Google Reader five years dead

Five years ago, on July 1st 2013, Google killed their Google Reader. It was then probably the most used way to keep track of websites through RSS.

RSS allows you to see the latest articles from a website, and thus makes it easier to keep track of many different blogs and sites all at once. RSS is a very important part of the plumbing of internet.

I used to read everything through RSS, but over time people migrated to FB, stopped blogging, fell silent. Services like Twitter stopped providing RSS, website owners forgot it was a standard feature. Google Reader stopping meant that many casual users stopped reading the web with RSS. Browsers stopped visibly supporting it.

Five years on, Dave Winer writes, Google Reader centralised a decentralised technology. We should have been more alert, choose an independent tool to read, and not hand it to a silo. Frank Meeuwsen says similar things, that removing the biggest RSS reader made room for new growth and variety.

Therefore:

Long Live RSS

Aral Balkan, timed with the 5th anniversary of Google Reader’s demise, blogged “Reclaiming RSS“, explaining what it does. RSS is an important part of letting the web be what it is best at, a decentralised space where all can read and write. Earlier in April Wired called for a RSS Revival as well.

How I read RSS
I interact with people, I don’t follow sites. That is how I shape and perceive my RSS reading, having all the feeds named after their authors, and grouping them in my reader roughly along my perceived social distance. From a group of people closest to me, to people I know well, not very well, to strangers whose writing I came across. Roughly following Dunbar-like group size levels. See the image below. This is because I see blogging as distributed conversations: you write something, I respond with some of my own writing. Blogposts building upon blogposts. So I set up my feedreader to reflect that conversational aspect. I use ReadKit currently, as I prefer an offline reader.


Screenshot of part of my RSS reader, in rough groups of social distance

You can find the link to my blog’s RSS feed in the right side column (with the orange icon). Any feedreader should also be able to automatically detect my blog’s feed if you point it to my web address.
I also publish which feeds I am reading. On the right hand side you see a link to ‘OPML Blogroll‘ which is a file of all the feeds I currently read that machines can read (the list is a bit out of date, but I update it every month or so). Any feed reader should be able to import that file.

In 2005 I described how I read RSS then, in response to Lee Lefever asking about people’s RSS reading routines. The current ‘grouping by social distance’ way of reading I have is the result of the search I mention at the end of that blogpost, on how to deal with a larger number of feeds.

How do you read RSS feeds?

Thirteen years on, I’m curious how you use RSS. How many feeds, what (daily) routine, what topics? How do you read RSS feeds?
I look forward to reading your take on it in my feedreader.

When Hossein Derakshan came back on-line after a 6 year absence in 2015, he was shocked to find how the once free flowing web ended up in walled gardens and silo’s. Musing about what he presented at State of the Net earlier this month, I came across Frank Meeuwsen’s posting about the IndieWeb Summit starting today in Portland (livestream on YT). That send me off on a short trip around the IndieWeb and related topics.

I came across this 2014 video of Tantek Celik. (he, Chris Messina and Andy Smith organised the first ever BarCamp in 2005, followed by a second one in Amsterdam where I met the latter two and many other fellow bloggers/techies)

In his talk he looks back at how the web got silo’d, and talks from a pure techie perspective about much the same things Hoder wrote about in 2015 and talked about this month. He places ‘peak open web’ in 2003, just before the web 2.0 silos came along. Those first silo’s (like Flickr, delicious etc) were ‘friendly silo’s’. We knew the people who built them, and we trusted their values, assumed the open web was how it was, is and would remain.

The friendly silos got sold, other less friendly silos emerged.
The silos have three things that make them hugely attractive. One ‘dark pattern’ which is adding functionality that feeds your dopamine cravings, such as like and heart buttons. The other two are where the open web is severely lacking: The seamless integration into one user interface of both reading and writing, making it very easy to respond to others that way, or add to the river of content. And the ability to find people and walk the social graph, by jumping from a friend to their list of friends and so on. The open web never got there. We had things like Qumana that tried to combine reading and writing, but it never really took off. We had FOAF but it never became easy.

