Crowdsourced holiday plans

I’m looking for help.  No, not that sort of help… or that sort… I’d like you, dear readers, to help plan my holiday.  While this might sound entirely selfish I will be using it as an experiment in crowdsourcing:

delegating a task to a large diffuse group, usually without monetary compensation

In this case definitely without monetary compensation!

Here’s the details.  My brother and I fly out to San Francisco at the end of July and have 18 days to travel across the country to New York via lots of hopefully interesting places.  There’s more details over on my personal blog [Edge Hill University is not responsible for the content of external websites!] but I’ll repeat the key bit here and explain how I’m hoping it will work.

Here’s the initial route we came up with:

San Francisco, CA to Laguardia Airport - Google Maps

So: San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Las Vegas, NV; Grand Canyon, AZ; Denver, CO; Chicago, IL; Toronto, ON; Boston, MA; New York, NY.

If you’ve been to any of these places, or have heard of good things to see and do, let us know in one of the following ways:

How is this different to the usual way of planning holidays?  You’ll normally ask friends and family who’ve been before for suggestions and things to do and places to visit and my crowdsourcing plan is indeed very similar.  The difference is twofold.

Firstly the range of people I hope to reach out to for ideas is far greater.  Even before I made any real effort to spread the message I had people responding on Twitter with suggestions.  Some of them I’m never met in person but they’re part of my extended personal or professional “network”.

Secondly, by engaging people with the process of planning, I hope to get more people interested in what we’re doing and hence get more and better suggestions with different people’s ideas building on each other.

I’m not going to spam this blog with my holiday plans any more, but I might blog about some of my observations about the crowdsourcing process.  If it all goes well then I may even use the experience as the basis for a BarCamp session at the Institutional Web Management Workshop immediately before I fly out!

What’s in a name?

At 5:01am on Saturday morning I was up and logged into Facebook. That might not be unsual for many people but last weekend Facebook launched usernames – the ability to give your profile or page a vanity URL – an easy to remember name – rather than a long number.

I was trying to bag myself “mikenolan” to match my accounts on Twitter, Delicious, Friendfeed and several other services, and I’m happy to say I was quick enough to do so. I was also registering a username for the Edge Hill University Fan Page. After much discussion we decided on

Aside: with 1004 “fans” as of 31st May 2009, we were only just eligible to register a vanity URL for the Edge Hill fan page.  This restriction doesn’t apply to regular profile pages.

At first glance the fuss over usernames is a little over the top, but for Facebook this is deadly serious. Usernames are all about Facebook’s attempts to become your online identity of choice and a random number means nothing to most people. While there have been few announcements about what they’ll be used for, we can have a few guesses:

  • OpenID Provider: Facebook are being forced to become more open, and one way which gives the illusion of openness is OpenID.  It’s similar to Facebook Connect and an easy thing for them to offer while still forcing you to log in with them.
  • Jabber/XMPP: They’ve already announced that they were going to open up Facebook chat to connect with third party services such as Google Talk.  It will be based on XMPP which uses email-like addresses to reference accounts.  A username is almost essential for this to be easy to use.
  • Email: Many – especially younger people – already use Facebook mail considerably more than regular email accounts so I  imagine they’ll allow you to use your as an email address.  I just hope they’ve got good spam filters!

What other uses can you think of?

With Google’s public profiles, and Twitter recently launching Verified Accounts, the battle for your online identity is well under way.

Mapumental: where can I live?

Channel 4 and mySociety – the non-profit organisation who build cool stuff for the public good – have teamed up to create a new website to help people work out where to live, work or holiday.

Mapumental, currently in invite-only beta, takes data about public transport, house prices, senic-icity and combines them with free mapping to clearly show where you can get to in a given time. I’ll discuss some of the data in a moment, but first watch the demo:

For travelling into Edge Hill you can see that most of North and central Liverpool is accessible by public transport in an hour or less. Nudging the time up to 1h15m allows me to get the train in, which is pretty much spot on:

Mapumental 1:00 Mapumental 1:15

The data they combine comes from an interesting range of sources. Traveline supply the National Public Transport Data Repository (for ~£9000 – a snip!). House prices for England and Wales is supplied by the Land Registry. The other data, however, is free!

The base mapping layer is from OpenStreetMap – a project to create a free (as in beer and speech) map similar to the ones available from Google Maps, or even from the OS. It’s created by volunteers who go out with GPS and plot the routes online. Almost all major roads are on there already and certain areas have excellent quality coverage – take a look at South Liverpool for an example of how good it can get.

