Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Suggested apps for BHL's Life and Literature Code Challenge

Since I won't be able to be at the Biodiversity Heritage Library's Life and Literature meeting I thought I'd share some ideas for their Life and Literature Code Challenge. The deadline is pretty close (October 17) so having ideas now isn't terribly helpful I admit. That aside, here are some thoughts inspired by the challenge. In part this post has been inspired by the Results of the PLoS and Mendeley "Call for Apps", where PLoS and Mendeley asked for people (not necessarily developers) to suggest the kind of apps they'd like to see. As an aside, one thing conspicuous by it's absence is a prize for winning the challenge. PLoS and Mendeley have a "API Binary Battle" with a prize of $US 10,001, which seems more likely to inspire people to take part.

Visual search engine
I suspect that many BHL users are looking for illustrations (exemplified by the images being gathered in BHL's Flickr group). One way to search for images would be to search within the OCR text for figure and plate captions, such as "Fig. 1". Indexing these captions by taxonomic name would provide a simple image search tool. For modern publications most figures are on the same page as the caption, but for older publications with illustrations as plates, the caption and corresponding image may be separated (e.g., on facing pages), so the search results might need to show pages around the page containing the caption. As an aside, it's a pity the Flickr images only link to the BHL item and not the BHL page. If they did the later, and the images were tagged with what they depict, you could great a visual search engine using the Flickr API (of course, this might be just the way to implement the visual search engine — harvest images, tags with PageID and taxon names, upload to Flickr).

Mobile interface
The BHL web site doesn't look great on an iPhone. It makes no concessions to the mobile device, and there are some weird things such as the way the list of pages is rendered. A number of mainstream science publishers are exploring mobile versions of their web sites, for example Taylor and Francis have a jQuery Mobile powered interface for mobile users. I've explored iPad interfaces to scientific articles in previous posts. BHL content posses some challenges, but is fundamentally the same as viewing PDFs — you have fixed pages that you may want to zoom.

OCR correction
There is a lot of scope for cleaning up the OCR text in BHL. Part of the trick would be to have a simple use interface for people to contribute to this task. In an earlier post I discussed a Firefox hOCR add-on that provides a nice way to do this. Take this as a starting point, add a way to save the cleaned up text, and you'd be well on the way to making a useful tool.

Taxon name timeline
Despite the shiny new interface, the Encyclopedia of Life still displays BHL literature in the same clunky way I described in an earlier blog post. It would great to have a timeline of the usage of a name, especially if you could compare the usage of different names (such as synonyms). In many ways this is the BHL equivalent Google Books Ngram viewer.

These are just a few hastily put together thoughts. If you have any other ideas or suggestions, feel free to add them as comments below.

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