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Saturday, November 19, 2005

John Battelle discusses "building a better [Web2.0] boom", and why "Libraries Matter"

Cracking article by John, which discusses why Web2.0 ain't no flash in the pan.

This is a good read for those who still struggling to understand Talis's research investment in Web2.0 and the Talis Platform over the last 18months. Bottom line for me is that the philosophies of Web2.0 are so closely aligned to the philosophies of libraries - community, social networks, content, information, standards, openness, participation, innovation, sharing.

Why does that matter? Well, I've worked for/with various software vendors, and its always been the same. You have some librarians who "believe in libraries", and a mix of others who (and I hope this isn't harsh) don't just quite "get it". They may passionate about their job, but its rare they are as passionate about libraries.

After this week's Talis conference, it hit me. We've changed. We're different. Staff across the company are becoming believers too, and as a librarian that excites me so much more. I think its because for the first time we have a "technology" in Web2.0 which is as philosophical as it is technical. Developers can't just develop - they have to believe in the principles of Web2.0. And these principles are the very foundations of what it means to be a librarian. Suddenly they do "get it" - and this results in a re-evaluation of libraries, our profession and our social responsibility.

At the conference, you could feel the attendees struggling to understand the shift in attitude and belief - its such a fundamental change for a library vendor. I think the problem is that the ideas are so new and the philosophy in such stark contrast to how traditional vendors act. For us, it's been an 18month journey and we've had time to take a close look at ourselves and our business and what it actually MEANS to be a library/information vendor. What is a dramatic change externally, is now a way of life, of talking, of doing, of belief, for the staff.

A theme for the conference was "Libraries matter", and there were some of those plastic bracelets with this embossed on in the delegate packs. The cynical would see that as marketing speil. It's not. Its a message that's steadily infusing the company. Why do I say this? Well, taking an isolated example, when I went for drinks with a few of the developers this week, every one of them was still wearing their bracelet proudly. Not because they had to. Not becuase they were too lazy to take them off (I'm hoping!). But because they wanted to. Because for them, like for me, libraries matter.

Friday, November 18, 2005

3D Interaction for the future?

This post starts about the current "gaming console" wars but don't give up yet - this may have relevance for you!

For those that don't know, Sony (PS3), Microsoft (360) and Nintendo (Revolution) are all gearing up over the next 6 months to release their next generation consoles. Now, Sony/Microsoft have taken the traditional upgrade route - we've got x-trillion terraflopsicles of power, graphics that look so real you'll cry, etc. Nintendo, however, have taken a different approach. The processing power is upp'ed a bit, but the revolution is in the hardware used to interact with the console/your TV. Go and take a quick look here...

So, it looks like a remote. So what? Well, firstly, this is about trying to extend the platform to non-gamers, the grail of console manufacturers. A remote is familiar. But that's not what excites me. Did you play the video from that link? If not, or if you can't, let me explain. The controller works within 3D space, similar to the gyroscope technology that you see in some computer mice. By tilting, rotating, flicking, moving forward/back, you interact with your TV. And its only really when you see it in action, you get it. Remember that bit with Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" when he's shifting information projected in front of him - this is like that, but you're interacting with the image on your TV within the full space that surrounds your body. The demo has people fishing (hand behind head, arcing forward to cast, twitching to get a bite, and pulling it back to reel that fish in), conducting music, using the remote as a virtual torch, zapping bugs, as a base ball bat (full swing!) or golf club (likewise!).

Suddenly, the actions you make in the real world are directly translated to the actions you're taking on the screen. Not only does this destroy the barrier to entry (if you - or parent, or grandparent - can perform the action physically, its going to allow you to perform it "in game") but it suddenly offers a fundamentally new model to all interactions with moving media. With the coming of digital TV and the revolutionary broadband services this promises, how we interact with this has possibly been challenged. With a flick of the wrist, you change channel, or turn the page in teletext, or go from browser to DVD player. Draw a circle in the air to circle your choice on the screen, stab forward to select. As I start considering the potential for this, I do wonder if we are seeing the first steps of moving away from buttons, and mice, and remotes, to a place where we interact with our TV or PC merely by waving a hand, or flicking a finger. And the change in interaction will open up many new and unimagined services/products that it will be possible to deliver in this coming digital age.

Maybe its just me. I read about this and thought "so?". I watched the video of people using this and thought "oooo". I think Nintendo may not just be starting a revolution in gaming. I think they may be starting a revolution across the entire user interaction experience with all media forms. Guess time will tell, but I'm more than willing to wait...

Sunday, November 06, 2005

You won't find heavy metal using "dobly"...

A line that struck me when reading Dave Green's "Need To Know" (for those that don't, its an off-the-wall look at "that thar interweb", which occasionally offers something to make you sit up and feel very scared about our world!). Anyhow, Dave was commenting on some silly Google search misspellings (those that result in the "did you mean this?") and rounded it of with "you won't find heavy metal using 'dobly' ".

Now, for those with a rich knowledge of classic films, "dobly" comes from Spinal Tap, and is one of those all time funny moments from film that you either "were there for, or weren't" - basically rocker girlfriend mistakes "dobly" for "dolby" (noise reduction method on tapes) - its a lot funnier in context!