So, Tantek and others set out in 2011 to promote the open web, IndieWeb, starting from those notions. Owning your data and content, and federating to participate. In his slides he briefly touches upon many small things he did, some of which I realised I could quickly adopt or do.
So I

  • added IndieAuth to my site (using the IndieAuth WP plugin), so that I can use my own website to authenticate on other services such as my user profile at IndieWeb wiki (a bit like Facebook Connect, but then from my own server).
  • added new sharing buttons to this site that don’t track you simply by being displayed (using the GDPR compliant Sharrif plugin), which includes Diaspora and Mastodon sharing buttons
  • followed Tantek’s notion of staying in control of the URLs you share, e.g. by using your own URLs such as zylstra.eu/source/apple-evernote-wordpress to redirect to my GitHub project of that name (so should GitHub be eaten alive after Microsofts take-over, you can run your own Gitnode or migrate, while the URLs stay valid).
  • decided to go to IndieWeb Camp in Nuremburg in October, together with Frank Meeuwsen

My stroll on the IndieWeb this morning leaves me with two things:

  • I really need to more deeply explore how to build loops between various services and my site, so that for all kinds of interactions my site is the actual repository of content. This likely also means making posting much easier for myself. The remaining challenge is my need to more fluidly cater to different circles of social distance / trust, layers that aren’t public but open to friends
  • The IndieWeb concept is more or less the same as what I think any technology or method should be to create networked agency: within control of the group that deploys it, useful on its own, more useful federated, and easy enough to use so my neighbours can adopt it.

A good quote from Thomas Madsen Mygdal

4 billion dollar ico yesterday.
Seen a generation and tech with big potential end up in ipo games, greed, speculation and short term thinking – “saw the beast of capitalism directly in it’s eyes” is my mental image of the dotcom bubble.
A natural consequence of any technology cycle I rationally know, but just sad to see generations repeating previous mistakes over and over.

In the comments Martin von Haller Grønbaek points to what happened after the dotcom bubble burst, a tremendous wave of innovation. So blockchain tech is set to blossom after the impending ICO crash.

I remember once reading an article that if you ask people across cultures to draw their ideal landscape they all prefer the same elements: a woodland, bordering on a grass land, in which some large animal is visible. Water flowing. And a man-made structure.

Based on conversations earlier this week I am trying to find a reference to it. But I can’t find it. I think after initial searches, the right search term is canonical landscapes.

Do you have some notion as to where I should look?

Over the years there have been several things I’ve automated in my workflow. This week it was posting from Evernote to WordPress, saving me over 60 minutes per week. Years ago I automated starting a project, which saves me about 20 minutes each time I start a new project (of whatever type), by populating my various workflow tools with the right things for it. I use Android on my phone, and my ToDo application Things is Mac only, so at some point I wrote a little script that allows me to jot down tasks on my phone that then got send to Things. As Things now can process email that has become obsolete. I have also written tiny scripts that allow me to link to Evernote notes and Things items from inside other applications.

I’m still working to create a chat based script in my terminal that takes me through my daily starting routine, as well as my daily closing routine. This to take the ‘bookkeeping’ character away, and make it easier for me to for instance track a range of lead-indicators.

I know many others, like Peter Rukavina or Frank Meeuwsen also automate stuff for themselves, and if you search online the sheer range of examples you can find is enormous. Yet, I find there is much to learn from hearing directly from others what they automate, how and why it is important to them, as the context of where something fits in their workflow is crucial information.

What are the things you automate? Apart from the the full-on techie things, like to start a new virtual server on Amazon, I mean. The more mundane day to day things in your workflow, above key board shortcuts? And have you published how you do that somewhere online?

I’ve finished building an AppleScript for automatically creating a Suggested Reading blogpost from my Evernote bookmarks quicker than I thought.

Mostly because in my previous posting on this I, in an example of blogging as thinking out loud, had already created a list of steps I wanted to take. That made it easier to build the step by step solution in AppleScript and find online examples where needed.

Other key ingredients were the AppleScript Language Guide, the Evernote dictionary for AppleScript (which contains the objects from Evernote available to AppleScript), the Evernote query language (for retrieving material from Evernote), and the Postie plugin documentation (which I use to mail to WordPress).

In the end I spent most time on getting the syntax right of talking to the WordPress plugin Postie. By testing it multiple times I ultimately got the sequence of elements right.