Edge Hill University Faculty of Health Copyright Bryan Pready, Creative Commons LicenceThe scenic-icity of places was determined by mashing up some other data. Geograph is a project aiming to have a photo of every 1km x 1km grid square in the country. All photographs submitted are under Creative Commons licence so you’re free to use them (with some restrictions).

mySociety took the images and created a game, ScenicOrNot, asking people to rate how scenic a photo looks – nearly 15,000 people took part building up the third layer of information.

The kind of information Mapumental exposes is stuff that’s previously only been known through experience or painful manual analysis of train/bus timetables and estate agent windows. In a time when many people are trying harder to make better use of public transport, knowing all your options is essential.

If you’ve not come across mySociety before, check out some of their other websites:

Channel 4’s involvement in the project is through its new 4iP fund for investing in public service media.

Blogs on the go

So mobile is the next big thing, right? People have been saying that for the last 10 years! First WAP, then those crazy phones from Japan… Now we’ve got Apple iPhone and Google Android and Palm’s Pre and even Nokia have been able to produce some reasonable devices! With modern phones come modern web browsers and bundled data making it cost effective enough to browse the web for more than 30 seconds.

All these phones are capable of browsing the so-called “full web” but equally, users often expect a version of the site optimised for mobiles. That’s what we’ve been able to do on the Edge Hill blogging platform using a nifty little WordPress plugin called WPtouch.

It intercepts requests from certain mobile devices (currently iPhone, iPod Touch & Android) and a special theme with a few custom features to integrate more closely with phones. If you want to see the original site, there’s a toggle switch at the bottom of the page.

It’s available for all blogs hosted on so if you’ve got one of these phones, give it a try and let us know what you think. We’re starting to look into doing more for the mobile web both for the corporate site and for GO so keep an eye out for future developments.

Mobile blog homepage Mobile blog add comments

SOLSTICE Conference 2009

Last Thursday was SOLSTICE’s fourth – and my third – Annual Conference, held here in Edge Hill University’s Faculty of Education.  Following last year’s epic failure at live blogging, this year I was determined to do things right.

Live blogging the event means I don’t have to write up anything – you can just read the transcript, right? Unfortunately not.  While all the twittering gives you a nice insight into the event, 140 characters isn’t enough to draw meaningful conclusions from  the topics discussed, so I’ll have to give some follow up.  I’ll cover a little about each of the sessions I attended followed by some more general thoughts about the event and covering it live online.

The Impact of Learner Experience Research Dr Rhona Sharpe, Oxford Brookes University

First keynote from Rhona was about researching the learner experience. Very interesting talk including a couple of video clips of students. Two really interesting points were the methods of evaluating learner experiences – things like talking walls, audio logs and telephone interviewing – and the access enablers and barriers – things like single sign on and restrictions on access to social networks. We do pretty well for some of these, but always more work to do.

The Use of Social Networking Sites: two practical examples, Anthony Wall, University of Ulster

Our Hi applicant website has been running for over two years now and I think it’s been pretty successful. When it launched it was pretty unique in the UK but the growth of social networks within universities has led others to look at what they offer. The University of Ulster have adopted third party social networks – in this case Bebo – to engage students before they come to university. The two examples were at a department level which meant fewer users but I imagine it’s easier to provide targeted information. There was an 11-32% engagement level.

One of the more surprising comments from Anthony was that students aren’t interested in “talking heads” videos. This has been something we’ve been keen to do more of on our corporate website, and something I think prospective students get a lot out of. My suspicion is that Ulster’s social networks were aimed at people at a different point in the application cycle and that since they’ve already applied they are less interested in the “sales pitch” type videos that are better sited along side course information.

The session ended with a couple of predictions for the future: Mobile and real Networking. I think both are correct – an increasing amount of casual browsing of sites like Facebook is happening on mobile phones – I know of many people who mainly use the mobile versions – and better quality mobile browsers combined with affordable data packages means this is a real growth area.

Reflections on Using the Blackboard E-portfolio, Alex Spiers, Liverpool John Moores University

Standing room only for the chaired panel session I attended. Arriving late, I was stood at the front to one side trying not to be noticed while blogging and taking the odd photo.

ePortfolios “take the CV into the modern era”, apparently. They’re not something I’ve had too much to do with but I can see their potential. Liverpool John Moores are using the one built into Blackboard. Users had a range of experience levels but it was generally found to be easy to use. Unsurprisingly, when marks are awarded, uptake is increased.

Loaded question of the day came from Phil Christopher:

PC: Have you seen Blackboard 9?
AS: Yes.
PC: Does the word “clunky” still apply?
AS: It’s no Facebook, but it’s pretty slick.

