Saturday, June 25, 2011

TEDx LibrariansTO - An Idea Worth Spreading

I've enjoyed watching TED talks online for years but I've never been among the elite who can attend the conference in person. TED talks are on a diverse range of topics but all are brief (18 minutes or less) and highly engaging. Between TED's effective format and history of impressive speakers, TED talks are a popular and powerful source of ideas and inspiration (and confrontation).

TED talks are available free to view on their website, but watching a video online isn't the same as attending in person. As the events are very costly to attend, far away (in California & the UK), and are only open to those approved of, attending in person is not an option for most of the planet. However, TED has opened up by allowing independent events to model themselves on TED, hence the TEDx movement. I think this is a great idea and have been eagerly awaiting a local TEDx event.

So I was excited to attend a TEDx event today in Toronto - TEDx LibrariansTO. Although, I am not a librarian (despite pulls to the contrary), I was interested in the conference theme as librarians inspiring society on new (hopefully better) ways to share and use information.

Speakers identified the importance of adding and valuing games to collections, on encouraging "slow reading" of print books, adding hackspace or playspace, organizing more community events and unconferences, or ditching the idea of libraries altogether. The goal was to reconceive of libraries beyond book storage and the librarian profession beyond the "bunhead" stereotype (although there was a heated discussion on working with the old stereotype). I would have liked more discussion on the role digital libraries and m-libraries can play, but overall the speakers all presented interesting and provocative ideas also pertinent to the information field in general.

Being new to a TED event and having heard that presenters receive instructions on the TED format, I was excited to experience something new and ideally more effective. I find academic conferences are often tedious and self-serving, industry conferences are often too vague and corporate self-serving, and unconferences are often lacking in focus.

Overall, I found the TED format was extremely effective. I read over the TEDx details they give to would-be organizers and they certainly have a lot of rules and guidelines - which they assert is based on their 25 years of experience. And it definitely works!

The TEDxLibrariansTO event organizers did a great job in finding interesting and effective speakers and ensuring that the event ran smoothly - managing logistics and overcoming technical hurdles is no small accomplishment. The caterer (Mystic Muffin) was awesome, which always keeps attendees happy.

Here's what I find worked well:
  • visionary, call to arms messages 
  • no jargon, esoterica, or self-promotion
  • spartan, highly-visual slides
  • rigidly enforced time limits
  • smaller number of attendees

One of the problems with conference speakers is they get too much into the details of their subject. I'm Sesame Street generation so sell me on your vision. If people are interested in what you're saying they can look up the details. TED actually recommends people read their speech if they are not comfortable speaking without notes. But I'm not sure that reading a presentation is any better than rambling.

TED has lots of guidelines about the structure of the event too and advises against having any panels or keynotes (to promote equality) and they insist that some of their videos be shown (no hardship as there are so many amazing ones to choose from).

TED also recommends that there be long breaks (45 minutes) between sessions and that speakers stay for all or most of the day. This is so attendees can discuss amongst themselves or with speakers the points raised. The event organizers followed this and as the crowd was particularly friendly, so I found this format worked really well. But, I do not think it would work with other groups or with a large number of attendees.

TEDx LibrariansTO was an excellent showcase for the format. The event today raised a lot of fascinating points and sparked discussion all within a short period of time.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Location-Based Services - A Unique Experience?

For the past year, I've been looking into location-based services (i.e. an application running on a mobile device that offers information or entertainment based on the device/user's location). Although, I do not think that functionality of information to be situated and pertain to a given location is unique to mobile devices (see my prior post on Types of Geotargetted Information), I do think that location-based services (LBS) are a unique experience. 

The individual features of a given LBS may not in itself be unique. But when the various facets are added together I believe it is a new experience. 

Characteristics of location-based services:

  1. Location aware (i.e. can automatically detect location & deliver applicable content)
  2. Context sensitive (e.g. light levels, accelerometer, time of day, etc.)
  3. User customizable
  4. Ubiquitous access
    AND the potential for
  5. Diverse sources of information
  6. User-generated content (both to read and to create)
  7. Social networking
  8. Gaming
Having studied media for a long time now (too long, I suppose) I'm hesitant to declare anything a new phenomenon. However, other than talking to a particularly knowledge person who follows one around, I'm unaware of any other experience that offers at least the first four characteristics, let alone all of them.  Please feel free to contradict me or add additional facets of LBS.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What Happened in Vancouver?

Like many Canadians, I watched the riots in Vancouver live on television. And like all Canadians (except a few contemptible rioters) I'm greatly ashamed that this happened here. By now, we've heard theories on what prompted the riots - the current pet theory being that it was the acts of a few determined, premeditated vandals (or "anarchists") with drunken masses spurring them on.  I think these things are more complicated and multifaceted than most discussions of the issue are acknowledging, so I won't attempt to offer a definitive take on the events. 

