BIGWIG Social Software Showcase 2009

The Social Software Showcase, presented by LITA’s BIGWIG, is a chance to learn about several different areas of software in a quick, efficient way. The way it works is that the content for the showcase is voted on beforehand, and presentations are created for that content. The presentations are made available online on the Social Software Showcase page. The presenters and their topics are briefly introduced at the beginning of the showcase, then the attendees are given the opportunity to visit each of the presenters to discuss their topic for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, the attendees rotate and move on to the next topic. This provides the opportunity for attendees to visit each of the presenters or, as in my case, attend as many presentations as fit into their available time. The four which I attended were mobile websites and applications, information mashups with government information, cloud computing, and Google Wave.

Mobile Websites and Applications

This session was presented by Cody Hanson of University of Minnesota Libraries. Check out his presentation: The Library as Any Place. He discussed the creation of a mobile interface to the library’s catalog through a simple PHP application. The library targeted iPhone and iPod touch initially, because it is about the most forgiving of mobile browsers. This makes it a good place to start, and the group can move on to other cases later. Currently, the site includes a web search interface for MnCat; it defaults to a search using the Primo interface, but also provides the ability to use a classic search. There is also a search for scholarly databases, which conducts an article search using MetaLib X-Server. Using MetaLib allowed them to create their own interfaces for search and search results, since most databases are not optimized for mobile. The site also allows users to see what items are available and what is on hold.

After building the website, they also started creating a native app for the iPhone. Currently, the application displays the mobile website using web views, which allows them to hide the browser chrome and use their own buttons. There was a question as to whether creating an app from the mobile site adds value: if it’s just a skinned website, why not just view the website in the phone’s browser? Someone asked if there are any problems authenticating users; Cody said they currently use central authentication. The authentication site isn’t mobile optimized but works on iPhone. As we move forward into mobile applications–and, in general, for other tech–my question is: why is each individual library developing a mobile site/app instead of having a customizable, general application from the OPAC companies that can then be deployed across multiple schools/locations?

Information mashups with government information

This session was presented by Rebecca Blakeley of McNeese State University Library. Check out her presentation: Gov Info Mashups. The session started off with a definition of mashups, which are web pages or apps that combine raw data from multiple locations to provide a new service. They often use APIs, rss feeds, and XML to bring multiple types of data together. For government information, data can be from data.gov, which includes information from NASA, EPA, BLS, and many other organizations. The current hot trend is the bailout, with many applications that allow the user to click on a map and see where and how money has been used. For example, the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs had an Apps for America contest with the goal of apps that use data from Sunlight and their partners to makes Congress more accountable, interactive and transparent. They currently have an Apps for America 2 contest and apps submitted must use data from data.gov.

Having so much information available means that libraries can team up with tech people to bring new data to patrons. Libraries can’t always rely on everyone else to do it – if you have an idea about something your local patrons can use, talk about it, and you may find someone willing to work with you on it. It will also be interesting to see how the census data will be available, and whether it can be easily used in mashups–but keep in mind that some of the data won’t be comparable to the same 2000 data.

Some examples of government information mashups include:

  • recovery.gov, which shows where stimulus money is being used
  • opencongress.org, which provides government docs and information; it tries to make it fun and social, allowing the ability to support your favorite bill on Facebook, comment on bills, and aggregate bills by bills most blogged, bills in the news, etc.
  • The Right-to-Know Network, which provides access to environmental information

A group has been created on ALA Connect to explore this: Government Information Interest Group. The session also briefly touched on online tools for creating your own mashups, such as Yahoo! Pipes and MapBuilder.

Cloud Computing

This session was presented by Matt Hamilton of Boulder Public Library and Cindi Trainor of Eastern Kentucky University Libraries. Check out their presentation: Libraries in the Cloud: Starting the Conversation.