The resulting script is on duty from now on. I automatically call the script every Monday afternoon. The result is automatically mailed to my WordPress installation which saves it as a posting with a publication date set for Tuesday afternoon. This allows me time to review or edit the posting if I want, but if I don’t WordPress will go ahead and post it.

There is still some room for improvement. First, I currently use Apple Mail to send the posting to WordPress. My default mail tool is Thunderbird, so I had to configure Mail for this, which I had rather not. Second, the tags from Evernote that I use in the title of the posting aren’t capitalised yet, which I would prefer. Good enough for now though.

I’ve posted the code to my GitHub account, where it is available under an open license. For my own reference I also posted it in the wiki pages of this blog.

The bookmarks to use as listed in Evernote..


…and the resulting posting scheduled in WordPress

For a few things I use Apple Script to automate tasks. For instance if I start a new project, I run a script that creates basic things like folders, standard to-do’s and notes on my hard drive and in my Things and Evernote applications. They save me time and let me avoid a lot of repetitive work. I wrote those scripts years ago, and meanwhile I have forgotten what little I knew about Apple Script.

Now I’m trying to build a new script. I had thought about this already, then Frank Meeuwsen’s similar steps (in Dutch) triggered me to start.

During my reading online I save articles and documents into Evernote, which I tag and store.
I’d like to automatically create a Suggested Reading posting weekly based on what I save in Evernote. I imagine adding a specific tag for this to the things I save, so I can also save things without them showing up in such a posting. The articles I save usually have a short sentence about why it’s relevant to me.

This means:

  • Running the script automatically weekly
  • Selecting Evernote notes from the last 7 days with the right tag
  • From each Evernote extract the short descriptive sentence I added, the associated weblink, as well as other tags I added when saving.
  • Then build a bullet list, with the descriptive sentences as text, and the link embedded either at the end, with its title as text, or maybe embedded in the description, based on some sort of indication.
  • Select three random tags that occur at least twice in the list of links
  • Add those three tags as part of the title of the blog post
  • Add all tags used to the tags for the blogpost
  • Set Linklog as the Category
  • Save as draft in my WordPress blog, with a scheduled post date of 16 hours.
  • Send me a message inviting me to review the draft and post. (If I don’t review, the posting will thus automatically appear)

I used to use a bookmarking service like Delicious or Diigo, and there used to be ways, or maybe still are, to blog automatically from their service. However it would necessitate me to save everything twice: As a bookmark and as a full article in Evernote. (Saving the entire article circumvents issues with link rot and paywalls, and allows me local full text search in all my notes)

I’ll likely suffer hours of frustration trying to find out how to do things correctly in AppleScript. Any pointers to useful resources (example libraries for instance) are therefore welcome.

(And yes, I understand the discrepancy between wanting to write a script to work with Evernote, while simultaneously wanting to leave Evernote)

Wired is calling for an RSS revival.

RSS is the most important piece of internet plumbing for following new content from a wide range of sources. It allows you to download new updates from your favourite sites automatically and read them at your leisure. Dave Winer, forever dedicated to the open web, created it.

I used to be a very heavy RSS user. I tracked hundreds of sources on a daily basis. Not as news but as a way to stay informed about the activities and thoughts of people I was interested in. At some point, that stopped working. Popular RSS readers were discontinued, most notably Google’s RSS reader, many people migrated to the Facebook timeline, platforms like Twitter stopped providing RSS feeds to make you visit their platform, and many people stopped blogging. But with FB in the spotlight, there is some interest in refocusing on the open web, and with it on RSS.

Currently I am repopulating from scratch my RSS reading ‘antenna’, following around 100 people again.

Wired in its call for an RSS revival suggests a few RSS readers. I, as I always have, use a desktop RSS reader, which currently is ReadKit. The FB timeline presents stuff to you based on their algorithmic decisions. As mentioned I definitely would like to have smarter ways of shaping my own information diet, but then with me in control and not the one being commoditised.

So it’s good to read that RSS Reader builders are looking at precisely that.
“Machines can have a big role in helping understand the information, so algorithms can be very useful, but for that they have to be transparent and the user has to feel in control. What’s missing today with the black-box algorithms is where they look over your shoulder, and don’t trust you to be able to tell what’s right.”,says Edwin Khodabakchian cofounder and CEO of RSS reader Feedly (which currently has 14 million users). That is more or less precisely my reasoning as well.

