Whistleblowing, Ethics, and Internet Use

UPDATE: Since I’m venturing into potentially controversial territory, I thought it would be a good time to remind my readers that this is my commentary on a situation that occurred in a library in California and not necessarily the opinions of my employer. I will say that I believe we are well-prepared for emergency situations, and their official approach in my view is rational, fair and on the whole, quite solid. Equally, staff are just as responsible in their actions.


A few days ago, there was a news articles I saw via LISNews about a librarian being fired because she called the police on a child porn-watcher against orders from her supervisor. Comments abound in outrage, of course. My first impression on the issue was a “how could they do that?” as well.

But it goes to show that tricky issues require forethought. Here is my final assessment of the issue. Obviously, I do not have the entire facts on this case, so I can only take the media’s report at face value. Nor am I a lawyer, so this is just a layperson’s opinion.

Ought the library have had clear polices on what to do in the case a child pornographer appears? Yes.

Ought a successful library leader have empowered his/her staff to make that phone call? Yes.

Is the library in its rights to fire the librarian who made the phone call? Also yes.

Is it likely that the librarian made an unfortunate ethical mistake? Yes.

To get why I think the way I do, you are going to have to separate the issues of effective management and professional ethics. In an ideal world, we would have bosses who always make the right decisions; who act through common sense; who establish policies and procedures ahead of time to prepare us for the hard situations; and who empower employees to make good decisions when the policies do not cover the situation. But the reality is that this is not always the case. In fact, it is rare. Most of the time we will be working in imperfect organizations. Sometimes the organizations are even outright wrong in their approaches to situations.

But working in an imperfect organization does not make it less important to think through our own decisions. In my view, this employee should have asked herself the following questions before acting:

  • Is there clear evidence of imminent public danger?

Not likely. Watching child porn is a heinous crime and the creation of the porn is absolutely harmful to children. However, it does not put the public in imminent danger. Yes, we do not want these guys on our streets. No, we should not react to the child porn watcher as we do the rapist, robber, or murderer.

  • Is he/she ultimately accountable for the actions of the organization?

No. When the grey areas hit, it is going to be the director who takes the hit for any bad decision of any employee. The director, therefore, has a right to a say in what should happen in this situation.

  • Was she/he absolutely sure that action (such as calling the police) was not going to happen after some review?

It’s hard to assess this without the facts, but I am adding the question because it is important. Just because the manager did not call the police now doesn’t mean that he/she would not make a report to a higher-up who in turn may decide that, yes, the police should be called.

  • Was he/she sure of all the facts in the case?

I’m willing to assume yes, because it does turn out that he/she was right. But my question about imminent danger could be changed significantly if the porn the accused was watching was a live show.

  • Did she have time on her side?

This is the kicker. The librarian had plenty of time to make a report to the police with lots of lovely evidence to show when they came.

In my view, the librarian should have:

  1. Made it clear to her boss that her view is that the police should be called.
  2. Record the incident with as much detail as possible. Recording the identity of the person would even be appropriate so long as the report was not going to be shared.
  3. Make sure that the details of the case make it to the CEO or Director of the library. Give the supervisor a chance to do it first. Then, pass up the report.
  4. Still no action? This is where you consider the whistle-blow. President of the board may work. Or the police. This is not going to be a career-advancing decision.

In the end, I understand that the firing of the employee is being reviewed. I also see this as a good thing. I’m not sure that firing the employee is quite the right disciplinary action, despite that I believe he/she made a mistake. Good management would come up with something more appropriate — although what would depend on a bunch of mitigating factors of which I have no knowledge.

And, in the end, you cannot always assume good management.

Advertisements

Treading on the Commons: Book Recommendations and the Wisdom of the Crowd

I love the idea of recommendation services like LibraryThing, Bibliophil and Books iRead. The main reason I like these services is because of their potential to identify items for me that I may never encounter on my own. You have to accept that I am a) a busy parent with little time to read, b) a busy parent with even less time to find a book to read, c) a librarian who spends too much time on his computer and d) someone who likes pleasant surprises and who has tolerance for entropy.

As I add books to these recommendation services, I am becoming increasingly aware of a problem, similar to the ever-present “Tragedy of the Commons.” The problem is this: with all the classics in my collection I have a hard time getting useful recommendations.

