Friday, December 31, 2010

The Mesh

Reading Lisa Gansky's The Mesh. A friend highly recommended it to me after he read it.

Gansky's focus is the "streamlining of access to physical goods and services," in large part through web and mobile technologies (18). It's unfortunate that, living in the Pullman-Moscow, ID area, my access to these kinds of services will be limited. The author describes Zipcar as "a Full Mesh model" service, but looking at the cities and universities that have Zipcar services, you can see that the model succeeds in urban centers. Or, another way to look at it: the Mesh makes living in urban centers more affordable, and in smaller communities relatively less so.

Gansky notes that some companies are applying the lessons learned in open source software development to physical goods (60). This is a more compelling notion for me today than it would have been four or five years ago. The development of social networking technologies does fundamentally change a company's ability to take user feedback into account in product and service design. Thus, it's a meshing of the open source ethic and current information technologies that enable rapid service improvements and the creation of shared product services.

In terms of moving from owning to renting or leasing services: I can say that for computer support, I've made this move recently through the purchase of an Amazon Web Services [cloud] EC2 reserved instance. In a sense, I'm leasing my personal software development space. I still need a device that enables me to connect to this instance (via SSH for the Linux command line; via a web browser to review online sites), but it's a new - and more fulfilling - model for me.

It seems like if you follow Gansky's argument, that we're moving from an ownership to a sharing model, you have to accept the idea that the private sector will provide most of the services - because the public sector is shrinking as we speak. For example, when she notes the fact that more young Americans are opting not to obtain a drivers license when they reach age 17, she cites several public and private transportation options, including mass transit. But who's going to fund mass transit in 2010? Washington state is relatively progressive, but in the 2010 midterms, voters statewide opted to repeal an existing sales tax on candy and bottled water that was put in place to close the state's revenue gap. Candy and bottled water! The author's vision is noble, but the public's will is weak.

Somehow, I missed the St. Croix Falls Cinema story that the author describes in chapter 5 (see this article for info), but it is interesting that the chain (Evergreen Entertainment) now accepts credit and debit cards for tickets. Gansky's summary illustrates the power of social media, but reading the article at the above link (including the first two letters) provides a more informative account of what happened than the author provides in the book.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

why I'm excited by UC's extensible text framework

This year, I've basically migrated from being a Microsoft platform-oriented programmer to one working more with open source software. The game-changer for me, without a doubt, was my deepening use of Amazon Web Services generally, and EC2 specifically. EC2 gave me an easy-to-use development environment in which I could experiment with applications, and with extending applications.

One resource that I have built, in my own time, is an online Naval Reactors database. (I worked as an operator in the program for six years, qualifying on two reactor plants, and have continued reading about the program since leaving it.) I first built it using the AWS SimpleDB database and provided online access to the database using ASP.NET. But with EC2's availability, I happened across a tool that I've really gotten excited about - the University of California's Extensible Text Framework. XTF enables an institution or an individual to create a digital repository. It serves Encoded Archival Description (EAD) XML quite nicely, though I don't use EAD in the Naval Reactors database. It also supports the discovery and presentation of other digital formats, including photographic images.

Here are some URLs that show XTF in action:

-A search that retrieves all database objects

-A search that shows hits-in-context based upon metadata contained in image files

(The database migration is still in progress, but these URLs show the basic functionality.)

What was required to make this work? Downloading XTF and getting it running on an EC2 server (I am using Fedora 8 for the OS). Then, I went through the tutorials to become familiar with customization options. I also wrote some handlers for some additional file formats (JPEG, PNG) that weren't supported by the XTF software as-is and began building the database.

In short: out of the box faceted search; an elegant search and presentation system; and a solution that's being extended by a growing community of users. I am hoping to present on this work at the mid-2011 Code4Lib Northwest meeting.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crowdsourcing - the book

I read Jeff Howe's Crowdsourcing. To me, this book has much the same texture as Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. I feel that I benefited from reading both books, which include numerous anecdotal examples on how technology and new business models have empowered individuals in unimaginable ways. At the same time, I feel like both Friedman and Howe understate the societal damage. I don't want to shoot the messenger in either case (as Friedman was targeted), but that's my perception. An example: Howe reports the impact of services like iStockPhoto on the stock photo industry and the fact that Bruce Livingstone, iStockPhoto's founder, made $25 million off the sale of the company to Getty Images, while the earnings of stock photographers plunged. Howe doesn't note the irony when quoting an iStock executive who asserts that "the community is the company" (188). True, it's just change, but it also seems like an architecture for ever-increasing economic inequality.

The value in Jeff Howe's book is that he makes the reader think about how to successfully build services in this radically new environment. Continuing with the iStockPhoto example, the author describes the role of iStockalypses (iStockPhoto-sponsored meetings) and self-starting user meetings in fostering a sense of community and meaning among active iStockers. In short, the corporate strategy in using crowdsourcing has to be well thought out and one that respects the larger community's willingness to contribute its "excess capacity" (its time and skills) (196).