Riots aren't a new phenomenon. But what did struck me most while watching the live footage was the great many people taking pictures on their mobile devices of the riot. At times, it seemed like a few number of vandals were surrounded by a wall of mobile-wielding people.

There were two types of these people - those who posed inanely for photos in front of the violence and those who were photodocumenting the experience. The latter group did not have the gleeful facial expressions proudly displayed by the former. The main difference between the two were that the first group were clearly enjoying the riot and possibly encouraging it, while the other group appeared to be shocked or enthralled by the events.

I can understand the allure of a riot. They are a rare and powerful spectacle. And if such an event happens in one's city there would be a certain amazement that would incline people to stop in their tracks and watch the unbelievable and dramatic events unfold.

This is what happened to me when I witnessed my first (and only) riot. I was a teenager backpacking through Europe when a riot broke out in downtown Athens. There were emotional crowds, yelling, fights, and fires. It was classic Greek drama staged in the streets. As a kid from the 'burbs, this experience was like nothing I had ever encountered, so I, like many others in the vicinity, stopped and stared at the events. It seems human nature to be inclined to document and communicate such remarkable events. As I did in Athens. If I'd had a mobile back then I would have been uploading pix and status updates online. Instead, I took pictures on the device of the era - film camera. And later I shared what I observed to friends via the appropriate medium of the time: postcards. So I understand to some degree the behaviour of these riot paparazzi.

But when the Athenian police arrived to break up the riot, I knew it was time to leave - as should have all  Vancouverites once things clearly were out of hand. Some Vancoverites no doubt did leave the riot area early and others intervened to try to stop the rioters -  but, as I noticed with the live footage, many stood by continuing to take pictures. The gawkers who remained on the scene prevented the police from stopping those causing the riot. Thus, these seeming passive witnesses also bare responsibility - and shame - for their role in the riot.

I've been trying to understand the behaviour of these people. Certainly, the spectacle of the event captivated some people past the point of feeling any civic responsibility. Copious liquor no doubt did so too. Perhaps there is also a degree of bravado in displaying evidence of one's eyewitness position to extraordinary events - history in the making.  Also, as we have seen with other riots, people are also motivated to produce catch  criminals in the act to provide evidence to the police. But I think there is more to than just these factors.

My research lately has examined how fundamental one's relationship is to place. Having a sense of place is central for humans as it is a leading way for us to know and remember our world. Such a violent upheaval of one's place - whether a neighbourhood, city, or country, would produce incredulity. As in 'I can't believe this is happening - here!!'

I think that taking pictures and videos of such shocking events is a way for people to comprehend the events and to make them real, whether or not they want the events to be real. The more attachment one feels to a place, the greater the reaction such an event would provoke. And hence I believe this leads to a compulsion to remain, to continue photo documenting the personal attack on one's place - and to stay until a degree of equilibrium is restored (or the degree of violence is untenable).

Doubtless not everyone's motivations were so benign, but I do think this helps to partially explain the recent events in Vancouver.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Memoriam: Liz Metcalfe, Digital Pioneer

Canadians often don't recount or adequately value their history, let alone their online history. It was through the efforts of people like Liz Metcalfe that Canadians have an online voice. Liz Metcalfe was involved in a variety of early Canadian projects that launched national online properties.

Liz was a digital pioneer for Canada. Last night, I found out that she was killed in a horrible traffic accident.

Liz began her Internet career in 1989 - long before the Netscape IPO and the meteoric days. She worked for such Internet collossi as, Yahoo, Rogers, and AOL. She help these companies establish their initial presence in Canada. One of the first online portals in Canada's was launched under Liz's direction, Southam's Montreal Gazette portal.

With Rogers she helped launch, one of Canada's first and largest financial websites (subsequently merged with Canadian Business). Her collaborative reports on Canadian online banking and brokerage offerings were significant in assisting Canadians to move their financial affairs online and spurring the companies to improve their online services. She also provided a stream of regular content for the website and helped develop phenomenally popular RRSP tools. With a background education in film and journalism and a love of technology, Liz was one of the first people to understand the unique nature of the Web medium - helping develop interactive features when most other companies were still offering brochureware.

At an individual level, Liz authored email newsletters and blogs long before they were a mainstay here. Under the various forms of her Media Gleaner she covered domestic and international and tech issues. She was a locus of information and her Facebook postings became topics for diverse, occasionally heated, discussion. An example of this was the purchase of Huffington Post by AOL that she reworked into a blog post

In addition to being one of Canada's leading digital pioneers, Liz was an incredible woman with an unbridled and diverse range of interests and passions. She was a science fiction aficionado - introducing me to such treasures as Ender's Game, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and filk music. She wrote scifi and poetry. Her love of motorcycling was chronicled in her blog, Moto-Mojo. Her solo road-trip through Belgium and France and resulting escapades were a riveting travelogue and vicarious delight.

