Research on e-books with Wikimedia content/Interview with Anja Groten from Hackers and Designers

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Anja Groten from Hackers and Designers (http://hackersanddesigners.nl/) was so kind to meet us on the 17th of October 2016. We discussed the difficulties they encountered in the process of creating a book from their wiki (http://wiki.hackersanddesigners.nl/mediawiki/index.php/Main_Page).


Hackers & Designers is a non-profit cross-disciplinary community of programmers, engineers, designers, and artists. H&D began in 2013 and organizes meetups where collaborative and inclusive workshops are given. In 2015 H&D launched the H&D Summer Academy, followed by a second edtion in 2016. Selected participants are offered a 10-day program including hands-on workshops, excursions, public film screening and a lecture program.


Below is a transcript of some of the things that we discussed:


Cristina Cochior: What tools did you use to generate this year's documentation book?

Anja Groten: We used our wiki to generate the content and then through the command line we pulled off content from it. We took the wiki markup and with pandoc we translated it into HTML which is then nice to use in Scribus, for example. I can define the styles in Scribus and change the text from the wiki, do it again and then adjust without me having to do all the styling again.


[...]


A: Have you seen the new publication [from 2016]? It's much more crafty than the old one, there is more hand labour in it. I don't know if you know about the Summer Academy Programme, there are different workshops, here we just put all the content in small publications depending on the workshops. We wanted to be more flexible. We used the content from the wiki, placed it in two different Scribus files and used the wiki markup to translate in different ways depending on the workshop.

C: Did you use the Collections extension in the previous year? I remember it being mentioned in the How-to-document-a-summer-academy article.

A: We looked into it, but we didn't end up using it. We just made a list of articles and wrote a piece of code that grabs all the content that is listed there. And we did the same with another list this year.


[...]


C: Are the articles on the wiki written by people who presented?

A: That would be great! I do a lot of the editing. For the 2015 edition we had an intern, she was really helpful. That was still part of the research for us, how to optimise the process of documentation. It was half project, half editing. But the idea of using a wiki was that when workshops come up, we could just send the workshop leaders the link and they could edit it themselves. At the beginning the wiki was open, so anyone could make an account, but then we got hacked and all of a sudden all these thousands and thousands of weird logins appeared, so now we have a confirmation process.


[...]


A: The summer academy was one of our biggest projects and the first project we requested funding for. And for that you have to hand in documentation at the end. We thought it was a strange idea to document it afterwards, since we see the academy itself already as a form of publishing and we wondered how we could make use of this mode of documentation in a way that is also meaningful for the moment itself. We developed this process after the first summer academy, having gone through all of this. People were really craving a central point of documentation or sharing resources. There was one workshop where we used Etherpad for example and we would use Dropbox to share files. We thought it would be so cool to have one place for all of this, but it didn't work out, this year neither. It's hard to introduce this whole idea of publishing or documenting when everything is happening. It's hard to upload stuff on mediawikis for example. We also tried Github, but that's even worse. It's really hard to get everyone on board and also not distract from the actual purpose. But I'm interested in investigating further, because we use it also for the backend of our website. It's really handy. And I like that there is a prospect of collaborating, although it's not often that it's actually happening.

C: How did you end up using the mediawiki? Did you use it on other projects?

A: We heard about it from Andre Castro, he was using it for a project called Beyond Social at the Willem de Kooning Akademie. I'm teaching at the same place as Andre and they use it for the Publication Station. I really liked the idea and the possibilities. But while working with it, the Collections extension felt a bit frozen. It felt a little bit like it had stopped.


[...]


A: What I like about it and why I prefer wiki to Wordpress is that it's not driven by corporations, it forces you to think about interfaces in a different way. We - being so influenced by blogs - try to force that on top of it sometimes, but then you have to compromise here and there.

C: Right now the wiki works as a backend, it's used more as a documentation and archival method, but were you also considering to make it more frontal?

A: During workshops we use it more as a frontend. There was a workshop with Sandberg students called 'Publish and Destroy', they were really interested to see what's possible. We had them come up with concepts and publications that had an expiration date and they made a really nice wiki. We had one login for everyone, so that would not be helpful if you wanted to use Discussion or History really. We usually just sat in one room and discussed.


[...]


C: Are you considering to use the wiki in future editions as well?

A: Yeah, I think so. That's how we do it now. Last year we had two menu's on the website - one for meet ups one for the summer academy. The summer academy menu became more refined, because we have two editions. As the necessity grows, we need to adjust and improve it. It's often just a time and budget question, so if we create moments for ourselves, then we try to push these things forward. It's the same as video editing, there's a lot of work, it's really something that you believe that is good to preserve what you do and share with an audience.

C: And as the archive grows, do you think it could be useful for the participants to mix and match their own publication based on the content that is available on the wiki?

A: Yeah, that was actually our first idea. I was talking to Lidia and Lena about this, but then they had other applications. Our first idea was to make personalised publications for every participant, so that they could go collect what they wanted themselves, but we didn't go further on that idea. It would be nice to have the option to have a more horizontal way of publishing. We did it a little bit on the opening night, where we just had stacks of paper that people could assemble, but yeah then you just want everything.


[...]


C: Were there any limitations that you encountered while working with the wiki? Options that you would have liked, but were not there?

Juan Andres Gomez: You said something about logins?

A: Yeah, well you cannot just drag and drop files onto it and then it does everything for you. I think it's about getting people used to the idea of using markup languages. We would also have liked to keep the accounts open, but unfortunately the bots took over. We used the markup eventually much less just because of the reason that the translation to web sometimes wouldn't work well. For the 2015 book, we made headlines and generated a table of contents that didn't really make sense and we didn't have the time to take them out so in the end we didn't end up using these ways of marking up the text. And of course a lot of limitations with LaTeX, it's not intuitive at all.

C: Was the process easier when you were working with HTML?

A: Yeah, that was just with Pandoc, so we didn't have to do much. Within the styles there was also much more freedom, there were more things possible. I like to work with big type, for example, and that's not really possible with markup. That's the thing with fully automized processes in terms of layout, you always have to go safe. The danger is that it becomes boring. You end up making a lot of compromises.

J: Was it always the idea to end up with a book?

A: Yes, because we had to hand in something printed. But now I'm wondering about it, because we don't reach our audiences with publications like this. I like it because I'm a graphic designer interested in printed matter, but economically it's not really worth all the labour that you put into it. In such a small edition. We always end up combining pages together by hand. Some of us are tempted to concentrate more on video documentation. That has a bigger reach and you can do a lot with it. People appreciate these booklets, but I wonder how many people actually read them. I'd rather make a little folder with all the places where we have our documentation and then just leave it on Github or the wiki.


[...]


J: I see that there are tables in some of the articles. How are they translated into the book?

A: We took them out because they broke our code and marked them up with other forms.


[...]


A: I'm going to work on a publication with a Dutch publishing house for art and research. The idea is to create a hybrid publication, something that lives online and offline. The publisher is super very clear that she wants this offline product as well, because it's really about editing processes and making decisions. It's important to have a moment to reflect and then you can always look back and say that many things have happened since then. I think it's really important to take stuff offline for a moment.