Got me thinking - why shouldn't I be able to enter "dobly" and get Spinal Tap back as my first hit? Why does Google tell me "Did you mean dolby" and bring me back lots of hi-fi sites? I know perfectly well what I meant, I meant "dobly" and I want a button so I can tell Google that I typed it right and to got get me some stuff about Spinal Tap.

This is indirectly about, you've guessed it, folksonomies again. Within the right community of shared knowledge, "dobly" is a valid word. In fact, it is more than a word - it is a shared experience, a moment in time, an emotional response, an example of stereotyped "rock chicks". In fact, not just "rock chicks" - I'd define it as "a moment when someone tries to join in a conversation with a group who have shared domain knowledge, and gets a word o-so slightly wrong and is relegated back to the group fringe". Its liking saying Phewey classification, instead of Dewey, to a gaggle of librarians.

The Oxford English Dictionary may not recognise it. Google may not either. But I do, and so does the entire community of Spinal Tap watchers. Which slices across all professions, sexes, races and ages. This is a PRIME example of why there is so much value in letting communities tag their content, against having "those on high" telling the community what terms they can and cannot use.

It's about time our profession started buying into this with the same passion we show for controlled and authorised headings. There is a lot of value we can add, in slicing and splicing these search tags and encouraging this "uncontrolled" practice. There may not be a place for "dobly" in the Library of Congress Subject Headings, but there is an equally important place for it within our domain. And, more importantly, in the domain of our customers and users...

Saturday, October 22, 2005

How to build software

Whilst playing poker against my girlfriend last night, and consuming the odd Jack Daniels or three, she told me a story. Now I'm going to tell it you...

"Once upon a time, there was a very rich man. He gave two builders a million pounds each, and told them to build the perfect house and they had 6 months to do it. The builders went away, and time passed.

Later that year, the rich man returned and said to the builders, "Have you each built me my perfect house?" to which they both replied "Why don't you come and see?"

The rich man went to the first house and it looked magnificent. Massive oak doors throughout, marble on every floor, long sweeping staircases, towers and spires stretching towards the sky, more rooms than Buckingham Palace, swimming pools, gadgets and gizmos - stunning! The rich man nodded, and said to the second builder, "I'd like to see the house you built".

The second builder took the rich man down the road, to a far smaller house. It didn't have as many rooms and hardly any stairs. It had no marble floors or oak doors, nor swimming pools. The rich man nodded. He turned to the first builder. "My", he said, "Your house certainly looks the most perfect house ever. As payment, I'll let you keep that house." The first builder went away, to tell his wife to start packing.

The rich man turned to the second builder, and paid him for his time and effort. The second builder, looking downcast, thanked the rich man and turned to leave. The rich man reached out a hand to stop him. "Why do you look so downcast?" he asked.

"I've been a builder for 25 years, sir", the second builder said, "man and boy. Each part of that house was lovingly built by craftsmen I know and trust. They worked hard to ensure everything that one built fitted with what the next built, be that a window in a wall, or a handle on a door. I spent time with you, sir, finding out about what you liked and didn't, what you wanted and what you actually needed. Everything in that house works perfectly, will last a lifetime, and is everything that you asked for. So I'm very sad that I lost, sir."

"Lost?" said the rich man, "Lost? But you won my friend! I'm moving in tomorrow. This house is exactly what I needed." The first builder was confused. "So why did you give the other builder the house as payment?"

"Well", the rich man, "I don't like marble, and I can't swim. With just me and my wife, I don't need all those rooms! And nothing seemed to fit with anything else, either physically or in look. I turned the hot tap on, and cold water came out. I turned the TV on, and the lights went out. He can have it - it doesn't join together, the foundations look shoddy, the architecture is a mess and the basic utilities don't work. He obviously never tested them - it will cost a fortune to rewire. And another fortune for me to change the decor to what I want. And we'd never use the first floor, let alone those towers, with all those stairs - you know my wife suffers with her hip. Within a year, that house will have cost so much to maintain, and have so many patches all over it, he'll never be able to sell it. No, it is you I must thank sir, for you have built me exactly what I needed, and everything I wanted. This is my perfect house. I'll be recommending you to all of my friends!"

The second builder felt the warm rush of pleasure in a job well done. He shook the rich mans hand, thanked him politely, got into his van and drove happily towards the setting sun."

I've spent years learning about analysis, designing and building software, testing, selling, project management - trying to become a better professional. Turns out my girlfriend knew about it all along. And she learnt it in Sunday school. Still, I did win at poker...

Friday, October 21, 2005

E-Learning 2.0

This article on E-Learning 2.0 (read Web2.0), again by Stephen Downes, is another gem. I'm not going to write about my thoughts for once, but just pick out a few sentences which struck a real chord with me.

"Sharing content is not considered unethical; indeed, the hoarding of content is viewed as antisocial. And open content is viewed not merely as nice to have but essential for the creation of the...learning network"

"In a nutshell, what was happening was that the Web was shifting from being a medium, in which information was transmitted and consumed, into being a platform, in which content was created, shared, remixed, repurposed, and passed along."

"For all this technology, what is important to recognize is that the emergence of the Web 2.0 is not a technological revolution, it is a social revolution."

"The e-learning application, therefore, begins to look very much like a blogging tool. It represents one node in a web of content, connected to other nodes and content creation services used by other students. It becomes, not an institutional or corporate application, but a personal learning center, where content is reused and remixed according to the student's own needs and interests. It becomes, indeed, not a single application, but a collection of interoperating applications—an environment rather than a system."

