. It is a wonderful position to be in to feel challenged as I endeavour to keep up with all the original, innovative, challenging and exciting things suddenly happening so visibly in this sector. We are doing so much, and we are all being so much more open about it than we were.

There is a long way to go, though, in delivering a suite of services that truly meet the needs of those who use them, and we have a job to do in demonstrating the possibilities, the potentials, and the road map to [most (?) of] our colleagues, [many of] our vendors, and [probably pretty well all of] those who sign the cheques…

And what does Karen think of Library 2.0? Well, it’s apparently

“about wrenching the library out of its self-absorbed, ILS-centric model and toward modernized services”

Sounds about right. I look forward to a good dose of that Library 2.0 from my local public library. When you’re ready.

Soon.

Please.

Oh I give up. Clearly the Council’s systems librarian and their vendor were too busy being frisky to implement a few little tweaks to the catalogue.

I wonder if Ann Arbor would post me books?

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Harper Collins, Digital Vaults and Search Engines

Victoria Barnsley, Chief Executive of Harper Collins spoke recently at London Business School’s media summit. The Bookseller covers the event.

Having worked for internet bank Egg for a good time it interests me the ways in which companies founded before the internet took hold approach adopting it and adapting to it; as it presents so many changes.

It’s great to see Harper Collins thinking about and investing in the internet and it’s clear from Victoria’s words that Google and Amazon have not gone unnoticed there, but they may still have some way to go in their planning.

Reading the Bookseller’s edited script for the speech I got off to a bad start with this:

Or, to put it as an author did recently: “The biggest threat we face isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”

Maybe I’m being petty, but if you’re talking about intellectual property and copyright and the relationships between authors, publishers and consumers wouldn’t it be nice to attribute the quote? Especially as it’s from a very well circulated USA Today interview with none other than Cory Doctorow.

Talking about the various online forums, chatrooms, email conversations and more that are happening between authors and their fans Victoria goes on to say:

Publishers must make sure they occupy this space. We can no longer see ourselves as simply the sellers of products–we need to muster all our creative talent so we can enhance, and manage, the relationships between authors and consumers as they interact in an online community.

Make sure they “occupy this space”? The de-centralised nature of the internet makes this concept very hard indeed. Most times, the successful spaces on the internet have been created by the community themselves. This applies as much to Flickr as it does to the more ubiquitous forums. These spaces have been created by the community in preference to using forums provided by large companies precisely because they don’t want the space to be “occupied”, nor do they want their relationships “managed”.

If Harper Collins “occupy” this space or that space the consumers will simply move to another space. If they continue to “occupy” spaces then the community will appoint moderators and administrators, “elected” quickly, simply and electronically by the forums themselves; with the rights to drop the publishers from the conversation (this is not conjecture, this is how public internet forums have always worked).

Victoria goes on to explain how Harper Collins will retain control over their content:

But we need to operate a firewall between the search-engines and our content, so that we can control its use and exploit its value for our authors.

Unfortunately this is a mistake Copyright enforcers (not usually the owners), often make. They fail to understand that this type of control does not work. The moment one electronic copy has left the “vault” the game is over and the cost of these systems is wasted. iTunes and the Apple AAC DRM formats have proved this recently and the release of “White Lillies Island” by Natalie Imbruglia, online, perfectly copied, before the release of the (copy-protected) CD is just one of a thousand high-profile examples.

But despite being locked away, safe from prying eyes, Harper Collins recognise the need to make their content searchable:

With this in mind HarperCollins Worldwide has announced plans to create a global digital warehouse for our titles, which search engines will be able to visit by means of an index. This will enable us to meet the demands of the digital age while retaining control of our own digital files and thereby our intellectual property.

I don’t know if Harper Collins understands what they’re suggesting here. Search Engines’ core competency is indexing – their level of objectivity, and thus the usefulness of their searches, is based on their ability to index content without the indexes being unduly influenced by marketers and promoters. What Harper Collins is asking the search engines to do is cede control over the indexing and trust the promoters of these books to index in an unbiased and appropriate way. Something many would suggest publishers are far from well placed to do.

While Victoria gives a passing mention to pay-per-view models, she doesn’t cover of any of the very interesting things other are doing. The Pragmatic Bookshelf, for example, where you can buy the book in Adobe’s PDF format, in print or both for a small premium.

In my mind this was obviously attempting to put Harper Collins right at the forefront of the game; and it may well, compared to other publishers. But it dates them much further back in their understanding of how online relationships are formed and “managed”.

But perhaps saddest of all is Victoria’s closing comment:

Our unique selling point has to be the linking of content and community, and somehow, we have to wrap this together with a viable business model.

What the internet facilitates, primarily, is the ability of content and community to link itself. If that’s all Harper Collins have got then they’re in for a tough time.

OCLC symposium in San Antonio looks like it was a good one…

ALA Midwinter 2006 logo

Judging by the write-ups I’ve been reading over the weekend, the OCLC Symposium – Extreme Makeover: Rebranding an Industry – on Friday looks to have been an interesting one.

OCLC’s Alice Sneary provides a number of postings on the proceedings over at It’s All Good. Start with this one, and work forward in time.

