Category Archives: archives

Libraries, Media, and the Semantic Web meetup at the BBC

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Estimated reading time 3–4 minutes

In a bit of a blog cleanup, I discovered this post languishing unpublished. The event took place earlier this year but the videos of the presentations are still well worth watching. It was an excellent session with short but highly informative talks by some of the smartest people currently working in the semantic web arena. The Videos of the event are available on You Tube.

Historypin

Jon Voss of Historypin was a true “information altruist”, describing libraries as a “radical idea”. The concept that people should be able to get information for free at the point of access, paid for by general taxation, has huge political implications. (Many of our libraries were funded by Victorian philanthropists who realised that an educated workforce was a more productive workforce, something that appears to have been largely forgotten today.) Historypin is seeking to build a new library, based on personal collections of content and metadata – a “memory-sharing” project. Jon eloquently explained how the Semantic Web reflects the principles of the first librarians in that it seeks ways to encourage people to open up and share knowledge as widely as possible.

MIMAS

Adrian Stevenson of MIMAS described various projects including Archives Hub, an excellent project helping archives, and in particular small archives that don’t have much funding, to share content and catalogues.

rNews

Evan Sandhaus of the New York Times explained the IPTC’s rNews – a news markup standard that should help search engines and search analytics tools to index news content more effectively.

schema.org

Dan Brickley’s “compare and contrast” of Universal Decimal Classification with schema.org was wonderful and he reminded technologists that it very easy to forget that librarians and classification theorists were attempting to solve search problems far in advance of the invention of computers. He showed an example of “search log analysis” from 1912, queries sent to the Belgian international bibliographic service – an early “semantic question answering service”. The “search terms” were fascinating and not so very different to the sort of things you’d expect people to be asking today. He also gave an excellent overview of Lonclass the BBC Archive’s largest classification scheme, which is based on UDC.

BBC Olympics online

Silver Oliver described how BBC Future Media is pioneering semantic technologies and using the Olympic Games to showcase this work on a huge and fast-paced scale. By using semantic techniques, dynamic rich websites can be built and kept up to the minute, even once results start to pour in.

World Service audio archives

Yves Raimond talked about a BBC Research & Development project to automatically index World Service audio archives. The World Service, having been a separate organisation to the core BBC, has not traditionally been part of the main BBC Archive, and most of its content has little or no useful metadata. Nevertheless, the content itself is highly valuable, so anything that can be done to preserve it and make it accessible is a benefit. The audio files were processed through speech-to-text software, and then automated indexing applied to generate suggested tags. The accuracy rate is about 70% so human help is needed to sort out the good tags from the bad (and occasionally offensive!) tags, but thsi is still a lot easier than tagging everything from scratch.

Building bridges: Linking diverse classification schemes as part of a technology change project

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< 1 minute

My paper about my work on the linking and migration of legacy classification schemes, taxonomies, and controlled vocabularies has been published in the Journal for Business Information Review.

I friend dead people – Are social media mature enough to cope with bereavement?

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Estimated reading time 4–7 minutes

This is a very personal post about topics in which I am not an expert, so I welcome comments and suggestions.

When “like” and “lol” don’t help

In February, a young man I had never met died in sad circumstances. He was a friend of a friend and I was supposed to meet him on the day he died. Completely coincidentally, within a fortnight I myself lost a dear friend, someone I had known for over 20 years.

The closeness in timing has thrown out sharp contrasts in the way that these deaths have reverberated around my social media worlds (obviously the real world impacts have been huge, but I am not going to discuss those here).

In many ways, dealing with the death of my own friend on social media has been easier. Being well known to her family and her circle of closest friends has meant that I have felt able to post messages of condolence and remembrance as I instinctively know what is appropriate, and I know that most of the people reading them will know me. It has been strange to see her name pop up as a “friend available on chat” when I know any activity in her account must be one of her family members logging in to maintain the page. Yesterday was her birthday, and the reminders in my calendar and the little birthday gift “event reminder” were bittersweet, but not unwelcome. I think of her and her family often, and do not want to forget.

Just after she died, I received a message through a social media site from someone I had never met or even heard of, who had been a schoolfriend of hers long ago, asking what had happened to our mutual friend, and I felt comfortable in answering. It helped me to talk about her with this stranger. I even flattered myself that I was doing some good, in that they clearly felt awkward about contacting her family directly while I was able to act as an “information resource” meaning the family and closest friends could focus on their own grieving.

