• Weeks 195-196

    2 October 2016

    Lots going on, so weeknotes in haste:

    I spent about half this fortnight working on some new features for Selworthy expanding on our speech-to-text functionality; this led to some new features still in the prototype stages, but that already seem pretty promising. Some rough edges to be solved in Week 197, but a good feature out there.

    I also started work on a more complex feature that involves spinning up a new web service, as well as extending another. As a result, much of the programming work hasn’t been so much ‘typing’ as ‘pacing and thinking’ – working out how all these boxes will talk to one another, and when. It seems like I’m not typing enough – and then I come to the typing and realise all the thinking was the real work, and has paid off. That feature’s going to take a little more pacing, but so far, it’s proceeding well.

    Three more days in week 196 with Good Form and Spectacle, which I started spending writing a pile of code to denormalise a lot of database dumps into large JSON objects, and ended exploring those objects in our Elasticsearch cluster. A chunky bit of work that, along with the work done by my other colleagues, sets us up to explore and describe this information.

    I’d have done more in Week 195, but I was laid low by a cold that turned a flexible, easy end of the week into one mainly spent asleep; illness is a frustrating thing when one’s freelance, and I was lucky I had the space to cushion that impact; understanding clients also help.

    Back on the bounch, though, and so onto Week 197.

  • Weeks 191-194

    19 September 2016

    Nearly a month of weeknotes – gulp – but a month that’s easily summarised.

    The main focus of this time frame was bringing Holmfell into land and getting it over the finish line. That all went well, and it was feature complete by the beginning of September – at which point I went on vacation for just over a week.

    I returned to find it still alive and well, with almost minimal fettling required before its official launch. That came with the opening of Bedlam at the Wellcome Collection – and I’ve written more about Empathy Deck, Holmfell as was, over here.

    I spent some time in week 192 helping Spitalfields Music (on whose Programme Advisory Group I serve) with some interviews for their Open Call brief.

    And finally, in week 194, I also began a new project with the team at Good Form & Spectacle, which will take me through much of October. Big, complex, and lots to wrap my head around, as ever. More to come there, I’d imagine.

  • Week 130

    14 April 2015

    I spent Week 130 working with Good, Form & Spectacle on Two Way Street.

    This was a four-day burst of work with George and Frankie to make a tool to explore the British Museum’s collection. We were aided by some early work from Tom Stuart on translating the available dataset – linked data, stored in N-Quads – into something approaching regular JSON that developers could work with.

    George’s Work Diary post about the project has lots more notes, explaining the shape of the project and some of the reasoning behind it. I also really like the explanation on the site’s about page:

    The British Museum is a venerable institution that opened in 1753, and has been a centre of scholarship since then.

    This project is not that. This is a sketch made quickly to explore what it means to navigate a museum catalogue made of over two million records. It’s about skipping around quickly, browsing the metadata as if you were wandering around the museum itself in Bloomsbury, or better yet, fossicking about unattended in the archives.

    It’s a lovely tool to explore and poke, and we had fun making it – by the end, there were loads of URLs just being bounced back and forth in the Slack channel. Look at this!, one of us says, and then look at that! I think that’s a good sign.

    It was interesting to build, too: once we’d wrangled the data out of n-quads, we ended up storing it all in Elasticsearch. There’s no traditional relational datastore in the project at all. I wrote more about that choice, and what it enabled, over at the Good, Form and Spectacle Work Diary in a post called Tools For Counting Things Quickly:

    So often, what we’re doing is counting and listing – usually both at once. Those counts are often predicated on complex criteria – but Elasticsearch’s aggregations make these counts very straightforward, and allows us to bundle many into a single query. For instance, the page that shows what objects were made in Japan, and which also lists which decades matching objects came from, visualises what other facets are most popular, and then enumerates the objects themselves, is just two queries in total – one of which is just used to construct the row of boxes for the decades.

    There’s more in the post if that’s your sort of thing.

    A fun four days, with a great deal of code cranked out and a few interesting interactions too. Heartening, sometimes, what a short sprint with good people can achieve.

    And then, it was all over. Onwards; week 131 sees a return to Selworthy and the transmission of Periton.

  • The V&A Spelunker

    6 January 2015

    At the end of 2014, I spent a short while working with George Oates of Good, Form & Spectacle on what we’ve called the V&A Spelunker.

    We sat down to explore a dataset of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s entire collection. The very first stages of that exploration were just getting the data into a malleable form – first into our own database, and then onto web pages as what got called Big Dumb Lists.

    From there, though, we started to twist the collection around and explore it from all angles – letting you pivot the collection around objects form a single place, or made of a single material.

    That means you can look at all the Jumpers in the collection, or everything from Staffordshire (mainly ceramics, as you might expect), or everything by Sir John Soane.

    And of course, it’s all very, very clickable; we’ve spent lots of time just exploring and excitingly sending each other links with the latest esoteric or interesting thing we’ve found.

    George has written more on the V&A’s Digital Media blog. She describes what came to happen as we explored:

    In some ways, the spelunker isn’t particularly about the objects in the collection — although they’re lovely and interesting — it now seems much more about the shape of the catalogue itself. You eventually end up looking at individual things, but, the experience is mainly about tumbling across connections and fossicking about in dark corners.

    Exploring that idea of the shape of the catalogue further, we built a visual exploration of the dataset, to see if particular stories about the shape of the catalogue might leap out when we stacked a few things up together – namely, setting when objects were acquired against when they are from, and how complete their data is. You quickly begin to see objects acquired at the same time, or from the same collection.

    This is very much a sketch that we’ve made public – it is not optimised in so many ways. But it’s a useful piece of thinking and as George says, is already teasing out more questions than answers – and that absolutely felt worth sharing.

    Do read George’s post. I’m going to be writing a bit more on the Good, Form & Spectacle Work Diary about the process of building the Spelunker later this week. It’s the sort of material exploration I really enjoy, and it’s interesting to see the avenues for further ideas opening up every time you tilt the data around a little.