Category Archives: other websites

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!)

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.

Freecycle vs Freegle

I’ve used Freecycle/Freegle to pass on quite a few unwanted items. Freecycle is the original network, but in 2009 a number of Freecycle groups migrated to Yahoo and elsewhere and renamed themselves ‘Freegle’, in protest at restrictions imposed on them. New moderators were found for the groups on the Freecycle site, so now there are two systems running in parallel. I haven’t done a detailed comparison of Freecycle and Freegle but they seem to work in a very similar way, even down to the syntax of the messages and the wording of the disclaimers. One advantage of the Freecycle site is that you can withdraw an item which has been claimed; on Freegle you have to send a second message after the first and hope the membership (and the moderators!) connect the two.

It seems that users are showing a preference for the original Freecycle site. As I posted another offer today, I noticed that usage in the Bath Freegle Yahoo group has declined. When it split off in 2009, it was running at over 2500 messages a month. But through 2010 activity declined, and it is now about 1200 messages a month – still a considerable amount. Meanwhile Bath Freecycle has 4,000 more members than Bath Freegle and while I can’t find message stats, if today is typical it has significantly more messages. My experience of using both today is that moderators on Bath Freecycle are quicker to act – my message was moderated and put up within the hour (and the item then claimed), while no message has appeared on Bath Freegle for over 12 hours.

A quick check on the South Gloucestershire equivalent groups shows a similar pattern. The Bristol Freegle group exists but has never really taken off.

These sites are a real window on the sort of stuff people feel a need to offload and I often wonder at the story behind some items. Sadly but rather predictably, the literacy levels of the messages claiming items are often appalling.

I have one beef about the way Freecycle works. I have successfully posted offers in the Bath, West Wilts and South Gloucestershire groups (Bath is near the meeting point of these three counties). But when I tried offering something via the Bristol group I was told I couldn’t because I didn’t live in Bristol. Never mind that I work there and declared that a handover in the city centre or Clifton Triangle area could easily be arranged. This seems perverse and smacks of officious moderators liking to throw their weight around. I think it must have been Freecycle and not Freegle where this happened, for the reason given above.

But the situation remains that having two almost identical networks running in parallel doesn’t really benefit anyone. Whatever the restrictions which caused Freegle to spring up, they are less of a nuisance than the need for users to offer or place a wanted request in two separate places. I’d like to see a merger of the two, and if the current trends continue that will eventually happen.

the NHS and mobile devices

I’ve been looking at the website of my local hospital.  It has become extensive and provides very detailed information about what the hospital does.  In fact in some cases, such as the hospital’s family history programmes for certain cancers, the Web page is the only public source of information that exists.  (Whether a Web page should be the only source of information for such vital services is a can of worms that I won’t open here.)

But the website appears to have been designed with the browsing habits of a few years ago in mind.  One issue stands out: an assumption that the person viewing it will be doing so on something the size of a desktop PC.

Let’s put ourselves in the position of someone wanting to get some information about what the local NHS provides.  It’s really quite likely that they might not want others in their household to find out which pages they’ve been looking at.  In this situation, they’re likely to consult the site on their own mobile phone or other handheld device rather than on a shared PC or laptop.

However, the hospital web pages do not have this sort of accessibility.  They are long and image-heavy and key information is often deeply buried (not a good idea, whatever hardware the visitor is using).  For example, a list of risk factors for one common and deadly disease is only reachable on a 17-page PDF which you first have to download and then scroll several pages into.  No thought has been given to the anxious person who might be accessing the page on a mobile phone with a small screen and who pays by the megabyte for everything they download.

I have the impression that the website was developed a few years ago when handheld devices were not routinely used to access the Web.  By the time the site was ready, the world had moved on and it no longer fully met the needs of the public (something possibly true of other aspects of the NHS too?)

a Potemkin village on the Web

I have been trawling round lots of UK university websites, principally those of the Russell Group, this week.  There’s a rather discouraging uniformity to many of them and I felt that the sight of another group of cheerful students clustered round a laptop would make me feel positively ill.  A surprising number of the sites concealed the name of the institution so it wasn’t easy to find.  Some deliberately broke the mould by displaying a main picture of far-flung research, such as a graduate student standing on a glacier in New Zealand.  A common trait was trumpeting a high position in a league table of universities compiled by a national newspaper or survey or (where possible) in the ‘World’s Top 100’ universities  There are so many tables and categories that there’s likely to be one to suit any reasonably good institution!

As regards look and feel, I liked Birmingham’s the best, though the one I browsed around most for pleasure was Liverpool’s, which had links to news releases and blog posts by its staff. (One of which admittedly said ‘I haven’t worked out how to write a blog without getting into trouble!’)

However what I was really after was information on research data management. I used this as a search term in the web sites of Russell Group universities and a few others, with interesting results.  I’ll share here a couple of things I found which won’t make it into my official report.  One was the Russell Group university which seems to equate research data management with using EndNote(!), at least to judge by the references to it on their site.

I was at first more impressed with the ‘Research Data Management homepage’ of another university (not in the Russell Group), which bristled with links, noting ‘This university means business!’    I returned to the page later and started to follow the links.  Almost all of them led you away to other sites such the DCC’s or other parts of the University.  The ‘news’ was all culled from elsewhere; the most recent news item was two months old and related to a court case involving a Hollywood actor!   The blog had a single posting, over three months old.  A ‘Learn More’ link just took you back to the same page.  Some dummy text could still be found on some of the pages.  There was some generalised information about research data on the home page, but nothing specific about the University’s own provision, such as whether it had a research data management policy or a dedicated repository.  I imagine that this site is intended mainly as a placemarker until more detailed information becomes available, but in its own way it does a very impressive job of disguising its absence – the Web equivalent of a Potemkin village, or of the lengthy football report I once read which concealed the fact that the two matches the local team were due to play that week had both been postponed.