On Saturday I went to the Open Plaques project open day workshop. It was a really interesting day, and actually a lot of hard work! I was sort of expecting a few presentations and chat about some blue plaques and a look and a ponder at the website. But no, they made us work for our very tasty free lunch.
Open Plaques is a community‐based service started in 2009 which documents, catalogues and promotes commemorative plaques, they are normally blue ( but not always blue or actually round) installed on buildings and other public landmarks in the UK and beyond. The aim of open plaques is to “to bring the people‐powered history the plaques encapsulate to life – and to a larger audience – by making its website and database the definitive and most comprehensive resource about these historical markers.” On the Open Plaque website, users can search and browse the collection of plaques by person, place (map interface), or organisation. The plaques are described, transcribed and photographed. The majority have also been geolocated, meaning it is possible to see them high-lighted on a map. (dont get me started on the scaling of the maps).
Frankie started the open day of by telling us the story so far: it started with a tweet. A tweet enquiring if there was a database of Blue Plaques, ( honestly I have no idea how Frankie comes up with some of his ideas, but all of them appear to be good, unless he just manages to hide the rubbish ones really well). The best resource available was a single page on one of the plaque erecting organisation sites, it might of been EH, I cant remember now. My brain became saturated very quickly on saturday. So he did some clever things and created a database from the list. From that you can try and work out what’s meaningful data and what isn’t. A linguists dream apparently.
An example of what you can do with the data, did you know there are currently 248 different plaque erecting organisations? Plaques currently come in 16 different colours and the individual with the most plaques? I thought it would be Darwin or Dickens, but reaching the top spot with 7 plaques is Marconi, H.G Wells and Arther Conan Doyle.
But now that there is a nice database fuelled by keen individuals, and enhanced by pictures on Flickr and geotagging, what’s next for open plaques?
Frankie highlighted a few things:
- Improve usability
- Do something fun with the data
- Make it easier to contribute
- Mobile site/apps
And that is what the rest of the day was about; asking the community how to do the next steps.
Ian Ozsvald pretty much blow my mind. He talked about Applying machine vision to plaques. Exactly, it was hardcore. In essence figuring out how to make a computer do auto transcription of photos! Within two months of collaborative effort Ian and a clever team have created some very clever algorithms which crop a blue plaque image, convert it to black and white, remove noise, remove the pesky English heritage logo, and run a spell check to get a pretty convincing transcription.
Emily Troop showed us the Open Plaque iPhone app which is being built where you can discover all the plaques near you, allowing you to locate all the commemorative plaques currently available on the openplaques.org within 50kms of your current location and to view the inscriptions and images of those plaques, which is pretty cool.
Richard Vahrman talked to us about potential games based on Open Plaques data looking at some ideas for a treasure trail, view from a plaque and a spooks style there’s a bomb in my plaque scenario.
Then came the practical sessions which were split into content, development and user interface/design. I was part of the Design and User interface group and we discussed how could achieve an appropriate ‘look and feel’ for the website, how exactly do you browse lots of different plaques and why, how do you show off the data without scaring people off, and what’s the best interface for allowing people to contribute. We ended up drawing a lot of random paper prototypes, and adding new bits here and there, and actually trying to make the focus of the site the plaques. It was hard work, and by no means finished. But its a start, and I think everyone was really committed to taking the project which is already brilliant and making it even better. You can see some photos of what we got up to at the open day on Flickr.
I really enjoyed the day, I knew of the project, but had never really looked into the inner workings and what it was all about. But now I’m hooked, there is a lot that can be taken from a small community who are full of enthusiasm for a project, its inspiring and I can feel a blue plaque hunt on cards.