The problem with 38 Degrees

August 4th, 2014 by

A few years ago, I did something using the 38 Degrees website – I forget what exactly, but I think it was a handy form for an irritated letter to a politician. It was a Labour minister, which dates this!

Over the next few years, I got a series of emails from them, culminating in the point when I noticed with some surprise that they were referring to me as part of “their movement” and I unsubscribed with some irritation. It seems they’re still at it; looking at their website, we find the remarkable claim that they have over 2.5 million members (which would make them the third largest organisation in the country).

According to their FAQ:

The only requirement of membership is to take an action, as simple as signing a petition, or attending an event.

And looking at a recent petition (on a topic dear to my heart…) we find a very carefully prepared option: you can opt in to receiving emails from the organisation behind the campaign, but you are automatically signed up to be on the 38 Degrees mailing list. The note here says:

Your personal information will be kept private and held securely. By submitting information you are agreeing to 38 Degrees keeping you informed about campaigns and agree to the use of cookies. privacy policy

Note what it does and doesn’t say. So, the system runs like this:

  • you sign a petition;

  • you are automatically enrolled on a mailing list, with the stated aim of “keeping you informed about campaigns” (section 3(g) of the privacy statement).
  • you are automatically considered a member of an organisation, despite this appearing nowhere on the signup or privacy page.
  • this organisation then claims the legitimacy of “2.5 million members”

The only way to get out of being “a member” is to notice this and unsubscribe. I can’t help but feel there’s something fundamentally disingenuous about this approach, and it leaves me with a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Update: it seems that (at least as of 2013) 38 Degrees do send welcome-to-the-movement emails. (They certainly didn’t in 2010). It’s something, I suppose, but it still feels insufficient.

Mechanical Curator on Commons

December 15th, 2013 by

The internet has been very enthralled by the British Library’s recent release of the Mechanical Curator collection: a million public-domain images extracted from digitised books, put online for people to identify and discover. The real delight is that we don’t know what’s in there – the images have been extracted and sorted by a computer, and human eyes may never have looked at them since they were scanned.

Image taken from page 171 of '[Seonee, or, camp life on the Satpura Range ... Illustrated by the author, etc.]'

I wasn’t directly involved with this – it was released after I left – but it was organised by former colleagues of mine, and I’ve worked on some other projects with the underlying Microsoft Books collection. It’s a great project, and all the more so for being a relatively incidental one. I’m really, really delighted to see it out there, and to see the outpouring of interest and support for it.

One of the questions that’s been asked is: why put them on Flickr and not Commons? The BL has done quite a bit of work with Wikimedia, and has used it as the primary way of distributing material in the past – see the Picturing Canada project – and so it might seem a natural home for a large release of public domain material.

The immediate answer is that Commons is a repository for, essentially, discoverable images. It’s structured with a discovery mechanism built around knowing that you need a picture of X, and finding it by search or by category browsing, which makes metadata essential. It’s not designed for serendipitous browsing, and not able to cope easily with large amounts of unsorted and unidentified material. (I think I can imagine the response were the community to discover 5% of the content of Commons was made up of undiscoverable, unlabelled content…) We have started looking at bringing it across, but on a small scale.

Putting a dump on archive.org has much the same problem – a lack of functional discoverability. There’s no way to casually browse material here, and it relies very much on metadata to make it accessible. If the metadata doesn’t exist, it’s useless.

And so: flickr. Flickr, unlike the repositories, is designed for casual discoverability, for browsing screenfuls of images, and for users to easily tag and annotate them – things that the others don’t easily offer. It’s by far the best environment of the three for engagement and discoverability, even if probably less useful for long-term storage.

This brings the question: should Commons be able to handle this use case? There’s a lot of work being done just now on the future of multimedia: will Commons in 2018 be able to handle the sort of large-scale donation that it would choke on in 2013? Should we be working to support discovery and description of unknown material, or should we be focusing on content which already has good metadata?

Not all encyclopedias are created equal

August 3rd, 2013 by

Wikipedia has some way to go before it can comprehensively replace the great Britannica in all its many roles. From Shackleton’s South, a passage in which he and his crew are stranded on a drifting ice-floe in the Weddell Sea, November 1915:

In addition to the daily hunt for food, our time was passed in reading the few books that we had managed to save from the ship. The greatest treasure in the library was a portion of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” This was being continually used to settle the inevitable arguments that would arise. The sailors were discovered one day engaged in a very heated discussion on the subject of Money and Exchange. They finally came to the conclusion that the Encyclopaedia, since it did not coincide with their views, must be wrong.

“For descriptions of every American town that ever has been, is, or ever will be, and for full and complete biographies of every American statesman since the time of George Washington and long before, the Encyclopaedia would be hard to beat. Owing to our shortage of matches we have been driven to use it for purposes other than the purely literary ones though; and one genius having discovered that the paper, used for its pages had been impregnated with saltpetre, we can now thoroughly recommend it as a very efficient pipe-lighter.”