From the little I’ve seen of BB9/NG, it’s much improved but it still wouldn’t hurt for Blackboard to hire a few more UI designers!

Higher Education Study Skills – Delivering and supporting HE Study Skills across a dispersed partnership, Julie Swain, Claire Gray, University of Plymouth & Hazel English, City of Bristol College

Interesting and quite different setup compared to most HEIs. They’re delivering information through Sharepoint to a number of partner colleges. Staff development for remote sites is increasingly through the VLE or video conferencing.

Bending the Blend: re-creating good practice in an online induction, Denise Turner & Sue Myer, University of Teesside

Final talk in the chaired panel session gave me another quote likely-to-get-me-into-trouble:

Librarians are not natural risk takers 😉

A few bullet points taken from my Twitter feed:

  • Visual context is important, e.g. compare ebooks to a physical library
  • Use a tripod when recording video
  • Camtasia for online induction materials
  • Contemplated using Netvibes but decided against it

We’ve Spent Too Much Money To Go Back Now Professor Tara Brabazon, University of Brighton

Tara BrabazonI went to Tara Brabazon’s session at the CASE Europe Annual Conference last year so I had an idea what to expect (don’t sit at the front; don’t make eye contact!) and looking through the tweets, her talk was for many the highlight of the conference. The OHP was out and the visualizer was in – there was even ghetto blaster for pumping out some tunes. The topic of the keynote was about student literacy.

With biting attacks on Marc Prensky’s digital immigrant/digital native terms, the Daily Mail, Baroness Greenfield (oh dear, my Dad will be disappointed!) and of course Wikipedia, I can’t really do the talk justice so I hope that video will be made available soon.

Connecting Transitions and Independent Learning: an evaluation of read/write web approach, Dr Richard Hall, De Montfort University

For me, a session of two halves with Richard first setting a series of questions to discuss in groups. A little too academic-focused for me, or maybe I was just slow understanding what was being asked for. Picked up during the second half of the session with some Richard explaining some of the experiences of peer mentoring at De Montfort.

Learning 2.0@JMU, Leo Appleton & Alex Spiers, Liverpool John Moores University

photoMy second session from Alex Spiers of the day, this time joined by Leo Appleton (formerly of this Parish) to talk about introducing a range of Web 2.0 sites and services to Learning Services staff. Staff were split into groups and set tasks through the VLE over a period of 12 weeks. The aim was to get staff up to speed to allow them to support students in using the VLE and other technologies they might encounter.

Lots of Common Craft videos were used to demonstrate principles of services such as blogs, social networks and Delicious social bookmarks. Range of feedback from “I’m not joining moron Facebook” and “I can’t see what this has got to do with my job” to “great opportunity – wouldn’t have learned it otherwise”.

To finish off there was a battle of the Web 2.0 geeks with myself, AM_Doherty and one other person lasting until the last question – “are you active in Second Life” – I’m glad I got knocked out at that point!

Close facilitated by Professor Peter Hartley, University of Bradford

A short summary session covering some of the key topics discussed during the conference finished things off. I suspect Peter was on commission for Flip Cameras – he seemed quite taken to them (I really must put an order in for one).

Finished off with a vote for what topics should be covered in the next conference. Mobile technologies, student use of technology and the changing role of lecturers came high.


A few final points from me before I call time on SOLSTICE 2009. Live tweeting was fun and gets easier the more you practice. I used Twitterfall to monitor tweets from other people using the #solstice2009 hashtag. This is really really easy to follow in one browser tab and because it automatically refreshes you don’t need to pay too much attention to it. It would also have been nice to have some screens up showing live tweets, either in the lecture theatre, or possible in the reception or Water’s Edge. I used my dedicated @MikeNolanLive account for posts to keep it away from my main account. I also had the online conference schedule loaded up so that I could copy and paste the session titles into Twitter.

Twitter seemed to work well as a backchannel. Over 30 people tweeted using #solstice2009 throughout the conference – some more than others – including a few that didn’t attend IRL. Twitter Search appeared to fail for about an hour between 12:40 and 13:59 where messages weren’t being indexed and still aren’t available through search. People were tweeting however and messages are available through individual users’ timelines. There’s also the question of preserving tweets long term as Twitter Search only makes messages available for a month or so (anyone know exact details of this – some seem to say you can search back further using the API).

So inspired by Tony Hirst, I’ve munged tweets into a spreadsheet on Google Docs. I’ve attempted to add in which session each tweet relates to. If you know any that are missing, contact me and I’ll give you edit access. It would also be nice to add in missing messages from lunchtime.

