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Web Directions South 2007 – presentation and some thoughts

Web Directions South 07 was lots of fun and there were some great presentations over the two days. Unfortunately conferences are always full of choices and I missed several presentations I’d been looking forward to catching. That said, overall the quality was high and there were only a handful of dull moments. Most of the presentations I saw were not on the tech-side (JS, Ajax, CSS etc) of things – Luke was there to go to those.

Here’s some notes from my highlights.

Cameron Adams managed to pack out one of the smaller rooms and by the time his ‘Future of web based interfaces’ was in full flow there were about 50 people standing at the back. Adams’ presentation went through the possibilities of flexible interfaces that are both customisable by the user (much like Netvibes or iGoogle is) and automatically reformats as you use it (like the BBC News pages subtly do).

After my own presentation (see below) it was on to Scott Gledhill’s ‘Is SEO evil?‘ to which the answer is, of course, no. SEO and a web standards approach should be complimentary. Scott had some lovely images – the menacing gummi bears in particular – and a fascinating case study from News Digital Media around the Steve Irwin death. In this instance, News went out with a web headline that was far more immediate and keyword loaded (“steve irwin dead”) than their major competitor, Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax who were more obscure (“crocodile man reported dead”). They tracked the story traffic and referrers by the hour and more than doubled the Fairfax traffic – even after Fairfax adjusted their headline. Scott also told how journalists are now much more SEO content-savvy in their writing and that his team gives the journalists the necessary web reporting tools to be able to track their own stories. This, combined with the highly competitive environment, encourages journalists to further refine and re-edit their stories for performance even after initial publication.

The second day began with an edit of Scott Berkun’s famous Myths of Innovation presentation. Scott’s main message is that you can’t force ‘innovation’ and that it needs time and space to happen organically. In fact, one of the best triggers of innovation are failures and mistakes. He suggests that perhaps we should start including a ‘failures’ budget line in our organisational budgets – accept that they will happen and that we are all the better for it.

George Oates from Flickr spoke about how Flickr manages and facilitates user communities. She started out tracing Flickr back to its origins at Ludicorp as a sort-of MMORPG called Game Neverending. After GNE folded the community that had grown around it was imported directly into Flickr and they brought their experiences from the game world into the construction and design of Flickr. I found her focus on users and the real need for human-to-human communication and relationship management that Flickr does a timely reminder that in the museum world we cannot expect communities to ‘just happen’ around our content and that when the seeds of community appear they need careful nurturing. The necessary nurturing is impossible if you move immediately on to the next project.

Adrian Holovaty, the mind behind Chicago Crime and several other datamining and visualisation projects gave a fascinating presentation about the hidden potential of structured data. Now over in the museum world we are experts at structured data but we rarely make the most of it. Throughout Holovaty’s talk he kept coming back to the ideas of serendipity and free browsing that I’ve been working on with our OPAC. His position was to make everything hyperlinked and let the users build their own paths through the data. To that end he built the Django Databrowse application which takes a database and basically build a simple website that allows users to link from anything to anything else. Following Chicago Crime which took flat datasets from the Chicago Police Department and made them navigable in ways that the Chicago PD had never intended (view crimes by area, visualise hotspots, map your jogging route against reported crimes etc), Holovaty went on to do some great visualisation work at the Washington Post. Here he asked journalists to enter their notes into a simple database as well as turning their notes into stories. This allowed him to build the Faces of the Fallen which tracks and maps every US soldier killed in Iraq. Faces not only reveals some uncomfortable patterns in the data (deaths by age of soldier, by state etc), it also has allowed linkages to family tributes and newspaper articles about the circumstances of their death. The project returns great value back to reporters and the paper who can now report ‘milestones’ and trends, but also to the community who can now make ‘more sense’ out of what would otherwise be simply seen as a list of names. It ‘humanises’ the data, giving it far greater impact. Holovaty is now working on a community news project Every Block which intends to harvest and aggregate content by ‘block’ from various news sources – automatically creating journalistic stories from raw data. (Reuters already does this with some financial reporting).

There are a growing selection of presentation slides over at Slideshare.

Here’s an edited version of my own presentation slides which use the Powerhouse Museum’s collection search and tagging implementation as a case study of a government implementation of Web 2.0 techniques. Those who have seen my presentations over the recent months will recognise some re-use and re-puposing. For various reasons I have had to remove about 20-30 slides but most of it is there. There is a podcast coming apparently.