Oct 16 2013

Some ideas about a tool for community reflection

One initiative I took on as part of the IFAD synthesis project got going due to a conversation with Philipp Grunewald where we were wondering how a community like KM4Dev could guide a researcher’s activities.  Philipp was willing to give 2 hours a week to the community in some kind of research effort, but wanted to find a topic that was useful or valued by the community, rather than pushing a researcher’s perspective on the community.

We experimented with http://allourideas.org (or “wiki surveys”), a tool for public opinion and consultation, and indeed we got new ideas and some interesting guidance on the most popular and resonant ideas.   The ideas that we came up with to seed the inquiry seemed to  stimulate new ones but did not swamp or block the thinking.  I think that this tool could be useful for  KM4Dev in the future and it might play a useful role for other free-standing communities  that are long lived and have grown large enough that too much conversation is a bigger problem than not enough.monthly-km4dev-dgroups-posting-sep2000-to-feb2012

If all of us shared all of our ideas on the Dgroup and then started working on ranking them we would all go mad, end up devoting all our time to KM4Dev, or (most likely) just give up.  And the main topic of KM4Dev is knowledge management and sharing in development organizations, not how can one researcher help out.   But the KM4Dev community has grown large  so that sometimes the “thinking together” that was its hallmark 5 or 10 years ago is difficult with the existing set of tools; this is not a reflection on present membership, leadership or community culture.  It’s just a limitation of the bandwidth that an email list affords.

If you think growing beyond what an email list will comfortably allow, consider the alternative. Should it grow smaller, somehow?  Divide up?  Shut out new people?  Only talk about the “truly important stuff”?  Move to another platform entirely?  Because the KM4Dev community is bigger, it’s also more diverse, which is reflected in the different languages (in the sense of different jargons that show up), interests, disciplines, knowledge, work-contexts, and motivations that you can see by following the discussions. This also makes the community all the more valuable, so dealing with growth is all the more important.

More about Wiki Surveys as a tool for communities

Basically Wiki Surveys is a tool that lies in between a closed form survey and an open-ended interview.   Open-ended interviews can yield rich detail and new categories but get very expensive fairly quickly.  Closed-form surveys (e.g., Survey Monkey or Google Forms) are limited by the questions we ask, which so easily miss the insight that a community holds.  Wiki Surveys is easy to use and I think solves some of the dilemmas between the two kinds of information gathering modes.  It is obviously a more involved and sophisticated tool, but it could become as commonplace in the way that http://doodle.com solves the problem of scheduling a large group.  , provided there’s some understanding of it (which is up to us to help with).

All Our Ideas is a research project based at Princeton University that is dedicated to creating new ways of collecting social data. You can learn more about the theory and methods behind our project by reading Matthew J. Salganik and Karen E.C. Levy, Wiki surveys: Open and quantifiable social data collection or watching a talk that explains the logic behind the tool.  The authors cite three characteristics of the Wiki Surveys tool that resonate with a community of practice context:

  • greedy: it incorporate both the information from prolific as well as non-prolific contributors; other tools force us to choose between the two; communities of practice inherently have to the balance both ends of such a spectrum, so why restrict contributions or guidance to one end of the spectrum or another?
  • collaborative: it allows people to suggest new ideas that had not been anticipated when the original question was formed; it’s in the interactions in communities that they produce new ideas, so shouldn’t the tools we use to consult with a community do just that?
  • adaptive: it uses what is known so far to guide the inquiry, insuring that new ideas are tested against previously submitted ones (and tries to test new ideas so that they have as close to “an equal chance” as possible).  Although deep and old roots make a community solid, it’s today’s insights that should guide the future, wo why would we allow our tools to be too constrained by past terminology or question framing?

The http://allourideas.org tool produces a score for each idea that’s submitted. The score is based on pairwise comparison with other ideas.  User-submitted ideas have an equal chance to “catch up” because they are considered somewhat more frequently.  The new, user-submitted ideas turn out to be quite interesting.  Salganik and Levy suggest that they frequently often contain two useful kinds of ideas:

  • alternative framing  of a problem where an idea is expressed in natural language, with a context that is different and useful.  For example, an OECD survey about education where the top idea was a very pithy and vivid, “Teach to think, not to regurgitate.”  It seems to me that the discourse in a community of practice is as much about framing problems in a new way as it is about “solving” problems.
  • novel information where information is brought to the process that is really new or different.  For example, a study for New York City suggested that docking ships that were not plugged into the electrical grid produced emissions equivalent to 12,000 cars per ship.  I’ve written about communities as effective mechanisms for gathering complex information from the landscape.