Early last year the Frisian regional library service and I collaborated on a great experiment with a primary school class. Titled ‘Impact through connection’, we worked with a group of 10-year olds. They came up with things they’d like to change in their neighbourhood, and we assisted them in mastering the technologies and methods needed to do that. I designed the process, and guided that first group of pupils through the conversations to get them started on their designs. Since then the Frisian regional library service has used my process design in a series of projects.

Standing in the courtyard of the former prison Blokhuispoort. Photo Jeroen de Boer

Yesterday, as part of a video documenting some of the results, I was interviewed. Standing in the freezing cold wind in the court yard of the former prison in Leeuwarden, now bustling hub of creativity and start-ups, in this year’s European Capital of Culture, I answered questions. I might look to be nervous in the video, but I was actually shivering from the cold.

Being asked questions about a project a year ago was useful, as I heard myself put things into words that made them stand out more to me too.

Asked about a memory from the project that stands out for me, I mentioned the huge cheers and applause I got when I returned to the classroom for the third session. I had guided the group in the first session where I talked with them about the things they might want to do, listened to their ideas and together slowly created the first plans. The second session I could not attend, and then I showed up a bit late for the third, and was loudly cheered. Although it is of course nice to be cheered, what is important here is how it shows what we succeeded in doing that first session: build trust and make sure they realized we indeed listened to them and meant it when we said they were the ones to decide.

Another question was about the impact we achieved. Two things are important indicators I think. One of the children I met again during the summer on an Austrian campground by coincidence. The energy and inspiration was still there, six months on, so that seems a lasting effect. An effect also apparent from other feedback we got from the group. The other thing was that in the very first session several children talked about how they weren’t really good at anything or that something they were good at wasn’t useful. I found it quite shocking to hear that from these 10 year olds. One of the children said liking to make things beautiful, but that it wouldn’t be of use. We talked with the group about how in designing things, structure, function and look & feel are equally important. If an object isn’t well shaped it won’t be used, just as much as when it isn’t functional. We succeeded in counteracting some of those assumptions, I feel, and that’s a good lasting result. Making things beautiful was an important part of the project. Other kids, including one who said having no particular skill, came up with an important role in the project we had overlooked ourselves: reporting and documenting.

Peter Rukavina regularly sends us printed artefacts. The most recent one was a map of Europe. On it Peter printed “A map is the greatest of all epic poems”, quoting Gilbert Grosvenor, founding editor of National Georgraphic.

Maps in 1975-1980
Maps have always been highly fascinating to me. As a kid I endlessly pored over maps, and drew them and copied them at different scales as a pass time in primary school after having completed the regular work. I remember being shocked as a kid that maps could change more or less arbitrarily. I saw them as rock solid descriptions of how things were and would remain. When Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe in 1980, it all of a sudden meant that the world map on the classroom wall and my lighted globe and atlas at home were incorrect. The horror. Those changes I now see as what makes maps fascinating, and turns them into epic poems in the words of Grosvenor.

A map from 1918-1940
Take the map Peter sent us for instance. At first glance it’s a basic map of Europe, but upon closer inspection it’s a map of Europe valid for just a short time.

The map Peter sent us, photo by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA

It shows Austria and Hungary apart and Iceland independent, so it must be from after 1918. But it also shows Istria as part of Italy and the Baltic states as independent, which both place it after 1920. It also shows Yugoslavia, a name officially adopted in October 1929.

The map can also not be more recent than 1940, as it as stated shows Baltic independence. That Lviv, currently in Ukraine, is shown as Polish (and Poland being further to the east than now), places it before September 1939. That it shows Austria, which by 1939 was part of Nazi Germany, means it dates from before March 1938. It mentions the Irish Free State, which dates it to before December 1937. But wait, it shows Istanbul as being named Constantinopel. Istanbul was officially renamed in March 1930.

So this map represents the geopolitical lay-out of Europe as it was between October 1929 and March 1930. It was a valid representation for a mere 6 months!