We also possessed a few books on Antarctic exploration, a copy of Browning and one of “The Ancient Mariner.” On reading the latter, we sympathized with him and wondered what he had done with the albatross; it would have made a very welcome addition to our larder.

Young Cree man, 1902

June 26th, 2013 by

Most of the Picturing Canada images are of historic rather than aesthetic value, but here’s a really standout portrait I spotted today:

Cree Indian (HS85-10-13885)

A young Cree man, name unrecorded; probably taken in Alberta or Saskatchewan, 1902. A little fragment of history.

Carolyn Mayben Flowers: the Lady Prospector of Porcupine

June 9th, 2013 by

Working my way through some of the Canadian Collection on Commons this morning, I discovered a rather eye-catching picture:

Porcupine's lady prospector (HS85-10-24373)

“Porcupine’s Lady Prospector”, photographed at the Porcupine Gold Rush in the summer of 1911. Two things immediately strike the viewer: one is that the woman in the photograph is dressed decorously by the standards of Edwardian Canada, with a white blouse and a long dark skirt, despite the searing heat of that summer – Porcupine would later be devastated by wildfire – and the second is that she has a revolver slung casually on one hip.

There has to be a story here.

It turns out to be quite quick to put a name to her; the Timmins Daily Press captions a copy of the picture as Carolyn Mayben Flowers, and the Timmins Museum gives us still around in 1915, giving piano lessons. I haven’t been able to trace her after that, or indeed before. There is a “Cathaline Flowers” in Gowganda (aged 26, married, with a six-year-old daughter), but Gowganda is a long way from Timmins, and she doesn’t list herself as American…

Sitting in a tin can

May 15th, 2013 by

Randall Munroe, in conclusion, on the Hadfield video:

While that’s far from the most anyone’s paid for a guitar, it’s certainly a lot of money. And if playing music helps the astronauts relax and keep from going crazy while they’re crammed together in a tin can for months at a time, it’s probably a worthwhile investment.

As it happens, NASA – are we surprised? – have long before tested the combination of astronauts, musical instruments, and confined spaces.

When the Apollo 11 crew returned from the moon, they were swiftly locked inside the “Mobile Quarantine Facility”, a pressurised trailer designed to stop any lunar diseases escaping. (They were joined by a doctor and a technician, and presumably everyone carefully ignored the aircraft carrier they would have contaminated en route). After a couple of days, they were transferred to a set of living quarters with twelve other people, and spent the next three weeks waiting to see what happened.

(With impeccable logic, it was ruled that if any of them contracted inexplicable urgent medical problems, they would be transferred out of quarantine and into a hospital, which somewhat defeated the point…)

However… well, three weeks in what was essentially a laboratory. No matter how careful the psychological screening, it’s a daunting thought. “[O]nly meager provision had been made for recreation,” according to the official history; they had a ping-pong table and a television.

And, so, some enterprising genius shipped Neil Armstrong a ukulele. It is not recorded what his colleagues thought of this, but in the picture below they do seem to have an avid interest in the sealed door…


Interior view of Mobile Quarantine Facility with Apollo 11 crewmembers [S69-40210]

Wikipedians in Residence: a recap

April 24th, 2013 by

To my great surprise, I got named in a BBC story today. The article is about the upcoming Wikipedian in Residence at the National Library of Scotland; it’s really pleasing that as my own work at the British Library is coming to an end, there’ll be someone else taking up the work at an equally interesting organisation.

NLS is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Here is a list of all the current and past Wikimedians in Residence, and below is a list of everyone who is currently looking for a Wikipedian (or Wikimedian) in Residence that I’ve heard about – please let me know if I’ve missed any!

  • The National Library of Scotland (paid)

    Four-month residency working with the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh to help disseminate the Library’s content to Wikipedia, and work with librarians to help encourage understanding and use of the projects.

  • JISC “Wikimedia Ambassador” residency (paid)

    Nine-month program looking to build skills and expertise engaging with Wikimedia projects among JISC-funded research programs, and to help disseminate knowledge from that research. (In many ways, this fits very neatly with some of the work I was doing for AHRC…).

  • ZDF Television (Germany) (paid)

    Short-term program (until mid-October) to liaise between the organisation and Wikipedia contributors on – I love this – a project to fact-check political claims during the months before the 2013 federal election in September.

  • Smithsonian Institution (paid)

    Internship (with stipend), aiming to build on and sustain the existing partnership programs with the Smithsonian.

  • Swiss Federal Archives (paid)

    Three to six month program with a particular focus on digitising WWI-related photographs.

  • METRO (New York) Open Data Fellowship (paid)

    An interesting two-track program; an eight-week fellowship working as a Wikipedian in Residence for a consortium of cultural institutions, and also as an advisor on open data/licensing/etc. US only, students preferred.

