My First Hackday
Over the past few years, I had heard a lot about ‘Hackdays’ from what I could tell, they were events, where people who knew how to code, got together and were given datasets that they could work with to create or something, or they get together with people who may not have the technical skills, but the ideas to create something. The concept of hackdays sounded great, and when I saw that RLUK was running a hackday in London on May 14 2014, I wangled my way into the event. I got in on the proviso that I did something in return, and that was to livetweet the event using the hashtag #rlukhack under my Twitter name @agentk23.
Being designated as an official tweeter was great, as it meant I had a legitimate reason for bothering people and asking a lot of questions. So what is a ‘hackday’ like? I guess I can only speak about this one event.
It started with the hosts introducing everyone to the dataset that was going to be hacked, which was the RLUK database comprising of 20 million bibliographic records from 34 UK Libraries. This dataset is released as Linked Open Data, meaning anyone can go in and look at it and use it.
A chunk of time was given over to explaining to explaining data models, data sets and APIs. Much of this went over my head as I don’t deal with such things in my day job, but it all started to make sense was when I initiated conversations with the hackers.
Shannon Earle from Cranfield University, was interested in the WWI digital resources released by German Libraries, she wanted to pull interesting media such as videos and digitised diaries, and the fact that the records contained geolocation data, meant that it would be possible to plot where the resources were on a map.
Berrisford Edwards, a developer at University of Manchester, wanted to look at aggregate data and ways of presenting data visually. He thought it would be useful for researchers to know, how many times an article had been downloaded, or to be able to show graphs for the most used articles. Something akin to the metrics they get for eScholar, the institutional repository at the University of Manchester. Unfortunately, the dataset did not include the necessary information, so he ended up looking at how the data and the API for searching the data could be improved to make it more usable to those looking to hack it.
Michael and Glen from the National Library of Wales were looking at WWI datasets and hoping to link it to the National Library of Wales, Welsh newspapers online project. They wanted to take records and enhance it with information from Google books, Wikipedia, and Welsh Newspapers. They also thought it would work best if they were able to create a tool to crowd source relevant information
Screenshot of the interface created by Glen and Mike, taken from Twitter
At the start of the day we found out the servers were down, meaning no WiFi access, but luckily attendees were able to tether laptops to mobile networks as means of accessing the internet, connections were sometimes patchy, but not more so than your average conference/event WiFi network. During the time when the hacking is underway, the room is intensely quiet as everyone focussed on their work, stopping occasionally for the multiple rounds of refreshments that kept on trolleys throughout the day. There was a round up and presentation at the end of the day so that each group or attendee could talk about how they got on with their projects, which was great way to draw an end to the event along with the canapés and wine.
Overall, the RLUK hackday event gave me a clearer idea of what is involved in such events. At the beginning of the day, it was hard to get around what 20 million bibliographical records available as linked open data meant, but once people started talking about their concrete ideas, it seemed that there is a lot of potential for it to be put into great use, especially when used in conjunction with other sources of information to create richer content.
As someone with no programming background, I found that I could only be an observer during the event, and many technical aspects were opaque to me. I found myself thinking that it would be great if there was some way to bridge the gap between coders and laypeople, to make it easier for people to understand the whole concept of hackdays and using linked open data. Was there any way that the non-techy person could also contribute? And whose responsibility is it to make sure that people understand what it all means? Perhaps this should be something that is covered more extensively during the study of Librarianship to create a generation of people who really get it and will be behind it.
I came away from the day thinking that it was great so many people were interested in exploring data and turning it into something that would be useful and easy for researchers to use.