Griffey is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He has written and spoken internationally on topics such as the future of technology in libraries, personal electronics in the library, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property.
Join us as we discuss open hardware, librarian entrepreneurship, new ways for libraries to gather data, and the science fiction of William Gibson.
Length – 65:32
This episode marks the end of Season 2 of Beyond the Stacks. After a few months off for planning and preparation, we will be returning on September 1st to kick off Season 3 with a new episode! We have some very interesting people in mind for the new season, so stay tuned.
See below the fold for a full transcript of the interview.
Derek: Hello and welcome to Beyond the Stacks: Innovative Careers in Library and Information Science. I’m here at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University with Jason Griffey. Jason is the founder and principal at Evenly Distributed, a technology consulting and creation firm for libraries, museums, education and other non-profits. Jason is a Fellow at the Berkman center for Internet and Society at Harvard University where he studies hyper-local micro networks such as his LibraryBox project. Griffey has written and spoken internationally on topics such as the future of technology in libraries, personal electronics in the library, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. He is the creator and director of the LibraryBox project and he is the founder and team leader of the Measure the Future project. Hi Jason!
Jason: Hi Derek, how are you?
Derek: Good good, how are you?
Jason: I’m doing great today.
Derek: Awesome. So, I wanted to start out talking about your educational background a bit, including your Master’s in Library Science. So, how did you get started?
Jason: So, my educational path was a little convoluted. It was not directed. I did not know I wanted to be a librarian early in my academic career. I went to a small school and originally as a pre-med major, but switched over to be a Philosophy major very near to the end of my degree path, my Bachelor’s. So my Bachelor’s is Philosophy and Biology, and I decided I wanted to stay in academic. My goal has always kind of been to be in academia, to be at a University. So at the time, again, with the Philosophy degree, the way to do that was to become a philosophy professor. So I ended up at Ohio University doing Master’s work in Philosophy, after which I was accepted into the… I never finished the Master’s unfortunately. I was accepted and then went on into a PhD program in Philosophy at the University of Maryland College Park, and it became pretty apparent pretty quickly once I was kind of knee-deep in the academia of it that it was not something that was gonna make me happy long term. So I did a year there and then dropped out of my PhD program.
At the time my wife was doing a PhD as well, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So I spent some time while she was in her degree program doing technology work. I had a background using computers and had some skills that were applicable in a variety of ways. So I got a job doing some technology stuff.
We were literally just out with friends one night, over dinner, and my wife’s friend at the time was a Spanish student who had dropped out of the PhD program and had gone into the Library Science Program in Chapel Hill, to be a Spanish Language bibliographer. And hearing me say, “ugh, I really want to get back into school, and I want to do academics, but I don’t really want to do Philosophy, and I don’t have a Computer Science degree, so the stuff I’m doing now, I could MAYBE get in and do another Bachelor’s, but that seems silly.” And he said, “well, have you looked at libraries? Do you know what they’re doing these days?” And I didn’t! I mean, this was 2001. And I was like, “no! I mean, I love libraries, and they’re great, but I never really thought about working in one, or becoming a librarian.” And he was very gracious. He said “Well you know what, let me get you to talk to a couple of my professors. Just come in and, you know, spend an afternoon talking with them and just see what you think! See if it’s something… Knowing you, I think it would be something that would be interesting.”
So I did. I took an afternoon and went and spoke with a couple of the professors at Chapel Hill and pretty quickly realized, like, “Oh wow! This is exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for! I get to use my love of academia writ large, I get to get back into the university setting.” One of the things I loved about Philosophy was that I didn’t have to specialize in academia, that I didn’t have to be the world’s expert on the one tiny little area, that I could be broad and it would still be valuable. My interests have always kind of ranged all over the place. So Philosophy filled that gap, and then I was like, “oh wow! Librarianship is even more broad, if anything. I can study almost anything and it would be applicable to the kind of work I might wanna do.”
So yeah, I mean, that was… I met with some of the professors. They were lovely and wonderful and gave me some good guidance on the kind of program that they had, and showed me what some of the potential was. I applied, and got in, and that was the beginning of the love affair, right, with the profession. Those moments, those first couple of moments where I went in and they were like, “Oh! These are your interests? Well let me show you all the ways your interests are applicable.” And they really, it was a wonderful experience. I mean, Chapel Hill’s a great school, lots of flexibility in the program, lots of positives for me in that kind of position. I didn’t know much about library internals at the time. I had a strong technology background, and I had a strong academic background, but I didn’t have previous knowledge. I had never been a page. I had never worked desks or anything like that. That was not part of my experience. So it was like, I kind of fell into it and then fell in love with it.
Derek: That’s great. I think that’s a good strategy for investigating a new field, going and kind of interviewing and shadowing people. Yeah.
Jason: Yeah. Without that, I wouldn’t be what I’m doing now. I just wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t spent that afternoon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina talking with a couple of professors. It really did change the whole trajectory of my career.
Derek: That’s cool. And I agree, something really attractive about this field is the ability to be kind of a Renaissance person, or have a very broad range of interests that you pursue. And, I guess, did things work out that way, the way you were hoping it would?
Jason: I mean, certainly the, I think, broadly yes. I never really expected to not be in a library. When I got my degree from Chapel Hill, which was 2004 I graduated, so I was at Chapel Hill 2002 to 2004. And then upon graduating, started looking for jobs. And I didn’t find anything initially. I found jobs, but not in a library. So I worked as a webmaster for a university for a little while, while I was still looking for library jobs.