One unsympathetic victim of technological change is the recording industry Led by RIAA president Cary Sherman and attorneys like Matt Oppenheim, the RIAA essentially declared war on its own customers in recent years through a string of high-profile lawsuits. For that reason, Howe's coverage of the band Hawthorne Heights in the book is refreshing. At an intuitive level, the more open or sharing approach of reduced music sales, with the trade-off revenues from concert ticket sales and other products is just a better model for the 21st century. Certainly a better model than predatory lawsuits against your own customers....

Howe explores the subtleties of crowdsourcing, including the distinction between crowdsourcing and crowdcasting ("someone with a problem broadcasts it to a large, undefined network of potential solvers" [134]), a distinction that I didn't fully understand before reading this book.

Overall, a worthwhile read, though increasingly dated. The 2009 edition that I read includes a status update from the author.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pullman landmark - Video Quest: the end..... The end.

It's all over for the locally-owned DVD/VHS rental store in Pullman, Washington, Video Quest.

I'll best remember the store for its policy of quizzing customers about excessive rentals for a single title (e.g., "do you know you've rented M four times?) and for carrying interesting films such as Village of the Damned (British) and The Street with No Name. Its collection is being liquidated today and Linda and I purchased ten films this morning.

A Blockbuster rental store is still open, across Grand Avenue from the Video Quest location, but it's likely that its days are numbered as well.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

should academic libraries default conservative on discovery systems?

I've read two recent articles that each really draw the same conclusion: in many cases, libraries are better off sticking with proprietary, legacy (in terms of technology) products to support end-user services.

The first, "Next-Generation Library Catalogs and the Problem of Slow Response Time" takes a look at an important issue, the user experience with next-generation discovery systems. It is written by three librarians at the University of Colorado-Denver and appears in the December 2010 issue of Information Technology and Libraries. It does have the laudable goal of creating criteria, based on performance times, that can be used to assess library discovery systems. It also makes the reader aware of tools and methods that can be used to perform performance testing.

The authors do not explicitly address the role of the underlying ILS in attempting to assess discovery system performance. The fact is that in most cases, enhanced discovery systems sit on top of integrated library systems with architectures dating back to the 1990s - or earlier. These ILS products may lack standards support needed for data interchange between systems. The authors note that the University of Colorado Denver employs the Innovative Interfaces Millennium system. Marshall Breedings's Perceptions 2009 survey notes that Innovative's own customers, while giving the vendor generally high marks, are concerned about Millennium's "perceived closed architecture."

I have managed OCLC WorldCat Local for Washington State's primary discovery system for about 15 months. In my experience, the most likely culprit in lag time for WCL detailed record display presentation is the interoperability between WorldCat Local and the integrated library system. For a system like Millennium, that will likely be accomplished via screen scraping, due to a lack of workable standards support at the ILS level. It is an resource-intensive operation and my institution's upgrade of its integrated library system server in January 2010 had a significantly beneficial impact upon WorldCat Local performance in the detailed record display. It's hard to make a blanket quantification, but in some cases, the performance improvement was as high as 60-70 percent following the ILS server upgrade.

Would the testing being described in the article identify the true source of a performance problem, if the focus is solely on the discovery system product and benchmarking that product?

Additionally, the discovery solutions that graded out well in the article - Innovative Interfaces Millennium Web OPAC, web search for Ex Libris (previously Endeavor) Voyager are not, in my view, viable products in the long term. Millennium is simply too proprietary and non-standard for the 21st century and Ex Libris' long-term commitment to Voyager is questionable.

The second, "OCLC's WorldCat Local versus III's WebPAC: Which interface is better at supporting common user tasks?," is written by Bob Thomas and Stefanie Buck, librarians at Western Washington University and Oregon State University. It appears in volume 28, issue 4 of Library Hi Tech. There are likewise valuable parts of this article; it provides detailed information on WorldCat Local-related usability testing. The authors describe usability testing performed at Western Washington, in which users performed tasks in the Innovative Interfaces Millennium Web OPAC interface and the WorldCat Local system.

The article begins with what I view as a false premise: "The main advantage to the WCL interface is the collapse of three tiers of discovery: our local catalog, our consortium catalog (Summit) and WorldCat" (648). The testing then heavily or entirely depends upon tasks related to returnable items. Speaking for my institution, I can say that this advantage is significant, but the key strategic advantage of WorldCat Local implementation is enabling user access to articles, books and media items, and unique special collections through a unified discovery system.

I am very suspicious of usability studies that conclude, in effect, that information silos work for our users in 2010. ("When using three relatively distinct systems (WebPAC, Summit and WorldCat), the scope of each collection is more distinct" [668].) While Washington State still employs the III Millennium Web OPAC to enable some very important user tasks (such as searching reserves and location-based searching), we present WorldCat Local as the primary discovery system, because of the strategic advantage that I described above.

Both search options are presented on the Washington State University Libs home page - Millennium Web OPAC is still available to users. In the past 30 days, over 62% of the searches of WSU's Millennium system were machine searches supporting the circulation interoperability with WorldCat Local. That and significant increases in the use of article request services suggest to me that our WSU WorldCat service is working, that users are voting with their feet. It isn't a perfect approach, both in terms of the assessment results and the work with the vendor and the user community to improve the product. But I believe that this ongoing engagement, based upon a current technology discovery product, has tremendous value for our users.