Author Archives: micah

Downgrading your website (or why we are moving to WordPress)

Below are the slides and most of what I said at the 2014 Museums & The Web conference in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I believe that if we think first about people and then try, try, and try again to prototype our designs, we stand a good chance of creating innovative solutions that people will value and enjoy.” — Bill Moggridge

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Let me begin by telling you a little story about a small museum that sat along 5th Ave. on New York’s Upper East Side. This is of course a largely fictional story. Names, and actual events have been changed.

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This is the story of a little museum with big aspirations. Long ago this little museum had a website. It had a webmaster, and it published a blog. It even had a whole bunch of microsites, flash driven exhibition sites, event calendars and archives. In fact, it won a few Webby’s.

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The website was very much the product of an organization trying to get the job done. And, it succeeded in this effort. Staff members would produce content on their company issued PCs and would then hand these documents off to the museum’s webmaster who would convert them into HTML and Javascript. The webmaster would press a specially designed “button” which would upload the new content to the little museum’s web servers where the pages would be served and maintained by a giant umbrella organization that had close ties to the government.
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With a single webmaster managing the entirety of the museum’s web properties, the little staff of this museum faced an inevitability. It was just too much work for the webmaster to do alone. Even if they allowed the webmaster an apprentice, the workload would continue to grow, and the little museum’s website would suffer. Eventually, they all realized they would have to move towards a system that would allow the entire staff to collaborate more efficiently.

Eventually, they realized they would need a content management system.

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There were many options out there already, and the little museum’s webmaster took stock in as many of them as he could. Meetings were had, and budgets were considered. The “committee to select a content management system” was formed, and consultants were brought in.

Wire frames were presented, and scopes of work were proposed, but the committee remained vigilant and put off making a decision as long as it could. They simply never felt like they had the right solution placed in front of them.

There was a lot at stake and many facets and bullet points drove them to a moment of indecision. There was due-dilligence due to their “mothership” in Washington, and there were “rights in data” clauses to be haggled over, with threats of time in a Federal prison always on everyone’s minds. Eventually the committee was disbanded and the project was put on hold.
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Time went on and the little museum’s website continued to shine as the public face of the institution. It continued to be updated with more and more content, and eventually the little museum even invested a fair amount of money in putting their collections online for all to see.

The word on the street was that this little museum’s website was starting to blow up, more and more people were beginning to rely on it as source of good information, and the time had come to re-think the idea of re-building.
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The webmaster at the little museum was doing his best, running around from staff member to staff member, trying to understand what had been going on all this time. One day he had the fortune to sit in on a meeting with a prominent weblogger and asked him a very important question.

“What CMS do you think we should chose” the webmaster said.

“CMS’s are all basically the same”, said the blogger, “just chose one you like and don’t look back.”

The webmaster took this to heart and selected three CMS systems that were free and easy to set up. He presented these to the higher ups and after a couple of hours of debate and one technical review board meeting, the webmaster had his answer.

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Drupal would be the content management system for the little museum. Drupal.

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The end, well sorta.

Most of that actually happened at the Cooper-Hewitt. The team eventually just had to pick a system, (without a whole lot of experience with the product itself) and kind of just “go for it.” From that point on, the staff at Cooper-Hewitt were living with Drupal. Drupal, a word almost none of the staff had ever heard before became, in less than a few months, a dirty word, spoken in fits of anger and dismay.

Now, before we go any further, it really needs to be said out loud that Drupal is really fine piece of software that has grown and evolved into a very sophisticated and well thought out framework for building websites. It has a rich community of developers and enthusiasts behind it and it powers some of the most popular websites on the planet. It’s used by giant companies far and wide, governments, and educational institutions all over. As well, our team in Washington has come a really long way in learning how to host and maintain Drupal based websites and presently, many of the latest Smithsonian websites are being built on Drupal. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Drupal, we just realized, after a long time, it wasn’t for us.
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I’m Micah Walter. I’m part of the nerd crew at Cooper-Hewitt. We are part of the Smithsonian ( that umbrella corporation in Washington )… and we are in the middle of a re-launch of our physical museum, as well as our digital presence.
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Cooper-Hewitt started it’s life with a CMS by installing a copy of Drupal 6. Shortly thereafter, we installed some modules, and more modules, and more…modules. Eventually we had a pretty awesome website. We hired an engineering team to convert the look and feel of the old website into a Drupal theme, and we “went live.” Cooper-Hewitt was on a CMS and it felt good.