And it took just under a year. It was nine or ten months, something like that, before there was a job that opened in my area. We had moved to rural Tennessee and I was within driving distance of a couple major cities, both of which had universities, so I had applied at those and was lucky enough that, like I said, nine or ten months in, a job opened up and there were a few reference positions. I went to, my time at Chapel Hill, my background was in technology. I had spent years as a technology manager and I did not want to do technology any longer. I was done with it. I was tired of it. What I wanted to do was like reference and instruction. I wanted to be in front of people, helping them. So the jobs I applied for at the time were all in that vein. They were all reference and instruction jobs. Which is amusing, because my background was in technology, and my job that I did while at Chapel Hill was in serials cataloguing. So, like, I took a lot of reference classes. I poured myself into that study but I didn’t really have a lot of experience.
I was lucky enough that somebody took a chance on me, and I started at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga as a reference and instruction librarian there, in 2005, I think it would have been, and was there for the better part of a decade. I left there in 2014. So I was there for a good long time. But I never really thought, you know, at the time I got my degree I never thought, “well, someday I will go through a university and decide I should leave.” That was not part of the plan.
But my goals changed and what I wanted out of the profession changed. What I thought I could give back to the profession changed. I started seeing some opportunities for me to maybe make a difference at a different level. And so stepping away from the university was interesting and difficult and weird. But so far, it’s been ok. (laughs)
Derek: Well that’s good to hear!
Jason: So far it’s worked out.
Derek: Good, good! So, going back to when you were in library school, what were some of the coolest things you were able to work on there?
Jason: Oh, man. I mean, the biggest thing I did probably while I was there was, the job that I did while I was a student, which was retrospective cataloguing of serials. Which is not fun at all! In any way, really! Serials cataloguing is really difficult and was not my… maybe not my choice.
But probably the most fun thing that I got to do while I was there was… The way Chapel Hill structures the program, they give you the opportunity to take some classes outside of the Library Science department. You obviously take all the required classes, and you have to do all the hour requirements and everything, but I think once a semester you can actually substitute a class in from another part of the university. So my advisor was Paul Jones, who holds a dual professorship between Library and Information Science and Journalism.
So he was teaching a few journalism classes and he’s a very techie guy, like, long history of web, of the World Wide Web, and he was one of the founding initial people actually to get on the web at all. He ran one of the very first open access open portals for information on the web. He was a really old school techie guy. The journalism class that I took was focused on new ways of disseminating information, and it ended up that, again, this was like 2002, it ended up being primarily about new platforms that were becoming available called blogs and weblogs. Having all of that kind of fall on my head as a library student, and realizing what the potential might be for libraries in the dissemination of information in general, and how this new format of web publishing was going to increase the amount of information available and increased information has still problems for libraries and etcetera and etcetera. It just, you know, my brain exploded as a part of this.
And we worked on one of the first, I guess THE first, kind of group of bloggers on Chapel Hill’s campus was a group that we started called The Tarheel Bloggers in 2002. So that was probably the biggest, most interesting thing that I was wrapped up in. It was really exciting at the time, to kind of see the way these tools were gonna change who could publish, what they could publish. Really fundamentally altering the flow of information on the web. It was a big deal, to be able to put something on the web, but you didn’t have to know HTML. I think even now it’s hard to really explain how different it was to be able to publish something on the web but not have to know any code. REALLY changed the game. And that was probably the most exciting thing.
Second on the list, I think, would be a little later, like 2004 when I was graduating. My thesis that I wrote for the library degree was, I believe, the first thesis at Chapel Hill that was Creative Commons licensed.
Derek: Ah, nice.
Jason: So, that was, again, like, getting into information, intellectual property, information rights, copyright. Getting into that area was something I did really early. I was really interested in it. And the ability to kind of publish this academic thing in a new way at a school as big as Chapel Hill… You know, it’s a big place! But it was very early in Creative Commons’ life. It had just sort of started coalescing in 2004. So that was exciting. It was exciting to be able to say, like, here is this stuff that I’ve been working on.
Derek: Did you get any pushback about that?
Jason: Yeah, there was a lot of explaining that had to happen. And again I was really lucky to have the adviser I had and that Paul was willing to go to bat for me at a couple of different levels. At the time, again, 2004, the expectations were still very old school, like you still had to print it and you still had to, you know, cotton paper, printed out, one copy to the library and one copy to the department. It was very old school.
One of the expectations was that you were gonna sign over copyright to… I think at the time even it was ProQuest. That was just part of doing a dissertation, like, you gave it to them so they can index it and put it into their database so it was searchable. You know all of that and… For me to be like, “No, I’m going to do this other thing. And ProQuest is welcome to index it if they want but I’m not going to give away copyright, I’m gonna put it out the open in this way.” There was a little bit of push back but it went smoother than maybe I would have expected.
Derek: Yeah, I’d say that’s a credit to them that they allowed that back then.
Jason: Yeah. It was exciting.
Derek: That’s cool. So, we talked about the early and mid part of your career and I’m interested in talking a little bit about what you’ve been up to lately. So what are some pretty interesting things you’ve been doing since you left that academic library job?
