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Sunday, 1 January 2012

2012: The Next Chapter

Here I sit, the newly minted Art Director at Stamen, here in San Francisco. I'm very much looking forward to working there, and start on Tuesday. Stamen does amazing artistic and informative work, and I can't wait to plunge into the team and its projects.

I have left a position I held for just over two and a half years at the Internet Archive, resigning in December last year. I'm proud of what I was able to get done during that time, and learned a great deal working there, about much deeper Internet tech than I'd been used to, the public domain, the politics of openness, and how to run a non-profit.

I'm not sure people realise all the things that the Internet Archive does; how industrious it is. It scans 1,000 books every day and has scanning centres in 6 or 7 countries around the world. The main website, archive.org, gets almost 2 million visitors every day, and some of its other properties -- openlibrary.org (the project I ran), waybackmachine.org, archive-it.org, and the newly released precursor projects to a huge TV Archive -- bump that total traffic to over 2 million eyeballs, every day.

For a designer, the sheer volume of content and desire for accessibility and openness is a fantastic place to play. We launched a redesign of Open Library in May 2010, and now that wiki-editable library catalog system gets over 3 million visitors a month. It streamlines access to over 1 million free eBooks, and a growing lending library of around 100,000 borrowable eBooks. I was pleased to be a part of creating this eBook lending system, which is one of the very first eBook lending system on the internet. Open Library data is sprouting up all over the web too, which is wonderful to see. We worked hard on improving the developer documentation, so programmers out there in the world could interact with OL data, a key measure of success, at least for me. Thank you to my partners in—ahem—crime, Anand Chitipothu, Edward Betts, Lance Arthur, and lately Noufal Ibrahim for your cleverness and effort.

A big part of the OL redesign was about accessibility, loosely bound to a grant from California's LSTA program. It was a real highlight for me to work directly with print-disabled people, whether visually impaired, or dyslexic. It was a stunning realisation to see a man surfing the internet using a laptop that didn't have a monitor at all. He listened to the web. I also enjoyed redesigning the Internet Archive BookReader UI to attempt greater accessibility and ease of use. (Browse Henry Gray's Anatomy for an example.) Even just having the pages of the book about 15% bigger on the page makes a big difference, I think. A deep hat tip there to the lead engineer, Mike Ang, who's Javascript-y magic is, well, magical. Most of the heavy lifting was already in place, and I just took the chance to improve its usability.

I had the chance to work on an amazing collection of television. The Internet Archive has been quietly saving TV from around the world for around 10 years. Ostensibly started around the time of the terrible September 11 attacks on the New York, it is now a mammoth collection of programs, which IA is seeking ways to share with the world. The interesting part about TV is that it's rarely used as a medium of record, and that this archive might go some way toward changing that. The core team of Tracey Jaquith, Alexis Rossi, Brewster Kahle, Sam Stoller, Ralf Muehlen, Jeff Kaplan, Rod Hewitt and I worked on a re-release of the incredible 9/11 TV News Archive, which released last August. There will be more to come in 2012, so keep your eyes peeled for that. I'm excited to see the next part of the project go live, which is a selection of news programs recorded on January 1, 2012, from about 65 networks across the planet. (My design inspiration for the UI was the character Ozymandias, in Watchmen. Hopefully, you'll see why when the project is launched!)

Inspiration

There's a big challenge for institutions online at the moment, and it circles around the battle between sequential classification systems and The NetworkTM. It's an area I've been interested in for several years now, based on my experience watching the incredible, organic information system develop at flickr.com collide with the shelves and drawers, controlled-vocabularied, brutally rational information systems which libraries, archives and museums have been constructing and maintaining for the last hundred years or so. There are new, flexible opportunities available to us to organize and display information online, and it's fun to investigate. To that end, in the final weeks of my tenure at IA, I worked with Mr. Raj Kumar to build a little prototype view into archive.org. On the face of it, it's a very simple series of lists of IA items, displayed either by time, person, or subject (keyword). You'll notice that there's no search box. You are simply encouraged to click around. Do note that this is a simple, experimental system which allowed Raj and me to explore what's available in the data at the most basic levels. It's independent of the classification system embedded in archive.org, and yet, I think, still allows for great discovery of new materials that you might not have known you were looking for. Please also assume the usual caveats about a rough version 0.1 of something. You'll probably find some things that don't quite work the way you'd expect.

You can see some of the stuff I've discovered in my Bookmarks list on my proto page. A particular favourite is the incredible Great Images in NASA collection. I really had a lot of fun working on this with Raj, playing it fast and loose, and seeing what popped out. The guts of it only took us a few weeks to put together, with Raj doing all of the heavy engineering lifting, poking into the IA JSON/XML API and seeing what we could extract from the search engine without bringing it down. Exploring these most basic types of metadata within a controlled system might be interesting for other institutions to try.

And now, to Stamen, where I know I have a lot to learn from such a bright, creative team, and where hopefully, I can carry through my interests in the digital humanities to bear on some of the work that Stamen produces.

Onward!
Posted at 9:55 pm
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