Sunday, September 19, 2010

Are libraries popular venues? What location based services say.

Location based services like FourSquare, Gowalla , Loopt enable users to check-in at different venues. For those unfamiliar with the concept, people basically "announce" online that they are currently at a certain location.

They are still not quite main-stream yet, though with Facebook adding Facebook places this might change.

Still the amount of check-ins at each venue does give you a rough snapshot of how popular each place is, so I was curious and checked the different venues on the current location based leader, FourSquare. How does our library compare with other venues in campus (National University of Singapore) in terms of checkins?

Not bad. 234 people checked in 692 times at Central Library (Main library of the 7 NUS Libraries). Do note that the library has not claimed the site, and does not do any promotion unlike some other libraries. There is some evidence from MacDonalds that doing special promotions with FourSquare will boost check-ins 

But that's just a figure, how does this compare to other venues in the University?

Let's look at a couple of canteens on campus

The Central Library comes up on top. Here's the stadium

Nope. I also checked other NUS venues including LTs, labs etc, none are as popular as NUS Central Library, the most popular venues usually have at most half the number of checkins. There was only one venue I could find that came close.....

NUS Cultural Centre has at the time of writing slightly more people (5 more) doing checkins, but almost 150 less checkins. This probably reflects the fact that NUSCC draws in visitors from outside the campus, but are mostly one-off visits.

Here's the check-in for "National University of Singapore" as a whole

Interestingly enough the number of check-ins are lower than a specific venue (NUS central library). Similarly checkins to "larger locations" like NUS Faculty of Science are also relatively low.

Thoughts and conclusion

At this stage though we don't know enough about check-in habits of users to know whether they prefer to check-in to a venue as large as "National University of Singapore". In other words, if you visit a place with various venues that are applicable, do you check-in to the most specific venue or to all that apply?

It also occurs to me check-ins also depend on whether there are duplicate venues, i.e occasionally you may see duplicates, or more than one FourSquare venue for each location. This could be deliberate for example your library might have a FourSquare venue for the library as whole as well as specific locations (reading rooms etc) or it could be a duplicate location created by someone who did not know an existing venue existed, so if you knew they existed you should account for that.

Also I suppose, check-ins might be a function of the way we want to represent ourselves to friends. So if most geeky and nerdy people like to "boast" they are at a library studying, check-ins there will have a inherent advantage.

Many other interesting questions and research issues here....

When I did this, I manually searched for FourSquare locations by my university name to pick up venues within the University. This won't work so well if you work for a public library say the National Library Board (see the Foursquare page of the main library here) .

Of course the correct way to do this is to do a systematic search using the FourSquare API  to find locations that are most popular within a certain spot. I'm not techy enough to make the effort to do this, but someone really should.

There are web services that sort of do this , like Mappr and Miso Trendy where you can specify a spot and it will show you the most popular venues within a certain radius. I'm not able to get it to work consistently though. I think the later only shows users who have checked-in currently.

I have no doubt as location based services become more popular, the data you can draw from there will become very useful and I can think of multiple ways you could use the data, though there are obvious privacy implications even for data at the aggregate level.

Let me repeat again, at this stage the data is just suggestive, only early adopters are on Foursquare, there are various issues to consider about the reliability of such checkin statistics etc.

Still, libraries can probably exploit this data in the future to show to university administrators or government officials, how popular and well used the libraries are since it allows you to compare with other locations using a standardised metric (check-ins) as opposed to just saying we have 10,000 visitors.

I did a quick check of other libraries both academic and public in Singapore and was floored by how high the figures were, I'll be surprised if this is unique to just Singapore.

So dear readers, how popular is your library according to FourSquare? How does it compare to other venues in the area?



Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A few heretical thoughts about library tech trends

This is a blog devoted to covering new tech that might be used for  libraries to benefit users. That said, there are times when I wonder whether some of the current tech trends that are hot now will end up being duds or dead ends (in fact some definitely will, the million dollar question is which ones!).  It's very easy to get into a condition that some have dubbed as "techno-lust", so let me play devil's advocate this once and share with you some heretical thoughts I have had about library tech.