Jason: Yeah, so, leaving the university was weird and difficult. I had a lot of friends that thought I was crazy. Librarians at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga are treated like faculty so they’re published and they get tenure and the whole deal. So I was a tenured librarian, why would I leave that? People thought I was crazy! But I started a project, the LibraryBox project. It started off while I was there working kind of at home at night and on the weekends and everything. It was basically just that I had this idea for… I saw another project called Pirate Box. Pirate Box was this really fantastic project that was put out in 2011, I think was when it was released, by a New York University professor David Darts. And it was very much an art project that was anti-copyright. It was designed to be this open access point that was portable that you could put in, effectively, a lunch box or something or backpack and carry it around with you. And people could attach to it and either download what was on the storage or upload whatever they wanted.
So it was this, like, offline file sharing system.
Derek: And it was a wireless connection.
Jason: Yeah, wireless. It was wifi. But because it’s not on the rest of the net and because it’s portable it’s this, like, renegade pirate activity, right? Anybody could upload, you know, I could be walking down the street with one and someone could upload the latest episode of Game of Thrones right to it without me knowing it and then someone else could download it again without me knowing and be totally ignorant of this, but there could be, you know, piracy, for lack of a better term.
Derek: And malware too.
Jason: And malware too, sure, it could be attack vector for all sorts of things. But it was, again, it was an art project. Like, it was a way for him to illustrate the brokenness of the current copyright regime. So he releases this and then a couple of other coders managed to take his code and get it running on these really small cheap routers. His initial demo of it was literally a lunch box with little antennas poking out. It was fairly big and used like a lead acid battery. It was a big thing. And a couple of coders, one of them who’s become a good friend, Matthias Strubel, had manipulated the code to get it down on these really little inexpensive routers that were 20, 30 bucks. Pretty cheap. 30, 40 dollars. And made it really inexpensive to build one.
Derek: Yeah, that’s affordable.
Jason: Yeah, really affordable. I saw their fork of his code, right? And because his code was originally open, like he opened it so that anybody could mess around with it, and their fork was open. And anybody could mess around with it. So I was like, “you know what? If I did a little bit of work on this, if I made it a little more friendly and updated the UI a little bit, and made it not… eliminated the upload, and just made it a sharing box, just made it something where I could choose what to put on it and then whatever it was that I chose could be shared to the people around me, that’s really kind of cool and exciting.
And libraries could use that sort of thing for outreach purposes. Libraries who serve individuals who are in areas with low connectivity, with educators that are going into developing nations and want to take with them some curricular materials but don’t have the infrastructure around. Or areas where infrastructure gets damaged. You get areas where natural disasters are common. Having this, like, emergency piece of information is like… I described it once in a talk as like breaking off a piece of the internet and taking it with you. So that sort of thing. In my head, I saw this, I saw, like, there is all of this potential bundled up in this thing if I can just do a few things.
And so I did. I took their code and manipulated it and I changed it into what I wanted it to be. I demoed it at Computers in Libraries 2012. I did the first kind of demo where I was like, “look, I built this thing, what do you think?” And there was just such an enormous amount of interest. It really got a huge amount of… I mean, the people I knew were like, “that is worth something, like, keep working on it.”
So I kept working on it and through the next couple of years I ended up raising a couple of different… Raising money to support the project in a couple different ways. One was through Kickstarter. I was one of the very early library Kickstarters. I don’t know if I was the first, I probably wasn’t the first, but I was early on.
Derek: It was a high profile one. I saw it when it was happening.
Jason: Yeah. That was 2013, I think. Sounds right.
Derek: That sounds right to me.
Jason: That was one of the things where it was like, I wanted to produce a new version of the code to make it easier for people to install. Cuz at the time the building of it was still pretty techy. You had to be a little more technically adept and you had to be able to use command line to go in and do some things with the box to get it to work and I wanted to kind of eliminate that. I could see how to do it but I didn’t have the technical chops to do it so I was like, “well let me raise a few thousand dollars and I’ll pay a developer. I need three or four thousand dollars and I can pay a developer for, whatever, a week of their time and we can work it out and I can put the code out. Going into the Kickstarter that was the idea. Instead of raising… I wanted to raise thirty five hundred dollars and ended up raising thirty five thousand dollars. So yeah, it was much bigger than I thought it was gonna be. And that was the point where I was like, “oh… maybe I need to rethink what’s going on here, right, like maybe I need to be a little… I need to do this in a different way.”
Derek: Yeah, maybe broaden the scope a little?
Jason: Yeah, clearly I had misunderstood the potential scope of the project. And so that happened and I worked my way through the Kickstarter project and, you know, fulfilled all the obligations for the rewards and all of that. It was a huge learning process and just an enormous amount of work, but almost all good and, like, learning work. And got through that, and then I was the recipient of a prototype grant from the Knight Foundation for the next version. So we got through the 2.0, that’s Kickstarter, and then that, given the publicity of the Kickstarter and the amount of media attention and stuff that we got for that, we got a huge amount of feedback from people, like, “oh, you know, it would be really helpful if you did, you know, insert feature here.”
So we already had this huge list of features that we wanted. And we prioritized them and looked at what would be really beneficial for the project. That actually, the grant was a while ago. We actually just not that long ago released the full version of the next set of the code, which added things like internationalization. We added twelve languages. We had the interface translated into twelve different languages so that non English speakers could use it. Just a bunch of other additions to the code base. So between the Kickstarter and then the grant and then I had ideas for other things and all of that kind of came together. It’s a really long story to get to me leaving my job but effectively it kind of all came together for me to be like, “well okay, so I have the opportunity to build these cool things, and I may not have that opportunity again, so like…”
Derek: All of this fundraising happened before you had left?