If you've reached this point, I hope your next step is clicking that link and reading the article. If not, you're probably on the wrong "social network". Still, lets part as friends, eh...

Joining together Semantic Networks and Social Networks

I've just read this article by Downes called "Semantic Networks and Social Networks". There's an academic slant to it, but that's no bad thing as he manages to compress into very few words so many areas of discussion pertinent to our domain that I don't really know where to start. Lets say he covers nodes, community, indduals, semantic web, Tim Berners-Lee, RDF, ontologies, XML. Learning Objects, DOI's, RSS, DC, Creative Commons, Taxonomy, identity2.0 (this presentation by Dick Hardt has been doing the rounds at Talis recently - if you want to pass 15 mins in awe, check it out), FOAF, authentication, Clay Shirkey...you get my drift.

The overall thrust of the article is that semantic networks and social networks have developed on the web in isolation, and these need to be more explicitly linked in what he terms the SNN (Semantic Social Network). This is about, bottom line, relating personal information and resource information in more formalised, structured way.

I've not considered this yet, so don't have much meaningful to add. My first impression is that Talis are very focussed on content (i.e. resource) description, but people like Ian Davies are now adding this layer of identity to our debate. Indeed, authentication and authorisation has been part of the library debate for a while - we're just no closer to solving the real problems these create. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in bringing the social network (people) and semantic (resources) into a tighter mesh. I touched on this when I was talking about folksonomies, and globalisation, where I discussed belonging to different "villages".

I feel its time I started to widen my thinking.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Goggle tagging...

Interesting one this, along the old folksonomy philosophy. Using the Google Search History (now termed "Personalised Search" I think), you can add tags/comments to pages you visit. Consider this in the future, if they take a del.icio.us approach and start sharing this, we have a the makings of powerful folksonomy of the web. If enough people buy into the idea...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Less is more...

A combination of holidays (why, thanks for asking, they were very nice) and work has meant I've been a bit quiet recently. Anyhow, picked this up from O'Reilly, which also hit the radar of one of my colleagues (Ian Davies) who was fortunate enough to actually be part of the discussion. Either link will fill you in...

It's one of those things you read and find yourself nodding in agreement. None of it was "new" in my book, but it is refreshing and concise. Couple of things I'd like to add:

Documentation: I've been working on a documentation strategy for describing our platform recently, and the analyst team have been putting a lot of work into becoming far more agile in our specification approach. So I take issue with some of the comments regarding avoiding investing in a business plan and, especially, the comment "Build things, don't talk about building them. Don't write specs that will be outdated and totally unrelated to your final product. Don't create the technology and then slap a UI on it -- instead build the UI first, iterate and learn from your mistakes. Then, once the UI is done, put the actual technology behind it. Let the UI screens be the specification for your technology."

You need to document at high level - to strengthen understanding (it reinforces the thought process), to communicate, to scope, to build. The key thing is minimum documentation (yeah, yeah, all part of the agile principles). Its about documenting just enough and moving on when you're not adding value. This applies to the early business planning, business requirements, market requirements, project docs, vision/scope, etc, and equally applies to your functional specification. I wouldn't build the UI first, I'd storyboard first. May do a bit of work nailing down the customer problems and goals. Couple of use cases or scenarios may help, or they may not. Diving straight into the UI is going to get you a whole lot of grief. However, the sentiment is right. Do just enough work/documentation to understand, then "just do it"!!! The key problem is knowing when you've done "just enough" and that comes primarily from experience.

Features: I'm so with this. Less is definitely more. Just look at the i-pod. It was such a success over far more "feature rich" mp3 players because every feature added value to the user and let them achieve their immediate goal efficiently. There are no features to distract or create noise. Mobile phones are another one here. I use about 5% of the features on my phone. There are probably another 5% which would be really useful to me. But the feature noise is so high, this deters me from making the investment because "it makes me feel stupid". And I'm a techno-freak! Cooper has some wonderful stuff on this in his 'running the asylum' book.

I left libraries and moved to Talis for many reasons - one key one was that I wanted to make a difference to the lives of users, and the way the public sector works just doesn't encourage this (too much red tape!). Skywalk (the library instance of our Web2.0 platform - more at the Talis Insight conference) is going to be a wonderful tool to realise my goal - which is to realise the goals of all the institutions and their users who consume the web services we offer. What is going to be key is finding those key features which will make that difference to peoples lives and exposing these first/now, rather than delivering 101 features en masse a year from now when all those goals have changed. Less features = less noise = more value.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Web 2.0 and Globalisation

I’ve just been reading this excellent article on Web2.0 and globalisation. I guess I feel it is excellent for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a great primer and well structured argument. Secondly, because it reflects some of the deeper thinking, and practical applications, I’ve been applying to my considerations of folksonomies. Reflecting on some of Danah’s arguments in relation to folksonomy, I’ve realised that I also don’t want to be part of a global village. I want to be part of my village. And the boundaries for my village change, depending on where I want to live, or what “hat” (i.e. who I am) I am wearing today. When considering folksonomies for bibliographic material, it’s essential to me that I can splice my folksonomy many ways, and for this to be considered by the system depending on my “hat”. I could be in a village of one (sigh), a village of my friends or social circle, of my work colleagues, of my book club, of a geographic boundary, of a subject boundary or (indeed) as part of the global village. The creation of the folksonomy should be sensitive to these boundaries and amalgamate the tags accordingly – indeed, I may want to tag differently when in one village to another because the word’s semantics have different meanings depending on context.