  • Olympia Timberland Library (US) (volunteer)

    The library is looking for a “Wiki-Ninja” (now there’s something to put on a job description) to help build and sustain a local-history editing program among the local community.

And, of course, there’s plenty more institutions which are setting up similar volunteer programs without going through a formal recruitment process – it only tends to be needed when money gets involved. If you’re a Wikipedia volunteer thinking of what you could do with a local institution, now is as good a time as any to approach them…

How many hours?

February 19th, 2013 by

A newly released (and very interesting) paper – Using Edit Sessions to Measure Participation in Wikipedia – looks at estimating the level of participation in Wikipedia using an estimate of time spent contributing, rather than previous studies based on raw edit numbers, etc.

Their headline figure is an estimate that all of Wikipedia, up to an unspecified date in 2012, represents “a total of 102,673,683 total labor-hours”.

As David White noticed, this is many lifetimes of labour:

Some other ways to visualise these numbers:

  • Three years work by a mid-sized university of around 15,000 people (assuming a working day of eight hours and 250 working days in the year)

  • The users of the British Library reading rooms (capacity ~1500) working for thirty-three years.
  • One thousand “productive lives” (days as above, over fifty years, rather than 24/7 cradle to grave)

Or, in a sharp demonstration of the “cognitive surplus” theory:

  • Seven minutes writing time each from the global audience of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

All of Wikipedia, in all its languages, could have been written in the time it took the world to make a cup of tea during the speeches.

Wikipedia and the British Library

February 14th, 2013 by

Crossposted from the British Library Digital Scholarship blog


I’ve been working as the Wikipedian in Residence at the British Library for the past nine months. This is a one-year project funded by the AHRC, which aims to study the ways in which academics and specialists can engage with Wikipedia and similar projects.

It builds on the work previously done by a number of other Wikipedians in Residence at institutions around the world (full list); usually, they’ve worked with galleries or museums to help improve content relating to the collections of those institutions. The benefits for everyone are clear – Wikipedia improves in quality and scope; the institutions engage communities interested in their material, and reach potentially much broader audiences.

We’ve tried something a bit different this time around. While we’ve worked on some content projects, we’ve focused on working with researchers and librarians to help build skills and give people the confidence to engage directly with these communities. Over the past months, I’ve talked to well over three hundred people, demonstrating tools and encouraging them to think about making a first step. There are three approaches we’ve been looking at here:

  • Contextualising research. Part of the perennial problem of academic projects is that they are often very specialised; it can be very difficult to explain the details of the work to a layperson. Wikipedia allows researchers to help improve the “background” material needed to put their work in context, indirectly the supporting public impact of their work. Working with the International Dunhuang Project, the BL hosted a series of workshops over a week; here, curators, Wikipedia contributors, and students worked to write articles about Central Asian archaeology and exploration – see our report.
  • Capturing research. Wikipedia – a publicly-visible, constantly shifting draft awaiting further collaboration – is great for absorbing pieces of secondary research work that may never be formally published elsewhere. As a cataloguer, I used to spend time trying to chase down small details – who did this particular bookplate belong to? was this author the same as another under a pseudonym? what was the original title of this book, and was it first written in Russian or French? Many projects, especially those concentrating on historical networks or correspondence, produce many incidental biographies or summaries of events; Wikipedia can be a very efficient way to get this work out to a wider audience, rather than keeping it in a local silo. Next month, I’ll be working with the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge to look at using some of their biographical summaries as the nucleus of Wikipedia articles.
  • Digital content. Wikimedia is one of the largest open-content communities around, and is always keen to use new high-quality material. If your project is producing data or images (or anything else) under a free license, there may well be someone wanting to use it in an interesting and transformative way – and to expose it to new audiences. At the Library, we’ve been working to get high-quality imagery from our Royal Manuscripts collection (recently digitised) to supplement related articles – such as the beautiful image illustrating the history of the fleur-de-lys in seven languages, below:
  • Clovis recevant la fleur de lys - XVe siècle

If you’re interested in what else we’ve done, you can see an outline presentation I gave to AHRC here.

I’m at the Library until the end of April – if you think you or a group you’re working with would be interested to hear more, please get in touch!

On pennies

February 2nd, 2013 by

The BBC has an article on whether or not the UK may end up withdrawing the penny as too small.

What the article apparently has forgotten, when carefully noting the examples of Canada, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand, is that the UK has withdrawn currency for being too small – the halfpenny circulated until the end of 1984 (you still found a couple in the backs of drawers when I was small). (It’s not the only coin to have been withdrawn in living memory; the pre-decimal farthing was withdrawn in 1960 as too small.)

It’s informative to look at how little something had to be worth to be withdrawn then. Using RPI, in 1960, 1/4d was worth £0.0196 (2011 values). In 1984, 1/2p was worth £0.0131 (ditto). The penny is worth substantially less than either earlier coin was at the time of its withdrawal…