To ask the KM4Dev community we asked the question, “What topic would you like to explore with Philipp on behalf of KM4Dev in the next 7 months?”  We came up with a series of “seed” ideas that seemed reasonable but have found that the user-submitted ideas have higher scores than the ones we submitted. It turns out that user-submitted ideas often have much lower scores than the seed ideas because of the amount of variance in user-submitted ideas.  Some are very good (popular) and others are unpopular.


Red dots on the top panel are the scores for user-submitted ideas and the blue dots are “seed” ideas.

The voting is now closed, but you can see the results here: http://www.allourideas.org/grunewaldtopics/results.  I think there is a lot to think about in the results.  There’s no substitute for thinking about why, of the 32 ideas that were considered,  two of the most unpopular ideas were among the ones that we had originally proposed and seemed quite sensible at the time:

  • Self-awareness of community relevance
  • Relationships between KM4Dev and KBF (or other adjacent communities)

Most popular ideas were both user-contributed:

  • Does KM4Dev have to be a community? Or is it good enough if it is a platform that provides desired services?
  • Strategic KM4Dev — examples, analysis, orientation

It’s worth noting that http://allourideas.org uses the same strategy for tracking and showing geographic diversity as I did when I re-analyzed the data in a KM4Dev survey.


I think wiki surveys shows great promise for reflection and inquiry in a community setting.

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Oct 10 2013

Learning in and around a “known community”

I was recently hired by the KM4Dev  core group to  synthesise the results of the three completed tasks and to provide an analysis of insights and recommendations to KM4Dev as to how it could further develop. We agreed that I would write up process notes on my blog, so I expect to write several posts with observations about KM4Dev and what I learn doing this project.

Because I’ve been involved with KM4Dev off and on over the years, the community is somewhat familiar  and I know some of the people and at the same time I recognize just how much I don’t know about the community, the people or the work they do.  To me that’s an exciting mix.

The first thing about this project is that the client is a community and that’s different from a client that’s an organization.  That’s a distinction that the Core Team that hired me is struggling with and that I see in many settings, between human interactions as enacting community or as achieving organizational ends.  This issue surfaced right away when I read a recommendation in one of the reports that, “KM4Dev should consider [several actions here] …. ”  Since there is no one individual who fully represents the community or who can really speak for it (much less act on its behalf), I decided that working for a client that is a community must include some effort to bring findings and suggestions to people’s awareness.  So part of what I’m doing is offering “provocations” or suggestions in the context of ongoing KM4Dev discussions.  So far one provocation is about “a newsletter for KM4Dev” and the other is about “research on behalf of KM4Dev” using allourideas.org as an idea collection and ranking mechanism.  Even though I’ve been thinking about this question of the balance between community and organization as frameworks for human interaction, exactly how this balance works for KM4Dev is unknown to me.

A second area that I noticed as simultaneously familiar and un-familiar is the email list platform that KM4Dev is built on.  What could be more ordinary or more invisible as community infrastructure than an email list?  Well, to my surprise, Dgroups requires each post to be approved! I hadn’t posted to KM4Dev for a while and so when I got a response saying, “your posting has been accepted into a moderation queue,” I thought, “Oh, I think I’ll be posting more frequently, I need to get on the ‘pre-approved people’ list!” When I asked the moderator, I got nice emails from Nancy White and Lucie Lamoreaux explaining that everyone’s posts had to be moderated.  Go figure.

The job of curation in a community is unending, but in this project, starting from where you’re at meant that the first job was to gather all the artifacts from the previous studies together in one place.  In the spirit of, “there will be nobody to clean up or curate after me” and “I’m reporting to a very distributed community,” I decided to create a little template for the project to link all of the stuff I produce on the Wiki together.  The unfamiliar and moment of truth (where I recognized that I didn’t want to delve further) was when I began using the Form and Discussion Template that Davide Piga had created for the community.