Liz died on her motorcycle riding back from a charity event that she regularly participated in for Toronto's Rape Crisis Centre. Please consider making a donation in Liz's honour via her CanadaHelps WROAR Ride campaign page.

I owe so much of my Internet career to Liz. After graduating from Humber's Internet management program in 1999, I went to work for a start-up doing programming. It wasn't my cup of tea, but already the bubble was bursting, as were career opportunities. I really wanted to make content and direct the structure and offerings of websites. I applied for a job at AOL that I didn't get, but a colleague of Liz's referred my name to her. I got a call from Liz about a web producer opening for I never liked personal finance and had no background in it, but Liz was so engaging and encouraging, I decided to set up an interview.

I didn't show up. Normally, not showing up for an interview is a definitive act, but Liz called me back. She instinctively knew my concerns and convinced me that my skills and interests could be applied, so I interviewed and started working at in 2000. Liz was right; it was a great opportunity. She and the Quicken team were excellent role models and teammates. We built an incredible, innovative website together. One of the projects that Liz and I worked on together that I'm most proud of is the University Planner - the first tool in Canada to use StatsCan data to help students calculate and plan for the actual cost of a university education.

Liz also offered daily guidance at our regular morning meetings that she set up. The team would discuss topical news and project details every morning. Through Liz, I learned how to write killer homepage teasers (among them the "Vince Carter teaser" where attaching a celebrity name to any topic guaranteed click-throughs).

The burst hit the Rogers' online properties hard, so we all moved on to other projects. If it wasn't for Liz, I would likely not have had the opportunity to be a web producer, a job that I loved.

It was Liz who shaped my love of understanding what users want and figuring out how to offer content and experiences to meet their needs. She gave me the career outlet to refine my skills and interests, which I continue to expand through my PhD studies.

On a personal level, Liz was a close friend to me and my family. Liz befriended everyone she met and managed to find time to support all her many friends. As my wife recalls, "You were such a thoughtful, generous person and a true friend. I'll never forget how you actually volunteered to read my tediously long master's thesis (not even my own husband would look at it) and made such kind and supportive comments. You will be greatly missed!"

On her Facebook page, Liz described herself as "an incurable optimist, a collection of contradictions and a cultural hybrid." It was these elements that made her not only a wonderful person to know but such an important person in the history of Canada's Internet.

We miss you Liz!


Here is Liz's obituary in the Toronto Star and a news story on Liz and the accident on Global.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Libraries and the Mobile Web 2.0

Earlier this year, I looked at the convergence of social media and mobile library applications. I found this was an area that could have a lot of potential to augment information services, but found little innovation in this area. The intersection of increasing user involvement in creating, finding, and sharing their own information, combined with the direct and ubiquitous access of mobiles has prompted discussion in library literature, but it appears little action - yet.

It appears that initial usage of social media by libraries focused on promotion and communication between librarians and patrons. For example, social networking sites, podcasts, and blogs were used to share library information and news (e.g., location, hours, new collections, events, etc.).

Libraries are also using social media to build a sense of community around the library through such means as book blogs and online forums (for example, a book club). Rather than focus on specific technologies, Rutherford attempted to examine the role of social media by libraries (2008). She interviewed public librarians and found social media used for four main purposes: 1) community development, 2) patron outreach and acquisition, 3) communication expansion, and 4) power distribution.

Rutherford found on the whole, that social media was not often used by libraries, and when it was, that it was used predominantly in a limited way. For example, libraries are allowing patrons to comment on library information or submit questions in new ways, but are not offering users the functionality to create content. This may be due to the profession wishing to maintain expertise and information authority and accuracy standards (Rutherford, 2008).

My review of the literature revealed the following types of social media usage by libraries:
  1. collaborative information filtering and recommendation via user-generated ratings and reviews and collective usage data)
  2. enhanced information retrieval via user-generated metadata and social search
  3. content and annotation creation by users individually and collectively (e.g., via wikis, blogs)
  4. information sharing via social networking sites and syndication.
I found no examples of mobile libraries social media functions other than the viewing of user-generated content (please let me know of any). There are signs, however, that social media for m-libraries have emerged this year.

In January 2010, Library Thing released their Library Anywhere mobile application that connects a library's online public access catalog (OPAC with Library Thing’s user-supplied rating and review data.

Similarly, SirsiDynix upgraded their BookMyne mobile application in November 2010 to add social recommendation data provided by the book social network Goodreads. Such user-generated metadata has been added as an information overlay of OPAC displays before. This functionality allows users to see how others have tagged a book and browse resources tagged similarly.

In addition to social metadata, researchers have found that mobile users want to annotate information resources for individual organization and/or social sharing. Amazon has demonstrated the potential of harnessing collective annotations Their e-Reader, Kindle, has a highlights feature that allows users to upload their e-book highlights. Amazon aggregates these highlights to display the collective sense of a work’s key passages.