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random extra slide

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Some time during this process we sat down with all the staff members to show off our new CMS. We took them on a tour of the system and poked around with a few of the CMSs features, with the hopes of getting staffers excited about the whole thing. The staff seemed to respond positively, and after a couple of months of configuring Drupal’s permissions matrix, we gave out login details to a select number of “power users” around the museum. A few of these power users got it right away and were off and running, updating their existing webpages when they needed to. It wasn’t too bad actually. Staff could easily log in, search around for the relevant content and make minor changes to their pages. The problems started to appear when they wanted to do just slightly more. A staffer wasn’t able to easily upload an image to Drupal. The image had to first be sent to our graphics person who would convert it to a jpeg, resize it for the web and then it would be sent to the webmaster who would upload it to an Amazon S3 server. Once this was done the webmaster would email the URL to the image back to the staffer who would then try and figure out how to insert it into their page.

Another issue arose when staffers tried to author new pages. It was simply difficult for them to understand how the new page would find its way within the information architecture that was already in place. How were they to set the new page’s URL and menu items. Those kinds of tasks inevitably wound up back on the webmaster’s desk.
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For the most part, notwithstanding a few hiccups here and there, Drupal 6 ran pretty smoothly. Staffers were able to distribute the workload a little more than they used to, and that was considered a good thing. But, about a year into it, a grant became available and the notion of running a daily blog about our objects turned into a reality. Object of the Day was born, and we had our work cut out for us.
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Object of the Day went through many stages of evolution, eventually winding up as an institutional blog authored by staffers, students in our Masters program, docents, and even teens and high school kids interested in design. Every day another object from the collection was chosen and a post was written about it and published to our blog. Great pains were taken to ensure we considered the collection record, tags, the authors vitals and more. We met in committee meetings over and over and eventually worked out a plan to allow us to manage project. The end result would be a new post about a different object, every day.

In the beginning we toyed around with the idea of Object of the Day being run on a separate platform. We considered Tumblr, WordPress.com and even Blogger. But in the end, we decided we would put our new CMS to the test and put ourselves through the process of managing a daily blog with Drupal.
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To accomplish this, the digital team realized we’d probably be wise to migrate to Drupal 7 in order to take advantage of its much improved back end user interface. So, with Object of the Day as catalyst, we moved ahead with plans to migrate our Drupal installation to D7. Consultants were hired, interns were enslaved and the whole process took just a few months. In the end we wound up with a fresh installation of Drupal 7, and about 20 or so contributed modules.
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In parallel to this migration project we began to meet with staff members and work out the details of how this Object of the Day project would go down. We discussed a variety of organizational schemes, we talked about available resources, and how far the grant money might take us. In the end we came up with a pretty simple plan. Each month, one staff member would be the “editor” for Object of the Day. He or She would be responsible for collecting all the entries for the month, making sure they were entered into Drupal, edited and fact checked. They would then get scheduled to be published automatically on their specific day. This included many spreadsheets, checklists and meetings. It was of course, great user research for me and my team.

Once we had D7 up and running staff members started to get the hang of it. They started logging in and authoring content. And then the problems started to happen.
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We already had about 1500 pages ( Drupal calls these nodes ) in the CMS. They were mostly static web pages about one program or another, or blog posts from the old days, or exhibition archives and other kinds of historic content. This was just fine as that content rarely got touched or updated. It was also fine when we wanted to add a fresh blog post or a new static page every once in a while…

The problem though was what happened when the monthly Object of the Day editor had to log in to start work on their thirty some posts for the upcoming month. It was nearly impossible for them to collect all the posts in one place within the CMS so that they could see what had been entered, what was finalized and what was ultimately scheduled. This was a major first hiccup and the digital team worked out a solution involving a number of custom Drupal views that would allow the editors to more easily see what they were working on. It kind of worked, but we could tell that it was a hack solution to a real problem.

The end result was, they lived with it. They lived with the system, learned to hate it, and just didn’t talk about it much. Drupal became this beast that they just came to terms with.
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Time went one, and we all learned to work with Drupal. Many of the staff members became proficient enough to get by, and the calls to the webmaster desk lessened. But, the problems hadn’t gone away. In fact our little experiment to try and get staff members excited about authoring content on the web had actually backfired. Now, staff members authored content for Object of the Day because it was part of their job, listed in their work plans and reviewed during their performance evaluations at the end of each year. They hated it.

