Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 5/5) – Legacy

This post is the fifth and final part of our reflections on the organisation of an online hack for the Will’s World project.  The first post looked at the planning, the second post at the promotion , the third post at the format of the event and the fourth post at how things unfold during the hack. In this last post we look back over the hack and reflect on the experience.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Following the event we sent out an email summarising the final day to the mailing list and ensured that a blog post announced our winners. We also tried to ensure we linked to and acknowledged posts about the event – several of our participants have written about (or planned to write about) their hack experience, see Owen Stephens’ post  Shakespeare as you like it.

As the Will’s World Project had drawn to an end with the hack event, any potential follow up time has been limited although connections were made between data suppliers and hack participants where there was interest in taking ideas forward. The mailing list and Google+ Community remain available to allow on-going collaboration.

This Will’s World Online Hack felt a lot like a roller coaster ride. The planning of the event was the sharp ascent with a lot to learn, organise and set up in a short time frame before the exhilarating ride that was the event itself with its share of excitement and fear at the unknown twists and turns, with a smooth and happy finale being the hack presentations. It was very enjoyable! I would do it again and urge other to do so!

Now that the daze has settled, we can reflect on what we have achieved.


The use of social media as the main support for communication helped in creating a well documented trail of the event. The event wiki, project blog, YouTube channel, Pinterest boards, Tweeter and Google+ feeds were used throughout to broadcast the event and provide a catch-up facility to the participants. They remain available after the event and act as an account of the hack. The Shakespeare Registry itself is an Open Access resource fully available to all at:

The Will’s World Hack YouTube channel has recorded 473 views spread over 15 videos:

16 Nov 12 – 16 Dec 12 17 Dec 12 – 4 Feb 13 Total
Event Introduction 174 3 177
Data Introduction 49 1 50
Winning hack presentation 35 9 44
Opening session 29 29
Closing session 25 9 34
Day 1 2nd hangout 21 21
Day 7 hangout 20 1 21
Day 2 hangout 17 17
Day 3 1st hangout 16 16
Day 3 2nd hangout 15 15
Day 5 hangout 14 14
Day 4 hangout 6 6
Infographic hack presentation 3 2 5
Prize giving session 2 2
Day 6 hangout 1 1

We encouraged all participants to share their experience of the hack:


We used a Google Form to capture feedback, and you told us that:

  • The use of social media was great. Twitter had the lowest rating, probably because not all participants engaged with it. Twitter works best for immediate chat which didn’t work well with people at different times.
  • You like the friendly spirit of the hack and the opportunity to collaborate with people outside your field of work.
  • You like the XML plays.
  • You would have like a bit more directions and suggestions on what to do.
  • You would definitely consider taking part in an online hack event hack.
  • You have no suggestion on what would improve our online hack format! (Don’t worry, we do!)

Top Nine Outcomes

The main benefits of the Will’s World Online Hack were:

  1. To promote the Shakespeare Registry to the developer community within and beyond the UK academic sector. The dissemination efforts surrounding the event have reached a very large audience both from the art and technology world.
  2. To validate the outcome of the Will’s World project in terms of ‘aggregation as tactic’ and discovery principles. The submitted hacks provide specific use cases for such aggregations that may help inform other aggregation and registry projects.
  3. To promote the online resources and services listed in the Shakespeare Registry. It was very encouraging to see people contributing data and pointing to other relevant projects and resources.
  4. To evaluate a new format for a hack event and share reflections on the challenges and success of using such a format. The main success was the use of enabling technologies which supported the flexibility we wanted for the event. The biggest challenge was team building.
  5. To experiment with new combinations of social media and technologies as a primary channel for short term collaborative events.  Google+ Hangout was definitely the highlight here.
  6. To encourage Open Access. All the resources provided for the hack are freely available. The event itself was shared in as many ways as possible. The participants were encouraged to share their code, idea and experience. Several hacks published the code on github and personal blog.
  7. To create rich networking opportunities for professional and amateur developers, Shakespeare scholars, cultural organisations, and interested others both from across the UK academic sector and a broader international community.
  8. To seed potential new developments. It is clear that several hacks have huge prospect in term of being turn into fully fleshed applications or will serve as enabling technology for future projects.
  9. A range of fantastic hacks using the data provided in very different ways.

A Few Improvements

If we were to organise another online hack, what would we do differently:

  • A different topic: Shakespeare is a very popular subject with the advantage that there is a large audience for it but it can be rather over covered. It was a challenge in itself to find a focus that was novel and different for each individual hack.
  • More time for participants to familiarise themselves with the data ahead of the time and give a longer notice for people to register.
  • More effort: We had been warned it was going to be hard work! It was.  The planning wasn’t much different to an in-person event. The broadcasting of the event required a lot more rigour and effort in term of communication.
  • More structure: Too much flexibility can be confusing and create a lot of work. For example, having less check-in sessions and reducing the number of social media used would make for a more manageable event. Compulsory attendance at the first session may also boost participants’ active involvement and collaboration opportunities.
  • Less communication channels: being more selective would allow effort to be focussed on a selected set of preferred channels and avoid information, questions and collaboration opportunities being missed.
  • Different dates: Mid December is not conducive for much except Christmas shopping!

What next?

We hope to continue to inspire other projects to use our data or stage their own hack event. We will share our experience of setting up an online hack format with others: a presentation was made at the University of Edinburgh MSc in E-Learning Alumni Seminar, Virtual University of Edinburgh, Second Life, on the 20 February 2013, an article has been written for the next issue of  BITS, the digital magazine for Information Services at the University of Edinburgh, and guest posts for the (RSC, OKF) to share with their audience have been sought. We will keep contributing Will’s World Shakespeare Registry to future hackathon, the first of such event will be the Innovative Learning Week Hack help by the school of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh between the 18-22 February 2013.

We still have a few branded goodies to give away which will be awarded to use of the Shakespeare Registry in future hack events.


Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 4/5) – Hacking

This post is the fourth part of our reflections on the organisation of an online hack for the Will’s World project.  The first post looked at the planning, the second post at the promotion  and the third post at the format of the event. Today’s post focuses on what happened during the hack – how we communicated, what hacking took place and what excited our judges…


A lot of thought and effort was put into communication during the event. Email, IRC and social media technologies were used to keep in touch with the participants, in an effort to reach them in their favourite forum.

In particular we provided:

  • A Daily reminder of the Hangout sessions and connection information provided on Google+ and tweeted.
  • A video of each live session was posted on YouTube straight after the end of the session.
  • A daily summary of the daily hangout, news and progress of the day was emailed to the participant mailing list, posted on the project blog and updated on the event wiki.  These included links to the videos recorded that day and made available on YouTube: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Presentations and Prizes.
  • IRC channel, Twitter account and event email were monitored throughout to answer any query and moderate discussion.
  • Personal contact was made by email with all registered participants who did not actively participate during the first couple of days to check that there were no access or technical issues and to encourage them to be more actively involved.
  • The team posted photos of their hack space on Pinterest to encourage participants to share their own setups.

In addition, the wiki required regular updates about organisational aspects during the event itself, for example, to add details of participants that registered during the hack, announce the prizes and members of the judging panel, the registered hack and documenting the latest addition to the Registry.

Image of the Google+ Community for the Will's World Hack

The Google+ Community for the Will’s World Hack

Keeping an active presence on so many social media sites proved time-consuming but did enable participants who may have missed some of the daily developments to catch up at a later time. These project updates, comments and shared materials also provide a very well documented record of the interactions which took place during the project.

At an in-person event participants typically communicate their own progress with the group – often through ad hoc check ins . The online and somewhat asynchronous nature of this event meant that the Will’s World team frequently acted as collector and curator of progress, updates, calls for help, etc. so that these could be shared with participants. In retrospect  this also had a significant impact on the time required to support the hack.


Similarly to in-person hacks, some participants were effective and active communicators throughout the week whilst others worked away in the background, sharing their hack at the very end of the event. Like traditional events not all of those who registered chose to turn up or to actively participate – although this was a minority of those registered for the hackathon several of whom contacted us to indicate last minute changes in schedules and commitments.

Although a great deal of discussion did take place amongst participants, and between the participants and the project team, it was somewhat disappointing that only one team was successfully formed. Individual hacks are of course very common, even at in-person hackathons where they often outnumber team hacks, but we had hoped for more collaboration between participants.  It seems that social media did not, for our participants,  adequately replace the informal face-to-face interaction needed for people to connect, build teams, overcome their inhibitions and offer or seek skills. Although it may have been that those people attracted to take part in an online hack may have been more keen in the technological aspects of the hack and/or in the data itself whilst those attracted to in-person events may be more keen to work collaboratively because they see the event as a social event or opportunity to meet and learn from others.

Several academics and literature specialists got in touch during the feasibility survey and we were hoping that some of them would participate in the hack event, sharing their expertise with participants whose expertise was more related to technology and coding. The online format of the event and emphasis on social media may have been a factor in the subject experts choosing to not take an active part in the event, although they may also not have been clear on how to take part. Joining an in-person hack is certainly less technically demanding – you can just show up and begin to find a role without having to engage with multiple logins etc. However even at in-person hack events engaging subject experts, and articulating the value and role of these non-developer participants, can be challenging.

Prizes and Judges

During the planning of the event we knew that we wanted the jury to be external to the project and include representatives both from the cultural and Shakespeare world, and from the technology and developer community, to provide a balanced judgement on what would make a good hack for the Will’s World project.

We contacted the British Museum and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Both had held significant Shakespeare celebrations in the past year, with the British Museum holding the exhibition: Shakespeare: Staging the World over the summer; and the RSC holding the World Shakespeare Festival between April and September 2012 as part of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. For the technical judges, we turned to established hacking organisations: Culture Hack Scotland and Developer Community Supporting Innovation (DevCSI).

Our jury consisted of:

  • Sarah Ellis from the Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Erin Maguire from Culture Hack Scotland
  • Mahendra Mahey from DevCSI

Unfortunately, a last minute diary conflict meant that our British Museum judge was unable to join the final presentation session.

We had a generous £1,000 prize money available to reward the efforts of our hackers. Amazon vouchers were chosen for their universal appeal, their availability in various currencies which could be chosen according to the location of the winners, and their ideal fit with the online format as they can be emailed to the winners.

Five prize categories were identified:

  • Best Set Up (£50) to reward photos of participants’ hack environments.
  • Best Presentation (£100) to recognise the most engaging and effective communication of participants’ hacks/ideas.
  • Best Shakespeare Hack (£100) to reward the best hack “in the spirit of Shakespeare”.
  • Best Open Hack (£250) to reward the best hack for Open Access (open sources and open data).
  • Best Overall Hack (£500)

In addition, the RSC kindly gifted an amazing Shakespeare goodie bag to each winner full of lovely bard-related collectibles.

Royal Shakespeare Company stamps

Royal Shakespeare Company stamps and First Day Cover, part of the goodie bag provided by the RSC.

Mahendra Mahey from DevCSI was very helpful in sharing his experience of organising and judging hackathons ahead of the event. A set of rules for submitting hack were drawn up and made available on the wiki. These were very useful in clarifying the scope of the hack, in particular the fact that concepts, ideas and demonstrators were valid entries, the hack was not only about creating prototypes or applications. These rules also stated deadlines for the submission of titles, hacks and presentations in an attempt to encourage hackers to register their intentions to submit early. However, these were not adhered to and there were last minute submissions – not too unexpected from a community known for working late at night and right up to the deadline!