A map in 2018 isn’t one from 1929
In my current work geographic references are as important as ever, as they make it possible to combine and thus make useful a myriad of other data sources. Almost everything we as humans do has a significant geographic connection. Maps famously are not the same as the terrain. Yet in digital times, the map is not only not the terrain, the terrain isn’t what it used to be anymore either.

Useful geographic data in the digital era are more and more fluid, and increasinlgy invisible to the user. When I grew up we mostly used maps while we were on the move long distance, figuring how to drive from the Netherlands to the Austrian alps in the summer for instance. Nowadays if I e.g. look at my location history in Google maps, the most eye-catching movements are the least informative. Large movements are like taking an underground, you sit down in a chair with no leg room in one city and are spewed out at the other end in another, with no notion of the fly-over country in between.

A random month worth of my travel. The most striking lines are the least informative, the dots are more important

Key has become hyper-localized geo-referenced socially contextualized information: where in this city that I find myself today can I find good coffee, according to my network, within 350 meters? For that type of movement maps become part of the engine under the hood, but often no longer are necessary to display. My phone vibrates in my pocket, short long short short, or L in Morse code, at a left turn, and short long short, or R, at a right turn, while I make my way to the coffee place with the confident swagger of a local.

Peter’s map is a relic, and not just because it was only correct for 6 months in 1929-1930 to begin with. Still just as fascinating though as it was to me as kid in the 1970’s.

Abraham Lincoln famously said in the 1860’s “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.“, and he’s right of course. George Washington already warned us a century earlier that “the greatest thing about Facebook is that you can quote something and totally make up the source.” Add to it the filter bubbles that algorithms create around you on Facebook, fake news and the influencing that third parties try to do, and you can be certain that the trustworthiness of internet is now even worse than it was in the 19th or 18th century.

Sidewalk Stencil: Abraham Lincoln
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”, Abraham Lincoln hit the nail on the head in 1864 already.

Dealing with crap on the internet however sometimes seems something only for professionals. Facebook should filter better, or be more transparent. Online forensic research like Bellingcat does is the only way to disprove online deception. The problem is that it absolves you and me way too easily of our own responsibility in detecting crap. If something seems too funny, coincidental or too conveniently fitting into your own believe framework, it should trigger us into taking a step back. To take time to determine for ourselves whether Lincoln really said that, whether a picture was really taken where and when it is claimed, and if a source really exists or can be determined as trustworthy.

To be able to detect crap on the internet, you need crap detection tools. My Brainstorms-friend Howard Rheingold and others have put together a useful list of crap detection tools (of which I very often use the reverse image search tools like Tineye, to verify the actual origin of a photo). The list is well maintained and growing. The listed tools help you quickly check-up on things before you share something and reinforce a vicious cycle making more and more social media platforms toxic.

Not spreading dubious material is a civic duty, just like cleaning up after yourself in a public space. This makes crap detection a critical digital information skill. Download or bookmark the list of crap detection tools, add some of the mentioned tools as plugins to your browser, and use it to your advantage.

fake-news-detail-2

Most of my open data work is with government entities to help change their processes, routines and perceptions to ensure steps towards open by design. I almost never really work with open data itself during those activities. So I decided to accept the challenge we ourselves issued with the launch of the Frisian Open Data Platform.

The challenge was to “find out what the planting year was of the monumental tree that is nearest the street light with the provincial ID number 696502”. Finding that out needed to be done by using data from the Frisian Open Data Platform.

Figuring out which data to use was easy. There is a provincial data set that contains the position and ID’s of all street lights for roads where the province is responsible (other roads can be the responsibility of a municipality, or the national government). There is another data set of the city of Leeuwarden that contains all trees of interest within the city limits. If the street light with the right ID is within city limits, it should be possible to answer the question with the tree data set of Leeuwarden.

So what I did was first look in the provincial data set for the right ID. I copied the coordinates that data set gives for that ID into Google Maps, to see where it is on the map, and it turned out to indeed be within Leeuwarden city limits. So the Leeuwarden tree list contains the answer I’m looking for.

