Thursday, 20 May 2010

Space balloons, mash and bubble blowers

It's pretty cool making interfaces and web-gizmos - but there's no denying that it's much cooler to build actual physical stuff that works. Last week a few of us from the UL went up to Liver and Mash, a Mashed Libraries event at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool. The first thing that caught my eye was a little machine in the corner which intermittently blew clouds of bubbles into the room. It transpired that the bubble blowing was triggered by people tweeting about the event, and the contraption was powered by something called Arduino.

Back in Cambridge, I read this O'Reilly Radar post by Dale Dougherty about people who send balloons into space, build strange robots, make machines which let you examine your own dna (and so on) using lollipop sticks and rubber bands. Well not quite, but the main thread of the post is that innovation is driven by imagination as well as money (indeed lack of money can be a driver of innovation), and that there are emerging technologies which allow you to achieve a great deal at minimal cost.

Mashed Libraries events are all about innovation. Part of a packed and inspiring programme (including a great talk by Arcadia Fellow Tony Hirst) was a presentation by Adrian McEwen on Arduino (part of the technology behind the space balloon project). Arduino is "an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software ... intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments". Essentially an easy, open and cheap way of communicating between software and hardware.

Academic libraries have a big investment in the virtual and the physical. Users discover physical resources on the web, discover virtual resources by asking librarians and colleagues, order up books online and read them in the bath, and sit in the library reading ebooks and ejournals.

For all our (valuable) work on the connections between web interfaces and databases, it's easy to forget that libraries are full of hardware - catalogue machines, self-issue terminals, photocopiers, entrance and exit gates, informations screens, lifts, lights, coffee machines. And increasingly our users carry a powerful arsenal of personal hardware around with them -smartphones being just one example. Could technologies like Arduino and standards such as HTML5 join up the physical and the virtual for our users in new and exciting ways?

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Mobile University

Last Thursday I attended the Eduserv 2010 Symposium on the Mobile University, an excellent event, well organised, with a good mix of interesting speakers, delicious lunch and sensational cheeseboard. There was an impressive array of cameras, leads, mics in evidence (the event was streamed live) and I see that slides and videos are now available. If you watch nothing else, please try to see Paul Golding's opening keynote for some staggering stats (59 countries have more active mobile accounts than people) and scary/exciting predictions on augmented reality.

Just before I left to catch a train to Mashed Libraries Liverpool (completely different, equally excellent - no cheeseboard, lovely bacon butties) there were a series of short talks from universities who had already made some progress on the mobile front. Among them Edinburgh, who presented a short survey covering what gadgets and gizmos their students own, and also what they expect to be able to do with them (thanks to Laura James for the reminder!)

Looking at the list of expectations, one thing which struck me (again) is that users don't see boundaries between different parts of their academic life - they just want to go to one place (in this case their phone) and do everything. This kind of developing across institutional boundaries is something we're working towards, particularly with projects such as the JISC funded UL/CARET project CULwidgets.

Last spring, Arcadia's own Keren Mills produced a Cambridge-based study of mobile use and student expectations, in which she says "people are currently more positive about accessing information via SMS than via the mobile internet, although iPhones and iPhone like smart phones may change that". And looking at Edinburgh's survey, it seems that a year is a long time in mobile phone-land. It would be interesting to repeat Keren's survey now and compare figures.

Paul Golding points to a number of drivers which are pushing the smartphone, touch-based, mobile internet world (chief among them being more data-friendly tariffs), and to a dramatic shift in the use of mobile technologies - essentially, a smartphone isn't just a new kind of mobile phone - it's a completely different beast. We are not talking about replacing like with nearly-like.

The consensus seems to be that in c. 3 years the majority of students will have smartphones and expect to be able to come to university and use them. And, for universities, the trick seems to be to get started now. Even if you get it wrong, you'll be engaging and learning in an area where you might soon have to be an expert.

