Digitizing Books One Word at a Time

May 25, 2007

Sample of a reCAPTCHAThis has got to be one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time. reCAPTCHA is a project by Carnegie Mellon University that makes the authentication process for web registration forms, or posting blog comments, more useful. A CAPTCHA, which we’ve all seen, is a program that presents us with distorted text and asks us to type in the word or letters so that we can confirm we’re humans: computers have a hard time deciphering this distorted text. Well, reCAPTCHA intends to take these small expenditures of human brain power and use them to digitize books. One. Word. At. A. Time. Ingenious.

Here’s what they say:

Over 60 million CAPTCHAs are solved every day by people around the world. reCAPTCHA channels this human effort into helping to digitize books from the Internet Archive. When you solve a reCAPTCHA, you help preserve literature by deciphering a word that was not readable by computers.

Like I said, this is exciting. This is the kind of thing that really gets my creative energies flowing. You don’t need to be a programmer or tech expert to be able to appreciate this effort; in its simplicity we can detect parallels to our own projects or challenges, independent of where we spend our days (at least two of John Maeda‘s Laws of Simplicity apply here). First off, it elegantly takes advantage of a pre-existing process that most of us use already. And secondly, it demonstrates that small steps can make a big difference.


One-sentence Lesson on Leadership

May 23, 2007

Last night I started re-watching HBO‘s fantastic WWII miniseries Band of Brothers. I’m part-way through the second episode–I would have continued watching but it was already passed my bedtime!–but there was a scene, and in particular a line, in the first episode that really struck me as a great encapsulation of what it means to be a leader.

While driving across the base, Lt. Winters admonishes 2nd Lt. Buck Compton for gambling with his men. Compton protests, saying that soldiers gamble and he was just spending some time getting to know his men.

At this point we get a glimpse of Lt. Compton’s leadership style as he offers up his justification for his actions. He was getting to know his men, he says; where’s the harm in that? It’s what soldiers do, he explains. He obviously wants to be a good leader and believes that relating with his men on a more personal level will pay dividends in loyalty, dedication, etc. These are reasonable ends, and his style is probably increasingly familiar to most of us in modern office life.

However, as the scene nears its conclusion, Lt. Winters asks bluntly, “what if you’d have won?” Lt. Compton is confused. The jeep comes to a stop. Exiting the vehicle Lt. Winters turns and delivers his one-sentence lesson on leadership: “Never put yourself in a position where you can take from these men.”

With this simple statement Lt. Winters pinpoints the essence of leadership: service. Leaders exist to serve, not to be served. To say this is lost on a lot of people is an understatement. Of course the drama and gravity of being at war lends the comment a bit more weight, but even in the most mundane of office settings, it still holds true.

Corporate Online Video *Does* Rock

May 21, 2007

Shel Israel has pointed out why corporate online video rocks, and I couldn’t agree more. In my organization, for more than a year now, we’ve been successfully using online video to communicate with and, though it’s a bad word sometimes, entertain staff.

Through our monthly online newsmagazine, we’ve incorporated video as integral component to reach out to staff. This publication–Communique, that I redesigned and revived a few years ago–is a hit with staff. Survey after survey have demonstrated that people love it and want more of it. The highest survey scores always go to our staff profiles, our photography from around the organization and, now, the videos. The lowest-rated sections, incidentally, are always anything from “above,” that is, material from our executive, HR and training department. These areas don’t have to score so poorly, but that’s an item for another post.

While I keep chipping away, through more official channels, evangelizing blogs and other innovative ways to communicate with staff–and external clients–we’ve quietly flown under the radar with our videos and have proven how effective they are.

While I’ve already mentioned one measurement of our success–surveys–there is another metric which I think tells the story from another angle: we’ve drawn negative attention of some management. My inner non-conformist finds this satisfying, while my strategic communications side can’t help but shake its head at the misunderstanding and missed opportunities. Just to be clear, these videos are not random skits or material pulled off YouTube: they are corporate-focused, staff-focused clips covering official events and streeters with employees on various themes. Basically, it’s about work. But still, the fact that “conversations” take place for “an hour” after the videos are published is a bit of a problem.

It’s easy to be snarky when faced with this sort of blowback–Must. Fight. Urge.–but I’m heartened, because it’s really a great opportunity to educate upper management and, while the groundwork is being prepared for future offerings, communicate with staff and help enliven and humanize the corporate culture.

And if one or two people are entertained in the meantime, well, I’m prepared to live with the consequences.

24 Hours of Flickr

May 9, 2007
24 Hours of Flickr submission by l'etrusco

Photo by l’etrusco

Photos are still coming in from the recent 24 Hours of Flickr, where users were asked to submit one photo taken only on May 5 as part of their global photo event. A companion book is also in the works.

I never managed to shoot a frame that day, which is odd since lately I’ve been firing at least one a day. I’ll just have to make due exploring the growing collection online. As you’d expect, there are a lot of great photos, but there’s a good helping of bad ones, too. Should make the job of the Flickr folks selecting images for their book a little easier, at least at the beginning.

MESH Conference Schedule Announced

May 7, 2007

The mesh conference is all set with the announcement of their schedule. A few of their sessions look intriguing, particularly “Pros vs. Amateurs” led by Jon Dube. I’d really like to hear Jon speak as he’s quite the pioneer and new media expert. “The Future of Public Relations” also looks good, among others.

I had some doubts that this conference would grow into something worthwhile–billing yourself as “Canada’s web conference” only invites extra scrutiny–but seeing this year’s lineup makes me wish I were a little closer to Toronto.