what happened to subject gateways?

An ‘ILRT alumni and friends’ group has sprung up on Facebook, with several dozen members. We reminisce about events we attended and projects we worked on, and share photos of former staff jollies and awaydays, conference visits, giveaway items and so on. Many of us had something to do with the resource discovery site Intute (I still have an Intute plastic drinks coaster). It covered all subjects and subsumed ILRT’s own SOSIG (Social Services Information Gateway). As well as cross-searching, Intute also had add-ons such as newsfeeds and a personalised space for tagging and exporting content. It ran from 2006 until 2011, with content frozen till 2014, when the site was finally closed.

(Earlier when I worked at NISS – now Eduserv which has been in the news this week – we had a ‘Directory of Networked Resources’, which also covered all subjects. As well as cataloguing all resources on the NISS site, anyone could catalogue and submit a resource. It ceased to work in about 2002, I believe because there wasn’t the staff time available to check the resources that had been submitted, and by then it was only duplicating other gateways, including those that became Intute. BUBL met a similar fate.)

What went wrong with Intute, apart from the general shortage of funds after the credit crunch? We were proud of SOSIG, but it was apparent when I worked on merging it with other subject gateways, that they were at different levels of development and detail. The claimed advantage of Intute was that it enabled cross-searching, but it wasn’t so clear how much of an advantage that was. If you are a historian, do you need to be able to find resources relating to chemistry? And how much do you need a facility to export content, when most people are comfortable with cut and paste, and have their own way of storing information that they need to keep?

More generally, we don’t seem to hear much about subject gateways any more. A search on the term suggests that the main people who run ‘subject gateways’ now are professional organisations. They were labour-intensive – SOSIG had a distributed team of subject experts cataloguing resources, plus a team at ILRT keeping the whole thing going. And the whole process of resource discovery has changed. Better search engine algorithms have lessened the need for them, as relevant, popular resources rise to the top of the list of search results, so there is less need to go browsing through a catalogue.

But they haven’t gone away altogether. For a few years now I’ve been an editor of the Digital Classicist Wiki, which collects and catalogues ‘digital projects and tools of relevance to classicists’ (this last term is quite generously interpreted). The wiki works by voluntary labour from interested people, and is part of the Digital Classicist hub, which in turn is hosted by KCL’s Department of Digital Humanities. We meet for a sprint once a month, with a suggested list of resources to be added or edited, and contribute at other times. The interface is not flashy, and the tagging by category doesn’t catch everything (this is one of the areas I like to work on); the categories themselves are a folksonomy* of what people find useful, not a systematic hierarchical classification scheme. But it’s got over 500 entries in it now. Because of its focus on digital projects, it doesn’t attempt to link to every Classics-related website – for example, it doesn’t cover Classics departments or most journals – but it does include the sort of resources which were once found on Intute.

I don’t know whether similar sites exist for other subjects. But it would seem that in the case of Classics at least, we have reverted to the earlier model of subject gateway – created by volunteer experts and with basic functionality – as being more sustainable than the relatively short life of sites such as Intute.

(* I don’t use ‘folksonomy’ perjoratively – traditional classification schemes such as UDC or DDC would struggle with some of the categories which are useful for digital resources in classics. A topic for another post!)

The Premdictor

My sons and I decided that we wanted to run a Premier League prediction competition this year. We decided on a system where you got 2 points for putting a team in the right place in the table, and 1 point if your prediction differed by one place in either direction. The advantage of doing this with the Premier League is that, at least until the latter stages of the FA Cup, the teams play rounds of matches, at the end of which every team has played the same number of games. (We are all Reading fans and a postponed match has caused our team to have a spuriously low position in the table for several weeks, now remedied.)

A parent with coding skills can put something like this online in a short time. I have written a script that grabs the current table off a Web page and parses out the team names in their current order, together with the number of matches played. Sorting this out probably took most of my time. This order is then compared against four lots of predictions (my husband has joined in, with a random order of teams). The current table, number of matches (so one can see whether the current round is complete) and all the predictions are displayed as columns in a table. Teams in exactly the right place are in a box with a red background; those one place off are in a pink one. Below the table the current score for each predicted table is given, with a breakdown of which predictions have contributed to it.

After each round of matches I note the scores and winner of that round in a spreadsheet. I could have automated that process too, but I decided not to put in all the extra effort. Perhaps at a later stage. A pattern is beginning to emerge. The random predictions tend to score about 3. The non-random ones have gradually improved as teams have gravitated to their natural place in the league, except that the most accurate prediction of all so far was mine after the first round of matches: 13. And predictions can fluctuate a lot between rounds. After round 14 I was the winner with an accuracy of 8; but one round later I scored only 4.