Which is what we're doing at the UL with CamLib the Cambridge Libraries Mobile Interface. It's been out in Beta for a few weeks now and use is starting to pick up. Meanwhile, we're analysing Google Analytics stats and user feedback to see where we're going right and where we're going wrong. But in a sense just being involved is getting it right - staking a claim in what's likely to be a very important new territory.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Library of Congress to drink from Twitter firehose

When he was in Cambridge to give the second Arcadia Lecture recently, Dan Cohen mentioned that Twitter had agreed to give the Library of Congress its archive of tweets. Here's the NYT report of that decision.

“Twitter is tens of millions of active users. There is no archive with tens of millions of diaries,” said Daniel J. Cohen, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and co-author of a 2006 book, “Digital History.” What’s more, he said, “Twitter is of the moment; it’s where people are the most honest.”

Last month, Twitter announced that it would donate its archive of public messages to the Library of Congress, and supply it with continuous updates.

Several historians said the bequest had tremendous potential. “My initial reaction was, ‘When you look at it Tweet by Tweet, it looks like junk,’ said Amy Murrell Taylor, an associate professor of history at the State University of New York, Albany. “But it could be really valuable if looked through collectively.”

Ms. Taylor is working on a book about slave runaways during the Civil War; the project involves mountains of paper documents. “I don’t have a search engine to sift through it,” she said.

The Twitter archive, which was “born digital,” as archivists say, will be easily searchable by machine — unlike family letters and diaries gathering dust in attics.

As a written record, Tweets are very close to the originating thoughts. “Most of our sources are written after the fact, mediated by memory — sometimes false memory,” Ms. Taylor said. “And newspapers are mediated by editors. Tweets take you right into the moment in a way that no other sources do. That’s what is so exciting.”

Twitter messages preserve witness accounts of an extraordinary variety of events all over the planet. “In the past, some people were able on site to write about, or sketch, as a witness to an event like the hanging of John Brown,” said William G. Thomas III, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “But that’s a very rare, exceptional historical record.”

Ten billion Twitter messages take up little storage space: about five terabytes of data. (A two-terabyte hard drive can be found for less than $150.)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Mobile interface for Cambridge Libraries

Today sees the Beta launch of Camlib, a mobile interface for Cambridge libraries. It has been tested with iPhone, iPod Touch and Android devices (revision: apparently it's also working on Opera Mini browser on Blackberry).

Link to interface:
Link to info:

Much of the new functionality is linked to log-in - those without a Cambridge Library account can log in with our test user (using library barcode login):

Surname: BLOGGS

[NB please use Mr Bloggs to explore CamLib, but refrain, if possible, from making any requests under his name ...]

CamLib is developed from the Cambridge Libraries Widget, with extra functionality and lots of bells and whistles thrown in. It's written in jQTouch, a JQuery library which gives the look and feel of a native app in a web interface.

We thought long and hard about what people were likely to want out of a mobile library interface, and came up with Bookbag, a new piece of functionality which allows you to build a list of items from your searches then email it to yourself (or anyone else for that matter). Viewing content on a smartphone can be difficult, and nobody wants to be copying classmarks from phone to paper - BookBag allows you to discover now, and consume at your leisure.

CamLib also links out to full text and Google Books (where available), though we can do nothing about the mobile-friendliness (or otherwise) of external sites. It will link out to Google Maps (or a floorplan in the case of the University Library) to help you locate items. On iPhone/iPod Touch there is a neat tie-in with the inbuilt mapping functionality which allows you to use the Directions button to find out how long it will take to walk to your book! (untested on Android)

Otherwise, it does everything the widget does - view and renew loans - place, view and cancel requests - view library profile etc.

CamLib builds on the ideas, work and concepts that have emerged from the Arcadia Project - indeed, a mobile interface was one of Arcadia Fellow Tony Hirst's direct recommendations. In this sense it still counts as an "Arcadia Product", even though the project is now being funded by JISC!