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News & Information, Community Curation, and “Data Alchemy”

Kenn Bicknell

Kenn Bicknell

Kenn Bicknell, Digital Resources Librarian, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), described how he used aggregation, curation, and “data alchemy” to provide information services to MTA employees, executives, and the public from his small library staffed by himself and his supervisor, who spends half his time in the library and the other half on records management.

The Los Angeles transportation system had fallen into disuse as the city grew and highways began to traverse it.  But as interest in the downtown area grew, a resurgence occurred, which was spurred by a 2008 tax increase to reinstate the system. This, coupled with the emergence of social media, provided the impetus for the library to launch a variety of information services.

Bicknell identified these opportunities and strategies for library professionals:

  • News aggregation and dissemination. An online clipping service using Blogger was originally created to deliver news to mobile platforms, but it had to be changed in 2008 to cope with the surge of interest in transportation. A Blogger-based service is like a newsstand, where readers cannot look at more than the cover of a publication. So the clipping service was migrated to, which allows people to create their own online newspapers based on Twitter feeds. (The MTA’s Twitter account is used only for disseminating news. The library pays for a premium account so it can have a customized background and a branded product.) The clipping service now has 4,000 subscribers every day. Featured content is provided so subscribers do not have to go to the account but can receive content that is directly hyperlinked to source.Creating Your Own Newspaper
  • Community curation allows partnering with other entities to preserve history. The MTA has a Flickr account containing historical images that were extracted from documents.  It has received 8.1 milllion hits over time. The images create conversation and storytelling opportunities.
  • Calendaring capabilities are used to modernize time lines from old newspapers (such as “This Date in History”). The online calendar has been responsible for the heavy usage of the Flickr collection. Entries have links to underlying documents or YouTube clips.
    Online calendarTiki-Toki was used extensively to create interactive timelines of small independent transportation companies that existed in the era before government operation, and PeoplePlotr was used to create an interactive “family tree” view of the data.
  • Mapping from photo metadata can be done using Historypin, which has an augmented reality component that interacts with Google Street View. A user can use a fade button to hide the historical image and see the contemporary view. It now takes video and documents as input. It also has a Tour option to lead people through a story in a particular order (The 1984 Olympics was used as an example). Collaborative opportunities include bonding with others and people telling their stories.
  • Digital data alchemy. Up to 2003, humans created 5 exabytes of data, but in 2010 we created that much data every 2 days. 10% of all photos ever taken have been in the last 2 years. There is a lot of data coming out of local communities, which is an opportunity for libraries to integrate themselves into them. GIS data layers show undetected spatial trends and relationships. and Infographics and data visualization software allows users to cherry pick the data they want to work with and create compelling graphics. Interactive transit kiosks to print maps, local information, instructions on how to buy a ticket, etc. were created. One of the first things Binn did after arriving at the library was to digitize all historic traffic plans and put them up on a website. The Getty Center expressed interest in this project and created an Overdrive exhibit which was recognized by the National Building Museum in Washington DC.  The museum created a large poster for its entrance hall from this data.
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