Hello, can you hear me?

We live in a world of competing voices, each struggling for attention amongst the hubub. Now, more than ever, it’s easy to express oneself, yet this very reality, can also make it more difficult to be heard. Academics cannot escape this new paradigm either. In the past, they would contribute journal articles, write books and present papers to conferences; yet now they are increasingly expected to write blogs, tweet and have a more visible online presence; but are they being heard?

This week in our DITA class we were exploring the world of altmetrics. These are Alternative Metrics by which the impact of academic journal articles can be measured. Traditionally in academia, the measure of the ‘success’ of an article was by the number of citations which it received; this still remains a valid and important measure. Nevertheless, there has been a move in recent years towards identifying and measuring the broader societal impact of academic work. These twin complementary approaches can hopefully provide a clearer picture of the impact of an article has. I believe this to be a very positive step, because for academic research to be truly meaningful it needs to be disseminated and read as broadly as possible, rather than remaining largely irrelevant and only read by, and of interest, to fellow academics.

Advances in technology, particularly the development of social media and the APIs which permit us to engage with the data generated therein, makes the generation of these altmetrics possible. So how can we assess the societal impact of an article? In order to be traceable by altmetrics, a document needs to have a Digital Object Identifier (DOI), which is a unique string of numbers. These DOIs contain important machine-readable metadata. Rather than counting its citations in other articles, altmetrics counts the number of mentions an article has on social media, page views, mentions in blogs and mentions in news reports. A score is then produced for an article based upon the level of attention it has received and the quality of that attention. A low score would indicate that an article has made little impact, whereas a higher score would indicate a larger impact.

With a score of 8298, the highest rated article on altmetric.com is a scientific abstract examining an aspect of the ecological damage caused by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. The main determinant behind its very high score was the fact that a link to it was tweeted 16229 times by 10,015 tweeters. This fact in itself, resulted in the article then being referenced in two news reports, by the International Business Times and Chemistry Views. This shows us the entwined and cannibalistic nature of social media – success begets success; the two articles (which were commenting on the success of the article) then combined to push up the score of the article further!

Each altmetric score is represented graphically as a multicoloured ring, with each colour representing a separate source where the article was mentioned (e.g red for a news source, dark blue for Facebook, light blue for Twitter); therefore, the more multicoloured the ring, the more broadly across sources has the article been mentioned, and conversely, if a ring has just one colour then it means it has only been mentioned in one source.

altmetric-badges.a.ssl.fastly.netThis is the ring for the article with the highest altmetric score I mentioned previously.

Currently altmetrics is best set up to measure the societal impact of scientific articles, so I was curious as an historian to see how History articles fared under this system. I made two separate but related searches into an area I am interested in and have taught, the struggle for Civil Rights and racial equality in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. For both searches I kept the parameters exactly the same in order that a fair comparison could be made between the results. I first searched for articles with the key words “civil rights” from Journal Subject ‘History and Archaeology’, mentioned at any time, on any app. I then repeated the search with the key words “black power”. These two searches were then saved in My Workspaces.

Workspace title Email reports Export
All mentioned articles from journal subject HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY with keywords “black power”, with at least one twitter,gplus,news,linkedin,blogs,pinterest,video,facebook,reddit,f1000,rh,peerreview,weibo,policy mention (delete?) To Excel
All mentioned articles from journal subject HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY with keywords “civil rights”, with at least one twitter,gplus,news,linkedin,blogs,pinterest,video,facebook,reddit,f1000,rh,peerreview,weibo,policy mention (delete?) To Excel

I was curious to see where the current focus of scholarship lies in this field. Traditionally the overwhelming majority of research has focussed on the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, yet in 2006, with the publishing of The Black Power Movement there was a slight reorientation to an examination of the significance of Black Power upon the broader struggle for racial equality.

