My week with Google Glass: Library-centric thoughts

Wednesday, March 12th 2014

I was lucky enough to spend last week with a loaner pair of Google Glass. Purchased by my place of work, I was asked to try them out and evaluate them for possible library use or development of apps by the library. I’m far from the first person to write about their experience ewith Glass, but I wanted to write up my experience and reactions as an exercise in forcing myself to think critically about the technology. I’m splitting it into two posts: One about the impact and uses of Glass in libraries, and a second about my more general impressions as a Glass user and my overall daily life.

Without further ado, lets look at the library perspective: I came away with one major area for library Glass development in mind, plus a couple of minor (but still important) ones.

One big area for library development on Google Glass: Textual capture and analysis

Image from AllThingsD

Image from AllThingsD

One of the most impressive apps I tried with Glass, and one of only a handful of times I was truly amazed by it’s capabilities, was a translation app called Word Lens. Word Lens gives you a realtime view of any printed text in front of you, translated into a language of your choice. In practice I found the translation’s accuracy to be lacking, but the fact that this works at all is amazing. It even attempts to replicate the font and placement of the text, giving you a true augmented view and not just raw text. Word Lens admittedly burned through Glass’ battery in less than half an hour and made the hardware almost too hot to touch, but imagine this technology rolled forward into a second or third generation product! While similar functionality is available in smartphone apps today (this is a repeating refrain about using Glass that I’ll come back to in my next post), translation, archiving, and other manipulation of text in this kind of ambient manner via Glass makes it many times more useful than a smartphone counterpart. Instead of having to choose to point a phone at one sign, street signs and maps could be automatically translated as you wander a foreign city or sit with research material in another language.

I want to see this taken further. Auto-save the captured text into my Evernote account and while you’re at it, save a copy of every word I look at all day. Or all the way through my research process. Make that searchable, even the pages I just flipped past because I thought they didn’t look valuable at the time. Dump all that into a text-mining program and save every image I’ve looked at for future use in an art project. I admit I drool a little bit over the prospect of such a tool existing. Again, a smartphone could do all of this too. But using Glass instead frees up both of my hands and lets the capture happen in a way that doesn’t interfere with the research itself. The possibilities here for digital humanities work seem endless, and I hope explorations of the space include library-sponsored efforts.

Other areas for library development on Google Glass:

Tours and special collections highlights

The University of Virginia has already done some work in this area. While wandering campus with their app installed, Glass alerts you when you’re close to a location referenced in their archival photo collections and shows you the old image of your current location. This is neat, and especially while Glass is on the new side will likely get your library some press. NC State’s libraries have done great work with their Wolfwalk mobile device tour, for example, which seems like a natural product to port over to Glass. This is probably also the most straightforward kind of Glass app for a library or campus to implement. Google’s own Field Trip Glass and smartphone app already points out locations of historical or other interest to you as you walk around town. The concept is proven, works, and is set for exploitation.

Wayfinding within the library

While it would likely require some significant infrastructure and data cleanup, I would love to see a Glass app that directs a library user to a book on the shelf or the location of their reserved study room or consultation appointment. I imagine arrows appearing to direct someone left, right, straight, or even to crouch down to the lower shelf. While the tour idea is in some ways a passive app, wayfinding would be more active and possibly more engaging.

Wrap-up

The secondary use cases above are low-hanging fruit, and I expect libraries to jump onboard with them quickly. Again, UVA has already forged a path for at least one of them. And I fully expect generic commercial solutions to emerge to handle these kinds of functions in a plug and play style.

Textual capture and analysis is a tougher nut to crack. I know I don’t have the coding chops to make it happen, and even if I started to learn today I wouldn’t pick it up in time before someone else gets there. Because someone will do this. Evernote, maybe, or some other company ready to burst onto the scene. But what if a library struck first? Or even someone like JSTOR or Hathi Trust? I’m not skilled enough to do it, but I know there’s people out there in libraryland (and related circles) who are. I want to help our users better manage their research, to take it further than something like Zotero or the current complicated state of running a sophisticated text mining operation. The barriers to entry on this kind of thing is still high, even as we struggle to lower it. Ambient information gathering as enabled by wearable technology like Glass has the potential to help researchers over the wall.