Even though I know some people in KM4Dev from attending face-to-face meetings, from occasional participation in the email list discussions, and because there is a certain amount of membership overlap between KM4Dev and CPsquare, in any given conversation I know some of the people who participate and don’t know others.  Part of my provocations strategy has been to strike up side conversations with people like Philipp Grunewald, Tina Hetzel, and Anna Downie.

I’ve always been struck by how there are pockets of competence (technology related and otherwise) in a community of practice — not everyone knows the same stuff nor can do the same things. One of the online collaboration practices that I hold dear is using a Google Doc or etherpad for writing real-time meeting notes.  I was heartened to find in my first meeting with the core group that people jumped right on it and started modifying the agenda I had prepared, quickly added to the notes and actually jotted down things that I was saying on the Skype call.  After the meeting, people who couldn’t make it to the meeting left comments and responded to each other in the Google Doc.  Sharing communications practices with a client (and representatives of a client) is a solid foundation for learning more about a rich and complex community like KM4Dev.

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Oct 08 2013

Reporting on my sabbatical in Shambhala

small__2051500480Last week Nancy White and I were in “the hot seat” for the Networked Learning Conference. We decided to talk about blind spots – those things that are right in front of us but for some reason we just don’t see them. Actions built on untested or aged assumptions. Actions based on our own preferences and perceptions which make no sense to others, yet we count them as “common sense.” 

One way that blind spots become vivid for me is when I change roles or “social place”.  This blog post elaborates on some thinking that started in that “hot seat.”

After some 14 years working on communities of practice and how technology can support them, I needed a break.  Last December, took a break, working pro bono for a very different kind of community of practice.  From then until September I’ve been working for the Portland Shambhala Meditation Center almost full time as the communications director.  Before that I’ve been on the Shambhala Center’s governing council in an advisory, greybeard role for the last 7-8 years, but due to a transition to a new Center Directors it seemed important to take on a “real job”, so I took on the job of Communications Director.  Now that my full-time stint is over, it’s time to think about the blind spots I noticed.

The first is surely too much focus on the front-end of a community’s life. Too much focus on the front end besets consultants (who are hired to help launch a community) as well as people who study communities.  When I took over as communications director, there was a lot of infrastructure in place, with a lot of work patterns defined and my work had to serve an existing community that was shifting.  A lot of infrastructure and assumptions and practices had to go by the wayside before replacements could really be visible. It is clear to me that others will come after me who will take up (and modify) what I have set up.   A longer view changes our perspective – especially when you consider that this particular Shambhala Community has roots going back 2,600 years.

Community observer as author-god. Over the years I’ve seen many masters theses, PhD projects and even formal research agendas that propose to “create a community of practice” in order to study it.  My problem with that strategy is that it distorts what we observe, it sets up the researcher/observer as community arbiter of last resort and it leaves community participants behind after the creator’s degree is granted or the research is completed.  Several times during my sabbatical I had to deal with the fact that people were not interested in anything new or better — they wanted help figuring out passwords! I had to work with their concerns and satisfy their needs; it was clear that the community was in charge, not me.

Community as “a first date”. A major blind spot that working for the Shambhala Center revealed to me is that working to “create community” not only focuses attention on the front end of a community’s life, it implies recruitment and as a result a very tentative commitment.  How much of our understanding of communities, social learning, and engagement is based on communities where the observers are complete outsiders, newcomers, or where we assume  that participation is somehow optional? What effect does it have when we participate only because we are scavenging for insights to be used elsewhere? On the other hand, what difference does it make in our actions or in our understanding when we feel completely identified with a community – when we are involved for the long haul? I think the relevance of these questions depends on whether you think depth of understanding matters. I’ve realized that that for me, when it comes to community, it does.  The interesting communities are the ones that persist.

Technology is a necessary prerequisite. One of the ideas that we explored in Digital Habitats was about technology stewardship as a role for someone who knows enough about a community to be able to see community (and learning) implications of technology choices. This is certainly true for mostly-distributed, mostly-technology-mediated communities. My sabbatical emphasized just how true it is for a mostly face-to-face community, too. The role of technology in a Shambhala Center (and it’s a big one) is primarily to enable face-to-face interaction and meditation practice. In a mostly face-to-face community it is still the case that many people who know the community well don’t see technology-based opportunities and conversely, I think, that many people who know about the technological possibilities don’t see the opportunities for community benefit. Going back to the password-confused and techno-phobic end of the spectrum: the blind spot in my work with communities over the past 14 years is that I tended to come into contact with people who had already crossed big technology hurdles. To some extent, if they couldn’t handle the technology basics, they weren’t “present” or were even invisible. I”m seeing technology is a key thread but only one of many.