Following much anticipation and a couple of last-minute entries, the line-up of submitted hacks was impressive. We had nine entries ranging from the concept to simulated application, from the very technical to the fun and visual. The full list of submitted hacks is available on the wiki. Participants were asked to either present their hack live during the closing session on Google+ Hangout or to submit a pre-recorded presentation. There were six live presentations, two pre-recorded presentations and one by proxy.

Google+ Hangout worked amazingly well for the presentations. On top of the live videos of the participants, it allows screen sharing which meant presenters could easily switch between talking, slide shows and software demonstrations. Showing pre-recorded videos was (theoretically) similarly easy but we encountered some screen freezing issues with one of the larger presentations.

The quality and diversity of the hacks meant the jury had their work cut-out for them. After an hour of deliberation, the panel had agreed the winners and these were awarded in the last Hangout session. They were:

  • Best Set Up – Neil Mayo
  • Best Presentation – Kate Ho & Tom Salyers
  • Best Shakespeare Hack – Richard Wincewicz
  • Best Open Hack – Owen Stephens
  • Best Overall Hack – Kate Ho & Tom Salyers

More details on the winning hacks can be found in this post.

We were hugely impressed with the amount of work that had taken place, and with the imagination and quality of the hacks that were produced during the week. Some of the hacks did not, however, specifically fit into any of the prize categories and it was felt that an additional of “best technical hack” or “hack with the most potential” would have helped in rewarding extremely valuable efforts.


Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 3/5) – Event

Ready, steady, hack!

This post is the third part of our reflections on the organisation of an online hack for the Will’s World project. The first post looked at the planning and the second post at the promotion for the event.

After 8 weeks of planning and much anticipation, the launch day of Will’s World Online hack finally arrived!

Format and hangouts

The format selected was a week-long event starting with a live, interactive opening session to introduce the data, the goal of the event, prize categories, social media tools and technologies, participants and hack ideas. A similar live session closed the event with the presentation of the hacks and prizes. Additional daily sessions were scheduled during the week to foster regular interaction and, we hoped, collaboration between the participants.

Google+ Hangout was used for all live sessions. It is a free video conferencing tool allowing up to 9 participants to join a call and (optionally) live streaming and archiving to YouTube. This live-streaming and archiving functionality was a key factor in our selection of this tool, as it enables an unlimited number of people to view the meeting live on YouTube without actively taking part, and creates a very accessible and sharable copy after the event. Most other video conference software we considered, such as Skype, are less flexible for streaming or archiving.

The recording facility ensured that the video of each session was available to view on YouTube straight after the end of the meeting. We were keen to make use of this for two reasons, first, to promote flexibility and to give the opportunity to participants who couldn’t make the meeting to catch up at a later time; and second, to document the hack and build a library of videos that captured the event as it took place.

Most participants already had a Google email address that they could use to access Google+ but few of them had used the Hangout facility. However, it is easy to set up, only requiring the installation of a browser plug-in, and was relatively easy to use both from a meeting organiser and participant point of view. Most participants were able to join the meeting simply by following the step-by-step instructions circulated ahead of the event. A couple of help enquiries were received but quickly solved. It should also be noted that where we did encounter teething issues with Google+ our participants were very patient and forgiving of issues around our experimentation with these technologies.

The schedule of the opening session was chosen to enable as many participants as possible to join. Most participants were located in the UK but a few were based in mainland Europe and the USA. We chose to hold the session at 1pm (GMT), or 2pm (CET), 8am (EST), 7am (CST) and 5am (PST), to enable people participating in their own time to either join during lunch time or before being at work. Live sessions were not compulsory and no prior registration was required to join a session which meant that we had no indication of how many people would attend. This added to the anticipation – particularly on the first day! The opening session saw four participants actively joining the hangout and one watching in addition to the four project team members.

During this session we presented an introduction to both the Will’s World Project and the Shakespeare Registry to be used during the hack. Participants were encouraged to introduce themselves and put forward ideas. Participants were invited to hack at any time that suited them during the week. They were also encouraged to form teams and to use the wiki, twitter and the mailing list to advertise for wanted and offered skills.

To ensure all participants were given the best start on the first day of the hack, we held a second live session at 5pm (GMT), or 6pm (CET), 12 noon (EST), 11am (CST) and 9am (PST), to offer an alternative time for people not able to attend the earlier session which covered the same practical information as the opening session. This second session was attended by one active participant and one additional viewer.

Further daily hangouts were planned during the week to provide regular drop-in sessions for participants to raise an issue, query, discuss ideas and the progress of their hacks; and for the project team to provide any updates, help or feedback on the Shakespeare Registry. These sessions were planned for 1pm (GMT) every day. We chose to hold these at the same time every day to make it easier to remember and provide consistency. Although, we considered holding the sessions at a different time every day to cater for different working patterns and time zones, we decided against this to avoid participants having to remember a complex schedule. Instead, we offered to change the time of the daily session to any other suggested time by the participants and to hold additional sessions on demand at any specific time. Participants were happy with the 1pm sessions and no other time or additional sessions were requested. On Friday, ahead of the weekend and what was likely to be a busy hacking time, we held one additional session at 5pm to support the participants.

On the final day, a closing session was planned for the presentation of the hacks and the awarding of the prizes. Following the presentations, the judges left the hangout session to join a separate, private session to deliberate while the participants were able to share their experience of the hack in the main session. The quality of the hacks was impressive and the jury took slightly longer than planned to decide the prizes. Instead of keeping the original hangout live, a separate hangout session was started to announce the prizes.

The turnouts for the Google+ Hangout sessions were:

Team Members Active Participants Viewers Total
Opening session 4 4 1 9
Day 1, 5pm 4 1 1 6
Day 2, 1pm 4 1 3 8
Day 3, 1pm 4 0 1 5
Day 3, 5pm 3 1 0 4
Day 4, 5pm 2 0 0 2
Day 5, 1pm 2 3 1 6
Day 6, 1pm 4 3 1 8
Day 7, 1pm 4 3 1 8
Hack Presentations 4 8 4 16
Prize giving 4 4 1 9

The scheduling of the sessions was probably the most challenging aspect: the number of session needed and the best time for these was largely a guess. We had low attendance for some of the sessions, in particular over the weekend, indicating that either the time wasn’t convenient or simply that there wasn’t a need for that many sessions. It may be the case that the online format promotes independent work, with individuals happy to hack on their own without needing much input and therefore fewer hangouts may have been better.