Then I started up Q-GIS, which is an open source geo-data viewer (and in fact, a very capable open source GIS *editor* too, as Peter says in the comments). It is possible to connect a CKAN data portal, such as the Frisian platform is, to Q-GIS. Under the menu-option Plugins in Q-GIS one can install a CKAN plugin, which gives you a CKAN logo button in Q-GIS. Pressing that prompts a dialog in which you can specify the right address for the CKAN server you want to use. This was specified on the Frisian platform as https://ckan.dataplatform.nl/api/3/. I also needed to add a default folder that can be used to keep necessary files.

Now I could search within all the Frisian open data platform data sets right within Q-GIS, using that plugin. I first loaded a map of the Netherlands (the TOP10NL map, which is the most detailed map the Dutch Cadastre provides, as a zipfile of 2GB). I used the PDOK Dutch open geoportal for this, for which I had already previously installed the PDOK plugin, in similar ways as the CKAN plugin). Then I added the Provincial street light list, and the Leeuwarden tree list as layers on the map. I then scrolled the map to the location I had previously checked out in Google Maps.

In the screenshot below you see green dots on the red road. Those are provincial street lights. The rightmost green dot is the one we’re looking for. A bit further to the right you see a row of purple dots. Those are the trees, and one of these is nearest our green dot. Now, I visually judged which purple dot is the nearest, although you could calculate it from the coordinates in the data. Also there is some room for error, as most of the trees in that row were planted at the same time as it turns out. By clicking on one of the dots in Q-GIS you can see the data fields and labels attached to it, and that gave me the year of planting.


The map of Leeuwarden, with the street lights as green dots on the red road in the middle, and the monumental trees as purple dots.


At the top you see the depicted map layers (Dutch map top10nl, trees in ‘bomen’, street lights in ‘provfriesland’), below that, when you highlight a specific purple dot, under identification results (‘identificatieresultaten’), PLANTJAAR is the field with the year of planting.

Earlier this year I worked closely with the Frisian Library Service to create the project ‘Impact through connection, at school‘ together. At the core was my model of agency and a process I designed to guide a group towards exploring using both technology and methods to address a local issue. Today I had a conversation with Jeroen de Boer, of the FryskLab team, who had involved me in putting my idea to practice, at a primary school with a group of 10 year olds. We talked about what came after the project that took place in January to March.

Group photo with the class
The class and our team in front of the Frysklab truck last March

That’s when I received some awesome feedback.

“Your experimental process has basically become the way we work now during workshops and with groups”.

He also had heard from the teacher of the class we worked with that “the pupils said it was the best thing in the entire school year”.

The project was partly financed by the Dutch Royal Library and they indicated it was “one of the most inspiring projects they helped finance this year”.

That sounds like a great starting point to explore what else we can do together next year.

In the past weeks I’ve been part of a team working with a class of 10/11 year olds, as an experiment around increasing agency with 21st century digital skills, under the title Impact through Connection. In this I’m partnering with the NHL (university of applied sciences), and the regional Frisian library BSF, with some funding coming from the Dutch Royal Library as part of their Vision Mediasavviness 2016-2018 program. The experiment centered around helping the group to identify communal issues, situations they would like to change, and then to develop ideas and realize them. So that the group ‘gets’ that with various making and other machines and instruments, they have the agency, have the power, to change their surroundings for themselves as a group.

Since January we’ve been meeting with the school’s team, and then weekly 6 times with the class of 22 children. It was loads of fun, not just for the kids involved. The highest compliment we received was that one of them said “this is more fun than the annual school trip”. Another remarked feeling sorry that all other classes had to work, while they were making stuff. We pointed out that they too were working very hard, but differently, and that having fun does not mean you’re not working.

Yesterday we’ve had the final session, ending with presentations of the things they built (such as phone covers for phone-types that aren’t otherwise available, a way to look under water, a class room MP3 player for audiobooks, games, computer controlled door locks, a candy machine, a robot to counteract bullying, websites documenting the process, and a money system for the school).

Afterwards I returned home and jotted down a list of observations to reflect on. We plan to do a similar experiment with a group of adults from the same neighborhood as the school serves, as well as will aim to replicate it for other school classes.