1. Mobile library website

Unless you have being living in a cave (with no access to internet), you know that mobile surfing on smartphones is hot! The number of libraries with mobile friendly sites is closing to a 100 by now. Everyone is predicting that in the near future, mobile computing will be big.. maybe even bigger than desktop computing by 2013 etc.

My posts analysing mobile library sites are probably some of my most popular ones, particularly What are mobile friendly library sites offering? A survey and a more recent one on mobile apps which shows the interest librarians have on this topic.

Typical mobile library site

I wonder though might this interest in mobile sites for libraries end up becoming a dead end? I got this tweet from a librarian who was preparing slides to present on mobile at a conference, who asked me if I had any statistics showing the success of library mobile sites. 

I said I heard of figures like 0.5% to 1% of total traffic and he confirmed that he was hearing the same and a recent book i was reading also advised to target 1-2%. The thing is, he was tired of presenting the same old statistics everyone was presenting about the rapid rise in ownership of mobile phones, the projected rise in use of mobile wireless internet etc and was hoping for some real concrete figures showing moderate to high usage of library mobile sites.

I think the current thinking in library circles is that libraries going mobile is a "sure bet" (assuming they even consider it a bet), and this is despite the figures not supporting it so far. (Or perhaps 1% is considered a success?) 

Maybe. While I believe mobile computing will definitely become a dominant force, I don't believe there is any reason to think that it will necessarily lead to high demand for library mobile services.

One thing we do know about mobile usage is that certain services like games, social networking are in demand, while others are used less if at all. What if most library services fall under the "use less, if at all" category?

Where do library services fall in this spectrum of usage? Source 

One possible reason that library mobile sites are not getting much traffic currently is that the wrong services are being mobilized. But currently there is precious little research on what users want with regards to mobile library services (here's a recent one by CDL) , and even then I'm not quite sure if the users really know what they want until they try it!  

I guess lacking the resources to do proper studies most libraries simply, look at what other libraries are doing and follow the crowd (that's why this post is so popular I suspect and why many seem to be eerily similar at least compared to the normal web sites), but what if the current crop of library mobile sites are doing it all wrong?  

Similarly databases providers are starting to add mobile friendly sites, some like Elsevier are adding mobile apps. To some extent this mirrors the earlier trend of databases adding RSS feeds. But as we know now, precious few of our users use that as usage of RSS has failed to take off. Will mobile friendly databases  suffer the same fate? I suspect mobile OPACs would even be worse off as they don't even offer full text for instant gratification, which is the basic reason for using mobile.

2. QR Codes
In Star Trek, they had tricorders, where you could scan an object and information would appear on the device. In 2010 we have smartphones that in theory could do the same. While we are a good way off from good image recognition technology (though google goggles type technology comes close), slapping on a barcode or QRcode for scanning is better than nothing.

Again this is something of intense interest to my peers in the library world, and I myself have written a summary post on how this could be used in libraries.

QRCode that embeds a url to my blog

However what little evidence and research we have on this isn't particularly encouraging. The UK libraries are in the lead for this, I believe their research shows that currently there is very low awareness of qr codes among undergraduates (less than 1%) and even lower usage.

The issue here I think is that users are essentially lazy. Getting them to take the effort to go figure out how to download a QRcode reader before they can use a function that they aren't even sure is going to be useful is probably asking too much.

Supposedly Japan is quite crazy on QRcodes, and i suppose in such a country supporting QRcodes is a no-brainer but most of us don't live in Japan :) . As much as I would like to think so , I don't think libraries can affect a societal change to suddenly cause people to become crazy about QRcodes so I think usage of QRCodes is unlikely to rise unless some drastic happens.

One possible scenario is if iPhones or android phones etc starts getting prepackaged with a QRCode reader.

Or perhaps a powerful player on the global scale like FaceBook or Google starts to push for usage of QRcodes (Google already does to some extent) and libraries can ride on this 

But barring that what makes you think QRcode usage will rise?

3. SMS reference

IM/chat reference was hot in the early 2000s, and by now it's considered fairly standard. The current darling is SMS reference and the hope is that by 2020 it will be standard as well.. One very high profile library conference speaker even said something to the effect that if a library did not have sms reference it was invisible to him...