Jason: Yeah. All of that happened before i left my job, yeah. And I went to my dean and I said, “I have all this opportunity and I want to work on these things.” And, you know, we tried to work out what might work for a balance of, you know, time at the library and time doing my own thing. It’s a faculty position, so faculty are often afforded sorts of flexible things. But ultimately there wasn’t a way to work it out. And so I ended up leaving my tenured associate professorship position, which again, still sounds crazy when I say it out loud, on the hopes that… Basically making a bet that the things that I had in my head were worth working on, and that people would think they were worth funding.
And so far I’ve been right. Librarybox is still doing very well. It is an ongoing project. It is not currently funded, but we’re still doing some kind of back soft development. We’re still working on it. It’s a project and that’s what you have to do. But there are people in… I counted the other day and it’s like 39 different countries, 40 different states, and something like all seven continents that are using Librarybox. And, like, that’s a thing that I, like, never really thought would happen. It’s really cool to think that there’s a thing I built that’s literally being used around the world.
Derek: What are some really astonishing ways that people are using it that you’ve heard of?
Jason: My favorite ones tend to revolve around… There’s a couple. My very favorite example is an educational use for librarybox, and it was an English teacher in China who contacted me fairly early in the project’s life and said, “you know, I’m an English teacher here in China, and as a result I have students from all kinds of economic profiles, up and down the economic scale. What I’ve noticed is that the students achieve at different rates, not because of innate ability or anything weird like that, but because the people who come from better economic situations are able to access resources differently in China than people who have lower economic resources. So, the kids who came from families that were middle income or higher income or higher were able to sit down at a computer and, like, have a VPN that got them around the Great Firewall.
Derek: Ah, I see, yeah.
Jason: Right? And people of lower economic means were stuck at, like, not being able to get to English language materials because the Great Firewall blocked it in one way or another. And he contacted me and said, “You know what, if you do a couple of things…” He was asking for a couple additions as far as the tech goes. He’s like “You know, if you make a couple of changes it would be really, really useful to me, because I could pre-load it with all sorts of things, and then I could level the playing field for access here, at least in my classroom.” And that was just… THAT’S exactly the sort of thing I want Librarybox to be used for.
Derek: That’s fantastic.
Jason: It’s awesome. And it’s, like, education and, you know, bypassing what I would describe as bad internet policy. And, you know, as a result, he became an advocate for the program, for the project in that part of China, and as a result other teachers have picked it up and are using it. Which again is the benefit of open, and the benefit of having the project be available for anybody that wants to use it. They can just download the code and make it work. So that’s probably my favorite example. I mean, a lot of other educational examples. There are schools in Zambia that are using it for students who were… They had donated E-readers, another nonprofit had donated E-readers to them that they didn’t have a way to update them, to put more content on them, and so the school has a Librarybox that the teacher updates, you know, monthly or something, and then the students are able to then attach and download new reading material every month. It’s a little digital library that gets to live in this incredibly remote corner of the world.
Those are the things that… Those are the places where I didn’t envision it when I originally started the project, and yet it is incredibly fulfilling to know that that’s the way the project is being used.
Derek: Definitely. Yeah, it’s such an open piece of hardware, and such a… It’s just basically like a little broadcasting medium for any form of information. Just a little short range broadcasting system. So that’s versatile, you know? You never know what people are going to do with it.
Jason: Yeah. Super, super versatile. That’s turned out to be the big uptake of the thing is that it can… If you build a sufficiently powerful tool, people will use it for all sorts of things. And I’m sure people are using it for things that I don’t agree with. That’s ok! That’s the way information goes, right? But I really love the kind of educational use and the outreach work that people have done. I mean even here in this country in rural areas and Native American reservations are often under-infrastructured in significant ways. There are lots of parts of the US that don’t have infrastructure where people can just choose to watch a movie on their phone, for instance, because there’s just not the bandwidth for it. But with little pockets of connection, like with the Librarybox, you can get away with higher bandwidth sorts of endeavors. It’s been a really fulfilling project to lead. I’ve really enjoyed seeing where it goes, and I’m gonna keep it up as long as people are interested in it.
Derek: Very cool. So, what did you do next, after Librarybox?
Jason: Yeah, so I… It was about the time of the Knight grant, that the Knight prototype grant came in, that I left the university. And then worked on Librarybox, kind of got that bit done where I wanted it to, and there was this opportunity, you know, like, there was another opportunity. The Knight Foundation in 2014 ran what they called the News Challenge for Libraries. And the Knight News Challenge has been around for a long time, but it traditionally had been aimed at Journalism, and at providing tools for journalists.
The Knight Foundation decided some time prior to 2014 that libraries were gonna be an important player in their goals over the next bunch of years. The kind of stated mission of the foundation is something like… I’m paraphrasing, so if I get it wrong, obviously, you’re librarians, you can look it up! But the stated goal of the Foundation is something like ‘an informed and active citizenry.’ Right? It’s this very generic kind of civic goal. And libraries are great at informed citizenry! That’s kind of our job, right? So they ask for kind of innovative ideas, like, what is your idea to make libraries better, effectively, was kind of the pitch. They put a bunch of money behind it and said, “We’re gonna fund some unusual, interesting projects that might not otherwise have funding.”