I’m not sure I’m getting this across to people how I want at the moment (I get excited, they just nod). In my mind, I see wonderful complex interactions, layers of intermeshed content relevant to my context – more importantly, relevant to my goals. It could be because there are too many connections I’ve made to get me to the point I’m at. It could be that I’m saying the absolutely obvious. It may be that I tend to see things as “what meets/benefits the user goals”, over “can we do this” or “how do we do this”. I’m going to step back from this over the next month, and walk the paths again, and map the journey.

My last words will be Danahs, as she words it so much better: “The complex relationship between personal, local collectives, and global must all be modeled in glocalized networks for Web2.0 to work. We need to break out of the global village model, the universal "truth" approach to information access. We need to situate information access in glocalized culture. Folksonomy is emerging as a dance between the individual and the collective; remix occurs as individual and collective responses to the global. They are forms of organizing and situating global information in a glocalized fashion.“

Monday, August 29, 2005

Folksonomies fascinate me

Folksonomies fascinate me, in no small part because they are a direct response to a failing of our profession which has irritated me since library school days – the failure to consider the user above all else. I’ve been trying to dig out an old letter I wrote to some journal when I argued this case, providing a suggested hierarchy to utilise for professional decisions (can’t remember the full thrust of it now but was along lines of user first, then the info, then the library, then the librarian, etc – sure I’ve posted this elsewhere, so apologies if repeating myself).
Anyhow, I do remember this thought originated from my “Cat(aloguing) & Class(ification)” lectures, where I despaired at the disproportionate effort we applied when balanced with the value the user received – we catalogued for ourselves, not for our users, and this broke my intuitive hierarchy. In my sweet innocence, I clearly saw our methods were fundamentally flawed and got very frustrated that many other students (and most librarians I’ve met since) didn’t see this. And then I gave up, and just accepted it (though still let myself have the odd grumble – just ask Terry Willan!)
I can frame this problem best in analysis terms. When embarking on a piece of analysis, a key step is determining the user classes/types that the software will serve. Wiegers definition of a user class is “A group of users for a system who have similar characteristics and requirements for the system”. If I was analysing the issuing of a book, several potential classes that spring to mind are “Library Assistants”, “Front Desk Manager”, “Librarian”, “Customer”, “System Administrator” and “Library Manager”. Already I’m thinking these may need to be merged (the first three may fall under this remit). Each class’s requirements will vary in terms of functional, non-functional and business, so I would prioritise user classes to understand where to focus my attentions. I may use personas to better help me understand their needs and direct development.
Who are the user classes for a classification scheme? At the highest level, I would say librarians and “ROTW”, being the “Rest Of The World”. The ROTW is very difficult to break into user classes (but techniques are available to do this) because of the vast scope for individuality – what one person calls “cinema”, the next calls “film” (as Clay Shirky puts it). There is no way a librarian could consider managing this in terms of classification - “I can’t satisfy everyone” so librarians take the easy path, and develop a system that meets their requirements. It’s up to ROTW to learn this, and accept that the librarian’s mental model doesn’t match its own.
Librarians were the gatekeepers to knowledge, so the ROTW marched to our tune because they had no choice. Now, however, with the information explosion, the ROTW is standing up and saying “look, this isn’t good enough – I want these terms, and he wants those terms, and she wants it to work like this and…”. Folksonomies are our users fighting back – each individual gets their own classification scheme for their own domain/world, and the ROTW gets a scheme by combining all these individual efforts. You don’t need to break out user classes, because they determine themselves when schemes are combined. You will find many of the terms you use match with those used by Mr X and Mrs Y. For your small section of the world, you will have a scheme that’s balanced to your needs.
As I said, folksonomies fascinate me. And as a librarian, I would say they meet my personal needs as an individual far better than anything librarians have provided for me. If librarians don’t start opening themselves up to this philosophy, don’t stop building walls to all this perceived chaos, we may find another finger slipping from the power we’ve gathered. And very soon, we’re going to drop…

Now thats what I call technology...

I’ve been lax with my I-pod recently (been indulging in the joys of Sky+), and had failed to update my I-tunes. As it’s the Bank Hols, thought I’d get it sorted and was pleased to see they have a new option for podcasts – and doubly pleased when I found IT Conversations on there. I subscribed to couple of feeds, and then became aware of a little tickling. I remember talking about podcasts on my blog a while back, and suddenly I had a part answer to the frustration I discussed.
Stick I-Tunes on my Sky+ box, and run a broadband connection into the back. I would have all my audio (podcasts and music mp3’s) as well as my TV programmes integrated into one box of pleasure. Hmmm, hold it, how would I rip mp3’s from my CD’s onto there? Might as well stick a CD drive in. But how to back those mp3’s up? RAID (maybe, but expensive). Might as well make it CD-write drive. No, better idea! A DVD-write drive. Then I’d be able to record my SKY+ programmes for “keepsies” easily (one of the few flaws of Sky+) and play DVD’s to. And with High Definition TV around the corner, I’ve got the perfect system. My entire mp3 music collection, DVD player, recorder, back-up device, CD Player, podcasting, high resolution, hi-fidelity box of technological dreams.
Now all I need is for Sony to integrate its PS3 into it, and I’m in gadget heaven!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Blogger for Microsoft Word