Forget about a community-wide platform. I continue to observe and reflect on a myriad of small technology balances and styles of interaction. I am struck by how much the Shambhala Community in Portland uses email. There is a lot of it! In distributed communities so many side conversations in email might threaten community cohesiveness or integrity; but since this community can count on its face-to-face venues and interactions, the centrifugal quality of email is not a problem. I see almost no interest in synchronous meeting technologies; they are the lifeblood of so many distributed communities and relationships. A notable practice that developed before I began my sabbatical has been for the governing council to develop its meeting agendas in a Google Doc, inserting all the “information items,” such as monthly reports, in the document for people to read before the meeting. The first agenda item is always a simple, “Any questions about the reports that people put in the Google Doc?” After that, the conversation can really focus on decisions or questions that really need discussion. That’s a nice example of using technology to remove some of the dross from our “being together.” What seems most important to me is that the Portland Shambhala Community doesn’t respect technology boundaries: people use whatever tools they have at hand with whoever they are working with and they don’t worry much about the rest of the community.

That’s all for the moment.

Photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc

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Jul 06 2013

Adding email notification to Google Forms and Google Spreadsheets

This idea and the code to implement it may be useful in other settings, but I developed it in the context of supporting a community with a largely volunteer organization at its center.   At least in my mind the code comes from a point of view.

Here’s a picture of what it does:


Adding email notifications to a Google Form and a Google Spreadsheet.

Here are the functions that are involved (shown in red), starting from the upper right-hand corner:

  1.  If the person completing the form provides their email address, the Google Script below will send them a snapshot of what they entered into the form in a simple but legible format that I call a “row snapshot.”
  2. Obviously Google Forms are very handy in the context of a community or a small organization because they make it easy to collect information from a large number of un-identified people into an orderly and useful format.
  3. Once data is entered into a Google Spreadsheet, many manipulations, edits, sorts, and analyses are relatively easy.   Controlling access to the Google Spreadsheet so that either few or many people can see or edit the Spreadsheet is easy to do.
  4. People who are looking at the Spreadsheet while logged on (as opposed to anonymous users) can use a drop down menu created by this program to request a “row snapshot” report for any given row.  The first time you run the program, you need to authorize it to send email to you on your behalf.
  5. Once an authorized user has received the row snapshot in an email message, it’s useful for sharing, by forwarding it to other people who are involved or need to be alerted to the status of whatever it is that is represented in that row.

In developing this, I was adapting code from a Google Script tutorial titled “Tutorial: Automating a Help Desk Workflow“.  What was crucial but easy to miss was this little snippet:

Now we need to set up a trigger so that this function will be called each time a form response is submitted. In the Script Editor, go to Resources > Current project’s triggers. Click the link that says ‘No triggers set up. Click here to add one now.’

Once that was working, the code has evolved over the past few months to the point where I think it’s worth sharing:


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Jul 04 2013

Learning, its context, and me

A conversation in a bar the other day made me pull out Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context (1995).  In addition to the diversity of examples in the book’s chapters, Jean Lave’s intro has a statement that I keep coming back to again and again:

“Participants in the conference agreed, on the whole, on four premises concerning knowledge and learning in practice.

  1. Knowledge always undergoes construction and transformation in use.
  2. Learning is an integral aspect of activity in and with the world at all times. That learning occurs is not problematic.
  3. What is learned is always complexly problematic.
  4. Acquisition of knowledge is not a simple matter of taking in knowledge; rather, things assumed to be natural categories, such as ‘bodies of knowledge,’ ‘learners,’ and ‘cultural transmission,’ require reconceptualization as cultural, social products.”

For the past six months I have done a lot less consulting in organizations and a lot more work in and for the Portland Shambhala Meditation Center.  My experience there bears out Lave’s statement about learning.  That Understanding Practice started out as an inquiry about “the context problem” points to an issue of community context.  When thinking about communities of practice, it’s a problem if we focus too much on the community and forget to look enough at their context.  (Context has a lot to do with the social periphery around a community and with our position as observers of communities.)