The importance for libraries to offer similarly innovative functionality is highlighted by Lippincott who wonders,

Will libraries move quickly to implement strategies for mobile devices, moving beyond pilot projects, such as SMS text message in reference, that address only one segment of user needs? Will the library be perceived as less and less central to the academy’s content needs? (p. 212)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Portable Device Purchase Paralysis

For the past few months, I have wanted to purchase a portable computing device but have been paralyzed by an inability to determine what best to buy. I don't have the budget to buy everything, so I've been trying to decide whether to buy a tablet, e-reader, or netbook. Recently our laptop computer has been gravely ill and so this adds to my purchase dilemma.

Basically, my requirements for a portable device is that it facilitates reading, note-taking, word processing, and Internet browsing. I'd also like something that plays DVDs as this has proven invaluable for entertaining my daughter when direly needed.

Media coverage and reviews of these devices hasn't helped me choose what to buy. Fortunately, my faculty provides loaners of tablets, netbooks, and e-readers, so I have been able to take these out for a test drive.

Recently, I tried an iPad for a few days. My faculty doesn't have an iPad 2, but from what I gather iPad 2 significantly differs in offering more content creation functionality. As this isn't essential for me, the original iPad seemed like it would meet most of my needs.

Within a few moments of using the iPad, I was greatly impressed on how user-friendly and intuitive it is. I have never used touchscreen devices beyond various service kiosks or amusements, but I was able to start using it within seconds. I have seen demos and tried it on in stores so I wasn't completely new on what to do, but considering how limited my prior experience was, the ease of use is a sufficient accomplishment.

Apple's user experience (UX) status is legendary, but my prior (all bad) experiences with Mac and the cultish fervour of Apple devotees had put me off Apple for years. I didn't have an instruction manual or getting started guide (not that these have historically been particularly useful). So it did take me trial-and-error playing around to figure out some operational functions.

Overall, I found the iPad to be a great content consumption device as hyped. The display of graphics and documents are better than any other mobile device or even a regular desktop computer I've encountered. Graphics looked amazing! I was also very impressed with how quickly programs load and close. The touch interface to read documents is incredible - it is so easy to turn pages, adjust display size, or to zoom in.

The device also passed the public transit test. On a crowded bus or subway, it is impossible to use most devices except smartphones. I even found it annoying to use a netbook without a stable surface to set it on - so using it at live events or lectures is often difficult. But the iPad in contrast, due to its size, weight, and on-screen keyboard enable it to be used in the less-than-ideal environments that I frequent.

Even though the device itself was relatively easy and convenient to use, there were some serious usability problems. The iPod doesn't handle direct light well, as I found the Kobo e-reader did. I was surprised that I couldn't view at all the screen with my sunglasses on (the polarizations must not like each other) which is a real pain in sunny conditions. The omnipresent fingerprints on the screen also drove me crazy.

The device seems to have problems discerning a precise location of a user's touch. This was a huge problem when trying to edit notes as it seems impossible to direct the cursor to the middle of a word. Similarly, web-browsing was unnecessarily painful as it was often too difficult to click on links or open menus.

The two things that I most hated with the iPad were the difficulty in typing and the inability to import photos any way without an iTunes account. I read a workaround to avoid using iTunes to import photos, but really it shouldn't be necessary. I definitely would like a USB port, which would make importing photos and connecting to other devices much easier. The difficulty in typing is a major barrier as I need to regularly take notes at live events or lectures or to compose blog posts and papers. I found the on-screen keyboard lacked any way to non-visually confirm that my fingers were correctly positioned. As a result, I made more errors. Also one had to toggle to another keyboard screen for the number and other keys, which slowed me down way too much.

Other annoying things with the iPad were the lack of a spell-checker, the inability to have two programs running simultaneously, and a lack of persistent application menus (or at least an easy way to recall them).

Still of all the devices I've recently test driven, I am leaning to an iPad. Each device has its advantages, but as I can only afford one I need something with more functionality than an e-Reader offers. Netbooks are better for typing than an iPad but aren't as flexibly usable as iPods, nor is reading on them as good. I'm not considering RIM's tablet, PlayBook, as it is too small and I want to have access to the latest and most innovative apps as seems best with Apple.

Although the iPad may be the best option, I am unconvinced that the problems outweigh the cost. I find typing to be so difficult that it is a deal-breaker for me.

This all may be a moot point, however. Recently the Toronto Transit Commission has put up posters advising riders not to use electronic devices due to theft. I ride the TTC regularly and have never perceived theft problem, but it must be for the TTC to post warnings. At least no one will wants to steal my print-outs, course books, or notepads. So I'll probably have to make do with just old tech and my smartphone for awhile longer.