Bit of a relief this, considering my habit of poor spelling and a desire to guess how many words may need apostrophes, divide by two, and then liberally scatter - there's now a plug-in for Word, according to Mary Foley! I've just downloaded, and will be trying it on my next post...fingers crossed.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

MSN Filter

Just caught this post from Jo Foley about MSN Filter which "... appears to be a cross between a traditional Web log, where writers have full editorial control, and a wiki model, embracing user contributions." One interesting concept is the idea of paying core contributors who are area experts. This is probably one worth keeping an eye on!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Reversed folksonomy

Firstly, some background. A colleague/friend discussed their phd with me a while back, which was around images and how to catalogue them. The conclusion - as I got it - was the importance of determining the goals of the user accessing the image (at that instance in time) driving the cataloguers thought process when describing the image. Consider a picture of a bridge - the metadata about that bridge that is required, and the terms used to access it, vary greatly between an architect studying tensions, to a historian interested in who built it, to a child who wants "any old bridge" for a school project. I've thought a lot about this over the years, mainly from the perspective of how to profile the user searching in more innovative ways so the right images (or any type of information) are retrieved to meet the users current goal.

Folksonomies begin to solve one half of this problem - we have a range of users with different goals/views of some "content" each providing their own description from their viewpoint. In theory, if their viewpoint can be mapped to a user class, and other users are also known to be within that class, then we should be able to improve relevance of hits greatly. This falls down when you have a user who's doing some searching for their kids homework, but its still something I want to keep picking at as its an interesting diversion on these wet summer days.

But this ain't what I'm supposed to be posting about - this is!!! Go on, take a click!

Now, whats interesting about this site is that the folksonomy concept is back-to-front. "We provide the term, you provide the content" seems to be the philosophy. I like that! And it got me thinking - its something we can apply to the content in our OPACs just as easily. Put a word up each day, let users link works/records to it. It may take a long time, but eventually an interesting folksonomy would appear (its a bit like asking users to flag "books like this one").

But would it take a long time? I start thinking Bigfoot and Silkworm and the whole ethos of leveraging the network effect of libraries. Say each Talis library is provided a different word each day on their OPAC from a central store of, hmmmm, 50,000 words. Users could link whatever book or dvd or cd to that word they felt "matched". Next day, different word. Talis harvest this centrally. So, thats 100ish libraries, 364 days a year (go on, you can have xmas off!). Each word would have 7 different libraries, of many different user types, linking mutliple works/records to it. In a year, we have a complex folksonomy of all Talis library holdings. And, to a limited degree, these terms are "controlled".

Hmmm - think I'm now moving into "pie in the sky" stuff so I'll stop, and have a lie down. And maybe a beer...

Friday, July 22, 2005

Body network

O-kay. Now this just sort of leapt out at me, probably tracable to 10 years ago when I read The Great Mambo Chicken and The Transhuman Condition, and too much William Gibson - a personal wireless network powered by the human electrical field! And its "here next year"! Whether thats a Tomorrows World "next year"(i.e. never) or it will actually be, I just don't care. Still fascinating article. Still quite scary.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Blogs/forums in OPACS?

This is a facinating post about Ann Arbor District Library, who have integrated Blogs onto their OPACs homepage as a means of engaging with the library community, and gathering feedback on the services offered. Whats great, as The Shifted Librarian states, is the sheer volume of comments coming in. All the libraries I've worked at, we'd empty the cr*ppy box once a week, one comment slip would fall out, to find - well, the comment shouldn't be repeated here! But each post is getting 20+ comments, and they're really top notch stuff.

Libraries should be trying this over here, I think - I'm quite interested to find out if anyone has , or if people have some ideas on how Talis could help you on something like this. Drop me a comment if you've got something to say...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Microsoft moves office

Seems as if Microsoft are moving away from more proprietry formats for office docs, to XML. Key impact to this is it makes it far easier for "innovators" to get access to the data saved in Office files. Hmmm, wonder what Richard and all the other smart bods here can "make" out of this one!

Podcasting with a purpose

Podcasting, eh. Maybe its me, but little about this medium has so far struck me as being "innovative". Yeah, I can listen to radio programs I missed, and IT conversations is really useful, but nothing has yet made me go "ooo, thats an unusual idea". Until this - guided tours for places you're visiting! OK, its not groundbreaking but its a practical useful extension of the idea which I found myself wanting to use, to download something for the various hols destinations I have in mind, or National Trust properties I intend to visit. Obvious problem - no content. Sigh. Still, like the idea...

Extending this philosophy, there's a real buzz in Talis at the moment precisely because we are becoming far more innovative in the way we look at the world of emerging technology, and we're getting people in who can see how to exploit this view. Something I mentioned a while back which I got to play with, and has been shown at the Talis Research Days, plays up to this idea. Richard has been experimenting with Web Services, and created some really innovative ideas from...well, nothing. One service utilises googlemaps, and various Silkworm components (Access control, library directory) to create a service where the user can see on a map libraries by them, find details on these, and even search them. Another highlights ISBNs on any web page, uses FRBR to find related ISBNs, sticks some books jackets in and purchasing info and also lets you search your local library. And this is with any ISBN in any webpage.