Jenny Levine also has some notes on the event. Karen Schneider said she was going to be there, but doesn’t appear to have written about it yet. I’ll get to some of her posts later on, and hope she does have some insight to share from the Symposium…

Reading through the various posts, I was struck by much that’s being reported. Some of Patricia Martin‘s points seemed particularly telling (or tellingly reported?), though…

She suggests that we are missing a trick in attempting to ‘sell’ libraries in terms of their features (a building full of books, free, etc) rather than building an emotional bond between the underlying values and the (potential) beneficiary. She illustrated her point with reference to FedEx, an efficient company doing an important job, but difficult to differentiate from other players.

In interpreting the notes, Patricia also seemed to be suggesting that the very comprehensiveness of the library offer may be proving daunting to potential beneficiaries (at least amongst the ‘Renaissance Generation’ which she is currently exploring), and that we need to get better at targetting particular services, features, and items at groups and individuals likely to be interested.

Amazon were good at that, although even their recommendations are becoming overly busy, as they add product line after product line.

Book recommendations in the Huddersfield OPAC

What can we learn, and what might we be able to do? ‘People who borrowed x also borrowed y‘-type services are often discussed, and I note that Huddersfield are doing it for real, at least for some of their titles. Leveraging a larger pool of data than that available in a single institution will make these types of service more accurate and more useful, and this is just one of the areas in which the Talis Platform will be adding value by leveraging a growing number of holdings from numerous libraries. It would also be interesting to more aggressively explore the ways in which such data might be used to best effect outside the catalogue.

I also see that OCLC are hoping to make the audio available in podcast form, which is good. Given the feedback we’ve been getting for our own Talking with Talis podcasts, I’d certainly suggest that the podcast format does lend itself well as a further tool amongst the set of possibilities for getting ideas into circulation. Events like this, where genuinely good ideas seem to be prevalent, must surely be worth getting out to a wider audience?

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Web 2.0 hits the mainstream – and demonstrates a bigger picture in need of painting

RSS in Sainsburys photographed by Ian Dolphin

Ian Dolphin, Head of e-Strategy at the University of Hull, just sent me this image which struck me as worth sharing (click to enlarge).

The picture was captured on his camera phone, whilst standing in a local supermarket where the monitor above the checkout was rebooting.

Note the minimised application in the lower left. Are Sainsbury’s really using RSS to push adverts and other announcements to their screens? Can I get them to show my chosen feeds, to make the chunk of my life spent in such queues more productive, or is it just another way to show me more stuff I don’t want to see?

A good example, surely, of Web 2.0 notions reaching out into the mainstream. I’m not sure why it surprises me more to see RSS in a supermarket than in a library (especially given some of the things my brother, the retail insider, tells me are coming), but it does.

It’s uses such as this, or pushing personalised information about a book’s availability, where RSS is really going to make its mark. For all the size of the blogosphere, RSS as a mechanism for merely disseminating a stream of blog posts is only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

Take an RSS-driven application in a shop. Take an RFID tagged item of shopping in your basket or trolley. Add the two together, along with a little data off the store loyalty card in your pocket. Mix, and have the screen remind you that the last time you bought that product, you also bought a bottle of Chardonnay, and it’s on offer at the moment one aisle to your left. And because it’s all built on open standards, the same application can target your phone, your computer, and more.

Like so much around technology, some of the possibilities look wonderful, many good, and others more than a little disturbing. I wonder if the retail sector debates these things with quite the intensity we appear to manage, or whether they just do them, and see what works?

It is probably best not to ponder, too carefully, the section of the shop in which Ian found himself standing…

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Designing an OPAC for Web 2.0

I just watched the Flash movie of Casey Bisson‘s ALA Midwinter presentation, Designing an OPAC for Web 2.0.

I could only see the slides, so don’t know what was actually said. The slide content, though, seemed spot on to me.

Permalinks in Deep Web repositories, such as OPACs? Yes please! (and something Prism does do, although it’s possibly not obvious that it’s doing it)

“The patron who searches an OPAC has made a very conscious decision to do so in a world where users rarely make such decisions”

Right. So reward the user who has made such a decision, by giving them a rich and assistive experience (Plymouth State, where Casey works, would appear to be moving actively in this direction, given some of Casey’s screen shots). And get the existence of the OPAC and its content out of the library ghetto in which it sits, to give all those who haven’t made the decision yet an opportunity to do so. Some of them don’t know you’re there, so help them. Some of them think your system is horrible, unusable, incomprehensible, and only prepared to speak to them in Dewey, so prove them wrong. Or prove them right, but that hardly seems a useful step forward.

“The biggest mistake we make is to think we’re competing with the internet”

Right again. And,

“We face high thresholds to development because our system architecture is not designed for ‘remixing’”

As a vendor, Talis recognises this too. We want current and potential users to be able to develop and add value to our products. This is part of the importance of Web 2.0 to our current and future direction, and we see initiatives such as the Talis Developer Network as vitally important in reaching out to developers, whether in partner or competitor companies, as ‘superpatrons‘, or elsewhere, in order to make our products better, and to take them in directions that meet customers’/ users’ requirements in ways that a mainstream product improvement process possibly might not manage.

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Library 2.0, and what not to do on panels

Guy Kawasaki, Technology Evangelist number 1, writes in a post to his new and (so far) extremely interesting blog;

“Never say, ‘I agree with (name of previous panelist).’”

Good advice, to be sure, and I’d normally agree with him.

Despite that, my immediate thought on reading Stephen Abram’s latest post is simply;

“I agree with (name of previous panelist) Stephen.”

Sorry, Guy. I promise to behave like a good evangelist from now on. And thanks, Stephen.

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