Tomorrow I’ll write up my more general, less library oriented impressions of using Glass.

12. March 2014 by Chad Haefele
Categories: Libraries/Info Sci, Ramblings, Reviews, Tech | 1 comment

Proquest Flow now offers free accounts. Why?

Wednesday, January 15th 2014

Flow logoFine print: My opinions and thoughts here are as always my own, and not necessarily those of the UNC Libraries.

I’ve wanted to write about the state of citation management for months now, and the idea kept rattling around in the back of my head. There’s so many options for managing research and citations out there, and I support a couple of them as part of my job. I frequently get asked which one is the best to go with. When Proquest announced a free version of Flow last week, I couldn’t avoid the topic any longer. I was originally going to do a compare/contrast review of the major options out there, but I find the Flow announcement so interesting that now I want to focus on it entirely.

Flow is Proquest’s successor to Refworks. Their official line is that Refworks isn’t going away, but I have to believe that Refworks’ lifespan is limited at this point. Why would Proquest want to develop two similar products in parallel forever? That has to be a huge resource drain. Refworks hasn’t seen a major new feature in years, and still doesn’t support collaborative folders, while Flow seems to be adding interesting options all the time.

Flow is a promising product, but not quite at 100% yet. The web import tool in particular has a long way to go before matching the utility of Zotero’s, but at the same time the Flow UI provides a pleasantly minimalist reading experience and fills in a number of feature gaps present in Refworks (especially collaboration and PDF archiving) while streamlining the clunky Refworks UI into something much more usable.

But I’m not here to just review Flow as a product. What confuses me is this new business model of providing a free account. Flow’s free accounts include 2gb of storage and collaboration with up to 10 people per project. If an institution subscribes to the paid version of Flow, their users get bumped up to 10gb of storage and unlimited collaboration. The institution itself gets access to analytics data and a handful of other administrative features.

The free Flow option is certainly superior to Mendeley’s free plan, which also includes 2gb of storage but limits collaboration to just 3 users per account. I find Mendeley’s pricing for extra collaboration slots insane (plans start at $49/month and go up sharply after that), but that’s an argument for another time. Zotero, admittedly my personal favorite citation management tool, by comparison offers a paltry 300mb of storage but allows collaboration with an unlimited number of users. My point is that the free Flow plan, with 2gb and 10 collaborators, is a pretty attractive option by comparison to the competition. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of our users would be satisfied with those limitations.

Flow or Refworks access at an institutional level is not cheap. We’re facing our fifth or sixth consecutive year of hard budget choices, and while we have no plans to cancel our Refworks/Flow access I have to wonder at what point that becomes a viable option. Other than the obvious Big Data potential, I don’t know what Proquest’s endgame is by offering free Flow accounts. I hope they’ve thought through what the option looks like to their paying customers.

15. January 2014 by Chad Haefele
Categories: Libraries/Info Sci, Ramblings, Reviews | 3 comments

Things I liked in 2013

Wednesday, January 15th 2014

2013 stuff I liked

I used to write elaborate annual posts detailing my favorite things in a variety of media. For 2013, I only have time to squish it all into one abbreviated post. My #1 favorite thing this year was of course the arrival of my daughter, an event which itself drastically impacted my ability to find other stuff to rank. But I did manage to find a few things that I highly enjoyed and recommend:

  • I finished Ancillary Justice just before the end of the year, and coincidentally it’s also the best book I read in 2013. Author Ann Leckie does fascinating things with consciousness, narrative perspective, and gender while still telling a great worlds-spanning space opera tale. (The cover, not unusually, has virtually nothing to do with the book)
  • I didn’t have a ton of gaming time this year, but I keep wanting to go back and play more Monaco. The cooperative heist game pits you and your friends against a variety of robbery goals. It’s difficult, but in a way that feels hilarious when you fail rather than frustrating. One of the best cooperative games I can remember.
  • You will pry my Yonanas Elite machine from my cold, dead hands. Frozen fruit goes in one end, delicious not-quite-frozen-yogurt comes out the other. In a blind taste test I don’t think I could differentiate this from the real thing. I received the Elite model as a Christmas gift, and it’s worth the upgrade. The motor is both quieter and more powerful. My current favorite combo: Bananas and cantaloupe.
  • The Chromecast is just a really neat, inexpensive media streamer. I use it almost every day to watch youtube videos or play music, and it works well with a number of video streaming services too. I still can’t quite wrap my head around fumbling for a pause button on my phone instead of a traditional remote, but I’ll get there.
  • A few months ago I switched to a Macbook Pro at work, from a PC. The learning curve was shallower than I expected, and now I wonder how I lived without the ability to easily swipe between multiple desktops. I have issues with some of the functionality in Finder (image previews in particular work better in Windows), but my quibbles are all minor. I’m particularly blown away by the 8+ hour battery life.
  • I have fallen in love with Google Plus’ Auto-awesome photo features. I throw all my photos at it, and Google figures out what the highlights are. I took a ton of photos in 2013, thanks largely to the aforementioned daughter’s arrival, and would never have time to sort through the whole pile on my own. Google also automatically creates motion gifts from burst photos, merges exposures to HDR, and creates photobooth style portrait montages. This is by far the best feature of Google Plus, and it makes me wish I knew more than three regular users of the service to share the resulting photos with.
  • Paired with Google Plus, I now use Adobe Lightroom for more serious photo organization. It’s not flashy, but has solid and in-depth management options for metadata and organization. I don’t have every photo I ever took in my Lightroom library, but the most important ones are there. And if you work at a .edu employer, there’s a steep discount available.
  • Bioshock Infinite was another of the rare video games I played all the way through this year. While I found the minute-to-minute gameplay got repetitive and stale after a few hours, the beautiful environment and underlying themes of the story kept me glued to the screen. I’m looking forward to playing through the new expansions.
  • Google gave away Chvrches’ album The Bones of What You Believe, and I can’t argue with the price of free. Along with The Naked and Famous’ In Rolling Waves, I have these two albums in constant rotation. I don’t know what to call their genre exactly, but it’s a blend of rock, pop and electronica.
  • Playstation Plus is Sony’s game subscription service. For $50 a year (or $30 on Black Friday) gamers get access to an incredible library of downloadable titles. I now have more PS3 games than I’ll ever be able to realistically complete, and couldn’t be happier. And just today they added Bioshock Infinite to the list of included games.

15. January 2014 by Chad Haefele
Categories: Reviews, Year's Best | Leave a comment

Exporting page details from WordPress for a content review

Wednesday, December 18th 2013

Now that we’ve got a large chunk of the UNC Library site‘s content in WordPress, we’re working on setting up a system to do semi-annual content reviews. Before we can plan the review itself, we needed to be able to pull details about our pages from the CMS. WordPress doesn’t have a simple way to export page metadata that would be useful for this task, like the last modified date and the name of who last modified it. As with anything in WordPress, there are of course plugins that would do this for us. But I’m trying to keep our plugin count as low as possible. And a plugin seems like overkill for this kind of thing anyway.

I used the opportunity to expand my WordPress coding chops a tiny bit, and dug into their codebase. A very helpful StackOverflow thread set me on the right path, and wpquerygenerator.com made writing the actual query dead simple.

Here’s my code, also embedded below. Put it in a .php file in your root WordPress directory, then open it in your browser. You’ll get a tab-delimited file suitable for importing into Excel. It includes the title, url, last modified date, and last modified author for your site’s last 50 edited pages. If you want other fields, the code is pretty easy to play with.

From there we’ve got a nice list to start reviewing!

18. December 2013 by Chad Haefele
Categories: HowTo, Libraries/Info Sci, UNC | Leave a comment

10 terrible things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system

Thursday, October 31st 2013

(This is a companion piece to yesterday’s post, 10 great things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system)

After spending a few months administering a large WordPress site at work, a handful of things have grown to drive me crazy. I still like the system more than I dislike it, but here’s ten things in need of improving:

1. Plugins

Yes, this one is on both the positive and negative lists. Plugins add virtually any feature you want to your site, but not all of them are actively maintained. They can also conflict with each other, leading to the unenviable situation where you have to pick one very useful plugin over another. Every time a plugin gets updated, I hold my breath and franticly check the site to see if anything broke.

