It was twenty years ago today…

According to Google, it was twenty years ago today, that I made my first comment in an on-line forum (that doesn’t link to my comment which, it seems, has escaped the archives, but to one which quotes it).

Champagne uncorking photographed with a high speed air-gap flash

It was a post to the then-active alt.music.pink-floyd Usenet newsgroup. It includes the obligatory typo (PInk) and an embarrassingly-mangled signature (I shared a dial-up account with my then boss, Graham). The content was relatively trivial.

But even so, I had no idea where it would lead me. It was the first-step on a life-changing journey; being online effectively became my career, first as a website manager, then as a freelance consultant, and as a Wikipedian (and Wikimedian) in Residence. It greatly enhanced my life experiences, created opportunities for travel, and is the foundation of many long-lasting “” friendships, with people from all around the world.

So I’m using this anniversary as an excuse to ask you all to call for an open, fair and internet. Join the Open Rights Group or a similar organisation. Let your MP or other representative know that you support and oppose . Don’t let vested interests spoil what we have made.

And please, forgive my twenty years of awful typing.

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Wikimedian in Residence at the Royal Society of Chemistry

I’m pleased to announce that I have accepted the position of Wikimedian in Residence with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), a learned society and professional body whose roots go back to 1841 (see ).

Over the next year, starting 22 September, I will be helping my new RSC colleagues, and the Society’s members, to understand Wikipedia and its sister projects, and to contribute to making knowledge of chemistry, and related subjects, more freely available. The job is titled “WikiMedian”, because as well as WikiPedia, it covers those other projects, which are run by the Wikimedia community.

a room full of people at computers

Trainees hard at work at a previous RSC editathon, in
Burlington House’s library, at which I volunteered as a trainer.

This follows on from my previous Wikipedia residences with Wildscreen (on their ARKive project), with Staffordshire Archives and Heritage Service, at the New Art Gallery Walsall, and with Lancashire County Council’s Museum Service (at their Queen Street Mill), plus shorter projects with a number of other institutions (including West Midlands Police, The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Black Country Museum, and more). I’ll continue to be Wikipedian in Residence at ORCID. The RSC have already integrated ORCID into their publishing workflow and the two organisations obviously share interests in research and academic publishing.

I’ll be working part time, partly from home, and at the RSC’s Cambridge base one day per week, plus travelling around the UK to various events. I’ll also enjoy spending some days at their palatial London HQ, at Burlington House. My work days will vary to suit the requirements of the post, and my other commitments.

The rest of the time, I’ll still be available, as a freelancer, for other work, not least relating to Wikipedia, and facilitating open space events (for example, I’m MCing GalleryCamp on 23 September). Do drop me a line if you think I can help you with that, or if you have an interest in my RSC work, or if you want to meet socially, after work, in Cambridge.

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Whatever happened to Henry Wheeler of Bath: tailor, naval signalman, and Desert Island Discs castaway?

Lately, I’ve been writing lots of Wikipedia biographies of people who have been “castaways” on the BBC Radio programme, Desert Island Discs.

A desert island. Probably not in the North Sea
Photo by Ronald Saunders, on Flickr, CC-BY

Of all the varied people — priests, writers, musicians and others —  that I’ve written about, one above all has intrigued me. Because I’ve found out less about him than any other, even though I have a full transcript of the programme.

That person is Henry Wheeler.

As I wrote on Wikipedia:

Henry Wheeler (born 1924 or 1925) was a naval signalman during World War II. The eldest in a family of six, he was from from Vernhan Grove in Bath, England, where his civilian role was as a tailor’s assistant.

He joined the Royal Navy in 1943, undertook his naval training at HMS Impregnable, went to France on the day after D-Day, and was later stationed in Rotterdam. While in Rotterdam, he had a romantic relationship with a Dutch woman, named Dine.

Shortly after the war’s end, he appeared as a “castaway” on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs, on 24 November 1945, at the age of 20. He was chosen to appear as he was serving on an unspecified “small island off the European coast” — the nearest thing available to a real castaway.

And that is pretty much all anybody seems to know about him. Was he real, or a propaganda fiction, or perhaps using a pseudonym? Did return home to Bath to resume tailoring? Or did he return to marry Dine, in Rotterdam? Does anyone at Vernham Grove remember his family? Are his descendants still alive in Bath, Rotterdam or elsewhere? Indeed, is he?

Update (5 September 2014): I’m indebted to to my fellow Wikipedia editor, Andrew Davidson, who discovered that the island was Norderney; to Anne Buchanan, Local Studies Librarian at Bath Central Library, for additional material, which has now been incorporated into the article, including the fact that Henry died in 2004; and to my Twitter followers who put me in touch with her. Thank you, all.