Meanwhile, Object of the Day took off. The public facing version of the blog became a big success. It received additional funding for a second year with the idea around the Sr. Management table being that it would go on forever. It was for a time our most popular page on the site.
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If there is one truth we have learned about maintaining a website using a CMS its that you’ll eventually jump ship and switch to something else. In fact you may do this operation again and again. Its just the nature of the beast—the grass is always greener.

When we realized we needed to jump ship, we took to heart all the feedback we got from our content creators. We realized that what they really wanted were pleasant, easy to work with tools that allowed them to feel empowered. Tools that gave them a sense of authority, and made them feel good about the work they were doing. Like it was a way for them to communicate with the world all the important things they had going on.

In the end we chose WordPress. We looked at lots of options. We thought about even simpler options like a static site generator, or hmm, Squarespace? Could a museum run their entire website on Tumblr? All of these options afforded us with a great user experience, but seemed to trade of the ability to be flexible enough for our institutions needs. It really depends on the needs of each institution.

We searched far and wide. But we kept coming back to WordPress. It was familiar to everyone. Many of the staff already had their own WordPress blogs. WordPress gave us a nice balance between having the ability to create a sophisticated website and also being simple enough to use. In fact, while I was writing tools to migrate our content to WordPress, we realized that its more simplified system allowed us to re-organize our content, making the site easier to navigate. It’s not that we couldn’t do this in Drupal, but over time, Drupal just got out of control, because it let us.
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We realized through the Object of the Day project that it was our CMS that stood in the way of success. The content was already good, the audience was already there. We just needed a way to get our own staff excited about doing it. It shouldn’t be hard. It should be really easy and really fun to do. WordPress lets our staff get excited about the work they are doing. It gives them a simple to use, enjoyable writing experience, and for the editors, we found some really great plugins that let them manage all the content without feeling overwhelmed. Thats really why we chose WordPress.

We kind of think of it as a downgrade on the technical side of things, but its definitely an upgrade when it comes to usability.

The end.

Postscript

There was some good discussion following the talk. A few things of note that were brought up included how our staff already had some experience with WordPress via our DesignOther90.org website, our use of EditFlow for notifications and calendaring/scheduling of content and Pressbooks to aid with the production of our eBooks.

We also talked a little about hindsight…

 

 

Voices on our blog! A new Labs experiment

spokenlayer

I have recently been experimenting with a new service on the web called SpokenLayer. SpokenLayer offers a network of on demand “human voices” who are ready to voice content on the web. SpokenLayer works completely behind the scenes and in an on-demand kind of way. As new page requests come in, SpokenLayer adds them to your queue. Then, the content is sent to SpokenLayer’s Mechanical-Turk-like network of recording artists who voice your content in small recording studios around the world. New sound recordings are then automatically added to your site via a simple Javascript snippet.

There are many possibilities for how Cooper-Hewitt might utilize this kind of a service. We see this as a useful way of experimenting with the podcast-ability of our content, bringing our content to a wider audience and allowing for better accessibility to those who need it. It also works nicely when you are on the go, and I am really eager to figure out how we might connect this up to our own collections API.

For a first pass we’ve decided to try it out on the Object of the Day blog. From now on, you will notice a small audio player at the top of each Object of the Day post. Click the play button on the left and you will be able to hear the “voiced” version of each day’s post ( be sure to turn on your computer’s speakers ). It usually takes anywhere from a half hour to a day for a new audio recording to appear.

I thought this one was particularly good as the recording artist was able to do a pretty good job with some of the Dutch accented words in the text.

http://www.cooperhewitt.org/object-of-the-day/2013/11/03/horsemove-projectspace-poster

It is an experiment and we’ll see how it goes. Here are a few examples you can listen to right now.

http://www.cooperhewitt.org/object-of-the-day/2013/11/02/birdcage-fishbowl

http://www.cooperhewitt.org/object-of-the-day/2013/11/01/turbo

http://www.cooperhewitt.org/object-of-the-day/2013/10/28/horsehair-jewelry

http://www.cooperhewitt.org/object-of-the-day/2013/11/04/casements-more-structural-interest

Default Sort, or what would Shannon do?

Claude Shannon

Up until recently our collections website displayed search results ordered by, well, nothing in particular. This wasn’t necessarily by design, we just didn’t have any idea of how we should sort the results. We tossed around the idea of sorting things by date or alphabet, but this seemed kind of arbitrary. And as search results get more complex, ‘keyword frequency’ isn’t necessarily equivalent to ‘relevance’.