I friend dead people

In contrast, how to cope with the loss of an almost-friend on social media has been strange and unnerving. One social media application has tactlessly and repeatedly suggested him as a friend, noting how many friends we had (have?) in common. Somehow I didn’t have the heart to click on “ignore”. I realise now I should have done just that, because I was anguished when I accidentally clicked on “confirm”. I worried that his friends and relatives might see my “friend request” and be distressed by it. Maybe they would never spot the noitification, maybe they would assume it was sent at a time before his death – just another reminder of what might have been, maybe they would even be comforted by the continuation of these distant social interactions with almost-strangers. (I immediately emailed the site in question asking them to retrieve my suggestion, but received no reply.)

My uncertainty about the appropriate “social media etiquette” was no doubt increased rather than diminished by our social distance. I do not know his family and friends well enough to mention this casually in passing, to express that this had been a mistake and was not intended to distress, or even to know what sort of people they are and whether this is the sort of thing that might upset them. However, it is exactly these sort of loose “one degree of separation” relationships that online social media foster and this incident struck me as illustrating how inadequate such media are when interactions need to go beyond chirruping about the weather, saying a website is cool, or asking whether or not someone wants to go to a party.

Digital memorials

My friend’s social media pages have slipped into being a form of digital memorial, but this also raises new issues. There have been stories in the press of “trolls” deliberately desecrating memorial pages in an online equivalent of upturning flowers left on a grave or kicking over and spraying graffiti on a headstone (e.g. http://gawker.com/5868503/why-people-troll-dead-kids-on-facebook). The only way to deal with this seems to be to remove the page, which is a shame and in a way seems to mean the bullies have won. It also highlights a strange transition from personal to public. Our graveyards are either public spaces that the authorities monitor and maintain or privately curated grounds. I have previously thought of my social media pages as more like a private garden – people may peer over the wall, but it is essentially “my” space to maintain. People are starting to think more and more about their digital legacies (the British Computer Society recently held an event on this theme).

There are already “digital memorial” companies offering guarantees of “permanent” archiving and access to sites (e.g. Much Loved). Other sites offer memorial pages that allow people to make donations to charity, but presumably these are not expected to remain in place forever.

However, these sites are aimed at those who remain setting up the sites, not taking over the sites that belonged to their loved ones. The value of someone’s posts and pages changes dramatically when they become precious memories, and not just ephemeral chatter. If we (or our loved ones) want our own sites to go on after us, do we need to bequeath our passwords to trusted friends or family? How does that affect our contracts with hosts and service providers? What rights do families have to “reclaim” the pages and content if there is no such bequest? How would disputes over inheritance of such sites be decided? What recourse do we have if the site owner decides to shut down and delete the content or simply loses it?

It seems to me that such issues have the potential to cause far more distress than the strangenesses we encounter when automated reminders and friend suggestions behave as if we are all immortal.

IASA Conference 2011: Turning archives into assets

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Estimated reading time 2–3 minutes

Semantic enrichment

Guy Maréchal continued the Linked Data theme by talking in more detail about how flat data models can be semantically enriched. He pointed out that if you have good structured catalogue records, it takes very little effort to give concepts URIs and to export this data as sets of relationships. This turns your database into a graph, ready for semantic search and querying.

He argued that “going to semantics cannot be avoided” and that “born digital” works will increasingly be created with semantically modelled metadata.

From Mass Digitisation to Mass Content Enrichment

The next talk was a description of the SONUMA digitisation and metadata enhancement project. Sonuma and Memnon Archiving Services have been working on inventories and dictionaries to help them index audio visual assets. They have been converting speech to text, holding the text as XML files, and then associating sections of the XML with the appropriate point in the AV content, so that it can be searched.

They identify breaks in programmes by looking for the time stamps using OCR techniques, and then looking for jumps in the numerical sequences. They assume that jumps in the numbers are breaks in programmes. This enables them to break up long tapes into sections, which usually correspond to programmes.

Social networking and Knowledge Management

Tom Adami described Knowledge Management projects at the United Nations Mission in Sudan (Best Practice Lessons Learnt: How the Exit Interview and Oral History Project at UNMIS is building a knowledge database). The UN in Africa faces problems of high staff turnover, remote locations, and difficulties in maintaining infrastructure. However, they have been using social networking to encourage people to share their knowledge and experience in a user-friendly way and so add to the official knowledge base.

Archive as a social media lab: Creative dissemination of digital sound and audiovisual collections

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay talked about a project to bring together archival practice, artistic practice, and social media. He also referred to the problems of preserving social media which is in essence ephemeral but may be an integral part of an artwork.