Here's my heretical thought. The rise of mobile surfing (#1 above) makes sending questions over SMS less important if not irrelevant in the long run.

If #2 is right and users start surfing on the web all the time on their mobile phones, why would they sms you, when they could just email you on their handphones? That way they would not be limited to sms length for both asking questions and receiving.

Would a mobile phone user ignore SMS option and just email or use IM?

Some libraries "solve" this problem of limited length of sms answer by texting the url  of a page with the answer. But doesn't this already assume the user has access to the mobile browsing? Sure he can wait until he goes to a desktop to access the page, but that kinda defeats the purpose of  asking questions via mobile I think, since presumably if you can wait until you get to a desktop to get the answer, you can probably wait until you get to a desktop to ask?

Want an "instant answer"? Again a user of a phone with browsing capabilities wouldn't sms, he would rather go to a chat widget (e.g. Libraryh3lp) and use that.

Of course access to SMS will always be more universal than mobile web, but aren't libraries betting on a future where many if not most have access to mobile surfing?


To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I really believe all that I wrote above and certainly it doesn't mean I won't try the things above (in fact some of it is currently in the works), but hey it's good sometimes to try to argue the other side.

Also while it is nice to experiment with new things, tight resources means that you might want to focus only on areas that have a fighting chance of working and adopt a wait and see attitude for others.

Of course, the real reason why I blogged is that I hope people will chime in and say , "you're wrong, it's a huge success in my library we have x% usage in y months!" which I can then use as evidence to push these projects into high priority projects. So please go ahead and tell me I'm wrong! :)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Library mobile apps vs web apps - Some analysis

In a previous post entitled, What are mobile friendly library sites offering? A survey.
I surveyed over 40 mobile friendly library pages. Since then this number has almost doubled, and I expect that the list here will top 100 by the end of the year.

Of course, mobile friendly sites or library web apps are not the only option. The other option is to create mobile apps. These have being a less popular option because it takes a lot of work to create a mobile  app, and unlike web apps (which are basically webpages configured for mobile surfing), mobile apps require more programming and in some cases such as iPhone apps, require that you pay a fee to list on Apple's itune.

However  Stop the App Madness , advocates libraries concentrate on their web app & forget about mobile apps. It points out that

1. You need to spend a lot more effort on creating mobile apps for each platform (iPhone, Android, Blackberry)

2. HTML5 will eventually allow web apps to be as functionally rich as any mobile app.

That said a study has shown that mobile apps, or at least iPhone apps are more usable than mobile friendly web apps. Part of the reason could be that mobile apps are usually faster since they can be designed to just draw data from servers, while everything else occurs locally.

It has also being suggested that mobile apps can do among other things , use the phone's camera, accelerometers and to be available offline which cannot be done via a web app. In the past location based services was available only on a mobile app but not web app, but with HTML5 now, this isn't true anymore. The other main reason it seems to me to use a mobile app rather than a web app is the former allows the use of push notifications , though this will probably change later .

As iPhone mobile apps are in the lead now, I will just look at that. I looked through my list of iPhone library apps and did further searching and came up with 25 mobile library apps. Similar to my earlier effort, with library web apps, I looked through them and tried to classify them by features offered.

The results are available in this public google docs

I've exclude library apps that are basically virtual tours (e.g. Library of Congress Virtual Tour, John Murray Archive , UPLA, ugl4eva, Denver Public Library Creating Communities,NC State Wolf walk), unofficial or other apps that are basically just mobile opacs that allow searching and placing of holds (e.g Library SG, San Francisco Public Library Mobile,
Ottawa (Canada) Libraries, Libraries: Australia, HongKong Libraries, UPLA, Bookzee, BookMyne, JapanLibrarian, Libraries Pollen etc) or Library archive apps (e.g SbekPH Baldwin, SbekPH UF Archives ), or limited library apps which a specific function such as blogs (iPLibrary) or Milli Kutuphane (which shows occupancy rates of reading rooms in National library of Turkey), ask-Wa (chat), OCLS Shake it! (Orange County Library System) which has a entertaining recommendation system. as the focus here is on mobile apps that are competitive with mobile web library apps.