I like classics. As someone who enjoys classics, I put some of my favorites into the database. Things like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I have it in my personal collection, largely because it is the sort of thing that my kids might enjoy reading when they are older. If I’m going to do ‘trash’ reading, or popular reading — I’m not going to buy, but instead I’ll use the library. I enjoyed A Spot of Bother, for instance, but I have no desire to read it twice. That’s why borrow-and-return works for me.

In the world of book recommending algorithms, this is a problem. It came to a head today when I searched for a recommendation using Books iRead and of the 10 recommendations I trudged through, 8 were in the “obvious classic genre.” 3 were Shakespeare. 1984 showed up, as did To Kill a Mockingbird, Oliver Twist, more than one Harry Potter, The Grapes of Wrath, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings and so on. I could have asked any English-speaking (and maybe a few non-English speaking too) 17-year-old on earth to come up with these books as recommendations.

But that’s not the real problem. If I want to keep 1984 from showing up as a recommendation again, I need to add it to my collection as a “Read It, Reading It or Want to Read It.” But if I add it to my collection, it’s all the more likely that some other person is going to have to suffer the same ordeal. So I’m stuck in a conundrum: do I add it and save myself some misery, or do I ignore it and continue to grumble everytime I see it on my list.

(Remember this: there’s always a third option. I removed the application from my [rarely used now] Facebook account and went elsewhere).

Now, I am picking on Books iRead, but the other applications have similar problems. At the heart of the matter is the nature of social information in the first place. Our world is full of influences — both traditional and commercial — that hit on our collective ability to coordinate our interests. When I want to know how I am similar to the crowd, simple algorithms work fine. If I want to know how I’m different, there’s a problem.

The Solution:

The solution is empathy, understanding, broad-thinking, letting people help computers think rather than the other way around. That is why I am going to put in some love for LibraryThing over its competitors.

Library Thing is not about its algorithms and that’s the difference. You can tell by its attempts at making the website human. Yes, their “people with your books also have. . .” search gives me the usual suspects like Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence — but then I can just switch to a tags or “special sauce” recommendation. There’s also a neat “easy linking” tool and api, that will try to guess titles from keywords in a URL. For instance, here is the result for “http://www.librarything.com/title/hanky panky/“. Currently I am using this service as part of a Library Thing/Twitter mashup. (It’s vaporware right now, except to people who have followed me on Twitter). There are more surprises coming that direction as well.

But the real secret of Library Thing’s success has little to do with the range of services it offers, but instead in Tim Spalding’s understanding of what libraries are and how they work. For one, he tapped the quagmire that is Z39.50 and took his service one step beyond what just a re-hash of what Amazon has to offer. He added a “talk” section to his website, because he understands that books are one way we connect with other human beings. And he hires librarians too.

So, there’s no wonder Tim Spalding is in Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers. But forget that, give him the freakin’ Reader’s Nobel Peace Prize. Or better yet, howzabout an “I Love You” subscription to the Library Thing service. He deserves to be sitting on a pot of gold, and you’ll be sitting on the (ahem) pot with lots of good reading. Maybe we could also get him a better set of data than that Z39.50 stuff we’ve been handing him too, eh?

And you know what? I also think the same kind of understanding is what makes MetaFilter successful as well. Jessamyn West is revered as a near goddess there, and I can see why. There’s a good mix of the social and the authoritative — which is what librarians have been all about for, like, 100s of years.

In the end, I think librarians rock. The main problems we have occur when we get in our own way — as in insisting on complicated standards where more simple and flexible standards will do. Viva Libraria!

APIs: Who? What? Why? How?

APIs (Application Program Interfaces) are among those things that most presenters talk about with the caveat: “You do not have to know how to do it; you only need to know they exist.” You have to be fair to the presenters — an api is not really something you can explain without actually demonstrating how to use it.

Well, since I spouted a challenge to all those Learning 2.0-ers out there, that they can and should learn a little bit about what goes on under the hood of Web 2.0, I thought I’d give explaining apis a shot. I’m going to do this using four questions: Who? What? Why? How?