Here’s a sketch showing some of the different configurations where communities and organizations have different relationships to each other:


Relations between communities and organizations, with prototypical instances.

There were no organizations to speak of in the Lave & Wenger midwives example (apart from the unmentioned funding that Gitti Jordan must have had to study them in the Yucatan).  Community technology involved face-to-face conversations, eavesdropping, looking over people’s shoulders or running errands. Wenger, McDermott & Snyder treated organizations as containers for multiple communities (observers, defenders, and enablers were often consultants, whether organizational insiders or outsiders).   The technology used by those communities was what was provided by their organizations. Partly because of technological evolution, Wenger, White & Smith also considered communities that crossed organizational boundaries, and were not “owned” by any organization (as we worked on the book, we were all connected with or involved to varying degrees in KM4Dev and CPsquare).

Over the years, I’ve been involved in several projects where the communities didn’t really fit any of those models.  As I think of them, they seem to be values-based communities where an organization depends for support on members of the community and the organization exists to serve its community.  But for people who work in those organizations, the community aspect can be swamped by organizational concerns such as fund-raising, recruitment, service targets, or publicity. On the other hand, these communities have grown to the point that they need some kind of organization, even though community members may be so focused on their own practice (in their lives or their organizations) that they forget the organizational effort required to call meetings, steward the technology, curate resources, or staff essential services).

The relationship between the community aspect and the organizational aspect in these cases has many ramifications.  These organizations, for example, typically recruit staff from legitimate members of their communities.  That supports authenticity, but can result in hiring decisions that have problematic organizational consequences.  The fact that I’ve been involved in the Shambhala community for almost 40 years may provide me with many insights into community issues, but it can also lead to biases and blind spots.

As I work on (and revise and reconfigure) the technology infrastructure of my local Shambhala organization and community, I’m reflecting on different projects and conversations that I’ve had about technology stewardship with Baptists, Jews, Mormons, Presbyterians, Unitarians, and of course many different Buddhist communities.  Not many communities can draw on that kind of background I’m bringing.  Being in a position to observe and understand what’s going on depends on legitimacy and participation in the community as much as any leadership role in the organization.

It’s striking to me how these communities and their organizations have so many issues in common, even though they all see themselves as unique and different.  All of them are involved to one extent or another in reconceptualizing all manner of “natural” categories (or sacred categories, as the case may be), such as bodies of knowledge, learners, and cultural transmission, whether consciously, intentionally, or not.  And that’s one thing that I think I’m learning.

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Jun 12 2013

What a webinar can prove

On Monday I did a webinar for a group that Joitske Hulseboch and Sibrenne Wagenaar have been leading on social media for professionals in The Netherlands.  I’ve posted the slides here.  Sibrenne and Joitske posted a summary here.

We had interesting difficulties with the audio side of the webinar. If professionals like us encounter such difficulties, imagine what it’s like for “beginners”! (It has to be said that what professionals like Joitske, Sibrenne and I know is how to quickly move to a different combination of tools when the ones we planned on using fail us.

Joitske logged into Adobe Connect twice: once as host and once as participant — a technique to get at the technical facet of Social Proof. When she’s logged in as a participant she can see the webinar interface and its limitations from a point of view that is normally hidden from the host.

I’ve often thought of taking the chat transcript from a webinar and using it as a start for something like a blog post.  This is such an experiment.  I like it because it seemed like the group in the webinar was so intelligent and willing to grapple with issues that have a lot of paradox.

During the introductions people described the main issue that the exercise brought up for them:

  • Responding to the question of “Where is the learning happening?” is very difficult.  It’s hard to pin down.
  • Effort to pinpoint influence & learning was MORE difficult when constrained to a shorter time period.
  • When Sibrenne influenced how my organization thinks about education, it had big implications.
  • Observing behaviors of leaders and of other participants in this workshop [over last several months] — how people dealt with problems that came up — has been a significant influence.
  • This exercise prompted reflection on the extent of my development in the last year. I have been inspired to ask myself: what’s my field?
  • The exercise provoked reflection on the difference between someone who inspires vs someone who influences. Inspiring and influencing not the same. They ARE very connected, but there was some disagreement about just how much difference there is between the two.
  • Some people have a negative influence — for example they are exhausting — but we can respond to their presence in a positive way, making something positive out of a somewhat negative interaction.
  • For me this exercise pointed to the connections between social settings and different means of communications. I noticed how live face-to-face and continued online contact worked together.
  • Exercise made me reflect on how this course seemed overwhelming. However, observing how other people actually did the course work led me to reconsider what’s possible.

