Cross-Pollinating at AMIA: Report from DLF Hack Day

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Brian Hoffman

This Conference Update was provided by software developer Brian Hoffman, who received a 2014 DLF+AMIA Cross-Pollinator travel grant.

My attendance of the 2014 AMIA Conference was generously supported by the DLF, under the rubric of “cross-pollinators.” And in the days leading to the event, I wondered whether this metaphor would withstand the reality of conference proceedings and the natural affinities of those who share a community of practice. I am neither an archivist nor a curator, and haven’t worked in an institution for some time; perhaps “fly on the wall” would more aptly characterize my status in insect terms. Still, this would have been reason enough for me to attend — a software developer can certainly be edified by silently milling around with those from whom software requirements emanate.

But in fact, the conference was a great opportunity for cross-pollination, and this seemed to be a function of the community’s embrace of open-source projects and its hands-on / DIY style of engagement with them. Remembering only archival and digital library conferences (including my last visit to AMIA — and Savannah — in 2008) in which software development was simply reported on, and strictly through the medium of Powerpoint, I was happy to find a thriving Github community already in place and a number of archivist-developers, curator-developers, and developer-developers in attendance at the pre-conference Hack Day — an event which, instead of sinking into a bog of bootstrapping activity or dissolving into aimless tinkering, started up quickly and produced an array of working products and documentation targeting real-world problems.

Our team organized around the idea of creating a plugin for the newly-minted archives management system, ArchivesSpace, an idea we christened “AVSpace.” We spent the first half hour downloading the application, getting it installed on everyone’s laptop, running it, and learning how to install and enable plugins. Then we reviewed some comments on the ArchivesSpace listserv pertaining to the inadequacy of certain pieces of the data model with respect to AV materials, and decided to address them by making some interventions by means of a plugin. We established a workflow and division of labor so that requirements could be analyzed while the plugin was coded, and created our first release early in the day. We also tested the plugin, wrote documentation, engaged in a some highly diverting philosophical discussions on the subject of Time and Measurement, and, finally, announced our work on the listserv thread that had occasioned it.

A few days later two representatives of our team presented our work to a panel of judges. Being one of the first groups to present, and sensible of the general unlikeliness of such a useful product emerging from a few hours collaboration among strangers, our confidence as we approached the dais bordered on hubris. Alas, ours was a rude awakening when we saw the presentations of our peers, who all seemed to enjoy the same success in identifying a problem, engineering a solution, and developing a workflow to ensure that a working product was delivered by the end of the day. We did not win any awards that day, but I hope that our work will either inspire others or serve as a foundation for continued DIY modification of ArchivesSpace to make it better serve repositories holding AV materials. And, of course, it was a lot of fun!