The non-random predictions have some agreement among themselves. We all thought Everton would be 7th; this seemed most unlikely for a while, but they’ve now risen to 10th. We all put West Ham two places below them, which is way off at the moment. And Leicester in 11th which is rather better as things stand.

Online forums: blessing or curse?

A recent* thread on an online forum leads me to think about the dangers of such forums – or are they blessings in disguise? A communication from a Cathedral to a visiting choir implied a significant change in what such choirs would be permitted to do. An online discussion of the implications of its content caused consternation at that Cathedral. It turned out that this communication had left out a couple of relevant points, and the original poster ended the discussion by posting a correction.

I understand how organisations must fear social media and forums with their power to spread information, possibly altering it in the process. But there are benefits for them. Firstly, an awareness that the content of communications may quickly become public may cause greater care in the wording of those communications and on how they are delivered; in my experience Cathedrals can be quite casual about this. It may mean fewer messages coming from ‘on high’ with the originator of a decision getting someone else to deliver the actual message, with the attendant risk of distortion, misunderstanding and lack of transparency. Better communications all round can only be a help.

Secondly, the internet is making the sort of discussions members of visiting choirs have always had among themselves (there is a large overlap in membership) more visible. In other words, it is now possible to eavesdrop on these discussions, scotch false rumours, correct inaccuracies, and even reflect on the actions which sparked off those discussions. These points seem relevant to a wider world outside the rather restricted one of Cathedral visiting choirs.

* I have backdated this thread so as not to reveal any identities, which is not the point of this post.

a continuity is broken

My first job was at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population. The Group’s founder, Peter Laslett (still then an active presence), had the vision that everyone who worked there, including IT support and admin staff, would be doing some research into historical demography. I suspect this was an ideal that was never attained in practice, but there was nevertheless an expectation that if you worked there you would develop an understanding of what the Group’s research was about. I attended seminars and we had (frequently) learned discussions when we assembled over morning coffee and afternoon tea.

Something of this expectation was there when I worked at Manchester University’s computing centre, supporting the use of contemporary Census data. I was encouraged to do a bit of Census research of my own, on the way student populations affected migration statistics, in conjunction with the Census Microdata Unit, and I gave a talk at the Unit’s research seminar about my previous work at the Cambridge Group.

But in the years since then, the ethos of Universities and their IT departments has got more corporate. Every minute of time has to be accounted for and assigned to a project, and one’s value is only evaluated against a set number of attributes on a job description. ‘Academics’ are regarded almost as an alien species by support staff and if I was assigned to do IT development work on an academic project, I was assumed to take no interest in its subject matter. There was a brief flashback to former times just before I left Bristol University, when I worked on what is now the Historical Photographs of China site. I was able to contribute a blog post on a topic relating to some of the photographs, on which I happened to have some expertise.

What I saw at the Cambridge Group was a continuity between academic researchers and academic-related support staff, which has been broken. When I started out, you could find around Cambridge University people in academic-related posts who were not (or no longer) officially doing research, but whose wide interests, high level of general knowledge and ability to make interdisciplinary connexions made them valuable to those who were. They had been in contact with academics enough to have much of their mindset and were productive because they loved what they did. Their names might not have appeared on the spines of academic monographs, but they often featured in the acknowledgements. And yet I fear such people are an endangered species in Universities now. I expect a reader might protest ‘Oh I know of so-and-so who is just like that’, and I’d ask when they were appointed; most likely in the days when the continuity still existed. Its loss can only be to the detriment of University research.

References, people skills and the competence-based interview

This is not really technology-based, more some observations about trends in recruitment procedures (something which I’ve been exposed to a lot of in the last few years).

I’ve been told by people on the other side of the process that some recruiters only take up references for successful candidates, to check that they have not made false claims about themselves, and that this is because references were becoming too hyperbolic in praise of candidates and hence less useful. Along with this is a rise in the ‘competence-based interview’ where the shortlisted candidate is asked to give examples of how they’ve behaved in particular work situations in the past, and to explain how they might behave in a particular hypothetical situation. In my experience this approach is particularly aimed at assessing ‘people skills’. These two trends seem to me to be connected, with the competence-based questions designed to find out about personal qualities which a referee might have drawn attention to, although I’m not sure which trend might have driven the other.

This approach seems to me to miss some important things. Firstly, there are some useful skills which will simply be missed by it. For example, the possibly vital one of remembering a trivial-seeming piece of information and then being able to apply it some time later, e.g. to introduce two people with something significant in common to one another. This is the sort of thing a referee might comment on, but which is impossible to test in a job interview.