Both searches came up with very limited results, with ‘Civil Right’ still proving a more popular topic than ‘Black Power’. There were 18 results for Civil Rights, although 3 had to be dismissed for lack of relevance (focussing on Gay Civil Rights and the Environmental Civil Rights movements) and 5 results for black power. Results could be viewed in the interface either as standard or tiled (which both utilised the altmetrics ring graphic), or as condensed, which was my preferred view, showing the results clearly in tabular form. Additionally, results can be exported to Excel as CSV files, where filters can be applied to allow the user to get into the data better.

Only two of the articles from the Civil Rights search came into double figures (11 and 13), whilst the highest score for any Black Power article was only 2. This would appear to suggest that both these areas are neglected in scholarship at present and that that research which is being published has very little resonance in social media.

Altmetrics is a welcome tool, I do however, have some caveats. Firstly, the results it throws up are largely quantitative and tell us how widely the article has been mentioned. In itself, it doesn’t tell us whether the reception was positive or not. Theoretically, an article which has been very negatively received could nevertheless be given a very high altmetrics score, solely down to thousands of people on Twitter saying ‘check out this article, it really sucks!’. Likewise, altmetrics give us no indication as to the quality of an article.

Furthermore, I do have to question the accuracy of the search results. Today I carried out the exact same searches just 5 days after my initial searches. The Black Power results were identical but a further 7 Civil Rights articles were found. Clearly these articles have not been published in the last 5 days, so why did they not appear in the original search?

Clearly these are the very early days of altmetrics, and with time and further development, it will hopefully prove as useful to the social sciences as it currently does for the scientific community.

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#citylis at the Movies: The Politics of Information

Yes, I have been reading, honest, but for my first post this week I’d like to share my thoughts on two very different films I saw last week: The Internet’s Own Boy and Brazil. Fear not though hardy reader, for this will not be a  sub-Kermodian 6th form Film Studies rant, but rather an attempt to examine what we can learn from these two films about the nature of information, particularly the question of the ownership and use of information.

As mentioned in my previous post, last week as part of our LIS course at City University, the 2014 documentary, ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’ was shown. It tells the tale of the life and tragic untimely death of one of the pioneering programmers and social activists of the internet age.

A brilliant young man, Aaron Swartz helped develop RSS, and created the website Reddit, whilst still in his teens. Following the sale of Reddit, he briefly worked in the corporate world but swiftly became disillusioned with it. He dedicated much of the rest of his life to campaigning for internet freedoms and greater access to information,  promoting Creative Commons, launching the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and working to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Aaron believed that the internet could be a positive force for change, but equally, that it was necessary to struggle to realize this potentiality. He saw this dialectic between an open web and a proprietorial closed one, manifested clearly in the case of JSTOR. JSTOR is a digital repository containing a vast library of academic journals. The problem as Aaron saw it, was that they were charging high fees to access this content, content which he believed should be free. Much of the research contained therein had been paid for through publicly funded grants, and therefore, he felt that it was unreasonable to make people pay to access content they had already contributed towards. Furthermore, he saw how this situation would exacerbate an information divide between those who can afford to access research and those who cannot. On an idealistic level, he also believed that it is through the free sharing of academic research that further progress in human understanding  can be encouraged and consequently, connected a laptop to the network at MIT and began a bulk download of documents from JSTOR. His laptop was discovered and CCTV recorded Aaron swapping hard drives with the machine. What followed was a federal prosecution which later culminated in Aaron taking his own life.

The story was powerful, moving and tragic. He was no criminal, out to hack peoples’ credit cards or seeking to profit by selling the materials he downloaded. He simply believed that research should not be pay-walled but rather, should be freely accessible to whoever wishes to read it. Although Aaron Swartz is no longer with us, the campaign for Open Access continues, with Open Access Week events being held all over the world just last month. Judging by some of the messages I read on Twitter, I know I was not alone in being moved by this excellent film.

To continue with the theme of movies and LIS, for Halloween @ernestopriego tried to get a meme going on twitter.