Do we actually learn every second that we are awake? And do we constantly influence others? And don’t both happen at the same time, as long as we’re mindful? Advertising is an example of how we can be influenced when we are not mindful. And some people are even influenced by their dreams. Can we stop being influenced? How? Would we want to?

The idea of following the contrarians in a field is an individual strategy that’s comparable to a group strategy of cultivating community diversity? It’s a good idea to “follow” people (in the social media sense of follow) who are just outside your own area or information bubble.

Social proof is how we use others to determine what is correct (thinking or behavior) by finding out what they do or think. We can be more observant of ourselves and others: how we respond to actions or insights. In a way, learning from others and influencing others is relatively effortless. But it can take considerable analytical and observational effort to be aware of social proof. Insights about social proof have significant implications for the support and facilitation of groups and group activities.

These ideas about social proof clearly have ethical and moral implications.

In an online discussion many people think, “I’m sure others know better than me….” People’s non-participation itself proves something. What something or someone “proves” very much depends on our point of view: different people will draw very different conclusions from the same evidence. That implies that we have to be very aware of our own behavior and how we can influence people in ways that are unanticipated. That means that what people learn through social interaction is continuously changing and evolving.

What are you taking away from this webinar?

  • Sibrenne: Keep questioning… yourself and others
  • Henriëtte: Everyone is seeking social confirmation in uncertain, new situations
  • Esther 1: Influence = learning
  • Esther 2: Be aware of the visibility of the periphery, their needs are important as well
  • John: I’m thinking about timing. and about wanting to cover more than we could possibly discuss in 1.5 hours! 🙂
  • Petra: Learning is about where the energy is!
  • Ilonka: Influence is a code word for learning.
  • Joitske: social proof shows up differently in different technological spaces…
  • Yvonne: I love this webinar because it makes me reflect again about designing learning trajectories connected to how we learn/are being influenced as humans. And how biased we are because of previous experiences. And because of the richness of diversity.
  • Petra: I’m still puzzled and intrigued about the concept of social proof. And a bit frustrated with the technique. John’s sound is cracking, Joitske is very far away, the Notes are a mess (seems like everyone is writing over one another) and the slides went all over the place!
  • Hanneke: the idea of social proof, and the thought that social media influence social proof immensely but I don’t know how.
  • Jose: be aware of context, visible and ‘invisible’ reactions and learning, but also different assumptions

Afterward, I got to thinking that this definition of a community of practice might be a useful alternative:

When social proof is dense and is magnified by ongoing interactions, shaping the beliefs and behavior of a group of people, we have a community of practice.

4 responses so far

Apr 13 2013

Moving from delicious to evernote

delicious websiteOver the years I’ve accumulated more than 1,000 links in http://delicious.com/smithjd.   Delicious (in its various versions) was my preferred tool  for storing,  retrieving, and sharing bookmarks.  Far better than bookmarking things in a browser.  But I’ve gotten impatient with the delicious browser widget in Chrome (and the website was just too much overhead) so I decided to move all my links to Evernote.  The Evernote web clipper widget is easier to use, it pick up chunks of text and images, and it puts them in the same searchable place as bibliographic citations, written notes of all kinds, etc.   Perhaps most importantly, Evernote is available on my desktop, on a laptop machine I use when traveling, on a tablet and on my phone. And the search function is great.

But how to move those 1,000 links I’ve accumulated over the years?  Should I just forget and start over?  Delicious does provide an easy way to put all the links and the comments that go with them in one big file that you can copy-paste into an Evernote note. Unfortunately, the tags would all be lost!  I spent a lot of time looking around for ways to import individual notes with their tags, including various attempts to use DR.PALANIRAJA’s blog posting Import Delicious bookmarks to Evernote including tags and an attempt to create an Evernote XML backup file.  I couldn’t get anything to work and it looked like Evernote had abandoned an import method that was supported at one time. After some mucking around, I ended up downloading an XML file, processed it in OpenRefine, and sent  each link to Evernote in an individual email from a Google Spread-sheet.  I thought I’d share the details of how I ended up doing it.