Secondly, even a question about the candidate’s experience of dealing with failure is not necessarily going to find their really weak points. What people say they would do and the way they actually behave are two different things. In fact many people are not necessarily aware of major blunders they have made in their job, especially in the area of people skills. If you were asked about managing a team, or dealing with a member of staff whose job title had changed, you’d probably go on about the importance of meetings, and about keeping that member of staff informed of the change. And yet things don’t always happen that way, as I’ve remarked before.

Actually this shows up a problem with references generally: that they are written by one’s superiors. I wonder if a better picture would be given for those applying for management posts if one reference came from someone who had been line-managed by the candidate. The referee would be chosen by someone in the department/group other than the candidate. I think if people knew that this would happen when they applied for another job, people skills all round might improve enormously!

Thoughts of a Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator (2): crime statistics

We’ve been sent a message recently with some crime statistics. It reads ‘Please find attached a breakdown of the crimes [sic] types and number that occurred in your area in March 2017′ and a spreadsheet is attached.

I note the following:

a) There is no indication of what ‘your area’ is. Is it the whole of the place we live in? The part on our side of the river? Our local beat? Any smaller unit than that would make us quite a hotspot.

b) We were sent a similar breakdown of crimes a few months ago, but have had nothing since then until now, so it is impossible to get a picture of whether crime is going up or down, is seasonal, is changing in nature, or any other kind of longitudinal analysis.

c) The crimes are arranged alphabetically by type of crime using detailed categories, so that (for example) burglaries appear under both ‘Burglary….’ and ‘Other….’, not grouped together which makes it hard to get an overall picture.

d) I’m relieved to see that there have been no instances of murder or manslaughter and several other major crimes are absent. But has there really been no arson? Cars get set on fire quite often in the locality – should this be classified in a way that makes it clear fire was involved? And I don’t understand all the types of crime, for example ‘Engage in Controlling/Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate Family Relationship’. I’d have thought this was quite common, but not usually a matter for the police; presumably there is a line that has to be crossed before it is. Similarly with ‘Sending letters etc with intent to cause distress or anxiety (Mal Comms)’ which seems to be one of the commoner crimes round here.

For these reasons I won’t be circulating the spreadsheet round my NW email list.

Thoughts of a Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator (1): the email list

For the last few months we’ve been organisers of the Neighbourhood Watch in our street. This mostly means sending out email messages every few days to an email list of residents in the street. The contents are mostly police alerts about crime (actual or tips on prevention) but so as not to be too downbeat I include other local information such as the progress of a nearby housing development and websites which can be used for local matters such as Nextdoor or FixMyStreet.

Every so often I distribute letters to the households which are not yet on the list, which update about recent crime and encourage them to join the list, assuring them the their email address won’t be made known to anyone else. There are quite a number of these absentees, and it’s hard to see the reason for this. Not all the ‘missing households’ are short-term residents (who, sadly, are the ones most in need of crime warnings as they are more likely to be targets); I’m still waiting to hear from a local Parliamentary candidate (!) and from another household which readily signed up to Nextdoor.

In many cases it’s just inertia. People say ‘Got your letter – will try to remember to send you my email address’. And sometimes the replies to our letters have indeed been delayed. Beyond that there may be an (incorrect) feeling that NW is a way of spying on other people in the street. And a general reluctance to give your email address away. Perhaps a fear of spam, or of phishing or hacking attempts coming via email. This is ironic, as one of the topics the email list sends helpful information about is how to beware of electronic crime.

why some people aren’t moving to Nextdoor

I was an occasional user of Streetlife, a website which functioned as a local bulletin board. It’s been taken over by the American site Nextdoor, which aims to serve a similar purpose. I have signed up for Nextdoor, along with several of my neighbours. Nextdoor seems to avoid one of the problems I had with Streetlife – in practice it wasn’t very local. I got fed up of reading about lost cats on the other side of Bath! I can configure Nextdoor to keep it focused on my own area. [I also wish the ‘Inbox’ was more accurately entitled ‘Messages’ or similar, as it contains outbound messages too.]