One possible use for this data is to combine timestamped tweets with audio/video streams to subtitle a talk with the live tweets. Probably not something I’ve got the time to do but let me know if you try it!

I took photos using two cameras – high(er) quality pics using my digital SLR and some using my iPhone for direct upload to Twitpic. I’ve subsequently uploaded all my photos to Flickr and tagged them solstice2009. No one else has yet uploaded photos from the conference to Flickr, but there are some from another “solstice2009”!

That’s all for this time. I’ll leave you with a picture of some ducklings. See you next year!


Google Wave is coming soon! – Part I

Google Wave was launched on the 28th May, 2009 at the ‘Google’s I/O Developer conference’ in San Francisco. It has been developed by a team working in Sydney, Australia. Which consist of two brothers, Jens and Lars Rasmussen and has Stephanie Hannon as the lead project manager, all of whom were previously involved in Google Maps.

What it is Google Wave?

It is a new platform for communication and collaboration on the web in real time coming later this year. I can’t wait!

It is based on a “Wave”, a different way to communicate by integrating many of the tools we are currently using such as email, maps, videos, photos, blogs and chats in just one interface. So, we can create a wave and invite our collaborators to join the conversation by giving them access to send simple messages and edit the wave directly. Truly Impressive.

It combines some of people’s favourite aspects of email, instant messaging, wikis, blogs, chats, projects and social networks. There’s even a twitter client (Twave robot) – you can tweet into and out of a wave!

Google Wave interface

The following are few of the cool features from the demo:

  • Real Time: Drop photos onto a wave and see the thumbnails appear on the other person’s machine before the full upload is finished. Just watch the demo to view this
  • Embeddability: The waves can be embedded in any blog or site
  • Drag and Drop: Wave lets you drag and drop files directly onto its interface
  • googlewave1editdoc

  • Open Source, Applications and extensions: With open APIs developers will be able to create different applications for the waves. There will be plenty volunteers.
    The API has been used to build a bunch of cool extensions such as:
    • Bloggy, a blog client, lets you make a blog post as a wave
    • Linky is a link-recognition engine that is clever enough to recognize that the link you just entered is a YouTube video
    • Buggy, a bug-reporting tool that can also be a participant in a wave
    • Bidder, You can turn a wave into your own eBay
  • Wiki Functionality: anything within the Google Wave can be edited by other members
  • Playback: We will able to reproduce any part of the wave to keep track of what is being said or done and to see how it evolved
  • Translation: Wave has the capacity of autocorrecting and translating in real time, which allows collaborative work among people that don’t share the same language
  • Spell Checker: an extension called Spelly which uses the entire corpus of the web as its dictionary


Google Wave is promising to change the scope in: Education, e-learning, collaborative projects, companies and organizations, as it can be the most popular tool to create Personal Learning Environment or Personal Learning Networks.

Could Google Wave really redefine web communication? We’re going to have to wait a while though to find out, as this product is still under development. Right now it’s only available to a select group of developers who attended Google I/O conference and have an account to create their own Wave servers. I’m sure there will a lot of articles on the web keeping us informed of the development process, pros and cons.

If you want to find out more about Google Wave, allow yourself some time to watch the full demo, then you will be able to understand why people are extremely excited.

Live Tweeting Events

Last weekend I attended BarCamp Leeds at Old Broadcasting House.  I’m not going to talk about the sessions – I hope to cover that on my personal blog sometime this week, but I was trying out a new Twittering technique.

I’ve said before that one of the best uses of microblogging services like Twitter is at conferences and I’ve got quite a few on this year so I’ve been thinking about how best to use the service during live events. I have quite a varied set of followers – everything from geeks to journalists (who I’ve come to realise are actually just another set of geeks!) – so a large proportion of what I tweet about won’t be of interest to everybody.

The solution I tried out last weekend, and plan to continue is to split my Twitter accounts. Many people separate their professional and personal lives, but I’ve not been keen on doing that. My work influences who I am and vice versa. I came across an alternative solution employed by Martin Belam where he maintains two accounts – @currybet for regular use and @currybet_live for use during events. It seems to have worked well – one place to see everything about an event without annoying followers who aren’t interested.

So for BarCamp Leeds I created @MikeNolanLive and used it to post messages, photos and video from the event. I mentioned it a couple of times throughout the day from my main account to remind people where I was and at the end of the day I signed off and pointed people back to @MikeNolan:

MikeNolanLive on Twitter during BarCamp Leeds

It seemed to go pretty well so I plan to repeat the exercise at tomorrow’s SOLSTICE Conference and other conferences during the summer.