First, for context, the order of the sessions we did.
Session 1: group discussion about the children’s environment, things they would like to change, ideas for making things they had. Resulted in a ‘wall of ideas’, ordered from ‘looks less hard to do’, to ‘looks harder to do’.
Session 2: getting to know maker machines (3d printers, laser cutters, electronics, etc.), by bringing the machines to the class room, and parking the Frysklab Mobile FabLab out front.
Session 3: getting to know programming (using Micro:bits, all the children got one to keep)
Session 4: Diving deeper in to the idea now they have a notion of what is possible with the machines and material available, using a canvas to think about what the idea solves, whom it is for, what part of the idea to zoom in on, and who in their own social network could help them realize it.
Session 5: building prototypes (again with Frysklab parked outside)
Session 6: building prototypes and presenting results

In non-specific order here are some of the raw observations I made in the past weeks, that we can further elaborate and chew on, to create the next iteration of this experiment.

On the process (time, time time!):

  • The school team school was extremely supportive, and the teacher showed enormous flexibility. She rearranged her normal class schedule extensively to ensure we had more time than we thought possible.
  • The process we designed worked, but we could have spent more time and attention to several parts of it.
  • The process worked in the sense that we got everyone to make things, and have them dive deep beyond the initial magic and wow of 3d-printing and laser cutters
  • We asked them to map out the groups they belonged to, and both their own and their classmate’s skills. We spent too little time to do that properly and to use it fruitfully in the process afterwards
  • We didn’t succeed in our original plan to bring the group to defining one or a few projects that were less person and more group focussed (except for the kid that designed a currency system for the school), and then select parts of that on which individuals or small groups could work. It seems we would need to spend more effort in the run-up to the cycle of sessions to do that properly
  • Working with a pool of people with specific domain knowledge that we could bring in when needed worked very well and strengthened the results
  • I used a canvas to help the group get to better defined projects, and while it worked, the steps in filling the canvas could have been better defined. Now some raced ahead, without key information for the next bits, while I worked with others to take the first few steps
  • The overall process hasn’t become clear to the group as a distinct shape, I think. Although that would enable them to design their own projects on their own (more on that later)
  • Having the children present their work to the group at the end was fun, useful and a good way to bring everything together again

P1040015 P1040013
Two filled out canvases

On our team and the teacher

  • When we look at Making, we see how it is different from what was before, how all of a sudden ‘anyone’ can do things that took specialised machines and factories earlier, and how that changes the dynamics of it all. The children don’t see it that way, because they don’t have that history. Although that history is the source of our own fascination it is not the fascination you can confer to the children, as it is by definition a meaningless comparison to them.
  • Our large pool of people to help out was necessary to be able to provide adequate guidance. Even if adding 5-7 adults to a classroom feels like a lot.
  • More clearly articulating to the group which roles team members help might be helpful (e.g. I don’t know my way around the Frysklab truck, but still got asked a lot by the kids about it. I solved it by saying, I don’t know either, let’s go find out together)
  • The teacher could likely have a more defined role during the sessions (other than trying to keep a semblance of order), maybe also in building the bridges to other parts of the curriculum in the run-up?
  • We had several preparatory meetings with the teacher and others inthe school
  • There’s a lot I can’t do (too little experience with the machines to have internalized all routines, my own thinking is often too little visual and too much textual) It’s partly a pro as well (as it makes it easy for me to led the child lead the thinking proces, as I don’t have answers either)

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At work in the FabLab truck, and 3d printers chugging away

The path the children took

  • Large differences within the group, also in self-image, means very different speeds within the process (‘I don’t think there’s something I am really really good at’)
  • Finding out that the path from your fantasy to making it tangible reality contains disappointments (what is possible, what is realistic within time given, how does a result compare to what you imagined at first), and finding or not finding ways to surmount that disappointment
  • Not everyone was able to visualize from their ideas towards the parts that make up the whole, or different aspects and steps
  • Enormous richness in ideas, but sometimes very narrowly focussed
  • It is very important to build a bridge from the classroom project to at home (“can I take this home” “but this is something I can’t do at home”). Part of the empowerment lies here. (Also as they proudly told and partly mobilized their parents for their ideas as well)
  • They willingly left us their projects so the Frysklab team could show them on a national conference the day after the last session, after promising to return their projects soon