But for me, nothing best arouses the feeling of  horror, than Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece, Brazil.

I had the great pleasure of watching this at the BFI on Saturday, followed by a Q+A with its visionary director Terry Gilliam. It was showing as part of the BFI’s Sci Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, although Gilliam himself said, “I always thought of it as a documentary.”

The film is a bleak, surreal, Orwellian vision of life in a bureaucratic totalitarian state, in which the control of information plays a central role. The main protagonist, Sam Lowry, is a functionary working at the Ministry of Information, who accepts a promotion to Information Retrieval, solely to gain access to hitherto restricted information.

Though a work of fiction, I believe Brazil raises many of the same political issues that were apparent in The Internet’s Own Boy: who controls information in society? How and why is information controlled? How can people access information more freely?

Some of these issues are examined by Luciano Floridi, who is at the forefront of the new Philosophy of Information. This reading week I’m planning on reading his latest work, The Ethics of Information, (as reviewed here in David Bawden’s blog ‘The Occasional Informationist‘), in order to hopefully bring me a little closer to discovering some of the answers to the questions posed above.





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Experiments in embedding

Thanks to today’s DITA session I now know how to embed into my blog posts. Expect an embedding frenzy!

To celebrate, here’s some classic Northern Soul for your listening pleasure.

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Finding information in the internet age

The development of the world wide web has changed the ways in which almost all professions operate, to some degree or another, but few as profoundly as that of Librarianship. Prior to the 1990s, the primary way to find information in a library was to consult its catalogue.  This ‘fixed database’, takes the unstructured data of the library’s collection (names of authors, titles of books etc) and tabulates it into structured information which has far greater functionality to the user. This database approach to the problems of organising, searching for and retrieving information is still fantastically useful in many circumstances, and is largely down to the ease of use of Structured Query language (SQL) in conjunction with Relational Data Base Management Systems (RDBMS).

Foucault argued in his studies of epistemology, just like Levi-Strauss and other intellectuals labelled as ‘Structuralists’,  that we think in tables, in which things are compartmentalised and set as binary oppositions. Likewise, our DITA exercise this week required us to log the results of our activity on an Excel spreadsheet, partly to get us to think in a tabular way. It’s this human desire for order and structure, which is why I believe that data bases will remain with us for a very very long time.

So far, so straightforward. Where the problems arise however, are when you are seeking out information from beyond the confines of a database. The internet, by connecting together the world’s computers has led to an explosion in the amount of information being created and in the accessibility to that information. The website www.evolutionoftheweb.com graphically illustrates this growth. The number of global users of the world wide web has gone from almost 40 million in 1995, to approximately 2.3 billion by 2011, and global internet traffic has grown from 1 petabyte per month to 27,483 petabytes per month over the same period. This presents great opportunities and also, potentially, great problems.

Even as early as 1945, Vannevar Bush, in his seminal article, ‘As We May Think’  identified the problem of processing such a volume of information:

“There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.”

He recognised that the traditional methods of sharing information were no longer ‘fit for purpose’:

“Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose.”

He concluded by suggesting that new computer technologies, could transform the situation and help overcome these barriers:

“there are signs of a change as new and powerful instrumentalities come into use.”

Information Retrieval is one of the means by which we can deal with data beyond a database; its most common form is that of the Internet Search Engine. This differs from the results of searching a database in a very significant way. Where two people making the same query of a database would receive the same results, two people making the same query in a search engine would be given differing results. This is all down to the fact that in Information Retrieval, the responses are all subjectively relevant; if you were using Google for instance, your previous searches would all be taken into account.