There seem to be hundreds of these ideas knocking around at the moment and - once the Lyra workload lessens (first beta release this week of MARC21 Alto and Talis Base - woo hoo!) - I can't wait to start thinking far more deeply about these sort of things so we can start linking all this smart innovation to identified customer needs. And thats the crux - Web2.0 will provide us with the opportunity to develop innovative solutions both huge and tiny - and its going to be (partly!) down to the analysts working with our customers to find ways to use this innovation to make a real, direct and practical difference to everyones lives. Oooo, I can't wait ;-)

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Bible in Lego!

Yep, bit of a random post but thought I'd break the monotony. The Brick Testament can be looked at two ways - its either an astounding, fascinating achievement which will leave you gasping in wonderment at the meticulous detail OR it will leave you shaking your head, and wondering WHY, oh WHY! You decide.

Yahoo to offer Blog search engine?

Seems as if Yahoo may be ahead of Google on this one - check here. Will be interesting to see if this re-appears sometime soon...

Saturday, June 25, 2005

ProAm software development

I have been considering this article, which looks at the increasing prevailence of amateur software developers, and how they are demonstrating the ability to produce innovative software that consumers actually need, rather than want. Two examples I have is Irfanview (a picture viewer), and Terragen (a landscape terrain genenator - check out the images here, and just go "Oooooo" - then go to Luc's pages, and take a look at what he's doing with version 2. Don't worry...I'll wait...).

Firstly, my attitude to this software (recommend to everyone, at any opportunity) made me realise that building software that people need (or love!) drives its own success, regardless of how "fancy" or feature-filled it is. Because it solves a problem, becuase it makes my life easier or better, it doesn't require any marketing because I promote it. Lesson One: Build software that people need and it will likely be successful.

Secondly, development of successful ProAm software is heavily reliant on its user community to drive development. I was taught early in my career that software development functionality should be driven 80% by the users (of which 50% are those small, minor tweaks which can make such a massive difference to peoples interaction) and 20% by the developer, who often has a broader understanding of the marketplace and can anticipate functionality early on. Its interesting to see something like Terragen, where this model holds true, in comparison to many of the other "professional" software houses where the 80:20 becomes 20:80. At Talis, we certainly used to fall more heavily into the latter category, and I'm gratifyed to see a real drive currently to get "closer to our users". This is coming about in several ways - our more agile development approach which places the customer at the centre of the process, our ongoing overhaul of the enhancement/defect process, our internal review of customer relns processes, our forums and RSS feeds, etc. We're starting to reap some benefits from this already, and I can only see these growing. Lesson Two: Listen to your users, and build to meet their needs.

Thirdly, something I touched upon just then, is development method. ProAms are not weighed down by the cumbersome development practices which have grown up in the professional domain for a variety of reasons I haven't time to discuss. Which is where the more agile or XP methods come in; user-focused, delivery-focused, function-focused. To give an analysis example, in a 4 hour period recently and working with two product managers, we generated enough raw requirements (read "stories") to provide such a shared understanding of what we wanted to build, we could have started an agile development the very next day. And I didn't need to formalise these requirements any further, to cross-reference, and categorise, and model, and specifiy, and review, and get sign offs, and...you get the picture. I can do any of these things if it adds value, but now I ONLY do these things if it adds value. The process doesn't "make" me do this. Lesson Three: Drive the development process, and don't let it drive you.

Final Lesson: It can only be that you should give Irfanview a try, and go and have some fun with Terregen. And that lesson says it all ;-)

Friday, June 24, 2005

Illusions Part1: Wisdom and Knowledge

Gonna be a couple of posts here, hence Part 1. Just re-read Illusions, one of the books that made me question a lot of my personal philosophies about the world, and something I read every so often cuz I have a new perspective on the world as I grow older (thinking about it, there's a quote in there along the lines of "Who am I? Where am I going? What is my home? Think about these every so often, and watch your answers change". I guess that is one of the reasons why I have favourite books I read every so often - because I'm different, so is what it teaches me, what I enjoy about it, etc).

Anyhooo, one of the many lessons I took from this book was that wisdom and knowledge comes from any source at any time, and doesn't fall into the perscribed boundaries that "society" places upon it on what is worth listening to, and what isn't. You are as likely to find wisdom or personal philosophy in the words of Snoopy, as you are in any philosophical or "peer reviewed" text. I detest knowledge snobs, and the pretentions they hold - those that devalue anything because its source is not "valid" or "cool". Basically, if the knowledge or wisdom you find works for you - it adds value to your life or the lives of those around you - bollox to where it came from!

The same applies for choosing your teachers - learn from anyone who has a lesson for you - don't reject it out of hand because of that persons image, or social standing.

In the software development arena, these words apply as readily as in the world of shaping oneself as a person. I learnt more about management and how companies should (and shouldn't) work from, for example, reading Dilbert cartoons than I ever have from any management book I've read. I learnt more about team management and customer service from a manager I worked for as a student temp in an off licence, as I have from anyone in any library or company I've worked at since (and I've been fortunate in my professional career to work with some outstanding people).

Don't get me wrong - I recognise that I am more likely to learn and grow from what society deems to be the "right" sources. BUT that doesn't mean you should ever pre-judge any knowledge or wisdom you recieve because of its source. Open your eyes and ears to all, and assess everything you gather on its own value rather than from where, or who, or how you encounter it!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Writing better Blogs

Just skimmed this article written by a journalist on good writing techniques for blogging. A lot of value in here!