Visible impact and affect during the sessions

  • Really listening to ideas and trying think them through, remembering what they said about it 3 weeks earlier, is a boost in empowerment for the kids in itself
  • Children don’t have as many experience based associations and ‘hooks’ to listen to our stories, so examples are needed
  • Examples from ‘nearby’, such as the kid with a 3d printed hand prosthetic living in the neighbouring province are therefore very valuable. We need to collect many more of them.
  • Such appealing examples may also aid in bringing across the process and thinking model itself better
  • Giving everyone a Micro:bit during the process therefore turned Jeroen into a hero of everyone in the room (loud cheers!)
  • Taking things home is a source of pride
  • Other classes were jealous of this group
  • The group quickly build attachment to the team (where is Ton? Cheers when a team member arrives a bit late)
  • Concepts like ‘prototyping’ are hard, and zooming in on something small and maintaining attention is too

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Some of the created projects

The making itself

  • Robots! At first almost everyone wanted to build robots (to clean their room e.g.)
  • Things for yourself, versus things for the group. As said, before the making we likely need to build a ‘ramp’ towards more communal oriented projects
  • The realization for the chidren that things take time, can be complicated. That it isn’t magic but actual work
  • The dawning notion that programming means cutting everything into tiny ‘stupid’ steps (‘like explaining it to my 3 yr old sibling’)
  • Software is equated to computers and phones. That things that don’t look like computers can be programmed, and that hard- and software are getting merged more and more (cars, IoT, robots) takes time to land
  • Likewise ‘making’ is connected to hardware, objects and software mostly. Creating ‘systems’ or ‘processes’ is a novel concept (except for the currency making project). Challenging systems is like a fish changing the water it swims in.
  • Similarly for most, their actual environment (the street, the neighborhood, city etc, are also like ‘water’ and mostly perceived as immutable. Measuring things in your environment and acting on it was notably absent in the ideas
  • The attention span needed to zoom in on a small part at a deep enough level to be able to apply it is pretty hard to maintain
  • Building websites to document projects is an essential part the children came up with themselves. Needs to become a standard component of the process.

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Presenting results

Other circumstantial elements

  • Searching online for examples and useful material (like code snippets) can be a stronger part of the process (as answer to the frequent question “but how can I do that?”). Means paying attention to searching skills.
  • The mentioned websites can contribute to that by collecting links to resources etc.
  • Data collections didn’t play a role (likely as there were no ‘sensing’ projects), but could be a resource in other iterations
  • E-mail is not available to all children (not allowed to, don’t want to give out their parents e-mail), but often needed to register for online coding and making tools, or to create a website. Providing throw-away e-mails, like I personally do with 33Mail, is something to add to our toolkit.

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Gathering the group for the final group picture

(more pics here in this Dutch language posting by the Frisian library and Frysklab team)

In the coming weeks I will be working with a Dutch school class (group 7, so 10/11 yr olds), in collaboration with the Provincial Library Friesland and their FryskLab team (a mobile FabLab).

Last summer I wrote a series of postings on how I see a path to significantly increase agency for various group in various contexts, if we succeed in lowering the adoption threshold for existing technologies and techniques. Then any group can recombine those technologies and techniques to create a desired impact in their own contexts and environment.

With a little bit of funding from the Dutch Royal Library, the Provincial Library Friesland and me will work with a school class of the Dr. Algraschool and later with people in a neighborhood to put that model to the test.

In collaboration with the NHL, a university for applied sciences, we will use the results of the experiment to propose a follow-up project as part of the NHL’s lectorate on ‘agile craftsmanship’.

The first session is Wednesday, where we will start with the class to discuss the type of things they would like to change or improve around themselves, and what capabilities they feel they themselves and classmates have. In a follow-up session we will combine those ideas and their talents with the facilities of FryskLab, and then work with the children to build their own prototypes, solutions and projects.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long time since I worked with primary school kids. Back in 2007 I worked with 12 primary schools to integrate digital literacies in their regular lessons, where we explored what children were already doing online, and how schools could help guide that, and build on it in their lessons. And it will definitely be a pleasure to work with the FryskLab crew (who were such a great addition to our 2014 Make Stuff That Matters birthday unconference)

Frysklab in da house!
The FryskLab mobile FabLab, parked in front of our home, 2014