2. You will need a programmer

Working with custom themes and types is amazingly useful, but you will need a developer to do it (or someone willing to quickly learn). Staff time for this kind of customization is significant.

3. Media management

For a content management system, WordPress does an awful job at managing multimedia content. It began life as a blogging platform, not a full website CMS, and in media management those roots show. WordPress lacks anything beyond the most basic ability to organize media, and we haven’t found a plugin to fill in the gaps yet either. For example: There’s no way to see a list of which pages an image is used on. This would be extremely useful to know when cleaning out old image content.

4. Updates

Expanding on the plugin problem above, WordPress itself also has updates. Like the plugins, it’s difficult to know if any update will break something important on your site. And even if it does, you need to update anyway. WordPress updates often address security issues, and lagging behind leaves your site vulnerable.

5. Moving From Test to Live

We have struggled to set up a workflow to test a new plugin or update before rolling it out to our live site. We maintain a separate development WordPress server, but it is rarely 100% in sync with our live server. And even if it is, we might spend hours configuring and tweaking a new plugin on the development server. Unless that plugin has an export/import feature (and many don’t), we have to do all that configuring all over again on the live version.

6. Content Editor Inconsistencies

This might be my pet peeve about WordPress. When editing a page, users have the option to write raw HTML or work with a more WYSIWIG-style editor. Going back and forth between the two sometimes causes odd display issues, especially when line breaks are involved.

7. Differentiating Pages and Posts is Confusing

Owing again to its roots as a blogging platform, WordPress has two main types of content: Posts and Pages. We work almost exclusively with Pages on our site, but it’s very easy to accidentally get lost in the Posts options instead. This is especially true for users who might have used WordPress as a simple blog before, avoiding Pages entirely. The difference is subtle, but important.

8. Spam

While not specifically a fault of WordPress, you will get spam. We’ve disabled comments on our pages, which eliminates a large chunk off the bat, but we still get a ton through our various request forms. If you want to buy an NFL jersey from China, boy do I have the website for you! I dislike captchas from a usability standpoint, but I think we may be forced to add them to our forms.

9. There’s a Whole Lotta CSS Involved

WordPress can get very complicated, very fast, and that includes the CSS it generates. We spent countless hours debugging our menu’s CSS, trying to get it to look and work correctly across browsers. It looks nice, but if you want to change the design I hope you can parse through a bunch of spaghetti code.

10. It Can’t Be Everything to Everyone

As much as we love the idea, we weren’t able to put 100% of our content into WordPress. We’re significantly invested in Libguides as our course page and subject guide platform, for example. While we were able to get our WordPress menu to appear at the top of our Libguides pages, the two content management systems are very much running side by side. That’s just one example of the ways we have content living outside of WordPress. I’m thrilled to have the bulk of our content in WordPress, but it didn’t work out as a complete one-stop solution.

We have workarounds for most of this, and the rest is largely bearable. But media management and editor inconsistencies stick out to me like sore thumbs, and I hope they’re improved soon.

(This is a companion piece to yesterday’s post, 10 great things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system)

31. October 2013 by Chad Haefele
Categories: General, Ramblings, Reviews, Tech | 3 comments

10 great things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system

Wednesday, October 30th 2013

(This is a companion piece to another post, 10 terrible things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system)

Now that I’ve spent some time on a team administering WordPress on a large scale, I can point to ten things I really like about using this CMS in our environment:

1. Plugins

WordPress has a mind-bogglingly large repository of plugins available. If there’s a feature you wish WordPress had, 99.99% of the time you can find a plugin to do it.

2. Responsive Themes

Do yourself a favor and pick a responsive theme. It’ll reorganize your pages to display in a much more usable fashion on mobile devices and other unforeseen oddball screen sizes.

3. Granular User Permissions

WordPress’ built-in user role management functions leave a little bit to be desired, but (see above) there’s a plugin for that! Press Permit took a bit of time to figure out, but now lets us make sure users only have access to the pages they need to maintain. This cuts down on accidental edits or deletions, and provides a less cluttered interface to our staff.