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ORCID plugin for WordPress

ORCID, the “Open Research Contributor ID”, is an identifier for contributors to academic papers, journals, and other publications. It’s the equivalent, for such people, of an ISBN for a book or a DOI for a paper. ORCID is an open data project, run by a not-for-profit foundation.

I’ve been working with ORCID for over a year, on their “works metadata working group“, as an outreach ambassador, and integrating ORCID into Wikipedia and Wikidata (link is a PDF).

I’m currently at the ORCID outreach event at the University of Illinois in Chicago, USA, and participating in the codefest (a hackathon by another name).

I came up with the idea for a plugin for WordPress, which would allow authors to add their ORCID identifier to their profile, and which would allow users to add their ORCIDs to comments.

Roy Boverhof (kindly sponsored by Elsevier) has kindly coded it (it’s his first WordPress plugin!); I’ve installed it; and used it on this post; so you can see my ORCID “0000-0001-5882-6823″) above, and Roy’s in his comment.

If you have an ORCID, please leave a comment here, and include it in the field provided.

The plugin is very much in beta mode (its not yet tested in multiple browsers, for instance; and we need to add documentation and additional functionality such as check-digit validation), but you can get it from Roy’s GitHub repository (there’s a “download zip” button on the right hand side, in the default view) and install it on any self-hosted WordPress installation using Plugins > Add New. (If upgrading from a previous version, please delete the original first.)

Your feedback will be welcome, in comments below, as will code contributions at GitHub.

Thanks, Roy!

Update, 2014-05-22: There were prizes for the best product; all of them were great, but we came second!

Update, 2014-05-28: New version, with various improvements. Please delete the old version before installing the new one, per the above (revised) instructions.

Update, 2014-05-28b: And again! Now at version 0.5

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Posted in Uncategorized, web standards, WordPress | Tagged , , , | 24 Comments

A reply from the UK government to my request for road gritting open data

The government website data.gov.uk, to quote its about page, hosts datasets — as open data — ”from all central government departments and a number of other public sector bodies and local authorities” (my emphasis). This is a good thing.

The site’s FAQ says “If there are particular datasets that you believe should be made available more quickly, please use the data request process” (link in original). This is also good.

Accordingly, in September 2012 (that’s sixteen months ago) I submitted a request asking for:

Lists of roads gritted by councils and other bodies, in times of freezing temperatures, with priorities and criteria if applicable.

I specified that those “other bodies” included the Highways Agency, which is “an Exec­u­tive Agency of the Depart­ment for Trans­port (DfT), and is respon­si­ble for oper­at­ing, main­tain­ing and improv­ing the strate­gic road net­work in Eng­land on behalf of the Sec­re­tary of State for Transport” (again, quoting the HA’s about page) and thus an agency of the UK government. They grit most motorways and certain trunk (“A”) roads.

Highways Agency 1995 Foden Telstar gritter truck, 4 February 2009

A highways Agency gritting vehicle at work

The data would allow my fellow volunteers and I to label (“tag”) gritting routes in OpenStreetMap, improving Satnav routing. Here’s a map of some we’ve already done.

I have, today, received a reply from the Cabinet Office, which I reproduce here in full and verbatim:

Hi Andy,

I am getting in touch with you about your data request. I sincerely apologise for the length of time it has taken to get you a response to your request. Local Authorities are responsible for winter gritting within their boundaries. Local Authorities are data owners and they are responsible for the format, access and cost of their data. This means that you will need to get in touch with the Local Authority’s [sic] who’s [sic] data you are seeking directly for access to their data. Some Local Authorities do publish information about gritting on data.gov.uk, but they do not have a reporting requirement. You may find the following links helpful.

http://data.gov.uk/data/search?q=gritting – Data.gov.uk Local Authorities gritting data
http://www.local.gov.uk/community-safety/-/journal_content/56/10180/3510492/ARTICLE – Local Government Association information on how Local Authorities gritting responsibilities.
https://www.gov.uk/roads-council-will-grit – Access to each local Authority page on gritting
http://www.highways.gov.uk/our-road-network/managing-our-roads/operating-our-network/how-we-manage-our-roads/area-teams/area-9/area-9-our-winter-work/ – Highways Agency information
http://www.highways.gov.uk/about-us/contact-us/ – Contacting the Highways Agency
http://www.highways.gov.uk/freedom-of-information-2/ – information on submitting an Freedom of Information request to the Highways Agency

I am very sorry for the amount of time it has taken us to get back to you. I hope this helps.