We were very impressed with the Google+ Hangout facility. It was easy to use, very effective and the broadcast and streaming facilities remarkable. We would however advise caution as on one occasion, active participation to the hangout was made public by mistake instead of being restricted to the invited participants. Soon enough, an unwelcome guest treated us to some unwanted behaviour and had to be swiftly blocked from the hangout!


The data is obviously at the core of the hack. The Shakespeare Registry was released a couple of days before the hack and more data were added during the event itself.  The Registry gives access to metadata for over 1.6 million Shakespeare related online resources, as well as marked XML for the plays, metadata schemas, search and documentation on the APIs. The content of the Registry is very eclectic, including text, pictures, movies and audio based on Shakespeare, his life, his work, his time and any interpretation of these. Participants were free to use as much or as little data from the Registry as they liked,and to combine it with other data sources. This resulted in very different hacks, some academic, some playful, some technical and some visual.

Releasing the Registry earlier, which would have allowed participants to make themselves familiar with the data prior to the event, would have been preferable and might have resulted in more participation in the hack itself. However, the presence of our developers at the Hangout sessions and their availability via email, Twitter and IRC did mean that hack participants had very good access to support, help and further information on the data and registry throughout the week.


Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 2/5) – Promoting

This post is the second part of our reflections on the organisation of an online hack for the Will’s World project. Following a first post on planning the event, we are now looking at the event promotion.


We used MediaWiki to setup the Will’s World Online hack wiki prior announcing the event. MediaWiki was chosen as a tool because it is easy to install, maintain and used and the team had prior experience with this technology. We felt that participants would also be familiar with the MediaWiki software through their use or contribution to Wikipedia.

The wiki was used as the main communication hub for the hack to promote the hack, facilitate the registration process, encourage participants to form teams, support communication before, during and after the hack, and disseminate the outcomes after the event.

It was particularly useful for providing prospective participants with all required information about the hack. It included links to:

The participant profile page was updated as the registrations were received with the details made available for publication by the registrants. It was very effective in sharing the number of registrations and information about registrants, highlighting the range of expertise and background, from developer to literature scholars, and geographic distribution of participants.

Other Communication Tools

In order for the Will’s World Online Hack to have a strong and unified presence, we set up a range of communication channels with the Will’s World identity:

  • Email:
  • Google+ account and, from halfway through the week (when they officially launched the functionality) a Google+ Community
  • Twitter: @WillsWorldHack & #willhack
  • A YouTube channel
  • Pinterest board
  • An IRC channel: ##willsworldhack on also accessed via:
  • A mailing list (WILLSWORLDHACK@JISMAIL.AC.UK) that included all registered as recipients (they were encouraged to opt in to the list as part of the registration form) was set up to help targeted communication.


With all the communication channels in place and only two weeks to go until the start of the hack, we advertised the event in the same forums (blogs, websites, twitter, mailing lists and direct contacts) that had been used to disseminate the surveys and emailed those who had responded positively to the survey. This provided some continuity and feedback to an audience already alerted to the eventuality of the hack in earlier posts.

In addition a news release was produced and advertised on the EDINA website. This new release also featured in the JISC Headlines issue 110 in November 2012 and on their website.

To emphasise our desire to make the event personal, friendly and interactive despite of its online nature, we produced a couple of short videos to promote the event and present the Shakespeare Registry. These videos also provided a record of key aspects of the event that can be viewed at any time for the convenience of participants and interested parties. The videos were made available on YouTube and advertised in a separate blog post a week later to keep up the interest in the hack and serve as a reminder while providing new information.

Reminder messages, mails, tweets and posts were sent a few days before the event, they detailed how to join the event including the required technical steps.

Additional Data Contribution

The promotion of the hackathon was effective not only in recruiting participants for the event but also in raising the profile of the Shakespeare Registry. Nora McGregor, digital curator at the British Library, contacted us to contribute additional data to the Registry. Within a few days, the British Library was able to provide us with formatted metadata on Shakespeare related titles from their digitised 19th century books ready for inclusion in the Registry and for use during the hack.

Inspiring Others

We were pleased to hear that the SPRUCE Project spotted our tweet about the online hack and were inspired the set up their own one day remote hackathon to make file format identification better (crucial for preservation). Their CURATEcamp 24h event took place in November 2012 and more information about what was achieved is available on the event wiki.


Organising the online hack was actually very enjoyable. The novelty aspect made it easy to engage with people and bring out enthusiastic responses. However, the short time frame made it quite challenging. We would advise a much longer lead time to make it easier to order customised goods and to promote the event. Dissemination activities also took more time and effort than anticipated due to the many (perhaps too many) social media channels to cover and follow up needed with the large number of enquiries we received.


Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 1/5) – Planning

It’s been a couple of months since the Will’s World Hack and we wanted to reflect on the process of planning and running the Hack. We’ve decided to split our thoughts into five posts which we will be sharing over the next week or so. We would love your feedback, ideas and reflections on the Hack and on our reflections here so please do leave us comments or any questions.

Why a Hack?

The idea of an online Hack event came from the need to promote the use of the Shakespeare Registry designed by the Will’s World Project. We wanted the ‘use’ of the Registry to be innovative and we thought that the ‘promotion’ should reflect this and be innovative too.  Hackathons are a common way to encourage developers and other creative people to collaborate on quick prototypes and proof of concepts based on a specific dataset or theme, and therefore was an obvious choice for increasing awareness of the Shakespeare Registry. Running the event online was the idea of the EDINA Social Media Officer as it would be innovative and allow us to experiment with a range of social media technologies.