Some analysis

A very popular option taken by libraries is to use Boopise to create mobile apps. A massive 16 out of 25 (64%)  library mobile apps were created using Boopise. Patrick Hochstenbach of UGent Library has blogged and presented on what it involves.

Currently only 10 out of 25 are apps for academic libraries so Public libraries are in the slight lead here

In contrast by my rough count out of 80 mobile web apps (list here), at least 60 out of 80 (or at least 75%) are for academic libraries!

If you do the math it means there are roughly

Mobile app Web app Total
Academic Library 10   60 70
Public Library 15   20 35
Total 25 (24%) 80 (76%) 105 

As you might expect given the ease of creating web apps, in total web apps dominate mobile apps making up 76% of the total (note some libraries have both). There are generally more academic libraries supporting mobile than Public libraries, but interestingly, of libraries supporting mobile, only 14% of academic libraries have a mobile app, 43% of public libraries do.

I wonder why there is this difference.

One possibility perhaps is as most academic libraries already have mobile web sites there is less need for mobile apps, though that doesn't explain why they went for mobile sites in the first place, while public libraries generally don't.

Then it hit me. I will explain this later.

Because Boopie apps makes up the majority (16 out of 25) in terms of layout of the app, they are all very similar compared to the variety of  library web apps. See below.

As you can see above, they are all in the same style, what I call the "row" style.

The other 9 library mobile apps (see below) are somewhat similar to most iphone apps with a row of options at the bottom. Compared to Boopie apps they tend to be simple with fewer functionalities with some exceptions. MabeeLibrary has a fairly full featured app. OPPL ilibrary has a particularly interesting function. It allows you to "Display your library account barcode for fast and easy check-out". If I'm not wrong this is the same function as CardStar (which I blogged about) , where instead of carrying your library car around, the barcode is saved on your iphone which you can use in-lieu of your library card.

None currently use what I call the "Grid" or "iphone" layout style which is increasingly popular in mobile web apps.

As you will see in the next section, the "Grid" style is actually quite popular with another class of mobile apps.

University wide mobile apps

University libraries have one additional complication that most public libraries do not as there exists university wide mobile apps. A quick scan of the iPhone apps store shows that there are hundreds of University wide mobile apps!

What I discovered was that most did not have a explicit option/menu for libraries. While it is likely that even without an explicit library option, some library related information is embedded say locations via maps, contact numbers, events & possibly videos & podcasts (if the library is part of a university wide initiative) it's unlikely that major library functions like catalogue is available.

In fact, even with libraries that had a separate library menu option, most simply link to the library mobile opac. There are exceptions. See below for 12 university mobile apps that embed a library option which contains more than just OPAC. This range from simple "contact" pages in the OPAC page (e.g. iStandford) to almost full blown options like those in Rice University (Fondren Library) and Loyola (Loyola University Chicago)

List is also available in google docs

Below are the 24 university mobile apps which have a explicit library option.

The most striking thing about these university mobile apps is that the majority are in the "grid" layout style. The reason for that is the majority of these university mobile app are actually "powered" by Blackboard.

There are in fact 2 University wide mobile apps using Boopsie, LoboMobile and Oxy Mobile (Occidental College) and these of course are not in a "grid" layout.

Incidentally the majority of university wide apps even those without library options are using BlackBoard. The next most popular option seems to be be by Straxis (23) which uses a row style, but so far I haven't seen any with a library option.

Some thoughts

The question is how does a library fit into a university wide mobile app?

If you are a university library and you go ahead to develop a full blown web app for your library. Then the university goes on to create a mobile app, do you build all your capabilities into the mobile app (is this easy if you already have mobile web app?) Or do you ask them to link out to your web app?

Worse yet.. if you build a university library app (say by Boopsie) , what happens if the university decides to later build a university wide app (say by Blackboard)? Then you would have two apps! For example case of this seems to have already occurred for the University of Vanderbilt and University of Toronto. Would it be better to have one mobile app? I don't know.

Hmm perhaps this explains why academic libraries are slow to build mobile apps, preferring to build web apps?

In the next post, I'm going to drill in further into specific features (are features such as landscape mode, GPS, mobile used?) and to compare the mobile app versus the library web app (if both are available), to see what differences there are between the two. Are libraries using them for different purposes?

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