So I came up with… I pitched another of my ideas. Another of my ideas ended up being the Measure the Future Project. It came about because of my time at an academic library. At the time I was head of IT in the library and was responsible for generating statistics for our end of year reports and things. Every time I had to do it, it bugged the crud out of me because the statistics that we gathered were all retrospective and not useful. They were all reports of what had happened, but they were not really useful in doing, like, active predictions about the future. So I had these numbers, but they were dead numbers, and they were not numbers that I could, like, act upon in any significant way. I wanted to use them to make a difference. I wanted to be able to have numbers that told me what kind of changes to make, right?
So I spent some time thinking about, what would that look like? What would numbers look like that actually made me change what I was doing? And one of the things that I decided was it would be really interesting if libraries had a system that were like some of the monitoring systems that some of the big box retailers use. So, BIG retailers like Walmart and Walgreens and these sorts of spaces have used for a few years now. These systems that watch what you do in the stacks, right? They watch what you do when you’re walking past shelves. They pay attention, they’re little cameras or heat sensors or infrared cameras, or a variety of these sorts of things, but they’re all effectively trying to metricize, like, what do you pay attention to? It’s used, obviously, to sell you things more effectively. I mean, that’s what they want.
Derek: That’s what they’re there for.
Jason: That’s what they’re there for, right. So they pay attention to, like, well, ok, people only touch things on the edges of shelves, they don’t touch thing in the center of the shelf. Hmm, why is that, right? And then they make changes to see if they can alter customer behavior.
So, looking at those systems, I was like, “well, I have some experience with software, and I have some experience with hardware, and I think I could probably put together something that does this, but do it open, and do it in a way that libraries could use it.” So that was my pitch. It was, Measure the Future is a project that is trying to build sensors that libraries can use to put in their spaces and measure attention. And the idea is to be able to test your spaces in the same kind of way that you test your websites. So you can measure space and see what people are paying attention to. And if they’re paying attention t the thing you want them to, i.e. they’re getting things off the new book shelf, or they are, you know, using the reference stacks, or whatever the thing you’d like people to be doing is, right? You measure it and then you make a change, and you see if it gets better or worse. So maybe fourteen people a day go by, walk by your new book shelf, and eight people stop. OK, well, can you improve that? Can you make everyone stop? Can you figure out a way to make your new book display more attractive to get forty people to walk by it?
So how can we metricize that? How can we measure it, how can we figure out how to give that information to libraries in a way they can use, et cetera. So I pitched this, and ended up being one of the eight winners of the Knight News Challenge in 2014. So that project got funded, and that is what I’m working on now! (laughs)
That is in its… just pre-alpha. We’ve got almost everything built. This is recording in… February? This is February. So you won’t hear this in February, it’ll be later than that.
Derek: Yeah, this’ll be coming out a few months later.
Jason: Yeah. But as we record, we have, we’re almost ready to start testing in our first couple of libraries. By the time this comes out, we will have tested in a couple of libraries and the goal is to have the project available for libraries to use, either to build themselves or to work with us to implement in the summer. In June or July.
Derek: I’ll drop a link to the website for it in the description of the show so you can go and see how it’s doing now. So what kind of tools have you guys been developing for this purpose?
Jason: Yeah, so we played around with a couple of different things, and we ended up pretty quickly realizing that the most cost-effective way to measure what we wanted to measure was really to use cameras to use what’s called computer vision, really. So what we’re doing is we’re building these little sensors that use off-the-shelf webcams, just Logitech webcams like you can buy through Amazon, and a little microcomputer called the Intel Edison. That’s a little microcomputer similar to a Raspberry Pi if you’re familiar with those. It’s a little bit more powerful. It’s a lot smaller, and for our purposes was a much better choice. It has kind of technical things that we wanted.
We’re running code that will take the image that the webcam sees, put it in the memory of the Edison, and then the Edison will analyze basically what in the frame that I’m looking at has changed. And by looking at what’s changed in the frame you can isolate the background away from the people, the movement in the frame. And if you can isolate the movement in the frame, you can start recording. Not recording the pictures, but recording just the positions of people. And if you do positions over time, eventually you’re able to have like a heat map. So, here are the places there are lots of people and over what period of time. Here the places there are not many people over the same period of time.
And then from that you can do the kind of A/B testing that we want. So we’ve got a sensor and we’ve got a server that is a little mini server built on the same Intel Edison hardware, that’s going to do the analysis part for you. And then you’re gonna be able to connect to it with a wifi signal,you’ll use your phone or your laptop or tablet or whatever as a librarian and connect to connect to what we call the Mothership (that’s our server) and it will give you, you know, here’s the heat map of your day, here’s the heat map of your week, here’s what it looks like over the month, here’s the people count through the space, here’s the lively areas, the dead areas, etcetera. And then the goal is for you to then as librarian to be able to analyze that data to be able to make changes that then are reflected in the next time you do a measurement.
The thing that is most often kind of questioned as I describe it is the fact that, like I just said, I’m putting cameras in libraries.
Derek: Right, I was gonna go there if you didn’t. (laughs)
Jason: Normally, right, it’s a very worrisome problem to put cameras in libraries. We have a whole post on the website about how we’re thinking about privacy and how we’re dealing with privacy. I will say we have talked more about privacy than probably any other single aspect of the entire project. It is a very very important thing for us. And we have spent a lot of time architecting everything so that it is nearly impossible for someone’s privacy to be impinged upon by our system.
