Tuesday 27 March 2012

What do end users want from Pelagios widgets?

Ancient mashup
'Ancient mashup' (thanks to flunitrazepam)
We weren't 100% sure so we asked a few (and some of them weren't sure either, but that's understandable and useful to know). The 23 people we asked were suggested by Elton and a other Pelagios partners, and 12 folk responded. This post describes:
  1. Who the respondents are in terms of their roles (Who?)
  2. What sorts of things they would like Pelagios widgets to do (What?)
  3. Contexts - the sorts of activities respondents undertake related to ancient places and history, concerns they have and so on.
  4. Next steps
Thanks to all those who responded: you've provided lots of useful information!


The first couple of question we we asked give us information about the respondents activities and roles with respect to ancient history and ancient places. To give you an idea of who our respondents are, they told us that they used the internet for ancient history/ancient place related activities:
  • as students,
  • as researchers,
  • as teachers or lecturers,
  • as bloggers,
  • for communications and marketing,
  • for hobbies and leisure activities,
  • and for researching and writing historical fiction.
6 of the 12 used the internet to pursue more than one of these activities, the rest for one activity alone. The most popular categories were 'Teacher/lecturer' and 'Researcher'.


We asked them what sorts of things they would like Pelagios widgets to do and got some thought provoking answers including:
  • Embed a map so it works in a wordpress.com blog,
  • Display places and movements represented in specific texts.
  • 'Compare the geographical relationships (and names) represented in ancient texts with historical and modern representations'
  • Serve archaeology/art/museums and go beyond ' classical world'
  • 'My students want quick lookup tools that are linked to authoritative information'.
  • 'Link ancient places with ancient sources, but also with general knowledge about the place, author and work (as many people without university studies about this field might not know who is Herodotus or why he is famous for). I would also love to browse ancient places through geolocalization mobile apps I already use: Google Maps / Google Places, Foursquare, etc.'
  • 'Would love to put them in our own VLE'; 'I'd like stuff that was directly related to current course content on GCSE, AS and A2'.
However, several respondents remarked that they didn't know, because they felt they did not have a good idea of what the options and possibilities are. That's an understandable reaction, and something we will try to address by making initial versions of the widgets available for user testing as soon as these initial versions are ready in April or May 2012.
Overall, responses to other questions indicate an interest that could be satisfied by Pelagios widgets even when the respondent was not clear about precise possibilities and options. For example: 'my interest in places is because some geographical etc. information will illuminate the text being read'.


Web sites

Respondents were asked to tell us their favourite ancient history websites, or ones which they visit most often. Answers included:
These suggested websites are also potential target hosts for Pelagios widgets.

We also listed 12 Pelagios partner websites and asked whether the respondents had visited them in the last 3 months. The percentage who had visited any of the sites are shown in the table below.

Name URL %
Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu 83.3
Google Ancient Places http://googleancientplaces.wordpress.com/ 50
Fasti Online http://www.fastionline.org/ 33.3
Pleiades http://pleiades.stoa.org 33.3
Arachne http://www.arachne.uni-koeln.de 16.7
Pelagios Graph Explorer http://pelagios.dme.ait.ac.at/graph-explorer/ 16.7
SPQR http://spqr.cerch.kcl.ac.uk/ 16.7
CLAROS http://explore.clarosnet.org 8.3
American Numismatic Society http://nomisma.org 8.3

Respondents also told us about the web sites and blogs that they themselves create, edit or manage. This work includes rogueclassicism.com, contribution of original translations of quotations from Ancient Greek and Roman literature for sententiae antiquae, http://flavias.blogspot.co.uk/ (facts, research, news & topics linked to the children's books, The Roman Mysteries and The Western Mysteries), The world of ancient art (in development and works in tandem with www.clarosnet.org), http://blogs.sapiens.cat/picantpedra (mainly about Roman Archaeology, but also related to ancient places), a website for teachers of Classics (www.theclassicslibrary.com).

Activities and reasons for using the web in relation to ancient history and ancient places

Teachers, students and researchers reported using the internet to research ancient sites and museums prior to visiting them. Students also reported using the web for accessing teaching resources, and for reading journal articles and ebooks.
Researchers and teachers use the internet to access and search classical texts and primary sources in the original language and in translation, and to use tools such as latin and ancient greek dictionaries, lexicons, language parsing tools, calendars.
There was a general interest among students, leisure/hobby folk, researchers and teachers to "see what's there" and "filling in holes in background knowledge".

Concerns about interacting with data related to ancient places online

When asked whether they would have any concerns about interacting with data related to ancient places, more than half of the repondents said that they would not. Those that did raised issues about the tracking that could result from it, and of quality control and accuracy of the data.