Feasibility Study

There were obvious advantages to running an online hack such as increased flexibility and inclusion for participants, simpler logistics and reduced time scales for the organisers, and the opportunity to experiment with the use of social media technologies to support creative sharing and collaboration. We shared our thoughts on the potential pluses and minuses of holding an online hack in two blog posts: Online Hack Event and Can one desire too much of a good thing?

The project team carried out a feasibility study where we looking into the practical aspects of running an online event including suitable formats, collaboration and social media technologies, costs, publicity materials and prizes.

We also sought feedback and input on the idea of an online hack and on various aspects of the practical organisation of such an event through an online survey which was available from the 18 October 2012 to the 10 December 2012.

The survey was widely disseminated using posts on the project blog, project staff personal blogs, Google+, and Facebook presences, as well as posts on appropriate websites and mailing lists, targeted emails and Twitter.

The responses to the survey were analysed together with the direct feedback received via email, twitter etc. The results of this analysis were shared in the our post: Will’s World Online Hack Survey Results – Your Views!

We were delighted with the wide interest shown in a potential Will’s World Online Hack event but also in the general concept of running a hack event online. Many people were enthused by the idea and wished to be kept informed of outcomes of this innovative experience. In particular, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) invited us to provide a guest post for their MyShakespeare blog.

We summarised our background research into the organisation of an online hack for Will’s World Registry and how we proposed to hold the event in a feasibility report which was put forward to the project funder, JISC, for approval in November 2012. With the support from JISC and (as the Discovery Programme supporting our efforts was about to end)  less than a month to get everything in place, we set out to organise the event based on the input received.

Promotional Material

Hackathons generally provides free items or goodie bags to participants to promote the hack and it’s sponsors, act as a memento and create a sense of being part of something special. They tend to be fun, useful and tongue-in-cheek items like a mug and free coffee to enable developers to stay up through the night. We wanted to create a similar feel for our online event and put together a ‘survival pack’ to be sent to participants ahead of the event. This free goodie bag was promised to the first 50 people to register for the hack which encouraged potential participants to actively sign-up ahead of the event.

Picture of the Will's World Survival Pack

Each pack included:

  • On the useful side:
    • A list with the essential contact points for Will’s World Online Hack: Wiki, YouTube, Google+, Twitter, Emails, mailing list and blog to reinforce the channels available for communicating during the hack.
    • Post-it notes & pen to jot down ideas.
    • A USB stick to store that great new code.
    • A mug to be filled with a favourite beverage (caffeine or not?) to see participants through these hacking hours.
  • On the fun side:
    • A badge to advertise and show support for the event.
    • Ruff-making instructions to get in the Shakespeare spirit.
    • Twelfth Night cake recipe. A very appropriate and festive alternative to the traditional fuel of many hacks: pizza!
    • Some sweet treats for that sugar rush and energy boost

The pen, USB keys, mugs and badges were branded with the Will’s World project, hack event, funder and/or developer logo to promote the Shakespeare Registry and advertise the hackathon. The ruff-making instructions and recipe were a playful way to encourage creativity in a Shakespeare themed way. We also hoped it would help build some links with the participants by encouraging interaction with everyone taking part in the hackathon. This tied in with the ‘Best Setup’ prize to be awarded for people sharing their hack environment. The ruff featured in the introductory video for the Registry as well as in the example photos for hack setups, modelled by Kiwi the cat:

We had hoped to send the packs ahead of the event itself to build anticipation but unfortunately the customisation of the mugs took 2-3 weeks. This meant that the packs were only sent out a couple of days before the start of the hack. Most participants did, however, receive their pack during the week of the hack (depending of their location).


A Google form was used to create a registration page to capture information about participants including email addresses, Twitter and Skype names, skills, expertise, short biography statement and what they were looking for in the hack. We explicitly asked for consent to publish any of that information (participants could opt out though most chose to share some or all of the information they had provided) on our Meet the participants wiki page.

A total of 22 people registered which we felt was a very good outcome for this type of event, especially considering the short notice and the close proximity to the festive holiday period. It is worth noting that a few additional people also registered during the hack itself.


And the Winner of Will’s World Online Hack is…

Before I tell you about the prizes and the winners, I want to thank our esteemed judges for their time, their insightful input and fairness. They reviewed all the hacks carefully which took a little bit more time than planned. So apologies to all of you who had to wait for an extra 20 minutes for the results to be announced!

Our judges were:

  • Sarah Ellis from the Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Erin Maguire from Culture Hack Scotland
  • Mahendra Mahey from UKOLN DevCSI

And now for the prizes…

Best Set Up

The best set up prize was judged on the photos submitted by our participant of their hack environments and can be seen here. The winner is Neil Mayo for his unusual sun umbrella over his work desk, and his festive mulled wine in his Will’s World Online Hack mug in the photo of his home setup.

The judges also liked Owen’s family friendly set up and were envious of Kate’s double screens. All agreed that the cat would have won if it had been eligible!

The best set up prize was for £50 Amazon voucher and a RSC Shakespeare goodie bag.

The Best Presentation

The best presentation went to Kate Ho & Tom Salyers for their second screen app. The judges agreed that it was very clear and well explained. Although the video was recorded ahead, as Kate was unable to attend the meeting, Tom was able to add comments on the fly which was very helpful. The judges also liked Owen’s presentation which they thought was the best of the live presentations.

The best presentation prize was for £100 Amazon voucher and a RSC Shakespeare goodie bag to share by the team.

The Best Shakespeare Hack

The best Shakespeare hack was decided on the best used of Shakespeare resources and in the spirit of one the suggested theme by the RSC of “How can Shakespeare be past, present and future?”. In that respect, Richard Wincewicz‘s “Shakespeare through the ages” timeline application was the best fit. The RSC noted the great potential of this app for story telling and our judges like the clean and clear display.