We’re not recording anything, so the images that we’re analyzing are analyzed literally for microseconds and then they’re tossed. There’s no saving of the images , there’s no saving the video. All we’re recording, as far as actually putting in a database, is the positions across time. So we’re giving X/Y coordinates and then a time stamp. And even if someone were to crack, like if there was a hacker and he was like, “well let me see what’s going on here,” right, even if they got in (and we’re obviously architecting the system so that we’re going to prevent them from getting in, but even if they do) and do a database dump, without a reference image, the data is literally meaningless. There’s no… It’s X/Y coordinates and a timestamp. There’s nothing to apply it to.
Derek: No identifying information.
Jason: No identifying information at all. So we’re trying to make sure that we have isolation of information in such a way that even if you have, even if someone were to get the data, then it would not be useful to them for any sort of patron identifying purpose. Even to the degree where, so, you know we talked about attack vectors for it, like… Okay, so worst case scenario is, like, law enforcement comes with a subpoena about patron A, who they believe checked out a book about, you know, insert nasty thing here…
Derek: Right, whatever.
Jason: Whatever the appropriate boogeyman is for this scenario, right? And they want to know what other books they looked at. Right? So that’s kind of a nightmare scenario for my system because, in theory, right, like, Measure the Future is looking at people in the space and, in theory, if they were the only person in the space, and we could identify the time frame that they would’ve been there we could… Again, like, you know, you kind of see where it’s going.
Derek: Right, yeah. They’re the only person that day that, like, looked at the Anarchist Cookbook on the shelf or whatever.
Jason: Exactly. And law enforcement wants to know the other things they looked at, right. That’s kind of a nightmare scenario for us. So how do we prevent that? Well, we’re actively working to prevent that. So, if there’s only one person in the frame we don’t report their isolated movements. We clump it with other pieces of data. So you get an account that someone was there but you don’t get tracks of the individual person isolated from other tracks. So we’re we’re anonymizing by doing some… But I think it’s fairly smart consolidation of data. We’re reporting in fifteen minute chunks, not in, like, minute slices or something, to further anonymize what someone’s doing in there.
So we’re really trying hard to architect everything in such a way that respects, like, you know, all of the privacy. Because everyone that’s involved in the project is all about respecting all of the privacy. It’s a really hard problem but it’s something… It’s just a primary focus of the project.
Derek: Cool. If I were a patron in the library and I saw this system, like, what would it look like on the shelf or whatever?
Jason: That’s actually something we’re working on now. And it’s gonna be something that we work on with our alpha, kind of, test partners, right, is, how does it look to patrons, and what do we need to do to explain to patrons what’s going on? We don’t want to hide them.
My initial hardware models that I built, I did some design of cases for a 3D printer, so the initial cases can be printed and everything, to hold the Edison and the camera and everything. The initial ones are bright yellow. Like, neon yellow, intentionally, because I want them to be noticed. I don’t want them to be invisible.
So the short answer is, I’m not sure! I don’t know exactly what the reaction of patrons is going to be. We are working on, how do we explain to patrons what we are doing? And that’s gonna be I think an ongoing thing we’re gonna have to learn from libraries, from the libraries that we work with, at least initially. It’s like, do we put signage up? Nobody reads signs, we know that! Maybe they’ll read a sign if there’s a camera above it? Maybe there’s, like, a web address, and then there’s a nice explanation with kind of more multimedia sorts of explanations of what’s going on at the web address, and we need to build that out. Maybe we just say “ask a librarian!” and let the librarians take the lead on some sort of explainer for this sort of thing. It’s really, there’s a bunch of different options, and I don’t have a way of judging which one works best yet. But it’s definitely a concern. (laughs) It’s something that I think we’re gonna have to change several times before we get it right.
Derek: Cool. Well, that’s exciting to hear about its development though. It’s cool. So let’s see… We got a little bit of time left.
Jason: Yeah! I’m here all day. (laughs)
Derek: (laughs) Alright, so! You’ve done a lot of entrepreneurial sort of stuff, you know, a lot of inventing and getting those inventions out there. I’m thinking about entrepreneurism in libraries or with librarians, and… To try and encourage that sort of thing, what kind of skills do you think students could pick up in their studies to prepare them to do that kind of thing?
Jason: Yeah. Gosh. I mean, there’s… a lot of ink and bits being spilled these days about innovation in libraries, and how can libraries be more innovative in their practices, and provide a space for librarians to be innovative in what they do? From a student perspective, as far as skills go, the single most important skill I think any librarian can have is a curiosity and a willingness to seek out and change what they believe. Like, what their skill set, what they are doing. I don’t know what libraries will be up to in twenty years, but I guarantee you it’s not going to be exactly the same as it is now, right?
Derek: No doubt.
Jason: And the skill sets are going to be… You just have to be flexible and willing to learn new skills and retrain. I think the most valuable thing about a library degree program, about a master’s program in library science, is the ethics and the, getting the feel of the profession, and understanding the kind of goals and underlying beliefs, right, that we operate on. The various freedoms we attempt to protect, and those sorts of things. I think that’s an important bit.
As far as the raw skills, I mean, there is no future that I can imagine where technology is not more prevalent. Right? Like, there is nothing about the next ten years that doesn’t involve more computers in more places, doing more things in different ways. (laughs) Right? That is just, I think, a certainty. And the degree to which, I mean, you know, more places is pretty high, like, we’re gonna have smaller computers that do more things in invisible ways, embedded everywhere. So, like, just a comfort with technology.
