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The wishlist meets reality

December 16, 2011

We met after putting together the student wishlist for our PhoneBooth app to figure out just what we think we can do with it and what we can’t. I’m definitely fascinated by the technological aspects and have a background in GIS from a long ago Masters in Urban Planning, but I confess even with that it’s hard to wrap my head around some of the issues we are facing. I did delight in the use of familiar words in completely unfamiliar ways, of course, and I was able to do so because I wasn’t the one hired for my tech savy. There was plenty of that in the room without me, what I do apologize for is the lack of intentional punning ability as requested by students, but I shall try.

The initial decision the tech team will face is what mapping platform to use. Google maps seems the obvious choice as it’s the most familiar to students, which is definitely a plus, and might also make it easier to toggle between earth view and map view. On the down side, we all agreed that we often found their maps to be wrong surprisingly often in London, which is also problematic. An alternative we discussed was openstreemap.org, which I personally like: first because it’s open source, and second because even more than that, it’s built upon crowd sourcing, which was one aspect we were thinking about how to incorporate into the project.

But there are more things to be considered of course, like projection. Projection is one of those issues that people who have never made maps have ever had to think about, but it’s vitally important. In taking information that is three-dimensional and turning it into two dimensions, you obviously lose or distort some information. Any projection (and there are an infinite number really) has involved a choice over which information to keep, which to lose, and which to distort. This makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to layer maps (as well as politically tricky sometimes, as our world maps that wrongly show the US and Europe to be as big or bigger than Africa prove). So PhoneBooth comes down to the difficulties in taking a map created over a hundred years ago using god knows what projection, and having it overlay perfectly onto a current map in a different projection, while also being able to smoothly zoom in and zoom out as needed without losing any overlay capacity or detail.

Can we manage that? Hopefully Edina can tell us.

With all of that, we should still be able to provide the Booth Map as an overlay to a map of London as it is now, that you can make more or less transparent as you need, that shows your own position using GPS, and that shows you the places that available journal entries refer to. We think we should be able to link this to additional information, the crime maps in particular caught our fancy, but potentially others as well. We should also be able to allow users to bring up notebook locations by category (ie mentions of occupation, ethnic group etc), though more work has to be done looking at how the notebook entries were initially digitised ten years ago. Ideally, each entry would have its own fixed url that can be linked to and referenced. If we link those up to the extensive index, whether to each and every index entries or those we’ve had to prioritise, it should allow the app to facilitate searches across all the notebooks. This index isn’t currently accessible to the general public, so as a researcher I find that quite exciting. I also hadn’t realised how many other entries and notebooks remain to be digitised, which is even more exciting. But we’ll have to find more funding to get that all digital.

From my previous GIS experiences it seemed to me easy enough to show the various routes walked by the notebook authors as just another visual overlay onto the maps, which would allow people to follow those if they liked. Creating more customised maps or possible walks, showing specific industries or mentions of prostitition or whatever, seemed a nice idea, but not a priority. That would be something we’d follow up if we could get everything else up and running smoothly. Audio clips seemed to fall into this category as well. Still, we thought it might be a very good idea to do at least one just to see how it might work, especially if we could link it into the student desire to be able to see what from Booth’s time still existed as it was. Pubs seemed a good thing to start with, as they are easy enough to find, were mentioned directly by students, and would be a fun way to experience history and spend an afternoon out that all users could (and we thought most certainly would) enjoy. There was also plenty of direct experience of old pubs among us, not a bad place to start then.

We were also thinking about how to allow students to save searches or make comments, which leads into the things that will be impossible for now. Having a fully functional comment section where users can log in, share their thoughts, see comments made by others in the user community, or save personlised maps, will require a large amount of monitoring and administration time. This really isn’t possible at this stage as nice as it sounds, though we were trying to think what would be good to build into the backend of the system now to have some or most of that functionality if we should want it. It’s always easier to do that kind of work all at once and up front.

As a teacher these difficulties made me sad, as it seems ideal to not only be able to hear people’s thoughts on what they are seeing or reading, but also to crowdsource additional places to go for more information on specific issues. For the moment, one possible compromise seemed to be making it possible for students to simply email themselves the relevant entries (or just the urls), and allowing them to type their thoughts into the email itself as a way of taking quick notes while actually in the place referred to.This to me seemed essential if we wanted students to use this to actually carry out research in the field.

I was more than satisfied with what it appears we’ll be able to do!

Of course, there were a number of things that were mentioned that we just won’t be able to do. To have all the records transcribed and turned into searchable text is clearly a good, but incredibly time-consuming and expensive, idea. At some point in the future this may happen, but not immediately. Again, for the multiple links to other library resources, like Mayhew or photographs, this is definitely doable, but only as the digital library grows, and it seems better to start with one particular data set, then add additional things in. Making this available to people on their computers as well as their phones is also difficult at this stage, and would have to be built into the updates of the Booth website as it doesn’t have the capabilities at present, another project.

The alert system that sends you a message when you pass something of interest seemed to us to be really brilliant, but again, rather difficult to do. It just might be possible as its own little app, but the fact that it might have to be customised to work with each phone platform made that a little daunting.

So now it remains to send our thoughts and wishes to EDINA, and get it all moving. We all know there is bound to be some more back and forth about what we can and cannot do, but the excitement is still rising.

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