IASA Conference 2011: Keynote speech on Linked Open Data

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Estimated reading time 4–6 minutes

Kevin Bradley, IASA president, gave the welcome address to the 42nd IASA annual conference. He characterised the digital revolution as one that will continue reverberating for years. He reminded us that it is not always easy to sort the sense from the nonsense and that we are often surprised by what turns out to be valid and how easy it is not to see the wood for the trees – or perhaps to “lose the word to the bits”, or the “picture to the pixels”.

Keynote address – on Linked Open Data

The keynote speech was given by Ute Schwens, deputy director of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek / German National Library (DNB). She opened with a lovely visualisation by the Opte Project of various routes through a portion of the Internet. It looked a bit like visualisations of neurons in a brain or stars and galaxies.

Ute’s talk was in support of publishing Linked Open Data. She outlined some of the concerns – lack of money, open access versus intellectual property rights, poor quality of data and assets themselves, and inadequate legal frameworks. She said that we shouldn’t be trying to select for digitisation, because everything in an archive has already been selected or it wouldn’t have been kept in the first place. She also highlighted the benefits of making digital versions of unique or fragile artefacts, in order to allow access without risk to the original. She talked about how there are many ways to digitise and that these produce different versions, so an archival master that is as close to the original as possible should always be preserved.

She used as an illustration original piano rolls. These can only be played on very specialised electrical pianos and users cannot practically be given access to them directly, but they were played by specialists and the music recorded, so users can be given access to that. The recordings are not the same as the piano rolls, but are a new and interesting product. It seems obvious that you would not destroy the original piano rolls simply because the music from them had been recorded and now exists in a digital version, so why should you destroy other forms of media such as film, simply because you have a digital version? The digital version in such cases is for access, not preservation.

One fear is that free access to information will diminish usage of an archive or library, but by opening up you can gain new users, especially by providing free access to catalogues and metadata (I like to think of these as “advertising” – shops make their catalogues freely available because they see them primarily as marketing tools).

Another fear is loss of control, but new scientific ideas often arise when diverse strands of thought are brought together and unexpected uses are made of existing data. The unusual and the unforeseen is often the source of the greatest innovation.

She pointed out that we have drafted searching and indexing rules over centuries to try to make objects as findable as possible, so Linked Open Data is merely the next logical step. We can combine automatically generated information with data we already have to provide multiple access points. We need to describe to put objects into context, but we don’t have to describe what they look like in the ways that we used to for catalogues. Good metadata is metadata that useful for users, not metadata merely for maintaining catalogues.

She ended by calling for more open access to data as ways to promote our collections and their value, adding that in uncertain times, our only security is our ability to change.

In the discussion afterwards, she said that Google needs our data and the best way to engage with – and even influence – Google is by gaining recognition as a valued supplier and making sure Google understands how much it needs us to provide it with good quality data.

The conference was hosted by Deutsche Nationalbibliothek / German National Library (DNB), Hessischer Rundfunk / Hessian Broadcasting (hr), and the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv / German Public Broadcasting Archives (DRA). The sponsors were EMC2 (gold); Memnon Archiving Services, NOA audio solutions, and Arvato digital services (Bertelsmann) (silver); and Cedar audio, Cube-tec International, Front Porch Digital, and Syylex Digital Storage (bronze).

UK Archives Discovery Forum

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Estimated reading time 6–10 minutes

I very much enjoyed the UKAD UK Archives Discovery Forum event at the National Archives. There were three tracks as well as plenary sessions, so I couldn’t attend everything.

Linked Data and archives

After an introduction from Oliver Morley, John Sheridan opened by talking about the National Archives and Linked Data. Although not as detailed as the talk he gave at the Online Information Conference last December, he still gave the rallying call for opening up data and spoke of a “new breed” of IT professionals who put the emphasis on the I rather than the T. He spoke about Henry Maudslay who invented the screw-cutting lathe, which enabled standardisation of nuts and bolts. This basically enabled the industrial revolution to happen. Previously, all nuts and bolts were made individually as matching pairs, but because the process was manual, each pair was unique and not interchangeable. If you lost the bolt, you needed a new pair. This created huge amounts of management and cataloguing of individual pairs, especially if a machine had to be taken apart and re-assembled, and meant interoperability of machinery was almost impossible. Sheridan asserted that we are at that stage with data – all our data ought to fit together but at the moment, all the nuts and bolts have to be hand crafted. Linked Data is a way of standardising so that we can make our data interchangeable with other people’s. (I like the analogy because it makes clear the importance of interoperability, but obviously getting the nuts and bolts to fit is only a very small part of what makes a successful machine, let alone a whole factory or production line. Similarly Linked Data isn’t going to solve broad publishing or creative and design problems, but it makes those big problems easy to work on collaboratively.)