But I know that people are concerned that Nextdoor reveals people’s addresses to people they may not know. When you sign up, your full address is displayed to those in your neighbourhood. It is possible to configure your settings so that just your street is displayed, although some people don’t stay long enough, or aren’t bright enough, to find that out. Even then, if you are the only person in your street on Nextdoor, your address can be identified using the map where households who have joined the site are highlighted. Identity theft is a persistent worry – with good reason. I think Nextdoor is based on an American model of homogeneous neighbourhoods within which people trust one another. Many places in Britain are not like that. Here in Bath, social housing is scattered around the city, often because it was built on the sites of World War II bombing. One local neighbourhood (in the Nextdoor sense) includes both some of the most exclusive streets in Bath (or so their inhabitants would like to think!) and areas notorious for drug dealing, where the police have recently raided and shut down dens. In fact one of these drug dens was in a dilapidated Georgian house located right among expensive period properties occupied by the well-to-do.

So I think Nextdoor might do better to give people the option of displaying publicly only what their neighbourhood is, not their street, and/or not appearing highlighted on the map. These options should be offered clearly to people when they sign up.
The above is an edited version of a comment I put to Streetlife/Nextdoor. They defended the practice of displaying people’s names and streets as follows: ‘[Nextdoor] found that when everyone uses their real names and addresses, people are likely to feel more accountable, and conversation is more constructive and neighbourly. Neighbours are also more likely to feel confident to connect in the real world, rather than just online – and that’s what Nextdoor is all about.’

I haven’t noticed much constructive, neighbourly conversation on Nextdoor yet, but then there’s been no conversation of any kind in my neighbourhood. I suspect the cosy, chatty connections they project are just not going to happen round here. Not just between the social extremes in some neighbourhoods – and as I explained above they really are extreme – but even between similar nearby households in an area where snobbishness and isolationism are rife. Only yesterday I was in conversation with someone in my street, who broke it off abruptly when she found out I lived in the other half of the street from her – the half that is excluded from the residents’ association originally named after the whole street. When attitudes like that begin to change, I’ll start believing that Nextdoor is doing some good.

DCDC16, Salford

I went to this conference, sponsored by the National Archives and Research Libraries UK, in Salford. It was very well attended and even when I’d eliminated talks that were not very relevant to me there was no shortage of interest.

Rather than pick up on individual talks, I’ll mention some trends. Digitisation is being taken up in all parts of the heritage sector, and Cathedrals, for example, are now finding out what it can do for their archives. Engagement with the public is a more important side to the work than in purely University-based research. I sense that there is often a gap in understanding between the experts in the material and those who are doing the technical work of making it available in digital form: a gap I’d be well placed to fill if I could find the right place!

It was good to see some people I used to work with as clients and also to find out that BOPCRIS is still flourishing and much used. A nice touch was a board where you could ask for help or advertise your skills. And, unlike the Digital Humanities Congress, a delegate list!

Managerialism and people skills

I recently went for an interview at an institution where I used to work. In recent years, a much more ‘managerial’ approach has overtaken some parts of this organisation, compared with others in its sector. In an recruitment context, this can mean questions tend to focus on the ‘big picture’ rather than the practicalities of the job. A couple of years ago I was asked in an interview there about such topics as the difference computerisation had made to the entire sector; the job actually involved hacking cascading style-sheets for three months, part-time.

When I started working there the culture was very different. Individuality and a certain amount of eccentricity flourished, and we had the same freedom about taking days of leave and working hours that academics enjoy. Towards the end of my time, micro-management started creeping in, with the elevation of the timesheet as the unit of productivity: ‘you spent a day and a half on this project last year; the client is only paying for four hours!’ At least we weren’t encouraged to use a stopwatch, as happened at another workplace I’ve had.

There was a downside to this more tolerant culture; a casualness about dealing with staff which (almost always inadvertently) could cause hurt and result in loss of morale, as well as direct damage to the workings of the department. For example, my own job title changed at least three times, without my ever being notified of the changes. Information about salaries wasn’t kept confidential. And for a year and a half I wasn’t even invited to meetings of my own team!

Is there a way to avoid this, without going down the route of a corporate managerial style which can seem impersonal? Surely the answer lies in ‘people skills’. From some of the interviews I’ve had recently, you would think that the only such skill which was valuable was that of being manipulative. I realise that my own people skills are pretty patchy, and true excellence in this area is rare. But it’s surely obvious, for example, that people don’t pretend to be upset, and that if they are upset it could poison working relationships for years to come. Nor is it being self-centred for a staff member to expect to be treated the same way as others in the same situation. When I look back on the things that went wrong in my case (and I did sometimes try to raise them), they would have been so simple to set right.

These are lessons of quite general applicability (I could write a similar article about running choirs, for example). I think perhaps the answer lies in valuing empathy rather more highly. Even a line manager or administrator who thinks of the organisation rather than of individuals ought to realise that unhappy, demoralised staff will affect the productivity of the whole. Are questions ever asked at interviews to find out whether candidates know this?