Sunday, June 19, 2005

What is the best?

Last night, was talking to a friend about the PS3 and PSP and he mentioned a BBC post talking about the upcoming "console" wars between Playstation, XBox and Nintendo. He said they had proposed question along the lines of "Which one will be the best?" to which all those posturing fools who have bought into a brand start pushing and shoving (about something not even here yet!). I made the point that the debate was pointless, as its more about "what is the best to meet my needs?" I've had the same debate about console vs PC (PC diehards argue wouldn't touch a console, whilst I say just get both as different hardware meets different requirements I may have).

Interestingly, Chris at Lockergnome published this today which makes a similar point, this time about the OS debate. I found the definition of best to be particularly interesting from a business perspective, and the recognition of "the right software for the right user at the right time" interesting from the analyst view. As he concludes, the question "What's the best automobile?" is nonsense - really, the question is "What is the right automobile for you, at this point of time in your life". The point of this post - know your users requirements. Oh, and to consider the defintion of "best" from time to time to!

RSS moves a step further

Followup on my previous post "6 billion different 'casts", came across this on Lockergnome, which points to this article. It talks about tackling this problem of information overload from so much RSS content, to create an automatic "content management and filtering engine for the creation of new content feeds". This is partly what I meant when I was talking about podcasts, and also touches on the philosophy of the Bigfoot project we are visioning currently. Interesting times...

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Useful firefox extension?

Stumbled, in my usual erratic way, on this today - a firefox extension to support the semantic web. I knwo Richard has been working with another (i think) firefox extension which he's showing me later. Wondering if we could use this in any new/cool ways?

Too much noise?

This just caught my attention - IBM employees and their love for BLOGS! Initial thoughts:

- too much noise - how do you cope with all those people shouting their thoughts into the internal ether, and how do you streamline it so you only hear the voices of worth? And even once you've found the right voices, how do you get the right posts? I had very minor dabble at setting keywords up in Sharp Reader, but just far to adhoc. Folksonomy, anyone? Please?

- The fact that people are finding practical uses for Blogs, such as informally communicating on project dev/status (I raised this the other day at work - as our dev process gets more agile, I feel this would fit alongside our more formal project metrics far better. Maybe I'll try it soon, if find a suitablely discrete project)

- Adding business value. All internal Blogs need to add this (well, all employees need to add this - we need to be questioning and assessing our actions every minute!). Does my blog add value to the business, or to the domain? I don't know - I guess the way to find out is to just keep posting. the one thing I find it does do is add value to me, in the way I now have an outlet for "my stream of thought" I never had before, and I get satisfacton from utilising this. And if this makes me work better or happier, all the better.

Monday, June 13, 2005

A new friend!

No, I'm not showing off here - I do have friends. However, this weekend I met my girlfriends friends boyfriend (that make sense?) - a top bloke who works for a major games developer. On the serious side, it was fascinating to find out a bit more about the development approach they take, particularly in terms of specification. This seems to be a single, long spec (100's of pages) rather than a set of more discrete requirements. I'd expected something far more "agile" and less formalised but talking to Rob at work he made the valid point that the level of accountability is such with games manufacture that this formal approach to specification becomes a necessity. I need to confirm this, and hope to get the chance to (I hope didn't make too much of a prat of myself and get an invite back, especially as he has a wall projector - Star Wars Lego just ROCKED!). Long term aim - to maybe get a look at one of their older specs, to meet some of their developers, even to get opportunity to get some of their lot and my lot together to compare notes on dev practice. Don't know how feasible that will be, but we'll see...

On a more "non-professional" approach, got the chance to play with some new gadgets, including the Playstation Portable (PSP). OH MY GOD - I WANT ONE! This is a serious marvel, the screen being the biggest shock with its incredible detail/clarity and no-messing size. But being able to drop movies and pics and mp3s on there just makes it better. Also got chance to look at the Nintendo DS. I'm not a big fan of Nintendo, as find the games childish, but I love gameplay/originaility and this is something this had in spades. But the thing that stood out was the stylus. Just like EyeToy, this provides a unique way of interacting with games which is excellent both in conception, and in implementation. This whole area was one of my "pet projects" at work, which may get realised one day - trying to find new ways to interact with a library catalogue both in terms of physical manipulation (eyetoy, joypad, etc) and creating a UI to facilitate that (I'm also interested in visual representation of metadata - like Touchgraph or MusicPlasma. Oh, and getting somethign like the PSP to interface with our library catalogue - not sure why yet, but leave me pondering that). Finally, the b*st*rd was at E3 for the Playstation3 launch. I've checked some of the videos out now - and reviewed some of the stats that I understood - and this is a teriffyingly powerful piece of kit. Roll on Spring 2006...

Friday, June 10, 2005

Making time for learning applications...

I stumbled across this post a while back, and having just re-read it, I've had a bit of deja vu. Both then and now, my initial reaction was of acceptance and a knowing nod. I've both said "i haven't got time for that" (excel is my flaw - and I'm really trying to address this) (though in part this is from getting Crystal Reports which I know fairly well and pointing it at my spreadsheets) (ok, ok, I'm a fraud!) and had people approach me because I've been seen "playing" with some app which I others can't find the time to invest to learn and want me to pass my knowledge over asap.