The best Shakespeare hack prize was for £100 Amazon voucher and a RSC Shakespeare goodie bag.

The Best Open Hack

The best open hack was judged on the spirit of open sources and open data. Owen Stephens was clearly ahead of the competition in this category with his sterling dissemination efforts for his “ShakespearePress” on Twitter, in his blog and with demonstrator applications on his website and  code on github.

The best open hack prize was for £250 Amazon voucher and a RSC Shakespeare goodie bag.

The Best Overall hack

This was a tight battle with some very serious contenders in our nine amazing hacks but the judges chose Kate Ho and Tom Salyers’ second screen app “The Play’s the thing” for the innovative idea, it’s wide potential of use and the advanced level of the prototype application. Some of our judges related fully to Kate’s experience of the Taming of Shrew and could see the appeal of her app straight away! You can view the presentation of this hack on YouTube.

The best overall prize was £500 Amazon voucher and a RSC Shakespeare goodie bag to share by the team.

The prizes will be sent to you shortly!

And more…

The judges wanted to mention Richard Light‘s Linked Data hack as having a very strong potential too, especially for further development based on the linked data produced. They felt the use of linked data could have been presented more clearly as it may not be obvious to people not in that field. They also liked Owen Stephens‘ Shakespeare press very much for the use of the data and use of the popular WordPress technology.

Is it the end?

Not quite! We have invited all the participants to write a post for this blog to describe their hack but in the mean time check the current hacks page on our wiki for more information. We will soon be posting a summary of our experience of this hack and of your feedback too.

It has been such an interesting and enjoyable experience, and I personally want to thank all involved, the data providers, the judges, the participants, the Will’s World team, JISC, the RSC for the extra prizes and everyone who showed interested in this project on Twitter, our blog, our wiki… I’ll stop here before I turned this post into a Oscar Winning performance!


Register for the Will’s World Online Hack

The last week has been very exciting for the Will’s World team as we have been busy preparing for the Online Hack event taking place next week.  By the way, there are still a few days left to register if you fancy joining us!

Taking the stage

I made my YouTube stage debut in this video introducing the Will’s World project and the motivation behind the online format of the hackathon.

Click here to view the embedded video.

My colleague Neil got into the creative spirit of the hack for this short video presenting the metadata that will be available in the Shakespeare Registry.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Data sources

The Shakespeare Registry will include metadata from:

With additional sources of data listed and some hack participants bringing their own data to add to ours, this will truely ensure we have some rich data to work with!


All the items for our goodie bags have now arrived and I’ve been enjoying putting the packs together. I will be sending them soon to the lucky 18 people already registered. We are hoping that these goodie bags will support your creativity and provide a little bit of fun. Here’s a sneaky peek at the smallest item!

Find out more about Will’s World Online Hack at


Will’s World guest post for myShakespeare blog

This week we have been continuing to gather feedback on our proposed Will’s World Hack event and begin the process of planning the event based on that feedback. Whilst we work on the Hack event we are also trying to get word out about the project and the event so if you think we’ve missed out a crucial website, mailing list, discussion space, etc. please do let us know.  As we have been reaching out we were delighted to have the opportunity to create a guest post for the myShakespeare blog this week.

The myShakespeare is the digital home of the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad led by the lovely people at the Royal Shakespeare Company. They have a lovely video explaining what they are about which also highlights the reasons Shakespeare’s work is still so alive in 2012:

Click here to view the embedded video.

We think that’s a great wee take on Shakespeare – perhaps it’s even triggering a few creative ideas for the hack event?

Look out for a new update shortly with our feedback from the survey and more news on the hack. In the meantime we are still interested in hearing your views on what would make a fantastic online Shakespeare Hack event – leave us a comment here or fill in our survey:


SPARQL – What’s up with that?

The title of this post is intended to convey a touch of bewilderment through use of a phrase from the Cliff Clavin school of observational comedy.

Linked data and SPARQL

In the linked data world, SPARQL (SPARQL Protocol and RDF Query Language) is touted as the preferred method for querying structured RDF data. In recent years several high profile institutions have worked very hard to structure and transform their data into appropriate formats for linked data discovery and sharing, and as part of this, many have produced RDF triple (or quadruple) stores accessible via SPARQL endpoints – usually a web interface where anyone can type and run a SPARQL query in order to retrieve some of that rich linked data goodness.

This is admirable, but I have to admit to having had little success getting something out of SPARQL endpoints that I would consider useful. Every time I try to use a SPARQL facility I find I do better by scraping data from search results in the main interface. I have also increasingly become aware that I am not the only one to find it difficult.

RDF stores are different to relational databases; they are not so amenable to performing a search over the values on a particular field. Nor are they as flexible as text search databases like Solr. Instead they record facts relating entities to other entities. So it is important that as consumers of the data we know what kind of questions make sense and how to ask them in a way that yields useful results for us and does not strain the SPARQL endpoint unduly. If these are not the kind of questions we want to ask then we might need to question the application of SPARQL as the de facto way of accessing RDF triple stores.

I’d like to point out that my aim here is not to complain or to disparage SPARQL in general or anybody’s data in particular; I think it is fantastic so many institutions with large archives are making efforts to open up their data in ways that are considered best practice for the web, and for good reasons. However if SPARQL endpoints turn out to be flawed or inadequately realised, they will not get used and both the opportunity to use the data, and the work to produce it, will be wasted.

Problems with SPARQL endpoints

These are the problems I have commonly experienced:

  • No documentation of available vocabularies.
  • No example queries.
  • No access to unique identifiers so we can search for something specific.
  • Slowness and timeouts due to writing inefficient queries (usually without using unique ids or URIs).
  • Limits on the number of records which can be returned (due to performance limits).