Kind Regards,

[name redacted]
Transparency Team
4th Floor
1 Horse Guards Road, London, SW1A 2HQ
Email: [redacted]@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk
Find out more about Open Data @ Data.gov.uk

I note the following:

  • Although an apology for the — inordinate — delay in replying is given, no reason for that is offered.
  • It should — surely? — be possible to make one centralised request rather than having to make the same request to every local authority (at the relevant tier) in the country?
  • No mention is made of Highways Agency data, other than links to their web pages, including their FoI page.
  • The reply was sent to me by email, but is not in the Comments section of the page for the request, so is not available to other interested people, including the person who commented in support of it. (I’ll post a link to this post there.)

What do you think?

I hope my recent request, for The National Heritage List for England, receives more prompt consideration and achieves a more positive outcome.

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Posted in annoyances, hyperlocal, local government, open data, OpenStreetMap, volunteering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Help Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons by transcribing small pieces of text

Are you looking for a voluntary task that can be done from your computer? One that can take just a couple of minutes? Are you a user of Wikipedia, or one of its sister projects, who would like to put something back?

Wikimedia Commons, the open media repository which is used to host images, video and audio for Wikipedia and for re-use by anyone, has thousands of images with small amounts of text, which need transcription. These include foundation stones, gravestones, various signs, and others.

For example, I took this picture in Worcester a few years ago:


Large stone clock with inscribed wording. See article for transcription

and recently transcribed the text:

This foundation stone

was laid by

Cosmo Gordon Lang

Archbishop of Canterbury

25th March 1939

WE Moone EDE MD JP – Mayor

CH Digby-Seymour MA – Town Clerk

which you can now see on the images’s page on Wikimedia Commons.

There are more images in Category:Foundation stones, Category:Signs by materials, Category:Gravestones, and and we’ll be adding others to Category:Needing transcription shortly. (We may subdivide the latter by language, as it grows). Experienced Wikimedians can help by adding the {{Transcribe here}} template to suitable image pages; and by categorising foundation stone images by year.

If you’d like to help, first sign up for a new account (if you don’t already have one there or on Wikipedia). Your username is personal to you (not your organisation or employer) and will work on Wikipedia and the other projects. You can use a pseudonym, if you wish to remain anonymous.

Then, pick an image from one of the above categories, or their linked subcategories, and check it hasn’t already been transcribed. By selecting from a subcategory relating to a specific country, you can find images with text in languages other than English. Transcribe the text in a text editor or word processor (this allows you to have the image window and text editor open side by side). Use sentence case, for readability, even if the original is all in upper case, and match the line breaks in the original. When you’re done, copy the text to your clipboard.

Next, click “edit” on the image page, and paste the text below the description fields. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure how to format it, as another editor will soon oblige (or you can drop me a note here or on Twitter — I’m @pigsonthewing —  and I will do so), but I used the {{inscription}} template, like this:

The inscription reads (all in upper case):

{{inscription |1=

This foundation stone

was laid by

Cosmo Gordon Lang

Archbishop of Canterbury

25th March 1939

WE Moone EDE MD JP – Mayor

CH Digby-Seymour MA – Town Clerk

| language=en }}

Note that the template ends with | language=en }} to show that the text is in English.

If you can see the template code {{Transcribe here}} in the page, you can now delete it.

Finally, enter an edit summary, such as “transcribed the text” and hit “save”. And that’s it. Easy, wasn’t it? Why not do another one?

Updated: to use a better template.

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Posted in ideas, volunteering, Wikipedia | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Using IrfanView for image slideshows

The other evening, I went to see my friend Peter Shirley talk to the Sandwell Valley Naturalists Club about the wildlife he saw in Canada. Pete is @PeteWestBrom on Twitter and you should follow him, and read his , if you’re interested in nature, wildlife conservation, or green issues.

He mentioned to me that he was looking for some software to display images in a slideshow, but sorted into his preferred order, rather than by datestamp or file name. He wanted something less cumbersome than PowerPoint or its free equivalent in LibreOffice, Impress. I said I knew of something that would do the job, and would send him details. But on the principle of responding to technical questions openly, in public, in order to more widely share and disseminate knowledge, I’m posting the answer here, and I’ll send him a link to this post.

