Open Plaques project update

Thought I should write a quick update on what's been happening with the Open Plaques project. (A quick re-cap: this is a project to gather data and photographs of all the blue plaques in the UK, a very simple idea which I first explored on Twitter, and then in a blog post here).


I first kicked the project off by hacking together a quick Rails-based website, mostly coded on the train to and from work whilst hurtling through the Peak District. The initial data came from a combination of a screen-scrape of the list on English Heritage's website and some further data obtained via Freedom of Information requests - both of which had to be substantially cleaned-up.

The next step was working out what to do with the data to make it interesting, as a long list of them isn't really that usable. A map view is the obvious thing to do. Less obvious, and slightly trickier, is to attempt to actually parse the 'inscriptions' written on the plaque for useful, meaningful information.

For example, the inscription 'William Strang (1859-1921), painter and etcher, lived here 1900-1921' tells you that there's a person called William Strang, that he was born in 1859 and died in 1921, that he was a painter and also an etcher, and that he lived at the location of the plaque (which happens to be 20 Hamilton Terrace in London) between 1900 and 1921. As a speaker of English, you understand all this information automatically, but computers need a helping hand. Thankfully, the sentence structure of plaque inscriptions is reasonably consistant, and so I managed to write some code that parses text and produces the relevant data. The usefulness of this comes from the ability to create new index views, allowing you to browse the plaques by person (as an A-Z index), by the 'roles' of these people, by the years they were born on or died on (these views coming soon), or even by the 'verbs' used to describe their relationship to the place where the plaque is located (which you can also browse by area).

The final step towards making this more compelling was to add some photographs. Here, Flickr came to our rescue. There was already a 'blue plaques' group, which contained hundreds of photos. To link them together, I used special tags called 'machine tags', which are like normal tags except that they contain some slightly more structured data. It's very simple though - each plaque on the Open Plaques website has an ID number (which can be found at the end of the URL), and the corresponding machine tag for that plaque is openplaques:id=999 (where 999 is the ID number). Another script then uses the Flickr API to find all the photos tagged with a relevant machine tag, checks to see if they are Creative Commons licenced, and then to displays them on the Open Plaques website, with a credit and a link back to the Flickr photo page (see an example).

There's another benefit of using photos from Flickr too. Some of them have already been geotagged with latitude and longitude co-ordinates. The script checks this when importing the photos, and if the photo has been geotagged, but the plaque hasn't, the co-ordinates get copied across.

This was pretty much the state of things when I went to London for the Open Hack conference/codeathon. If it had remained like this, the project might not have gone too far. As it happened, though, a group of three people (Jez Nicholson, Simon Harriyott and Marvin Baretto) had already teamed up to do something around blue plaques for their hack project. They discovered the work I'd already done, and we decided to team up. Over the course of the weekend, we added some much-needed features to the site (like maps on index pages), and even made an prototype mobile version of the website using the Yahoo Blueprint service (which I've since become less impressed by).

More importantly, though, we've continued to work together as a team to build upon and improve the website. This means collaborating on writing the code (which is open-sourced), maintaining a collective bug and feature-requests list, and even producung some documentation (okay, so that's a little on the thin side at the moment). The fruits of this collaboration so far have been some further back-end integration with the Yahoo geolocation API, better maps, an improved editing interface, and generally a more stable service (published as a 0.2.2 release). We've also all worked together to improve the data, and at the time of writing, the service knows 1481 plaques, of which 52.67% have been geolocated and 32.75% have been photographed (these stats provide a nice metric against which we can measure our work).

Flickr openplaques machine tag

The final part of this story is that, as of last night, Flickr have integrated with our API, so that tagged plaque photos link directly to the relevant plaque page. There's even a little thumbnail of the website's icon.

Where next for the website? Well, we're always looking for more content. So if you know of any plaques that aren't listed on the website, please let me know! There are also hundreds of plaques which haven't yet been photographed - so you could find your area, and go out and hunt them down (and if they're not there any more, let us know about that too).

This is still a side-project, for me and the other participants, so I can't promise any grand improvements in functionality or design. (If you'd like to offer your time, or even funding, let me know.)

The project was also, in my head at least, a precursor to a bigger idea to encourage people to commemorate more recent individuals and events, which are perhaps more significant than some of the long-dead philanthropists and ex-Prime Ministers who are remembered on the official blue plaques. We're still interested in this idea over at Rattle, and spent some time exploring it with 4iP (an innovation fund managed by Channel 4). Those discussions didn't quite lead to a full commission, but there's still a lot of interest in the idea, and we think it could be worthwhile project for someone to fund.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy browsing Open Plaques, and if you like the project, you can support the project by following @openplaques on Twitter.