Paraphrasing Juliette Culver’s list of SPARQL Stumbling Blocks on the Pelagios blog, here are some of the problems she experienced:

  • No query examples for the given endpoint.
  • No summary of the data or the ontologies used to represent it.
  • Limited results or query timeouts.
  • SPARQL endpoints are not optimised for full-text searching or keyword search.
  • No link from records in the main interface to the RDF/JSON for the record. (This is mentioned in relation to the British Museum, who provide a very useful search interface to their collection, but don’t appear to link it to the structured data formats available through their SPARQL endpoint.)

Clearly we have experienced similar issues. Note that some of these are due to the nature of RDF and SPARQL, and require a reconception of how to find information. Others are instances of unhelpful presentation; SPARQL endpoints are generally pretty opaque, but this can be alleviated by providing more documentation. With the amount of work it takes to prepare the data, I am surprised by how few providers accompany their endpoints with a clear list of the ontologies they use to represent their data, and at least a handful of example queries. This takes a few minutes but is invaluable to anybody attempting to use the service.

Nature provide the best example I have seen of a SPARQL endpoint, providing a rich set of meaningful example queries. Note also the use of AJAX for (minimal) feedback while query is running, and to keep the query on the results page.

Confusion about Linked Data

A blog post by Andrew Beeken of the JISC CLOCK project reports dissatisfaction with SPARQL endpoints and linked data, and provoked responses from other users of linked data:

“What is simple in SQL is complex in SPARQL (or at least what I wanted to do was) … You see an announcement about Linked Data and don’t know whether to expect a SPARQL endpoint, or lots of embedded RDF.” Chris Keene

“SPARQL seems most useful for our use context as a tool to describe an entity rather than as a means of discovery.” Ed Chamberlain

Chris’ point gives another perspective on linked data in general – what does it mean to provide linked (or should that be linkable) data, and how do we use it? Embedded RDF (RDFa) is good in that it tends to provide structured data in context, enriching a term in a webpage in a way that is invisible by default but that people can consume if they choose to. Ed indicates a fact about RDF as a data storage medium: it is a method of representing facts about entities which are named in an esoteric way; it is not structured in a way that is ideal for the freer keyword searching or SQL-style queries that we are used to.

Owen Wilson suggests the Linked Data Book‘s section 6.3 which describes approaches to consuming linked data, describing three architectural patterns. It looks worth a read to get one thinking about linked data in the right way.

Unique identifiers

“My native English, now I must forego” Richard II, Act 1, Scene 3

One of the tenets of linked data is that each object has a unique identifier. If we are looking for “William Shakespeare” we must use the URI or other identifier that represents him in the given scheme, rather than using the string “William Shakespeare”. It is thus also necessary that we have an easy way to access the unique identifiers that are used in the data, so that we can ask questions about a specific entity without forming a fuzzy, complex and resource-consuming query. The British Museum publicises its controlled terms, that is the limited vocabulary that they use in describing their collection, along with authority files which provide the canonical versions of terms and names, standardised in terms of spelling, capitalisation and so on, and thesauri which map synonymous terms to their canonical equivalents. These terms are used in describing object types, place names and so on, supporting consistency in the collections data. They are all available via the page British Museum controlled terms and the BM object names thesaurus. Armed with knowledge of what words are used in particular fields to categorise or describe entities in the data, and similarly with a list of ids or canonical names for things, we can then start to form structured queries that will yield results.

Shakespeare and British Museum

I have looked in particular at the British Museum’s SPARQL endpoint as an example, as BM is a project partner and because it has several items germane to Will’s World. To start with, the endpoint gives some context; a basic template query is included in the search box, which can be run immediately and which implicitly documents all the relevant ontologies by pulling them in to define namespaces. There is a Help link with some idea of how data is represented and can be accessed/referenced using URIs. All of this is good and I found it easy to get started with the endpoint.

However before long I came up against the problem I’ve had with other endpoints, namely that it is difficult to perform a keyword search, or at least perform a multi-stage search in order to (a) resolve a unique identifier for a keyword or named thing and then (b) retrieve information about or related to that thing. In this case I found a way to achieve what I needed by supplementing my usage of the SPARQL endpoint with keyword searches of the excellent Collection database search – and with some help from the technical staff at BM to resolve a couple of mistakes in my queries, can now harvest metadata about objects related to the person “William Shakespeare”.

It is reassuring to find out I am not alone in having difficulty retrieving and using SPARQL data. I followed Owen Stephen’s blog post about the British Museum’s endpoint with interest. Owen found the CIDOC CRM data model hard to query due to its (rich, but thereby counter-intuitive) multi-level structure. Additionally, he encountered the common issue that it is very difficult to perform a search for data containing or “related to” a particular entity which to start with is represented merely by a string literal such as “William Shakespeare”:

The difficulty of exploring the British Museum data from a simple textual string became a real frustration as I explored the data – it made me realise that while the Linked Data/RDF concept of using URIs and not literals is something I understand and agree with, as people all we know is textual strings that describe things, so to make the data more immediately usable, supporting textual searches (e.g. via a solr index over the literals in the data) might be a good idea.

Admittedly RDF representations and SPARQL are not really intended to provide a “search interface” in the sense to which most users are accustomed. But from the user’s perspective, there must be an easy way to start identifying objects about which we want to ask questions, and this  tends to start with performing some kind of keyword search. It is then necessary to identify the ids representing the resulting objects or records which are of interest. With the BM data this involves mapping a database id, which can be retrieved from the object URL, to the internal id used in the collections.

So what are the right questions?

Structured data requires a structured query – fair enough. However what sort of useful or meaningful query can we formulate when the data, the schema used to represent the data, the identifiers used within the data, are all specified internally? In order to construct an access point into the data, it is helpful to have not just a common language, but a common (or at least public) identifier scheme; canonical ways of referencing the entities in the data, such as “Shakespeare” or “the Rosetta Stone”. Without knowing the appropriate URI or the exact textual form (is it “Rosetta Stone”, “The Rosetta Stone”, “the Rosetta stone”? would we get more results for “Rosetta”?) it is nigh on impossible to easily ask questions about the entity of a SPARQL endpoint.