To do this, you start by inserting your username and password into this URL:

That gives you something like this:


Here is one post:

<post description=”Manufacturing Miracles”
extended=”By Horace Dediu, Asymco, Are wars the only means to motivate a society to boost manufacturing? Uxing Pixxa Perspective player on the iPad — an interesting statistical display machine.”
hash=”cd330643d37cbc870b9e4ac9cbe341e7″  href=”http://pixxa.com/pub/asymco/story/e8h9XtEr.html”
tag=”free ipad statistics”

One thousand of those is a bit daunting, but OpenRefine, one of my favorite tools for wrangling data, has no trouble creating a project by opening an XML file. You end up with columns in your refine project containing the following information:

  • time-date
  • hash (discard this)
  • href – the URL
  • shared & private (which are the inverse of each other and which I discarded)
  • description (basically the title of a post)
  • tag (the guts of the whole thing)
  • extended (more information on the post)

Use Refine to clean things up so that eventually you end up with a Google spread-sheet with columns that contain columns labeled href, description, tag, and an extended description:delicious-links-in-a-google-spread-sheet

Consulting Evernote’s blog on the format for the emailed notes set me up to write a Google Script that would send one email for each row:

function sendEmails() {
// building off tutorial code at https://developers.google.com/apps-script/articles/sending_emails
var sheet = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSheet();
var startRow = 2; // First row of data to process
var numRows = 189; // Number of rows to process
// Fetch the range of cells A2:B3
var dataRange = sheet.getRange(startRow, 1, numRows, 4)
// Fetch values for each row in the Range.
var data = dataRange.getValues();
for (i in data) {
var row = data[i];
var emailAddress = "your-evernote-address@m.evernote.com";
var subject = row[1] + " @ test" + row[2];
var message = row[0] + 'n n' + row[3];
MailApp.sendEmail(emailAddress, subject, message);

You can’t send all 1,000 emails at once, as I found out.  After trying to do so, I got an email message back from Evernote saying that most of them had been rejected, although some worked very nicely.  I figured there must be a limit on the number of emails, and indeed Evernote’s helpful folks responded with:

To ensure that our servers are able to provide the best possible performance for all users, as well as to prevent abuse, we have instituted a maximum number of emails that can be sent to your Evernote email address per day.
  • Free account holders may send a maximum of 50 emails per day to their Evernote email address.
  • Premium account holders may send a maximum of 250 emails per day to their Evernote email address.
The count is reset for each user daily at 12:00AM Pacific time.

So I send 250 mail messages a day for a few days.  The notes with information from Delicious aren’t all as beautiful as I’d like, but they have all the information I want.  I’m finding that Evernote makes it really easy to consolidate and clean up my my tags, which now apply to URLs as well as everything else!

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Dec 10 2012

Two handy perl scripts

Published by under code,resources

Here are two handy Perl scripts that I’ve developed, one of them some years ago and the other a few weeks ago.  This zip file perl-scripts-prp-and-csplit contains a “readme.txt”, the Perl scripts and sample input files.

The prp.pl script scoops up many files and does many global search and replace edits in place using character strings in a patterns file that you specify.  I developed it (with some programming help when I got stuck) when I had to download three- or four-hundred pages from Web Crossing to produce an HTML image of a workshop, with all the inline images, enclosures, internal links translated from calls to Web Crossing to references to a local file system.  Writing the patterns to do that was meticulous and thankless, so eventually we discontinued the whole thing, but the Perl script could live on to be useful.

Recently I wrote the csplit.pl script to handle the output from a file produced by Google Refine (soon to be OpenRefine).  Refine can pull many web pages with its “Add column by fetching URLs” command.  Once in Refine, you can parse the data, manipulate it, subset it, and generally slice and dice it.  I wanted to write each resulting cell to its own file, where the output contains the data in one column and it’s written to a file named in another column, producing one file per cell. Here’s the Templating Export script:

-#- {{(cells["blog-tag"].value)}}.htm

The output results in a big file with a “-#-” delimiter and csplit.pl can then chop up the output into multiple files named appropriately.