Then, both then and now, my little "oh-oh" rings. You see, I spent a bit of time recently touching on interaction design, and Coopers excellent "The Inmates are running the Asylum". And this post is a prime example of the unbelievable arrogance of all those programmers and geeks and IT spods (which I do fall into on occasion, then have to kick myself) who love the challange of learning, or the cognitive friction. Cooper separates them as "apologists" - those who point to the power/functionality of an application, blithely ignoring the difficulity of actually using it - and the "survivalists", the ones that know there is something terribly wrong with the applications they use, that a problem exists. Survivalists know what easy is, know what hard is, and know full well that interacting with computers is hard.

So, this is just a reminder to me - to challange what I read, even when recommended from a good source. And to develop software that meeets the users needs, accurately, with the minimum cognitive friction possible. I want users who use software I analyse to turn round and say "its easy to use", "its intuitive", "it does all I want and no more", "it works out what I want to do, and just does it". And I'll be doing just this on a new "project" which more will be said of soon...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

All hail the mighty JCB song

You've just got to love this song, for the whole joyous warm fuzziness it imparts. And the video is just divine (download or stream on the left hand side of the page)

Go and buy, I say! Now...run you fool!

PS: Nice site as well

Censorship - bah!

Just picked this up about China removing unregistered websites. Made me go grrrr....

Friday, June 03, 2005

Valuing the analyst role - first convert!

Was having some beers the other week with a good friend, Hairy Dave. Being hairy, he is one of natures programmers born and bred. Anyhow, having been a librarian who's now converted into an analyst, I have over recent years moved from a position of "Hairy Dave's talking gibberish with long strange words" to being able to hold a fiarly reasonable conversation with him regarding IT. Over recent months, as I have actively tried to develop myself, we've began talking about methodolgies and process generally, and analysis specifically.

You see, as a programmer, Dave is fearful (read "can't see the point) of analyists. He was very much a "just code something". Now, it was excellent, clever code cuz he's a VERY clever man but at no point did the user get involved. They had one user rep at the time, a programmer who developed their system x years ago, and he was too busy to give them more than "it needs to do that" - despite the fact that knowledge was now out of date. Dave used to go on about all the probs they'd created, or solutions they provided which turned out didn't match any problem the users actually had, and I'd expound about analysis, talking to the users, understanding their process, etc. He'd politely nod, quaff more ale, and so the evening would progress with increasing amounts of arm waving.

This weekend, we had a breakthrough. Dave's just started working for a new company and he was instructed to go and talk to the users "for an hour" to find out what they wanted. It sounded to me a bit like "we need to tick that off the project plan, so we can move to coding". Now I've been passing Dave on various useful sites recently, like agile modelling. He even sent me one, for Joel (which I'd read and loved - particularly his stuff on functional specs, which I immediately directed Dave to). Turns out Dave ended up with these users for 4 hours. He discovered that not only was the software they were using a direct barrier to their workflow (e.g. we do this, then this, then this, then this just to do this) or different to their business process (e.g we can't do this, which we do every day), or completely invalid (e.g. we never use this) but actually discovered they were not doing some other things which they should have been. He left and actually wrote code that turned 10 steps into 1 for the users, added tweaks that made a BIG difference to their lives, and reported back that certain "mandatory" tasks the business required just weren't being done.

But the great thing was how he talked about how valuable the expereince was, about how he actually knew he was programming"the right thing" and the reward that bought, about how difficult it was to find out what the user actually wanted and how he wished he had better ways of finding out. He knew he'd done ok, but knew he could do better. And - the best of all - that he wants to recommend they bring a business analyst in because they ADD VALUE.

He got it. Finally. He recognised the analysts role. He realised he could do it, but lacked the skill set, thus acknowledging there WAS a skill set.

I nearly bought him a beer, but remembered he earns more than me, being a programmer. Hmmm, thats another story for another time...

6 billion different 'casts...

The impact of blogs and podcasting on the "formal" media domain is an interesting debate that will be running for a while, and I'm fascinated to see who wins, or if an equilibrium is found (check this out for one case where a balance was found). The whole debate even made it onto 5-Live the other day, and I found myself less than convinced that more formal media broadcasters will be able to survive without adapting to a far more dynamic stream of info, or more effectively "chunking" what they produce with...wait for it...appropriate metadata surrounding that. You see, what I want if my own "smart" channel to really leverage the podcasting effect. Like I can with my RSS reader (and Sky+, an equally interesting model), I want my podcasting/radio/media stream to filter the noise so I can create a single channel, truly personalised for myself which is also timely in its presentation of info to me. I'd want news (world/local) which is of interest to me, to hear the latest tunes from bands that I like rather than that top 40's mush, with articles on movies and games and gadgets and IT and software dev and hifi and science and travel and sci-fiction/fantasy, etc (sorry - blokeness showing there), interviews with people who I find interesting, etc. I could "dip" into this channel (prioritises itself on my previous listening) or leave it playing so it can create, on the fly, the ultimate broadcast. And to do this, we need effective personilisation, and effective (controlled? folksonomy?) metadata surrounding the broadcast chunks. Maybe we're there already, and I'm not looking close enough, but I have a feeling it will be a bit of a wait before we have 6 billion different broadcasts out there, each one unique to the consumer...