So how is one supposed to use a SPARQL endpoint? It is not a good medium for asking general questions or performing wide-ranging searches of the data. Instead it seems like a good way to link up records from different informational silos (BM, BL, NLS, RSC…) that share a common identifier scheme. If we know the canonical name of a work (“Macbeth”) or the ISBN of a particular edition, then we can start to link up these disparate sources of data on such entities.

But the variety of translations, the plurality of editions (which will only increase) and other degrees of freedom make it hard to perform an exhaustive analysis/usage of the data. In the case of the BM, who might have unique objects we don’t know we want to see, the way to find them is through keyword search. It seems that only by going first through a search interface or other secondary resource can we identify the items we want to know about and how to refer to them.

What we have in common between different sources is the language or ontologies used to describe the schema (foaf, dc, etc) – but this is syntax rather than semantics; structure rather than content. To echo Ed Chamberlain’s comment, we have access to how data is described, but not so much to the data itself.


British Museum data

The approach we will use to harvest British Museum metadata related to Shakespeare is outlined below. It is essentially the same approach that Owen Stephens found workable in his post on SPARQL, and involves reference to a secondary authority (the BM collection search interface) to establish identifiers.

  1. Conduct a search for “Shakespeare” in the collections interface.
  2. Extract an object id from each result. The Rosetta Stone has the id 117631.
  3. Find the corresponding collection id from SPARQL with this query:
       ?s <> 
  4. The result should be a link to metadata describing the object, and the object’s collection id (in this case YCA62958) can be extracted for use in further searches.
  5. If there is a result, retrieve metadata about the object from the URL: (or .html, .json, .xml)
  6. If there is no result, scrape metadata from the object’s description page in the collections interface. There is plenty of metadata available, but it is far less structured than RDF, being distributed through HTML.

This last step looks like it will be quite common as many of the Shakespeare-related results are portraits or book frontispieces which have no collection id. I am not sure whether this is an omission, or because they are part of another object, in which case it will require further querying to resolve the source object (if that is what we want to describe).

Another difficulty is that although Owen found a person-institution URI for Mozart, I cannot find one for Shakespeare. There is a rudimentary biography but little else, so we do not have a “Shakespeare” identifier for use in SPARQL searches.


Ultimately I am still finding it non-trivial and a bit hacky to identify, and ask questions about, the real Shakespeare through a SPARQL endpoint.

Click here to view the embedded video.

In summary:

  • SPARQL endpoint providers could provide more documentation and examples.
  • RDF stores allow us to ask structural questions, but semantic questions are much harder without knowing some URIs.
  • It is often necessary to make use of a secondary resource or authority in order to identify the entities we wish to ask about.


Partners’ Exhibitions Bring Shakespeare To Life

The London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad are ramping up, and that means the World Shakespeare Festival is now in full swing.  With that in mind we thought it would be a great time to tell you a bit more about some of the partners we are working with for Will’s World and the types of material that the Will’s World registry will connect to.

One of our partners, the British Museum, has gathered up as much tangible history that relates to Shakespeare’s work and life as they could and have partnered with the Royal Shakespeare Company to bring it to life as part of their participative offering.

'The Way of the World' is comedy and tragedy. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

The resulting exhibition, ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’, will explore the influence Shakespeare had on the people’s minds with the sway of his pen. Visitors will be able to take a behind-the-scenes look at Will’s integral role in shaping 17th century London.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Developers accessing the Will’s World registry will be able to access and develop new uses and combinations of the digitised materials associated with the exhibition.

17th Century New Media

Plays and professional theatres were the new media of the day. Up until that point the public had no such access to theatre with the travelling players and productions – such as those at the centre of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – very much the preserve of wealthy patrons. The technology of theatre was also radically changed with the first building of professional theatre buildings and the amplification, lighting, and special effects such spaces afforded. To Elizabethans, art at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was state of the art, and the ‘house dramatist’ had to entertain, enlighten, and inspire.

Theatre has had a unique capacity to transport the audience to the far reaches of history and the British empire. Time and space were no match for the The Globe, and so it became the people’s information source. And compared to bear-baiting, it must have been a no-brainer.

The original Globe Theater. Image © 2012 National Library of Scotland

Hold the Sweetmeats

The exhibition at the British Museum shares icons of Shakespeare’s inspiration, but also timeworn objects like a sucket fork. Fortunately, though, eating the ‘sweetmeats’ it was used on aren’t part of the experience.

The playwright’s most precious legacies, literary icons, have been brought to life by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Their performances will transport us to standing grounds of The Globe when London was still coming to terms with the world at its doorstep.

Whilst the British Museum is looking at Shakespeare’s world through the lens of the emergence of London as a city, the National Libraries Scotland’s recent ‘Beyond Macbeth‘ exhibit explored the lives that kept Shakespeare’s works alive and well in Scotland. Without their help, there’s little wonder whether a 413 year old copy of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on showcase would have survived.

Print from the play Romeo and Juliet. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Knowing ‘The Bard’

By understanding the lives and personalities of Scottish icons like William Drummond and the Bute family, and why they prized his works, we can better understand contemporary society near-after Shakespeare. Re-examining the work of these people bring us closer to knowing the bard.

The National Library of Scotland brought Shakespeare into the present with modern takes on his stories and a series of specially commissioned shorts that had Edinburghers delivering their favorite lines. The exhibit also placed sculptures of signature quotes around the city. Seeing ‘double, double toil and trouble’ in the dark evening fog is more than a little hair-raising.

"This place is too cold for hell" Sculpture Associated with the National Library of Scotland Macbeth Exhhibition

National Library of Scotland Word Sculpture

Though the exhibition has now come to an end the collections live on at the NLS and the digitised materials will be available for further creative and modern reinvention via the Will’s World registry.