Richard Wallis from Talis spoke about Linked Data. He likes to joke that you haven’t been to a Linked Data presentation unless you’ve seen the Linked Open Data cloud diagram. My version is that you haven’t been to a Linked Data event unless at least one of the presenters was from Talis! Always an engaging speaker, his descriptions of compartmentalisation of content and distinctions between Linked Data, Open Data, and Linked Open Data were very helpful. He likes to predict evangelically that the effects of linking data will be more profound to the way we do business than the changes brought about by the web itself. Chatting to him over tea, he has the impression that a year ago people were curious about Linked Data and just wanted to find out what it could do, but this year they are now feeling a bit more comfortable with the concepts and are starting to ask about how they can put them into practice. There certainly seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm in the archive sector, which is generally cash-strapped, but highly co-operative, with a lot of people passionate about their collections and their data and eager to reach as wide an audience as possible.

A Vision of Britain

Humphrey Southall introduced us to A Vision of Britain, which is a well-curated online gazetteer of Britain, with neat functions for providing alternative spellings of placenames, and ways of tackling the problems of boundaries, especially of administrative divisions, that move over time. I’m fascinated by maps, and they have built in some interesting historical map functionality too.

JISC and federated history archives

David Flanders from JISC talked about how JISC and its Resource Discovery Task Force can provide help and support to educational collections especially in federation and Linked Data projects. He called on archives managers to use hard times to skill up, so that when more money becomes available staff are full of knowledge, skills, and ideas and ready to act. He also pointed out how much can be done in the Linked Data arena with very little investment in technology.

I really enjoyed Mike Pidd’s talk about the JISC-funded Connected Histories Project. They have adopted a very pragmatic approach to bringing together various archives and superimposing a federated search system based on metadata rationalisation. Although all they are attempting in terms of search and browse functionality is a simple set of concept extractions to pick out people, places, and dates, they are having numerous quality control issues even with those. However, getting all the data into a single format is a good start. I was impressed that one of their data sets took 27 days to process and they still take delivery of data on drives through the post. They found this was much easier to manage than ftp or other electronic transfer, just because of the terabyte volumes involved (something that many people tend to forget when scaling up from little pilot projects to bulk processes). Mike cautioned against using RDF and MySql as processing formats. They found that MySql couldn’t handle the volumes, and RDF they found too “verbose”. They chose to use a fully Lucene solution, which enabled them to bolt in new indexes, rather than reprocess whole data sets when they wanted to make changes. They can still publish out to RDF.

Historypin

Nick Stanhope enchanted the audience with Historypin, an offering from wearewhatwedo.org. Historypin allows people to upload old photos, and soon also audio and video, and set them in Google streetview. Although flickr has some similar functions, historypin has volunteers who help to place the image in exactly the right place, and Google have been offering support and are working on image recognition techniques to help place photos precisely. This allows rich historical street views to be built up. What impressed me most, however, was that Nick made the distinction between subjective and objective metadata, with his definition being objective metadata is metadata that can be corrected and subjective metadata is data that can’t. So, he sees objective metadata as the time and the place that a photo was taken – if it is wrong someone might know better and be able to correct it, and subjective metadata as the stories, comments, and opinions that people have about the content, which others cannot correct – if you upload a story or a memory, no-one else can tell you that it is wrong. We could split hairs over this definition, but the point is apposite when it comes to provenance tracking. He also made the astute observation that people very often note the location that a photo is “of”, but it is far more unusual for them to note where it was taken “from”. However, where it was taken from is often more use for augmented reality and other applications that try to create virtual models or images of the world. Speaking to him afterwards, I asked about parametadata, provenance tracking, etc. and he said these are important issues they are striving to work through.

Women’s history

Theresa Doherty from the Women’s Library ended the day with a call to stay enthusiastic and committed despite the recession, pointing out that it is an achievement that archives are still running despite the cuts, and that this shows how valued data and archives are in the national infrastructure, how important recording our history is, and that while archivists continue to value their collections, enjoy their visitors and users, and continue to want their data to reach a wider audience the sector will continue to progress. She described how federating the Genesis project within the Archives hub had boosted use of their collections, but pointed out that funders of archives need to recognise that online usage of collections is just as valid as getting people to physically turn up. At the moment funding typically is allocated on visitor numbers through the doors, and that this puts too much emphasis on trying to drag people in off the street at the expense of trying to reach a potentially vast global audience online.