Downloading data relating to ancient places

There was interest in output of the widgets being rendered as a Jpeg images or PDF files for use in teaching or publication, and the question of whether the copyright of materials generated in this way would permit this use was raised.
There was also interest that the licence of data should permit students to work with it, e.g. in collaborative projects guided by mentors.

What's next?

Work on the widgets is underway, and there are several iterations of both graphic and functional development shecduled between now and the end of June 2012. The next iteration is due at the end of April 2012.

Monday 26 March 2012

Assembling the Pelagios 2 Infrastructure

A short update from Pelagios WP1: WP 1 is about assembling the data infrastructure behind our project. To some extent this builds directly on the Graph Explorer - our proof-of-concept visualization interface from Pelagios 1. But, while we were able to reuse the things we've learned from the first stage of the project, we've also come to realize how the things we had previously implemented - features, data model, speed and scalability - have already been surpassed. WP 1 therefore starts off with a complete reappraisal and re-write of the central functionality. Details follow below, along with a rough outline of what's been done so far and what the next steps will be.


Given the need in Pelagios 1 to get a demonstration up and running quickly, the Graph Explorer ended up being rather a bit of a monolith. Key goal of the re-write has been, therefore, to introduce a better modularization of the codebase, and to consolidate the core functionality into one software library that can be more easily re-used elsewhere. We're still working on finalizing and testing this library as partners deliver updates to their data, but the essentials are finished. There's a convenient programming API to work with Pelagios's core model primitives - Datasets, GeoAnnotations and Places - in your own software. Bindings to store Pelagios data in a graph database are included, but without the hard-wired dependency that existed in the Graph Explorer. In this regard the Tinkerpop graph database abstraction framework has greatly helped to achieve good decoupling between data model and implementation classes, reduce code size by eliminating the need for much of the boilerplate code, and keep things generic: i.e. the bindings should be re-usable for a variety of graph database brands now (although some of the more advanced I/O and query functionality remains specific to Neo4j - our DB of choice for Pelagios).

Less Speed, More Memory Consumption

Or was this the other way round? Regarding our toolset to read Pelagios data into the system, we switched our underlying RDF parser from Jena to the OpenRDF Rio parser framework. This allows us to more directly hook into the RDF parsing lifecycle, and avoids the need to construct full RDF graphs in memory before we can actually work with the data. As a result, parsing is now faster and less memory intensive. (Credit goes to Arachne for letting us learn the hard way that datasets can be... LARGE.)

Getting our Feet Wet with Scala

As with Pelagios 1, the technological basis for our server-side components is still the Java Virtual Machine. This time, however, we chose to go with Scala:

  • Scala's syntax is, in general, more compact than that of Java.
  • Scala's functional aspects and comprehensive features for dealing with collections and lists are a very good fit with the things we frequently do when handling Pelagios data. Scala almost always eliminates the need for iterations and loops in those cases, and often achieves the same result with a single line of code.
  • Pattern matching has been another nice feature to make our parser classes (in particular) much more concise.
  • Last but not least: someone once suggested that as a developer, you should learn at least one new programming language every year. Although I find that advice a little fierce, new languages definitely encourage you to think about the same problems in different ways!

Next Steps

With our core library in place, we are now almost ready to replace the old Graph Explorer. While we are busy wrapping an HTTP frontend around our core library, our partners are already starting to make the most of our all-new, third Pelagios Principle: "Expose metadata about your dataset using the VoID vocabulary". But that's for another post!

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Developing widgets for Pelagios

On Monday, we held a kick-off meeting here at The Open University for the development work on the Pelagios widgets. Liz has already written a post about the workshop part of this.

As part of the prep for this, we drafted a short overview document to make sure that we are all on the same wavelength. I sent a set of questions to Elton, Leif and Rainer which formed the initial basis of this document with input from me as well on the technical side. This was really interesting for me as I realised that I had some misconceptions about the goals of the work and it was good to get these cleared up right at the start.

Here is a draft of the document. Any comments or feedback would be very welcome.

Pelagios Work Package 3 Development Overview

The goal of the development in this work package is to build a suite of 3-4 widgets (i.e. small applications that can be embedded within a web page).

Target audience

There are two target audiences for this work:

  • Site owners who build, own or maintain place-related web pages, web sites or blogs in the ancient history domain. In particular the owners of the Pelagios partner sites fall in this category. These are the people in a position to embed the widgets on their web pages.
  • End users with expertise in the ancient history domain e.g. ancient history researchers, teachers and students. These are people who are likely to use ancient history place-related web pages and will actually view and use the widgets once they are embedded on web pages.

Both groups are critical as if the site owners do not embed the widgets then the end users can't use them, but if the functionality doesn't help end users then there is no reason for the site owners to embed them.


The core focus of these widgets is to allow site owners to easily add some 'Pelagios context' to their own place-related web pages.