You don’t have to know everything about a technology, right? I mean, the dirty secret of all technologists is when we don’t know something, we Google it. Like, “how to do this, let’s look that up.” And Stack Exchange and other online tech resources are our friends. That’s just, like, we don’t know everything! We look it up! But we understand enough to know, like, to be able to judge the truth or falsity of a solution most times. You can look at a solution and be like “that sounds dumb! That can not possibly be the way I fix this thing.”
So just the general knowledge of tech. You know, not all librarians need to be coders. Not all librarians… You know, “all” statements are almost always false. Not everyone needs to be anything. But I think it’s hard to argue against a generalized knowledge of technology and how it works.
Derek: Yeah. The ability to, like, tinker with stuff, and generally… Just general knowledge.
Jason: Yeah, just general knowledge! And again, a willingness to seek out the knowledge you don’t have. The situation where someone says, “well, how do I do this on my phone?” Well, you can either say, “I don’t know,” or you can Google it. And the answer will be there, you know? You can look it up! I mean, I’m using Google, yes, in the generic, and I understand you can Duck Duck Go it too.
Derek: Right, whatever search engine.
Jason: Whatever! But you can look it up. And there will be answers. Some of them might be wrong, and that’s where the other parts of library science come in, and you can use your judgment.
Derek: Yeah, evaluate the source.
Jason: Evaluate the sources! Right, that’s why we’re good at our jobs. We know how to do those things. But the willingness to look up answers and to be willing to be curious about those things. That’s the skill set I look for. When I was in libraries and on hiring committees, looking to hire someone for a new librarian position, that’s what I wanted. I didn’t need someone who new everything. I needed someone who’s willing to know everything.
Derek: Definitely. Great! So, one thing that hasn’t come up is that you’ve got a… It’s a company, right? Called “Evenly Distributed.”
Derek: Yeah, could you tell us a bit about what that is and what you do with it?
Jason: Sure! It’s shell company that– No, I’m just kidding.
Jason: (laughs) So… It really is a… I needed something to describe what I do. I’m running a couple of big open source projects that have or had funding behind them, and I speak regularly for a variety of library groups. I speak kind of regularly at big conferences. I just did a talk at the Ontario Library Association Conference in Toronto. I spoke a couple of different times at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference. You know, I’m traveling three or four times over the spring to speak at a variety of different conferences. So I’m kind of a regular speaker, I guess, on library technology issues and innovation and intellectual property, privacy sorts of issues. So that needed a moniker. That needed something.
But I’m also honestly interested in helping libraries solve problems. The company, I usually describe it as a consulting sort of thing. It’s me as a consultant. But I’m using that as a soft word for, like, let me help you. Do you need help with something, right? That’s what consultants at their best do. Your library has a problem that you do not have the internal skill set to solve. And maybe I have a skill set that will help.
So, everything from building issues, I’ve had a couple of instances where there are library groups or other groups that are building new buildings for libraries or renovating an existing building for a library and just wanted assistance in, like, “what kind of tech do we put in here? How do we organize our space to make the most of the technology that we want in here?” Those sorts of questions. And that’s something I’ve got a lot of experience doing. I’ve helped build a couple of buildings at this point. Renovations and so…
It’s not something that every librarian gets to do in their career, and I’ve been lucky enough to do it a few times. It’s a set of skills that I can offer to other people on the innovation front. If people want some tips and techniques for how to rearrange their management structure in some way to be able to make it more flexible, that’s something I have experience doing.
So it’s really… The company itself is technically a consulting firm, but the way I think about it is, if I have some knowledge that helps libraries become better, like, that’s what I want to do. That’s the moniker that I put on it. Evenly Distributed, the name, comes from a quote…
Derek: William Gibson.
Jason: Yeah, it’s a quote by William Gibson, who said it in an interview once, that “the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.” Which is a lovely quote. I often come back to that when I’m talking about technology to people. The future is here. The future is in Singapore, and it’s in Tokyo, and it’s down the street at this other, you know, the incubator that’s down the street here. We just need to pay attention because it’ll… That’s the future we’re gonna be living. We just need to pay attention to it.
So that’s the story behind and kind of the idea behind Evenly Distributed. As a librarian, my initial impulse, I said earlier in the interview, right? I wanted to be an instruction and reference librarian. And I think, in a way, I’m still doing that. I’m still being a reference and instruction librarian. I’m helping people find information and teaching them about that information. I’m just doing it at a different level.
Derek: Very good! So, last thing I wanted to ask about… Actually, quick side note, what’s your favorite William Gibson book?
Jason: Oh gosh! My favorite? That is such a tough… I’ll pick two. I mean, Neuromancer changed my life.
Derek: Oh yeah.
Jason: Because, it was Neuromancer, and it is among the most beautiful pieces of literature written in English ever. It’s a fantastic novel and it literally changed my life. A lot of people might consider that hyperbole. It’s not hyperbole. I read that book and I saw the future I wanted to live. It really changed everything about the way I saw the world.
Other than that, I think probably… Well, my blog is called “Pattern Recognition,” and that’s such a wonderful book. That is really, I’m very very fond of that one. Probably I would say Neuromancer number one because of its effect on me, but I really love Pattern Recognition. You can’t go wrong with Gibson. He’s one of the, like, wordsmiths of our age. He’s just such a fantastic writer.
Derek: Yeah, he’s awesome. A great thinker too. Neuromancer‘s my favorite too.
Jason: I mean, it’s, you know, “The sky above the port was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.”