We added the ability on our ‘fancy search‘ to sort by all of these things, but we still needed a way to present search results by default.

Enter Claude Shannon and a bit of high level math (or ‘maths’ if, like some of the team, are from this thing called ‘the Commonwealth’).

Claude Shannon was a pretty smart guy and back in 1948 in a paper titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” he presented the idea of Entropy, or information theory. The concept is actually rather simple, and relies on a quick analysis of a dataset to discover the probability of different parts of data within the set.

For images you can think about it by looking at a histogram and thinking of the height of each bar in the histogram as a representation of the probability that a particular pixel value will be present. With this in mind you can get a sense of how “complex” an image is. Images with really flat histograms ( lots of pixel values present lots of times ) will have a very high Entropy, where as images with severely spiked histograms ( all black or all white for example ) will have a very low Entropy.

In other words, images with more fine detail have a higher Entropy and are more complicated to express, and usually take up more room on disk when compressed.

Sidewall, a-w-793, 193040

Think of an image of a wallpaper pattern like this one. It has a really high Entropy value because within the image there is lots of fine detail and texture. If we look at the histogram for the image we can see that there are lots of pixel values represented pretty evenly across the graph with a few spikes in the middle most likely representing the overall palette of the image.

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On the other hand, check out this image of a pretty smooth vase on a white background. The histogram for this image is less evenly distributed, leaning towards the right of the graph and thus has a much lower Entropy value.

Vase, 2010-6-3, 188388

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 10.36.42 AMWe thought it might be interesting to sort all of the images in our collection by Entropy, displaying the more complex and finer detailed images first, so I built a simple python script that takes an image as input and returns its “Shannon Entropy” as a float.

To chew through the entire collection we built this into a simple “httpony” and built a background task to run through every image in our collection and add its Shannon Entropy as a value in the collection database. We then indexed these values in Solr and added the option to sort by “image complexity” in our Fancy Search page.

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Sorting by Shannon Entropy is kind of interesting, and we noticed right away that a small byproduct of this process is that objects that simply dont have an image wind up at the end of the sort. In the end we liked the search results so much that we made “image complexity” the default sort across the entire website. You can always go into Fancy Search and change the sort criteria to your liking, but we thought image complexity seemed to be a pretty good place to start.

But what is the relationship between Claude Shannon and Shannen Doherty? Well, it looks like Shannen, herself, has a very high Shannon Entropy…

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Welcome to object phone. Your call has been placed in a queue.

I made another small thing. Again, another way for me to experiment with the Collection API, and again, another way to experiment with new ways of accessing the collection. This time, there aren’t many screen shots to display–there is no website to look at. This time, it’s “Welcome to object phone!”

(718) 213-4915

Object Phone” is ( presently ) a very, very simple implementation of a way to explore our collection by dialing a telephone, or sending a text message. I had been thinking of a few of the more popular museum oriented audio tour products, and how they all seem to be very CMS style in their design, and wondering if we could just use our own API.

For example, TourML and TAP ( which offer the web programmer a very powerful framework for programming a mobile guide using the Drupal CMS ) are very nice, but they are still very dependent on content production. The developer or content manager has to build and curate all of the content for the “tour.” This might be a good way to go about things, especially if you are leaning on an existing Drupal installation for a good deal of your content, but I was looking for a way to access existing data, and specifically the data in our collection website.

In the beginning of developing our collection website, we went through the process of assigning EVERYTHING a unique “bigint” in the form of what we are referring to as an “artisinal integer.” This means that each object record, each person record and each, well, everything else has a unique integer which no other thing can have. This is not in place of accession numbers–we will probably always have accession numbers The nice thing about unique integers is that they’re really easy to deal with on a programmatic level.

For example, if you text 18704235 to 718-213-4915 you should get a response that looks like the screenshot below. In fact you can text any object id number from our collection and get a similar response.

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You can also dial that same number and use your keypad to either search the collection by object ID, or ask for a random object. The application will respond to you using a text to speech converter, which is usually pretty good.

Presently, the app is not replying with a whole lot of information. You essentially get the object’s title and medium field if it has one. In many cases, asking for a random object may just result in something like “Drawing.” Many of our object records don’t have much more useful information than this, and also, I am trying to wrangle with the idea of how much information is useful in a voice and text message ( with a 160 character limit per SMS).

