Category Archives: volunteering


I remember fondly my first unconference, UKLocalGovCamp, in Birmingham in 2009. It really was life-changing for me; the way it opened my eyes to the possibilities of disruptive innovation was the catalyst for me eventually becoming a freelancer. I made many long-standing friends, makers and activists inside and outside local government, there, too.

Since then I’ve attended many more, and have run or facilitated a good number of unconferences, and unconference-style sessions within more traditional types of events. If I say so myself, it’s something I’m good at, and I certainly enjoy it.

So I was pleased, last Saturday, to be able to spend the day in London to attend, and help to facilitate, HASLibCamp, an unconference for librarians in the field of Health and Science. That’s a relatively narrow focus, and so the event wasn’t as big as some I’ve been to, but in no way did that diminish the quality of the sessions, nor the participants’ enthusiasm.

After housekeeping and introductions on behalf of our host, the Department of Library & Information Science at London City University (CityLIS), I asked for a few shows-of-hands, and quickly determined that we had been joined by academic, commercial, hospital and public librarians, and archivists, as well as some student librarians.

I then explained how unconferences work, and invited any of them who wanted to, to give a thirty-second “pitch” for a session in which they wanted to participate, or a topic they wished to discuss.

Luckily, we had just the right number of pitches for the rooms and timeslots available, leaving two gaps after lunch, which were filled during the day with follow-up sessions. A “chill out” room was also avaialable, as was space for ad-hoc discussions and meetings.

whiteboard with list of sessions, in timetable format

The pitched sessions.

I pitched two sessions, one on ORCID identifiers (what they are, and how librarians can help to embed them in their organisations), and another – in response to a request received before the event – on Wikipedia, Wikidata and my work as a Wikimedian in Residence.

I also attended a session on what public libraries might learn about giving healthcare information, from academic libraries. Several resources were mentioned and are linked in the Storify reporting (see below). My final session was billed as being about understanding customer needs, and took the form of a lateral-thinking exercise.

Here’s a brief roundup of coverage elsewhere:

I’m grateful to the Consortium of Independent Health Libraries in London (CHILL) for sponsoring my attendance at the event (a condition of which was that this blog post be written).

Documenting public art, on Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a number of articles listing public artworks (statues, murals, etc) in counties, cities and towns, around the world. For example, in Birmingham. There’s also a list of the lists.

Gilded statue of three men

Boulton, Watt and Murdoch (1956) by William Bloye.
Image by Oosoom, CC BY-SA 3.0

There are, frankly, not enough of these articles; and few of those that do exist are anywhere near complete (the best is probably the list for Westminster).

How you can help

I invite you to collaborate with me, to make more lists, and to populate them.

You might have knowledge of your local artwork, or be able to visit your nearest library to make enquiries; or to take pictures (in the United Kingdom, of “permanent” works, for copyright reasons — for other countries, read up on local ‘Freedom of Panorama‘) and upload them to Wikimedia Commons, or even just find coordinates for items added by someone else. If you’re a hyperlocal blogger, or a journalist, perhaps you can appeal to your readership to assist?

Practical steps

You can enter details of an artwork using the “Public art row” family of templates. A blank entry looks like:

{{Public art row
| image =
| commonscat =
| subject =
| location =
| date =
| show_artist= yes
| artist =
| type =
| material =
| dimensions =
| designation =
| coordinates =
| owner =
| show_wikidata= yes
| wikidata =
| notes =

(change “yes” to “no” if a particular column isn’t wanted) and you simply type in the information you have, like this:

{{Public art row
| image = Boulton, Watt and Murdoch.jpg
| commonscat = Statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch, Birmingham
| subject = ''[[Boulton, Watt and Murdoch]]''
| location = Near the House of Sport – Broad Street
| date = {{Start date|1956}}
| artist = [[William Bloye]]
| type = statue
| material = Gilded [[Bronze]]
| dimensions = 10 feet tall
| designation = Grade II listed
| coordinates = 52.478587,-1.908395
| owner = [[Birmingham City Council]]
| show_wikidata= yes
| wikidata = Q4949742
| notes = <ref></ref>

Apart from the subject, all the values are optional.

In the above (as well as some invented values for illustrative purposes):

but if that’s too complicated, you can just enter text values, and someone else will come along and do the formatting (experienced Wikipedians can use the {{Coord}} template for coordinates, too). If you get stuck, drop me a line, or ask for help at Wikipedia’s Teahouse.

What this does

The “Public art row” template makes it easy to enter data, keeps everything tidy and consistently formatted, and makes the content machine-readable, That means that we can parse all the contents and enter them into Wikidata, creating new items if required, as we go.

We can then include other identifiers for the artworks in Wikidata, and include the artworks’ Wikidata identifiers in other systems such as OpenStreetMap, so everything becomes available as linked, open data for others to reuse and build new apps and tools with.

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

The government website, 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, but they do not have a reporting requirement. You may find the following links helpful. – Local Authorities gritting data – Local Government Association information on how Local Authorities gritting responsibilities. – Access to each local Authority page on gritting – Highways Agency information – Contacting the Highways Agency – 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]
Find out more about Open Data @

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.

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.