Who? :

APIs are most often released by web-based companies that host data created by users. Offering an api in this context is rather obvious: if users create the data, they might want to use it in other places around the web. Business-to-business web services may also offer apis to partners so business can happen more quickly and efficiently (think VISA, PayPal & eBay).

The most popular apis are released in such services as Google Code, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Facebook, and MySpace.

Two apis that I’m going to describe today (with limited detail) are the Twitter, & Twitter Search apis. If you are a beginner, I think the Library Thing api is also quite nice and simple to play with.

What?:

This is where you are free to doze. Just a few acronyms to get you through your day.

  • REST (Representational State Transfer) : This basically means “getting XML data from an api using Http and a URL.” It is the most popular because it is easy.
  • GET/POST : Http commands to do stuff with an api. A “GET” usually means you are just going to output data to the screen. A “POST” usually means you are going to store the data somewhere (eg. in a database).
  • cURL : A popular way to get api data without being worried that the data will cause bad things to happen to your server. Using cUrl is often mandatory with web-hosted servers (like Dreamhost).
  • XML/JSON : Two different ways to markup data. JSON is faster and more friendly when using AJAX. XML is slower, but easier to read, and more easily handled by server-side scripts like PHP.
  • SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) : A harder and more particular way of using data in an API. I’m not going to talk about it much, but suffice it to say that it uses an XML-based protocol to make api requests.
  • WSDL (Web Services Description Language : A complicated standard a Web Company can use to make SOAP a bit easier to use for the rest of us. It meticulously describes every command someone can use in the api.

In general, simple services offer simpler (REST) apis. Get into large, complicated services where money gets exchanged or whatnot (eg. Business to Business data exchange, eBay) and you are going to find SOAP and WSDL.

Why? :

You would use a API for the following reasons:

  • to create a widget for your website or blog.
  • to create a Mashup (a combining of two different services).
  • because you want to store or organize data in a service for your own personal use.
  • to do something cool without having to build a service from scratch.
  • to provide a unique way to show a service’s data (eg. tag clouds, visualizations etc.)

How? :

My 10 Step Program:

  1. Read the api instructions and find out what you can and cannot do with the api. For instance, the Twitter api does not (as of today) offer a “search” for twitter. For that you need the Twitter Search api, which is an entirely different web service.   UPDATE:    Twitter now offers its own Twitter Search api.
  2. Choose your coding method. Yup! APIs require coding ability — that’s why conference presenters don’t want to spend too much time explaining it to you. AJAX is the client side api tool. PHP, JAVA, PYTHON & RUBY are probably the most common server side tools. (Don’t stop here just because you do not know how to code. I can at least explain the process of how apis work!)
  3. Use Curl (PHP etc.) or the HttpRequestObject (AJAX) to grab information from a URL. What you want to do is usually indicated through the URL. For instance, to get the last 20 statuses from one of your friends (MYFRIEND) in Twitter you would use
    http://username:password@twitter.com/statuses/friends_timeline/MYFRIEND

    (using your username and password from Twitter).

  4. Use your coding skills to manipulate the data you receive from the URL. PHP has a nice tool called SimpleXML to do this. AJAX uses the XML DOM. XPath is another way to get your way around an XML file. Or maybe you just want to template the data using XSLT.
  5. Output the data to the screen or a file for later storage. Html is usually quite nice.
  6. Run the page and find out you have a gazillion errors. Go back to #4 until you have them all fixed.
  7. Share with your friends to show how geeky you are.
  8. Clean up your code and provide lots of comments so you can understand what you did later.
  9. Find ways to make your script run faster.
  10. Secure the code (hiding that username and password might be a start).

That’s the basics behind using an api.

Final Words :

API is a buzz word in many circles. I have seen it bandied around by all sorts of people who have no true understand about what it is or what it does. Knowing what an api is will help you make better decisions about products. Here are some api axioms for librarians:

  1. Demand an api. Web-based products that store data you own should have an api of some sort. Look to the competition or an open source product if your product people say “no.”
  2. You need to know what you (or your coders) can do with that api. It ought not be enough for a vendor to say your desired product has an api. Creating an api is easy. Creating a useful api is more challenging.
  3. Respect the rules of the api. Each time you call that URL for the api means you are using the service’s web resources. Most services create limits on the number of request you make per second (usually no more than one per).
  4. Expect alot, but not the moon. Apis cannot do everything. Expecting to be able to search gazillions of items from an http request in an XML file is not going to do you or the service favors (especially if that search includes an “OR,” a “NOT” or any regular expression. Expect to get a limited amount of data in a single request. If you want more, store it on your own server (with permission or license) and work it that way.
  5. Mash-it-up! Working two apis together is really, really fun. Possibilities are (almost) endless.