For some time, I’ve used the excellent programme, an image viewer which also serves as a lightweight, but nonetheless powerful, image editor. It’s not Photoshop (nor the free equivalent, GIMP), but it’s great for cropping, rotating, changing contrast or brightness, and other similar tasks, which it can also do on a batch basis. It’s free for non-commercial use, for Windows. Its author, Irfan Skiljan, is also very responsive to user requests, and the programme has several features which he’s kindly added at my request.

And it has a slideshow feature.

IrfanView slideshows can be used for talks and presentations like Pete’s, or be left unattended, as a “carousel” or “kiosk” style display. To make one, first, download and install IrfanView, and any of its various plug-ins you might use (I simply download and install the full set of plugins, in one file).

Next, to set up a slideshow, use the IrfanView File menu and select Slideshow. You’ll see a dialogue like this (taken from the current version at the time of writing, v4.36):

IrfanView Slideshow dialogue

Use the top-right quarter to navigate to the images you wish to use. You can select them in batches and use the add button or double click on them to add them to the list, which will appear in the bottom-right corner, one at a time. Once you have your list of files, you can use move up, move down or sort, to carry out those actions, and you can remove files that are no longer needed.

You can also include mp3 files, to have music, or other audio, played along with your images. That could even be a narration.

In the top left section, chose whether to have automatic transitions, based on a timer, or a keyboard/ mouse action, or random transitions. Below that, select your other options (I won’t list them here, but you can play around with them, to suit your needs — they should be reasonably self-explanatory).

Use the “play” option to run through the presentation and make sure you’re happy with it. You can reorder, add or remove images at any time.

When you’re happy with the slideshow, you can save the running order to a text file (and later reopen it), though that assumes that the images remain on your machine, in the original folder(s). Alternatively, you can burn the whole show to a DVD, or create an executable file including the images and running order.

And that’s it. What’s not to like?

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Posted in photography, reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What have I been up to, lately?

I really ought to blog more often (cobbler’s children’s shoes and all that…), but in the style of a back-to-school, what-I-did-on-my-holidays essay, here’s a round-up of some of my recent activity. And inactivity.

In June, I suffered a detached retina, and had to undergo emergency eye surgery. This happened again, in the same eye, a couple of weeks later. My eye is recovering well, but I’m likely to need a further operation for the resultant cataract, at some point in the future. Thanks to everyone who expressed good wishes.

The first detachment happened around the time I was speaking, twice, at the WikimediaUK AGM in Lincoln. There’s a video of my talk on Wikipedians-in-Residence.

I subsequently received a grant from WikimediaUK for a digital recorder to assist with my project asking Wikipedia subjects to contribute recordings of their spoken voices.


Institution of Civil Engineers - One Great George Street - Library

My picture of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ library

Following my surgery, I was laid up for a few weeks, but managed to get out and help at a couple of local Social Media Surgeries (thanks to Si Whitehouse and Steph Clarke, who acted as my chauffeurs). As my recovery progressed, I also visited London, and ran a Wikipedia editathon at the prestigious and historic Institution of Civil Engineers.

Shortly after my first operation, the Museum Association published a series of case studies (some behind a paywall) of collaboration between Wikipedia and British GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), including one about my work as Wikipedian-in-Residence at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, which is freely viewable.

I also took the train to Shrewsbury, to teach Shropshire County Archives staff there to edit Wikipedia. At the “Skill Share Jamboree“, where ‘hacktivists’ came together to share practical knowledge in a number of disciplines, I taught a session on recognising garden birds, and another on how to edit Wikipedia.

The BrewCamp meetings which I and a small group of friends run in and around Birmingham, to allow public sector activists to meet and discuss digital engagement topics, were successfully spun off by us and local collaborators into Dudley (as “BostinCamp“) and Stafford (as “OatCakeCamp“), and will no doubt both now develop independent lives there.

I helped launch the “Best by West Midlands” white paper and website, including case studies of social media use in local government. One of the case studies was about my work as Wikipedian-in-Residence with Staffordshire Archives and Heritage Service. At the launch, I ran a discussion session for the attendees, on “trust in social media”, with a subsequent on-line write-up.


Library of Birmingham - interior 2013-08-28 - 34

Inside the Library of Birmingham, in the week before opening

I was kindly invited to a preview of the new Library of Birmingham, where I took a lot of photographs, which are now available on Wikimedia Commons, under an open licence, and so freely available for reuse.

More recently, I attended State of the Map, the annual international OpenStreetMap conference. I volunteered to “captain” some of the sessions, acting as timekeeper, but was honoured to be asked to chair the main strand for all three days, introducing keynote and other speakers from Japan, the USA, Australia, Indonesia and across Europe. Not only was it a great opportunity to catch up with friends, and to learn, but I was able to find people to work collaboratively on a number of tasks, such as automating links from OSM to Wikipedia, which I’ll be writing about soon.