The whole system is leveraging the Twilio service and API. Twilio offers quite a range of possibilities, and I am very excited to experiment with more. For example, instead of text to speech, Twilio can play back .wav files. Additionally, Twilio can do things like dial another phone number, forward calls and record the caller’s voice. There are so many possibilities here that I wont even begin to list them, but for example, I could easily see us using this to capture user feedback in our galleries by phone and text.

I’m very interested in figuring out a way to search by voice. I’m sort of dreaming of programming the thing to go “Why don’t you just tell me the object number!” as in this great episode of Seinfeld which you can watch by clicking the image below.

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 10.35.01 AMIf you are interested, I have also made the code public on this Gist. It’s pretty messy and redundant right now, but you’ll get the idea.

One of the more complicated aspects of this project will be designing the phone interface so it makes sense. Currently, once you hear an object play back, the system just hangs up on you. It would be nice to offer the user a better way to manipulate the system which is still pleasant and easy to understand. By that same token, there is a completely different approach that is needed for the SMS end of things as you don’t really have a menu tree, but instead of list of possible commands the user need to learn. Fortunately, there is a ton of great work that has already been accomplished in this arena, specifically by the Walker Art Center’s very long running and very yellow website Art on Call.

More to come & code after the jump

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Introducing the Albers API method

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We recently added a method to our Collection API which allows you to get any object’s “Albers” color codes. This is a pretty straightforward method where you pass the API an object ID, and it returns to you a triple of color values in hex format.

As an experiment, I thought it would be fun to write a short script which uses our API to grab a random object, grab its Albers colors, and then use that info to build an Albers inspired image. So here goes.

For this project I chose to work in Python as I already have some experience with it, and I know it has a decent imaging library. I started by using pycurl to authenticate with our API storing the result in a buffer and then using simplejson to parse the results. This first step grabs a random object using the getRandom API method.

api_token = 'YOUR-COOPER-HEWITT-TOKEN'

buf = cStringIO.StringIO()

c = pycurl.Curl()
c.setopt(c.URL, 'https://api.collection.cooperhewitt.org/rest')
d = {'method':'cooperhewitt.objects.getRandom','access_token':api_token}

c.setopt(c.WRITEFUNCTION, buf.write)

c.setopt(c.POSTFIELDS, urllib.urlencode(d) )
c.perform()

random = json.loads(buf.getvalue())

buf.reset()
buf.truncate()

object_id = random.get('object', [])
object_id = object_id.get('id', [])

print object_id

I then use the object ID I got back to ask for the Albers color codes. The getAlbers API method returns the hex color value and ID number for each “ring.” This is kind of interesting because not only do I know the color value, but I know what it refers to in our collection ( period_id, type_id, and department_id ).

d = {'method':'cooperhewitt.objects.getAlbers','id':object_id ,'access_token':api_token}

c.setopt(c.POSTFIELDS, urllib.urlencode(d) )
c.perform()

albers = json.loads(buf.getvalue())

rings = albers.get('rings',[])
ring1color = rings[0]['hex_color']
ring2color = rings[1]['hex_color']
ring3color = rings[2]['hex_color']

print ring1color, ring2color, ring3color

buf.close()

Now that I have the ring colors I can build my image. To do this, I chose to follow the same pattern of concentric rings that Aaron talks about in this post, introducing the Albers images as a visual language on our collections website. However, to make things a little interesting, I chose to add some randomness to the the size and position of each ring. Building the image in python was pretty easy using the ImageDraw module

size = (1000,1000)             
im = Image.new('RGB', size, ring1color) 
draw = ImageDraw.Draw(im)

ring2coordinates = ( randint(50,100), randint(50,100) , randint(900, 950), randint(900,950))

print ring2coordinates

ring3coordinates = ( randint(ring2coordinates[0]+50, ring2coordinates[0]+100) , randint(ring2coordinates[1]+50, ring2coordinates[1]+100) ,  randint(ring2coordinates[2]-200, ring2coordinates[2]-50) , randint(ring2coordinates[3]-200, ring2coordinates[3]-50) )

print ring3coordinates

draw.rectangle(ring2coordinates, fill=ring2color)
draw.rectangle(ring3coordinates, fill=ring3color)

del draw 

im.save('file.png', 'PNG')

The result are images that look like the one below, saved to my local disk. If you’d like to grab a copy of the full working python script for this, please check out this Gist.

Albersify

A bunch of Albers images

So, what can you humanities hackers do with it?