This would allow end users to both discover the content of the Pelagios partners and also to become aware of the existence of Pelagios. Ideally the widgets should have some sort of 'recognition value' to help with this awareness.

The following have been suggested as inspiration for the widgets:

  • The 'Find more from Pelagios' links on Open Context and GapVis
  • The 'Related Flickr images' on Pleiades.
  • Product recommendations on Amazon


The widgets should be stable and reliable rather than just a proof-of-concept. They need to be sufficiently bug-free and usable that this is not a barrier to their adoption. This is more important than providing extra functionality.

Overall, we will try and keep the first versions of the widgets simple and then improve or extend them based on how they are used, the feedback we receive and the results of the user testing at the end of each iteration.

We would be delighted if just one of these widgets becomes widely adopted by appropriate sites. The purpose of building a suite of widgets rather than a single widget is to provide a range of options so that site owners can pick the widget best suited to their context.

Technical and Legal

We assume that the widgets will use either the Pelagios Graph Explorer API or a SPARQL endpoint for the Pelagios partners' data. We will therefore be restricted by the functionality provided by these, although we will not rule out using other available data (e.g. other data from the Pelagios partners or data provided by the Flickr API on Pleiades machine tags) in addition to this.

There are no current plans to build on the Pelagios Graph Explorer itself (as opposed to the API), although the code may be useful for reference.

We are currently using the term 'widget' in the broadest sense. So for example, 'widget' does not necessarily mean a 'W3C widget', 'Google gadget' or widget conforming to any other specification. It is more likely that instead an approach similar to this will be taken: http://alexmarandon.com/articles/web_widget_jquery/

The source code will be made available under the GNU Public License version 3.0 and be hosted on GitHub from the alpha version onwards. We intend for development to be in the spirit of open-source. We need to be aware of legal issues related to any images that we display in the widgets.


There is no specific resource to make the widgets accessible for people with disabilities. As this is a short project, we will attempt to adhere to accessibility best practices while developing widgets where this will not increase development time too significantly, but there will be no specific work on accessibility.

Browser support

We will test the widgets in the latest versions of Firefox and Chrome and in Internet Explorer 8. We will endeavour to also support the latest version of Safari and Internet Explorer 9 but will not explicitly test in these. We will not be supporting Internet Explorer 7.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

WP3 kick-off meeting and widget brainstorming session

A few of us at the OU held a kick-off meeting for WP3 yesterday, that included a short brainstorming session on the sorts of widgets that could be developed using Pelagios data. The meeting included some participatory design with five example end users from both the Classics department at the OU and also the Institute of Educational Technology (many thanks to our volunteers!), who worked with members of the Pelagios project team to devise some example scenarios or ideas for widget functionality.

We came up with a reasonably large number of ideas in a short space of time, including:
  • a widget to provide more data about museum artefacts, e.g. link to Flickr photos etc - conversely, if the data is all text, provide pictures of artefacts if possible (e.g. from Flickr or other data source)
  • link to an overview of a particular place e.g. Wikipedia article, through clicking on a specific icon
  • prioritise/sort data before displaying (how? what should be the context for doing this?)
  • maybe have different icons for different data
  • show the geographical spread or related works in a nearby geographical area, e.g. if you're interested in a mosaic, show other mosaics or potteries/kilns within a e.g. 20 or 50 mile radius
  • use maps more - can maybe have different overlays/filters according to what you want to see. Could be a small version in e.g. side menu bar, which when you click on it, becomes larger/a pop-out
  • network diagrams: how to show the link between 2 documents from 2 different places
  • use for students/teachers: aggregator service - allow students and teachers to sort/filter
  • map interface: allow 'faceted browsing' to browse (or search) for specific things - able to tick/untick boxes to show or hide data - but not discard anything
  • ability to connect ancient and modern places - e.g. placenames but also maybe bring together different maps? use place as the central core concept - look at the relationship between past and present
  • increase use of pictures: Flickr, Panoramio etc. but potential problems in terms of relevance
  • option to download CSV data from aggregated data sources would be great - very useful to large number of academics, who would come back time and again
  • idea of being able to upload/share user data - could have private/public access - to enable sharing of datasets/networks
  • consider layers of narratives attached to artefacts - these could be 'official' historical sources, factual sources, mythology/legends/stories or personal 'human' stories/experiences - can tap into material culture studies
  • looking at how artefacts travel/move around the world
There is some cross-over between some of these ideas, and some are more problematic than others - for example, it would be fantastic to be able to run a query, get a load of aggregated data about it and then download it as a CSV file that could be used for subsequent tasks - but the lack of standardisation between Pelagios partners and the sheer variety of data makes this difficult, to say the least.