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Oct 25 2012

Not just one kind of learning

Published by under Learning,Technology

Next week Nancy White and I are doing a talk at USAID on “Keeping Our Eye Out for Learning: How to identify learning practices and leverage them more strategically

We are inviting people to step back and consider a wider range of learning as a step toward asking what, exactly, learning is (and how to do it)? Learning is hard to pin down because it  doesn’t just happen in the classroom or the laboratory or in any specific place. The notion of a community of practice was invented to help focus attention on how indeed learning happened “outside the classroom.” Learning  doesn’t happen at an easy to identify time, either. We can’t even  say, “learning is what happens when you are in your communities of practice.”

In 1946, in “Behavior and Development as a Function of the Total Situation, X” a chapter of Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers (Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 1997, http://isbn.nu/9780837172361) Kurt Lewin (the father of Organization Development) wrote, “Learning is a popular term referring to such different processes … [that] no one theory of learning is possible.”  He offered a nice list of examples to show that diversity, which I’ve adapted and illustrated with my own  learning activities:

  • I’m learning to swim a side-stroke facing left because I noticed I really couldn’t do it very well: I was clumsy and tired myself out quickly. (Developing a physical skill.)
  • I’m learning to use quantitative tools like Google Refine and R because I realized I’ve been so deeply into the first-hand, touchy feely world of learning for the past 15 years that I had forgotten that for 20 years as a data geek I actually thought in the SAS language (and the SAS community was an eye-opener for me).
  • I learned to cuss in a complicated world: my parents were very straight-laced medical missionaries from Ohio but we lived next to a slum in Puerto Rico so that by age 5 I was claiming to my mother that in Spanish I was the linguistic authority on what was a cuss word and what not. 🙂
  • And of course there’s the ongoing learning how to collaborate with people, social learning.  Recently I’ve been absorbed in a really good book on military strategy that really comes down to how to work with people: Barry Boyce and James Gimian, The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict–Strategies from The Art of War (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2009).  As I read it I think to myself that you can read the whole book as if it were titled “The Art of Learning.”

I guess I’m learning that there is more than just one kind of learning, so more than one theory may be needed.

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Jul 15 2012

Meaning of “the only thing that could have happened”

In an open space conference like the Community Leadership Summit, according to Harrison Owen’s second principle of Open Space Technology, “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.”  But when we don’t exactly like what happens, we always want to know, Why did it happen that way?  I tried to organize a session and (almost) nobody came.  I was bummed and felt like a complete outsider.  On reflection, here’s why I think that happened:
  • I had a prior commitment the morning the conference kicked off, so I got a friend to propose a session about the CLS12 hashtag for me in the opening meeting of the conference.  That was not ideal: I looked like I was voting with my 2 feet (thus trying to get away with breaking the open space law).
  • Now that I think of it, CLS12 attendees didn’t seem like Twitter-dwellers to me.  Because so many of them are involved in Open Source Software communities, mostly they seem live and work on other platforms, ranging from IRC and email lists to code repositories.
  • Everyone was having too much fun talking to each other face-to-face about vital topics like recruiting documentation contributors or “combating assholes” to be interested in looking at a social network graph.  Who could blame them?

But even though I was disappointed that the session wasn’t “popular,” learning the following made it worthwhile for me:

  • In the scramble, it was impressive to find that Marc Smith, who was in Italy for a conference, somehow found time to help out behind the scenes.
  • Discovering some useful hashtags, like #CMGRCHAT by looking at the Social Network Graph generated by NodeXL.
  • Messing around with the data and practicing using the NodeXL interface in someone else’s company — stimulated by their questions– is a productive learning strategy.  I think NodeXL is pretty workable as an analytical tool, but it is too sophisticated and (given my skill level so far) too complex to use as a window or mirror for a real-time discussion about a conference or community.
  • I was grateful that Ann Marcus showed up, but she was figuring out what how Twitter might be useful, so the SNA angle was pretty opaque.
  • Sitting with Chuck Kisselburg, peering at a discussion about #ICANN, confirmed that seeing a community or group of known people (to him) is entirely different from looking at strangers.  Chuck recognized many people in the ICANN conversation, but I didn’t know that many people at the CLS conference.

Even though the schedule for Sunday seemed completely relevant and interesting, I decided that I was just too over-committed, so I didn’t make it to the second day.  Maybe I learned that I’m pretty much of an outsider in the open source community world.

Thanks to Stephen Walli for permission to use his photo.

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