Derek: Yeah, you can’t beat that opening line.
Jason: That is the best opening line ever.
Derek: You know, today people think that means it was blue.
Jason: (laughs) That’s a fair point, I guess. The color of a television tuned to a dead channel is different these days.
Derek: You know, but that makes it even more fascinating.
Jason: Yeah, yeah.
Derek: Cool, well, last question I had: So, you’re big on open hardware. You know, we’ve been talking a lot about open hardware projects that you’ve worked on and are working on. So, how can, I guess generally, libraries and other information institutions, you know, like archives and museums, how can they best make use of open hardware?
Jason: Yeah. I’m fascinated by open hardware because of the kind of power it entails. We’ve spent a couple of decades now in libraries (I’ll use libraries as short for, like, other non-profit kind of spaces, libraries, museums, archives), we’ve spent a good couple of decades working with open source software. And you know, you’d really be hard pressed to find a library that doesn’t have some critical piece of infrastructure that’s not running open source software.
Jason: Almost everyone is using something, even if they don’t know it. Right? There’s something in there. And we’ve seen the value of that. We’ve seen the value of well supported stable open source projects.
Hardware is fairly new to that kind of model. The idea that there’s this hardware that is just a spec, it’s an open kind of design, specification, and any manufacturer can kind of riff on it, build on it, but they’re all effectively the same sort of thing… That ends up meaning that hardware, the price goes down and down and down. We’re operating now several decades into Moore’s Law, and several decades into, like, things get faster and cheaper on a regular schedule. We understand that. We understand how silicon chips get more complicated and then get cheaper. We know how that works.
This is the first time, I think, reliably that we can say we have really, really cheap hardware. On the order of five or six dollars, right? That can do enormous amounts of computing. Just this week, one of my fellows here at the Berkman Center brought in his C.H.I.P. computer, which is a nine dollar computer that has wifi and bluetooth and runs linux, right?
Derek: That’s pretty amazing, for nine dollars.
Jason: It’s truly mindblowing. I mean, a Raspberry Pi I think is $25 or something these days, and the C.H.I.P. is a third that price, roughly, and more or less the equivalent. It’s basically the same sort of platform. My brain, the way I tend to think about technology is always, like, three, five, seven years out. I pay attention to modern technology but only insomuch as it tells me what the future’s gonna look like. And seeing a nine dollar computer that you could plug into your TV and use as a, like, video streaming device, or that you can carry around in your pocket and use as a librarybox, or use as a… The power that’s contained in something that costs less than a lot of people pay for lunch is really a game changing piece of information for the way tech is used.
So I think, you know, as that number, you know, how much does this tech cost, as it continues to go down, it just makes more interesting things available. I think libraries, archives, museums, we operate on such constrained budgets. We operate on such limited growth funding that there needs to be… At some point there needs to be an evaluation of he platforms we use, and the hardware and the software that we’re reliant on. I think that it’s possible that open hardware (meaning very very cheaply available but yet well designed and powerful hardware), I think it has the opportunity to do some interesting things.
You know, I’ve got two projects that are using what are mostly open hardware. I couldn’t have done either of them if I had to design the hardware myself and go to Shenzhen and sit in a factory and order 5,000 of them. The fact that they’re open and cheap lets me play. And play is the gateway to new things. I just think it’s a big deal for people to be able to use this really cheap tech to build new, interesting things.
Derek: Awesome. Yeah, I think we’re going to see a lot of really wild innovations because of that. Reminds me of that Verner Vinge story, I think it was called “Fast Times at Fairmont High,” where it was like… They threw little wireless routers all over the city, they just tossed them into, like, bushes and stuff so they’d be redundant enough that then everyone walking around the whole city would always have free internet all the time. That sort of thing is actually getting close to reality.
Jason: Oh, totally. Yeah, it totally is. Here at the Berkman Center last… spring, I guess, I wasn’t here but have followed up with a bunch of people. They had a gathering called Wind, and the goal was, like, “what can we do if the internet goes away? How can we then rebuild our infrastructure?” And they basically took these really cheap tools, like this little Raspberry Pi and other cheap routers and, like, “how do we string them across Cambridge to create our own little micronetwork, and how do we make all of that come together?” The hardware over the next, again, five years, six years, it’s just gonna be… In five years instead of the C.H.I.P. costing nine dollars, it’s gonna cost five dollars, and it’ll be more powerful and it’ll run off a solar panel, right? And at that point you just throw them places! You just, like you said, you just kind of spread them around. And when hardware is cheap enough to be almost disposable, you get different social uses of it. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see where that goes.
Derek: Yeah, it’s gonna be nifty. Great! Well, that’s everything that I had to talk about today. Is there anything that you’re dying to add to the conversation?
Jason: I don’t think so. We covered a lot.
Derek: We sure did!
Jason: I rambled a lot, so…
Jason: No! I mean, I think that was great. I’m always around, if anybody has questions or wants to get in contact or anything, you can literally Google my name and find me.
Derek: Awesome. Do you have a Twitter handle maybe you want to share?
Jason: Sure! I’m @griffey. I’m pretty much Griffey everywhere. So if you want to guess that I’m on a social network and try to find me, that’s a good guess. I’m on Github, I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook. A handful of others. But almost universally under the handle “Griffey”.
Derek: Awesome. Well, Jason, thanks so much for coming on, it was great talking to you!
Jason: Thanks a lot Derek, this was great.