I really love the idea of attaching stories - or layers of stories - to artefacts and /or places, also in looking at how they travel around the world - it reminded me of the Tales of Things project, where personal stories are attached to objects, such as those donated to Oxfam charity shops, via QR codes. Another idea that one of our volunteers came up with after the meeting is to see if we can somehow tie in with the Oympics - as they are being held in London this year, it seems an obvious way to join in the celebrations and maybe get some increased media coverage for Pelagios2 (both now and on a 4-yearly basis!).

As a result of this meeting, we're now finalising plans for developing our first widget and also finishing off our last bout of eliciting end user requirements - all very exciting! :D Watch this space... we'll be posting further details in due course...

Friday 9 March 2012

Technical and legal issues related to apps and widgets

I said in my last post that I'd report on  technical and legal issues raised by  repsondents to our questionnaire. I'm going to delay reporting on requirements for apps  because I've still got a couple of things to clarify, but hope to be able to publish something about Pelagios apps next week. In the meantime, here's a few points about technical and legal issues.
Technical requests included the following.
  • That the data should be exposed via  a Linked data/SPARQL endpoint (i.e. the data should not be available only via an API);
  • Atom feeds for sharing updates about resources associated with a given Pleiades place.
  • Well documented REST based APIs for all services, and more specifically, ‘JSON data via a nice RESTful API’. It would also be good to have an API from Pelagios (or at least a way of getting solely data) so that the 'widget' front end could look however you wish. Ideally the widget would be able to be styled in whatever format is needed;
  • that the apps and widgets should reuse and support open standards.
Legal issues raised
Copyright, Course Materials and YOU!
Thanks to gforsythe for the picture

Legal points made included the following suggestions and concerns.
  •  That the license structures adopted in the first phase of the Pelagios project  are adequate.
  •  That  licensing conditions should be "flagged up" - e.g. with some an icon, tool tip or other means that are visible but do not dominate the information provided
  • If people are adding their own data then there needs to be some discussion of the licensing of that data. Should it go into the "big pot for everyone to use, or can they choose to CC license it, etc, keep it private, etc?  If this is an option, licensing will have to be worked out".

Friday 2 March 2012

Initial evaluation of user needs for the Pelagios apps and widgets

This is the second in a series of posts about users’ requirements for Pelagios apps and widgets. The first post set the scene, and this one describes some of our initial findings from the "super user" group.

The questions we asked were about
Daily App Experiment #345 "Where to Draw the Line?" - not sure if this is cheating, but today's #appsperiment started with an image from a broken scanner. I dug the glitchy lines & decided I wanted to play with them, so I took the image (posted earlier to
Thanks to docpop for the pic.
  • the target audience(s) for the apps and widgets
  • what the Pelagios apps and widgets could do
    e.g. specific goals they could help people achieve, tasks they should help people carry out
  • what sort of things different types of users might do with the apps/widgets
    If there are different audiences, what will these different audiences do
  • barriers to exploiting Pelagios partners data
  • technical and legal considerations
This post summarises the findings about the target audience(s), the widgets, and the perceived barriers.

The target audience(s) for the apps and widgets
Some respondents identified "super users" as the primary target audience for the apps and widgets. However, the majority of responses suggested that non-technical users should be catered for.
Suggestions on this theme included groups of people with both a professional and/or an  amateur interest in the ancient world:
- tourists who want to know about the cultural background of their vacation spot,
- historians that want to have an overview of their local history in terms of research,
- archaeologists that are interested in the findings and citations in literature related to the area of their excavations, -   fiction writers who want to get abetter historical background of a setting for a story
-   educators who want to give their students some background knowledge about the ancient history of a place they are looking at
- researchers that want to find things by place
"anybody who uses the web".
What the Pelagios widgets should do
Respondents suggestions varied from general guidance about the nature of the widgets (e.g. 'nice, compact, easy-to-transit view of related linkages', 'allow people to easily add some "Pelagios context" to their own place-related web pages') to some more specific suggestions.
The specific suggestions include:
  • focus  on a topographical spot so that once embedded into a website the widget will display contextual data for a Pleiades place, e.g. showing any literature mentioning Isica  on a map, or as a list.
  • interest in using Pelagios with the Concorcodia vocabulary
  • enable the user to search on modern place names (e.g. Mainz instead of Mogontiacum)
  • an API that outputs RDF/xml or plain XML of the entire Pelagios dataset, input parameters would be Pleiades-id or search string of place name
  • a person is viewing a web page that mentions a place; the  widget that displays "other cool stuff" from the Pelagios universe related to that place
Barriers to exploiting Pelagios partners data
Concerns raised included
  • the projects that are linked by Pelagios use different languages
  • the PELAGIOS annotation spec is not complete and published. The format may change, thereby breaking any applications or queries we build around it.
The next post will be about requirements for the Pelagios apps, and technical and legal issues that were raised by respondents. By the way  if you have been invited to fill out the requirements questionnaire please do so, we are still analying responses but would like some more before the 9th of March :-)

That's all for now