I’ll discuss Information Retrieval in more depth over the course of this blog, but I’d like to conclude by returning to a point that I made earlier, that the world wide web presents difficulties as well as opportunities. Yes, it’s true that there is an increasing symbiosis between users’ needs and search technologies, (as our DITA exercise showed, even natural language queries result in a fair degree of relevance these days), which makes it appear as if Information Retrieval may well help to overcome the problems highlighted by Bush; yet I read a blog post from the British Library’s web archive blog, which raised some serious concerns in my mind. The UK Web Archive has been archiving pages since 2004 and seeks to prevent the creation of a “potential digital black hole”. Recently they conducted an exercise in which they wanted to see how well they had achieved their objective. They checked to see whether the URLs they had archived were still live on the web, and if so, whether the information contained therein was still the same or had been changed.

The results, from an archival point of view were quite alarming. Over half of URLs from 2007 and earlier were unobtainable for one reason or another; and (apart from 2014 URLS), even those which are still retrievable, over 90% are no longer the same material. Therefore, could it be that Information Retrieval is only good for dealing with the web in the here and now? Are we going to have to develop new methods, new techniques and maybe even new ways of thinking when searching for historical materials on the web?





Posted in Information Retrieval and Relational Databases | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Does my blog look big in this?

Fans of 90s comedy sketch show The Fast Show,will recognise the provenance of the title straight away. Each week, Arabella Weir played an insecure woman, paranoid about the way in which her physical appearance was perceived by others. She would ask strangers to comment on her looks, and would always end by saying ‘does my bum look big in this?’ Most of us worry about our appearance to some degree or another, although hopefully not as much as the poor woman in the sketch. Which rather obtusely, brings me to the theme of my second blog: appearance and perception

We are all visual creatures and the world wide web has evolved into an increasingly visual medium. Our first #DITA practical task was to look at a range of webpages, all exploring a similar theme, the history of computing. The differences between a page from the 1990s, http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/ and a current one, http://www.computerhistory.org/atchm/ are quite dramatic, and illustrates just how far the architecture of web sites has developed in such a short space of time.

We then had to create our own blog and configure the wordpress settings in order to create a clear and professional look, taking on board what we’ve learnt about Information Architecture. My main aims were to make my blog easy on the eye and functional. I chose the Twenty Ten theme because it was uncluttered. I liked the fact that it had only one sidebar, so that there was not too much distracting from the central body of the page.

I came up with the title For What It’s Worth to suggest to the reader that the musings contained therein were subjective, certainly not authoritative, but open for peoples’ own considerations. I added the subheading, ‘Exploring the world of digital information technologies and architecture’ in order to make it clear precisely what the blog would be about; this was particularly important given the ambiguous nature of the blog’s title.

I then had to consider which widgets to place in the sidebar. At the top I placed a search bar, because I wanted the contents to be easily accessed; I also added  Archives and Categories sections for the same reason.  Recent Posts, Leave a Comment and Recent Comments were all added to encourage interaction with the readers. Metadata was added because since it is a blog concerning Information Architecture, it is only sensible to include these links. I added a blog roll because I wish to link my blogs with those of others in order to create a supportive community, and likewise, I added a Follow Blog via email button in order to facilitate that endeavour.

The final design choices were to chance the image which came with the template and add a background colour. I searched Google Images for ‘information revolution’ and settled upon the image of a wordcloud on the topic. I chose it for relevance and the fact that it was a stock photo and could be freely used. I’m still not completely pleased with it, and will change it for a better one later on – the blog after all, is a constant work in progress.

So, does my blog look big in this? I’m still not completely satisfied with its appearance, but as a start, it will do.

Posted in Information Architecture | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Diving in

Welcome. So, I’ve just been introduced to the world of blogging, and my first thought is to bash my head into the keyboard. There are lots of guides and how tos, and at some point I’ll give them a good read; but for now I’ll do what I usually do when confronting something new  – just get stuck in, make it up as I go along and see what happens. Now we’ll see just how ‘intuitive’ this software is eh?

I guess you could say that this (lack of) approach is what the DITA course is about in some ways. How do people interact with the technologies which we are surrounded by in our everyday lives?

That’s what I’ll be writing about – sorta, kinda.

Thanks for reading.

Posted in General musings | 2 Comments