The very next day, I was back at the New Art Gallery, Walsall as the MC for “GalleryCamp13″, the inaugural unconference for people working at or with, or simply interested in, art galleries. I also spoke there, about my Wikipedian in Residence work. There’s a Storify post about the event.

I’m now working on a number of other projects, about which more in the future, and am available to help your organisation to understand Wikipedia and open content, or social media more widely, or to plan and host (un) conferences.

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Posted in about me, Birmingham, local government, social media, Wikipedia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trevor Mabbett’s comments on ‘The Man on the Beat’

Last year, my friend Lloyd Davis did some work with the British Council, digitising their film archive. He kindly allowed my father, Trevor, and me to see an early screening of The Man on the Beat, which is now on their website (sadly, not under an open licence). The film was made on and around Ledsam Street in the Ladywood district of Birmingham, where my father was born and grew up.

Merlin Films presents The Man on the Beat - RCA sound system

The following are my father’s comments on the film, transcribed and annotated by me. Times are in minutes and seconds.


00:26 Little Miss Barber, mascot of a local brand of tea. A few of their painted adverts, featuring said female, remain on local (Birmingham/ Black Country) buildings; some as “ghost signs”, while others are lovingly repainted by whoever owns or lives in the buildings. Sadly, every now and again, one gets painted over. Andy wrote a Wikipedia article about her.

00:34 Top right as camera pans left is the Belliss and Morcom factory. St Margaret’s church is behind the Rann St sign — my parents were married there in 1919. The church is the building at 52.47875,-1.92304 on the old Ordnance Survey map. Rann Street is to the South of that, running SW-NE (roughly the line of modern-day Guild Close; which you can see by toggling the map selection, top-right). Monument Road LMS sheds can be seen further NE (now Kilby Avenue). My parent’s shop is a few blocks behind the camera. I used to climb on the wall on which the Rann St sign is fixed, often. The phone number on the back of the van is not genuine — perhaps it was changed for filming?

00:39 The pub is possibly the Ladywood House. “Discol” was a brand of diesel fuel.

01:25 Birmingham’s coat-of-arms.

01:47 An RAF corporal; I’m not sure what chevrons on his arm denote (possibly years of service?). The brick “box” in front of the shop in background is the entrance to a cellar bomb-shelter.

02:18 The man in a peaked cap looks like a railwayman (Monument Road LMS sheds were nearby).

02:19 St John Ambulance badge on arm denotes first-aid training. Note finger post (sadly unreadable) behind policeman’s shoulder. “A” on policeman’s collar denotes division to which he was allocated. The dome on top of the phone was blue flashing light, used when station needed to speak to a beat officer (these were the days before police radios).

03:37 Birmingham’s coat of arms in helmet badge.

03:58 Probably Steelhouse Lane Police Station (in city centre); certainly not Ladywood Police Station, which was inside a courtyard. Steelhouse Lane Police Station is still in use, so easy to check.

04:07 BDC — possibly Birmingham Dairy Company?

04:19 White bands on street furniture were added during blackout.

05:20 Reference to Witton on first tram, so Villa Park.

05:22 Second tram is route 3X.

06:38 Bus route 12.

06:40 Rhodes, a fine china shop. Left-hand shop has an owl, sign of Harrisons Opticians. This shop was on corner of Snow Hill (Andy’s mom adds that she remembers being taken to see a large owl sign on top of the building illuminated once the war ended). Note streetlamp above owl, with glass mostly painted black for blackout. Building on right may be the Gaumont cinema.

06:50 Street sign says “Steelhouse Lane”. When facing Rhodes, the city centre is to the left.

08:15 The box on a pillar, painted red, was a break-glass fire alarm, with a telephone connected to the fire station.

09:43 The shop under the street sign may be Mrs Noyce’s tripe shop, where I used to go with a jug, to collect tripe for my family and our neighbours.

10:09 “The Gunpowder Shop”, named after 19th century IRA man who lived
and plotted there. I found a picture in “Britain in old photographs — Ladywood” by Norman Bartlam (1999, p32, lower picture, ISBN 0-7509-2071-8) which also has a brief history of the incident.

10:27 The modern brick annexe with a concrete slab roof is an air-raid shelter.

10:44 The white-painted rocks in the wall are another remnant of the blackout.

Misc: None of the policemen have medal ribbons, which you would expect at the end of the war, so they’re possibly actors, not real officers.

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