4. Formidable Plugin to Manage Forms

Formidable is an amazingly flexible plugin for adding forms to your site. It’s got power on the back end too: We use hidden fields to turn it into a rudimentary ticketing system for website support requests.

5. Extensibility

WordPress’ custom types make it possible to add your own arbitrary data types to the system. Through types we were able to add our study spaces as items in WordPress.

6. Shortcodes

Shortcodes should be the #1 feature marketed by WordPress! They’re simply reusable blocks of text. For example, we have building policies that are consistent across branches. Instead of having a half dozen copies of that text to maintain on the site, we just have to update it once. The shortcode then pushes the content automatically to each required page. Shordcodes: Putting the Content Management back in CMS.

7. Sort pages by date last modified

The Sort by Last Modified plugin does one simple thing, and does it well. With it installed, you can sort all your pages by the date they were last updated. I can see at a glance if something has gone ages without an update. I don’t know why this feature isn’t included in WordPress, but at least it’s easy to add!

8. Revisions

Made a mistake? WordPress keeps all the old versions of your page, and it’s easy to roll back to any of them. Just like Wikipedia. You might need to enable Revisions under your Screen Options section to see them, but WordPress keeps track of your changes all along automatically.

9. Checking Broken Links

The broken link checker plugin provides simple reports pointing out broken links on your site. Getting data like this on our pre-CMS site was a nightmare, and I still can’t believe it’s so easy now.

10. Avoid Conflicting Page-Edits

If you try to edit a page while someone else is working on it, WordPress makes sure you know that’s the case. No more overwriting simultaneous edits!

So that’s the good stuff! Come back tomorrow for another post, this time covering pieces of WordPress that drive me insane.

(This is a companion piece to another post, 10 terrible things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system)

30. October 2013 by Chad Haefele
Categories: General, Ramblings, Reviews, Tech | 1 comment

Redesign of the UNC Libraries’ website

Wednesday, September 4th 2013

Desktop homepageLast month we debuted the completely overhauled UNC Libraries website at library.unc.edu. Roughly a year in the making, this is a huge step forward for the Library.

Our old site was entirely hand-maintained pages, and included over 60,000 files (HTML, CSS, images, php, etc). My jaw dropped when we uncovered that number during our initial site inventory! We slashed most of that away, and moved what was left into WordPress. Even if that was all we did, being in a content management system would help immensely whenever the next redesign comes around. But our new design is also more flexible, modern, and usable.

I’m not going to quote an exact number of how many files we have left, since it’s a falling number as we move more and more of the remnants into WordPress, but it’s in the neighborhood of 10% of what we had at the start.

This was my department’s major project for quite some time, but User Experience is far from the only unit deserving credit. Our developers and countless stakeholders who advised us made it all possible.

Some of my favorite things about the new site:

  • It’s responsive! We’re still tweaking the exact trigger points, but the site reorganizes itself to work well on a desktop, tablet, or mobile browser. Here’s a screenshot of the mobile view. I’m so excited that we won’t have to maintain a whole separate mobile site anymore!
  • The new Places to Study page (inspired by Stanford’s wonderful feature) lets students filter our physical locations and find what they’re looking for in a study space.
  • Thanks to the Formidable plugin we have easy and powerful centralized form management. We even use it as a simple ticketing system for managing user feedback about the site.
  • Our staff directory is so much more usable and detailed than the old version. Something like this doesn’t have a huge impact on our site’s overall usability, but will make a big difference for internal use.
  • The big background images really show off our spaces.
  • Our new hours page, while not actually part of WordPress, does a great job of displaying our many branches’ status at a given moment.

We don’t consider this a completed project by any means. We’re well into Phase II now, wrangling the pieces of content into place which proved a bit too unwieldy to be ready by launch.

I’ll admit I was skeptical about WordPress’ ability to serve as a full-fledged website CMS. While I’ve used it as a blogging platform for almost 9 years, I’d never gotten deeply into all it can offer. I was happy to be proven wrong! WordPress has proven to be a flexible and powerful platform, and I’m quite excited to keep working with it. When I think about how much more maintainable the new site is, I practically get giddy.