Cloud computing is power drawn from the network rather than embedded in the device. An analogous example is plugging into a grid for electricity versus generating your own. Some of the benefits of cloud computing include configuring the types of resources you have access to, and the ability to pull power on-demand, as needed. One participant asked how this was different from a thin-client model. Cloud computing model is very similar; thin client is about the same thing in that you could either host a private cloud within your own data center or draw power from the web. For example, Userful and Open Sense use a thin client model. Cloud computing is like virtualization: creating a virtual machine from a pool of available large resources.

A big benefit of cloud computing is that an organization doesn’t have to have an on-site data center. Some cloud services which are focused on libraries include WorldCat and OCLC Copy Cataloging. There are available cloud computing applications, such as Google Applications. However, with cloud computing, organizations must be concerned with privacy and access. If your data lives elsewhere, you need to know the terms of service and consider the different implications. It must be treated as a risk to manage: figure out what you want to do, and then figure out the implications. Recently there has been the Cloud Computing Manifesto, which discusses the importance of security, open data standards, and application portability; libraries should be involved in these discussions.

Google Wave

This session was presented by Jason Griffey of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Check out his presentation: How Google Wave Changes Everything. To start off, Jason said that taking a look at the Google Wave video will help his presentation make more sense. Google Wave was announced about 3 months ago by Google and is designed by the people who did Google Maps. The idea is that it would be email if it was designed today, since the two main ways we communicate online (email and IM) were designed 30 or more years ago. Google Wave is both a synchronous and asynchronous and both a public and private way to communicate.

For example: Joe and I need to decide where to go to dinner. Get on Google Wave and ask a question. If we’re online, it pops up like a chat, if not it presents like email. It’s flexibly synchronous/asynchronous, depending on if people are online or not. He said this would literally be real time, showing as you type–in my opinion, that could get awkward! To continue the example, someone else could be brought into the wave – they can see what others have done, can interact with what has already happened. Sort of like collaborative documents. There’s also the ability to rewind – version it back to see what was added/removed before, and alter it again. Also the ability to replay back and forth in real time, to see the information flow happening.

Why do libraries care?

  • Google has said it will be open source. Won’t have to be used at Google – could use it locally.
  • Waves are embeddable objects. Don’t have to use a client to interact with the information flow.
  • Imagine a reference wave, monitored by all reference libraries. If they’re online, interact in real time, if not interact as if email. Students ask questions publically and get responses depending on who is online in real time.
  • Multiple libraries can manage the system because the protocol is open. Monitor same wave, collaborative wave reference happening transparently.
  • Architecture is pluggable – write plug-ins. Write robots that will parse and interact with the information being given to them.
  • Common question: “I’m a freshman in Sociology 102. I need resources in….” Write robot that does keywords – automatically return social resources (subject guide, databases, encyclopedia). Identify subject, push to database, return subject.
  • Parse name of the book, send research results.

I think in particular the automatic results idea is great, but why do we have to wait for Google Wave to do that? Can’t we make bots that monitor IM and parse questions automatically, make a monitored email address or a twitterbot that automatically answers these kinds of questions? The hard part isn’t the automation — it’s the parsing of the questions and the keywords. It’s not clear to me that Google Wave will do more than just the automation and availability aspects, which means that the hard part — parsing — could be done now, and hooked up to currently available interactions such as IM or email without waiting for Google Wave.


I’m really glad that I was able to attend the Social Software Showcase, because technology–and using new technology to make information easier to access and use–is exciting to me. I like the point that Rebecca made, which is if you talk about ideas and think about new ways to present information, you might be able to find someone to put something together for you. Even if you’re not a programmer, applications like Yahoo! Pipes can make mashups easier–and why do we need to wait for other companies to innovate for us, such as through Google Wave, when we might be able to do some of those things already?

Thanks to LITA’s BIGWIG for all the time and effort they put into organizing this, and to the presenters for putting together great presentations. To see all of the presentations, visit the Social Software Showcase page.