Thursday, 6 December 2007

Australia New Zealand Digital Encyclopedia Group meeting in Sydney

This week Jason, Jamie and Conal (that’s me!) from the NZETC attended the annual meeting of the Australia New Zealand Digital Encyclopedia Group in Sydney. The ANZDEG is a fairly informal gathering of people working on online encyclopedias and similar things in this part of the world.

This year Aotearoa was represented by people from the NZETC, the National Library, and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (which publishes Te Ara and the Dictionary of NZ Biography, amongst other things).Jason demonstrated a pre-release version of his latest opus, “Remote Writer”; a simple-to-use word-processor application which can be used to edit structured documents over the internet, similarly to a wiki or blogging tool, though additionally it still works even when the user is disconnected from the net. The idea is that organisations like the NZETC can allow remote contributors to produce and maintain structured XML documents using Remote Writer, without them having to learn XML, and without a lot of fuss.

Jamie presented about his new authority control software “Entity Authority Control System” (EATS), which is already in use at the NZETC to keep track of a few tens of thousands of literary works, people, places, and organisations (plus a few odd livestock including a particular dog, a couple of cats, and at least one pet chicken). EATS is a web-accessible database which allows users to maintain the names, unique identifiers, control numbers, and indeed any distinguishing characteristics of a large number of distinct things (”entities”) of whatever type. This is a common requirement of Encyclopedic websites, and also it’s increasingly a requirement that these websites can efficiently maintain links between each of their records and corresponding records on other websites. By storing identifiers from a number of authority files, EATS provides a mechanism to do this. For example, our EATS server has a record for Samuel Marsden, with an NZETC code name-208673 and a DNZB code of 1M16, which is how we include the link from our Samuel Marsden page to the DNZB’s Samuel Marsden page.

Conal gave a short presentation showing how we maintain the hyperlinks from the NZETC website to other sites, using EATS to unambiguously identify each person, book, etc. in those websites, and using TEI documents to describe how those people, books, etc, relate to each other, and to the individual pages of the websites.

The issue of Authority Control came up a lot - in particular the Australians are all hanging out for the upcoming launch of the National Library of Australia’s “People Australia” service, which is going to link together authority records for Australian people and organisations from a number of different sources.Another interesting software demo was “Heurist”, an “academic database” of web bookmarks, citations, and research data, with tagging, searching, and sharing features, developed at the University of Sydney.

A common topic of presentations was the integration of maps and timelines in online exhibits. We saw some beautiful examples of old maps of Sydney changing over the years as landfills ate away at the harbour. Another striking demo showed a map of Australia with a sliding control with which you could go back and forth in time during the last 50 thousand years, and watch the map change as sea levels rose and fell, Australia joining up with Papua New Guinea, its name changing between “Australia” and “Sahul” (as archaeologists call the joint land mass), and archaeological sites fading in and out of existence as environmental conditions for those settlements changed.

Wellington will host the next meeting in December next year. With a bit of luck and some organisation we should be able to get a few more New Zealanders along!

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