Our early feedback is largely positive, and we plan on doing some serious user feedback campaigns to guide our future work. Thank you to all who have worked with us on this project!

I’m sure I’ll be writing (and hopefully presenting) more about this in the near future.

04. September 2013 by Chad Haefele
Categories: General, Libraries/Info Sci, Mobile, Tech, UNC | 2 comments

Review: Chromecast

Saturday, August 3rd 2013

130730122817-google-chromecast-620xa[1]The Chromecast is the device I never knew I wanted. Google’s new hardware provides a dead simple way to stream Netflix, Youtube, and other content on your TV.

Roughly the size of a USB flash drive, the Chromecast simply plugs into your TV’s HDMI port. Your Android or iOS device serves as the remote control, and this is where the Chromecast really shines. Content apps like Youtube, Netflix, and Google Music have a Chromecast button built in. If you’re watching or listening to content on your phone, that button switches it to display on your TV instead. And if your TV is of a a recent vintage, Chromecast is even smart enough to turn it on and switch to the right input. I’m heavily invested in using Google Music, and now finally have a way to play my music back on the best sound system in the house!

It took me a little while to wrap my head around the idea of using my phone to send media to the TV and then control it afterward. If I have one complaint, it’s that pausing music or video now requires switching my phone on to get to the button. That might be the very definition of a First World Problem, but in this case it’s the tradeoff for an otherwise amazing device.

For now, app support is a little limited. It’s up to developers to add Chromecast to their apps and expand the device’s usefulness. But with Google Music and Youtube, it already does about 80% of what I’d want my ideal list to cover. I’ve read that Hulu will add support soon, and Plex is exploring their options too. If I can get those and Pocketcasts included, I will be a very happy customer. As a workaround for some of this other content, there’s a way to display a tab from your PC’s Chrome browser. I’ve found that to be a little buggy (and with an annoying 2 second delay), but I expect the feature will improve with time.

At $35, the Chromecast feels like a must buy for anyone who wants to put web content on their TV. I plan on eventually outfitting each TV in the house with one. I’ve had zero problems, and so far it’s one of those rare devices that Just Works.

03. August 2013 by Chad Haefele
Categories: Reviews, Tech | 3 comments

Review: Plex Media Server

Thursday, June 13th 2013

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I’m trying to regather some posting momentum with a series of short reviews about stuff I like.  Look for one every couple of days.  I’m not paid for any of this, I just like reviewing things.

Using Plex Media Server to manage my movies makes me very happy.  It capably serves up video files to every TV in my house, and is a rare product that just works.  I recently took every DVD I own and copied them to a hard drive.  Plex sits on that computer and automatically organizes those files with correct metadata and thumbnail images (be still my librarian heart).

So that’s great, but how do they get to the TV?  Plex has straightforward apps for just about any platform you can think of.  Every TV in my house has either a Roku or an Android device (see previous review of the iMito MX1) attached, so those devices function as a front end to the server.

As an added bonus I boxed up the DVDs, put them in the closet, and reclaimed a ton of living room space.

Plex is completely free, though I gladly paid for a lifetime plexpass membership (which includes early access to new features) to support future development.

13. June 2013 by Chad Haefele
Categories: Reviews, Tech | Leave a comment

Review: iMito MX1

Wednesday, June 12th 2013

imitoI’m trying to regather some posting momentum with a series of short reviews about stuff I like.  Look for one every couple of days.  I’m not paid for any of this, I just like reviewing things.

The iMito MX1 is one of those pieces of technology that feels like it shouldn’t exist.  This is a full computer packed into a super tiny case.  If it helps with scale in that picture, the thing sticking out the top is an HDMI plug.  Connect it to a TV and you’ve got Android running on the screen.

It sounds a little odd to want to run a phone and tablet operating system on your TV, and admittedly the interface is a little wonky at times when using a keyboard an mouse.  Still, having access to the Android app store means a dead simple way to get Hulu, Netflix, my podcasts, Google Music, Youtube, and Plex (more on this in another post) onto the big screen.  All for less than $60!

12. June 2013 by Chad Haefele
Categories: General, Reviews, Tech | Leave a comment

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