Does a Fish Know It’s Wet? : Access to Scholarly Journals in Public Libraries

Heather Morrison discusses what she calls an “access gap” for scholarly journals in public libraries.   She claims:

The local public library will have interlibrary loan service; however, with limited staffing looking after everything from storytime for preschoolers to special services for teens, adults, seniors, and more, not to mention buying books and running the library, the public library cannot begin to think about providing the same level of service as a university document delivery service, with a much smaller gap to fill.

The issue will be a familiar one for anyone who works in a public library.   While most libraries will attempt to provide access to some journals, the reality is that other needs take precedent over scholarly work.   Certainly, fostering a love of reading in children cannot begin with scholarly journals; literacy work is not supported by scholarly database;   “pop” non-fiction will get a library more “thank god for the library” comments than anything coming out of Ebsco.

In short, one can easily dismiss Morrison’s analysis with the simple statement:  “there’s little demand for it.”

There a conundrum in public libraries that always creeps up as well.   How far do we go to educate learners?   Do we fill our collections with Charles Dickens and Homer as a way to expand minds, or do we let the paper backs flow with the hopes that something comes out of your mass-produced formulaic and barely literate romance, western or mystery novel?    Do we let Google satisfy your average reference query, or do we drag people kicking and screaming to the databases where they may get the real goods on what’s going on in the world (sort of).

Morrison also uses the example of typical alumnus who, as a student, has access to just about everything under the sun, research-wise, but who has their access reduced to less than 5% of they had before.   Considering many of these alumni will be professionals — working as public servants, lawyers, doctors, or whatnot — this is a great concern.   One that, clearly, public libraries ought to address if they were not so busy keeping up with all their other services.

The group Morrison does not mention, however, is the group that most concerns me — those who do not know scholarly journals exist in the first place, or who, for one reason or another do not care.  Again, the conundrum appears again.   Is this a case where a fish does not know it’s wet, or the natural order of things.   Most of the people I know leaving college were more than happy to stop taking courses and being told what reality is — not because profs were so particularly paternal/maternal but because there is life beyond intellectual pursuits and they wanted a piece of that life.   On the other hand, it is hard to say what choices people would make if they had a choice among the blogosphere, wikipedia, mainstream news and scholarly literature and full awareness of latter’s role in understanding the truth.

A good example is the pseudo-myth of the online predator.  As Bruce Schneier has uncovered, most parents’ fears of online predators lurking after their children are unfounded.   The mainstream news, and even Google for a good while, would suggest differently — it is the scholarly literature that is best able to handle such a question without blurring the issue behind sensationalism and fear.  If parents were more easily able to access and evaluate such literature, there could be a lot of headaches saved all over the world on this issue.   Climate change is another obvious issue that comes to mind as well.  Ditto most health scares.   Anyone who thinks gaming is a waste of time should look at the time wasted worrying about things that don’t matter.

I   don’t have any answers here, although I will say that Morrison’s support of open access scholarship seems a reasonable response to me.   Bring the scientific research out into the public eye via Google is better than throwing big chunks of public library budgets at the big name academic publishers.    Perhaps the more real research there is, the more Digg and Wikipedia will use it as a check on what they present to their audiences.   The better Wikipedia articles are, in fact, those with the most citations.

On the other hand, scholars are as much a victim of the wet fish syndrome as those who do not read it.   Writing in the scholarly world is focussed on those things non-researchers could care less about: methodologies, procedures, scholarly pedigrees and the like.   Is there any wonder why a book like Guns, Germs and Steel will always have more popular interest than anything on Geo-ref?   Maybe popular non-fiction is the better road to knowledge?

It’s very very hard to speculate on a world where access to scholarly information was truly free to all.    Humankind’s reaction to a little bit of truth should not be underestimated, for its volatility.    Personally, I think the dream is worth a shot.