Appropriate IT – My ILI2011 Presentation

Here’s a copy of the slides from my ILI2011 presentation on Appropriate IT:

One thing I wanted to explore was, if discovery happens elsewhere, and the role of the librarian is no longer focussed on discovery related issues, where can library folk help out? Here’s where I think we need to start placing some attention: sensemaking, and knowing what’s possible (aka helping redistribute the future that is already around us;-) Allied with this is the idea that we need to make more out of using appropriate IT for particular tasks, as well as appropriating IT where we can to make our lives easier.

In part, sensemaking is turning the wealth of relevant data out there into something meaningful for the question or issue at hand, or the choice we have to make. My own dabblings with social network analysis are approaches I’m working on that help me make sense of interest networks and social positioning within those networks so I can get a feel for how those communities are structured and who the major actors are within them.

As far as knowing what’s possible, I think we have a real issue with “folk IT” knowledge. Most of us have a reasonable grasp of folk physics and folk psychology. That is, we have a reasonable common-sense model of how the world works at the human scale (let go of an apple, it falls to the floor), and we can generally read other people from their behaviour; but how well developed is “folk IT” knowledge? Given that to most people the idea that you can search within a page in a wide variety of electronic documents using crtrl-F as a keyboard shortcut to a “search within page/document” feature is alien to them, I think our folk understanding of IT is limited to the principle of “if you switch it off and on again it should start working again”.

Folk IT is also tied up with computational thinking, but at a practical, “human scale”. So here are a few ideas I think the librarians need to start pushing:

– the idea of a graph; it’s what the web’s based around, after all, and it also helps us understand social networks. If you think of your website as a graph, with edges representing links that connect nodes/pages together, and realise that your on-site homepage is whatever page someone lands on from a search engine or third party link, you soon start to realise that maybe your website is not as usefully structured as you thought…
– some sort of common sense understanding of the role that URLs/URIs play in the browser, along with the idea that URIs are readable and hackable and also may say something about the way a website, or the resources it makes available, organised;
– the notion of “View Source”, that allows you to copy and crib the work of others when constructing your own applications, along with the very idea that you might be able to build web pages yourself out of free standing components.
– the idea of document types and applications that can work all sorts of magic given documents of that type; the knowledge that an MP3 file works well with an audio player or audio editor, for example, or that a PNG or JPG encodes an image, along with more esoteric formats such as KML (paste a URL to a KML file into the search box of a Google Maps search and see what happens, for example…). Knowledge of the filetype/document type gives you some sort of power over it, and helps you realise what sorts of thing you can do with it… (except for things like PDF, for example, which is to all intents and purposes a “can’t do anything with it” filetype;-)

I also think an understanding of pattern based string matching and what regular expressions allow you to do would go a long way towards helping folk who ever have to manipulate text or text-based data files, at least in terms of letting them know that there are often better ways of cleaning up a text file automagically rather than having to repeat the same operation over and over again on each separate row in file containing several thousand lines… They don’t need to know how to write the regular expression from the off, just that the sorts of operation regular expressions support are possible, and that someone will probably be able to show you how to do it…