I last wrote about siftr, a collaborative mapping tool from Field Day in Madison, WI, almost two years ago. In case you’re coming to this fresh, siftr is a fantastic and simple tool to quickly build and populate collaborative maps. From citizen science to recording graffiti to documenting one’s backyard, siftr makes it easy to set up totally custom maps of an intended sort of “data” and to painlessly ask others to contribute using pretty much any device. The foundation has been and still is associating an image, GPS coordinates, and a category with a pin on a map.
I’m writing again about it today because there are some significant updates that make the tool even better and easier to use. Briefly,
- The kinds of data that can be collected are more varied and customizable by the author of the siftr,
- There are now cross platform apps and still the website, making siftr one of the most flexible tools out there, and
- There have been a host of UI improvements that should make it easier to create data and see it.
Review: What’s a siftr?
Siftr is a free and open source (MIT license) tool for the creation of collaborative maps and the activity of contributing to those maps. It exists as both a website where you can view and create/edit your siftrs, and as a iOS and Android apps that make it easy for people to contribute to, view, and weigh in on those maps.
You sign up for an account at siftr.org, or if you already have an ARIS account or have signed in to the Field Day forums, just use those credentials, it’s all the same account.
Once signed in you can see your siftrs, create new ones, etc. I’ll point you back to my original post for a few more details, which are still helpful even though the UI looks a bit different. But the short of it is that siftr is very easy to set up. Just take a minute or two to think of the names you want to use before you and the mappers you hope to enlist are up and running.
Siftr is still very good at putting image and place together, combined with a single unifying categorization scheme that is used to color the resulting map icons and is the primary method of sorting the resulting data. But what’s new is the ability to add many other kinds of data to this.
New Data, very varied
Probably the most important update to siftr is the flexibility it has gained in the kinds of data you can collect. There are still some categories that they haven’t gotten to—still no audio or video elements so you’ll still need ARIS notebook or something similar for those—but this should greatly increase the number of jobs to which siftr can be put, particularly those where multi-dimensional categorization of single data points is important.
You can get a sense of what’s possible in siftr by taking a look at the new form builder in the editor.
Here are the new fields you can add to the existing set (image, caption, category). Each can be named by the siftr author.
- Single choice – mapper chooses one among multiple possible choices
- Multiple choice – mapper can mark “all that apply”
- Small text field – this can be used for numerical text as well as alphanumeric
- Large text field – these two just differ in how the UI presents the text
- Additional photo – Instead of having just one photo associated with the data point, you can have one or more additional photos, each with their own title.
Again, there’s still some stuff missing: audio, video, and data points minus the images. Each siftr starts with and requires those three main data fields (image, caption, category) as of now. If you have ideas for any other additional fields or kinds of data that should be included, please get in touch with me and Field Day via the forums. Siftr is still in active development and the team wants to make the most useful and flexible tool they can.
Finally regarding data, this isn’t a new field but just as important: you can get your data out of siftr. When you log in as the author, there’s an easy to find button that allows you to output your siftr directly to a .csv. The .csv file of course does not contain the jpg image files but it does include url’s for those files.
Many of the text fields in siftr are more than just plain text. The description the author creates for the mappers, the captions, and the additional textfields should all support markdown and will automatically turn urls into links.
This may not seem like a big deal, but there are a lot of possible uses for text that goes beyond the very basics. One of the coolest I know of personally was a poetry in place creation put together by my colleague in the Honors College, Amaris Ketcham. Her first prototypes used siftr to situate poetry in place. Ultimately though she used other tools to publish this work because at the time siftr could not format the text of the posts, a must for poets. With markdown in captions this should no longer be a problem (though in my most recent tests, this is broken, I have been assured by Field Day that this is a bug and will be fixed).
Uploading on the go
Siftr is now about a million times better at preventing your hard work from evaporating due to poor network conditions. It caches your posts locally and uploads them asynchronously as it gets the chance. If siftr crashes (and yes this still happens to me a lot) the posts are still there and still eventually upload. And this is why I will tell you about the crashes but not complain: all you lose is a couple seconds to relaunch the app and get back in. It’s not a biggie.
I’ve been stress testing this in my own backyard; at UNM we supposedly have a wifi umbrella that covers the majority of indoor and outdoor spaces but in practice it is so frustrating that many students simply turn wifi off on their phone. I have been running all around campus, finding data points (I’m documenting the space for potential features in an upcoming campus-based game), snapping pics and typing in text, and quickly putting the device away or moving on to an immediately adjacent data point. I have uploaded more than 50 data points over a couple of long sessions and haven’t lost one. Lots of crashes, and some other glitches, but the data eventually all got there and I didn’t need to hold its hand to make this happen either.
I can’t express enough how nice it is to not have to worry so much about flaky internet making my mapping feel like a drag. If you used siftr over the last couple years, I think you will very pleasantly note this change.
A small word of warning though: my experience on mobile is limited to the iOS app. An Android version exists but I haven’t used it yet.
Cross all the platforms
As mentioned a bit above, siftr has iOS and Android apps. These make it really easy for those contributing to maps to find their siftrs, upload new data, and generally keep in touch. But siftr is just as accessible from the web, meaning you can add data, edit the siftr, or view the collection on just about any device. Having the website up on a large screen for a group to discuss the data is an especially useful thing.
Being used to working with folks in ARIS, it is really nice to not have to figure out the logistics around who has what brand device with them and how to work together to make sure everyone can participate. I still think a lot of classroom activities shouldn’t be 1–1 because talking to each other is an important ingredient in learning, but when the task includes going off on your own in your spare time to add things to the map, cross platform is really nice to have handy.
The UI’s the thing
Field Day has spent a lot of their development time since I last wrote making siftr look and feel a lot better. The changes are too numerous to mention, but there are a couple that I do want to single out (and likely I’m so used to it that I miss the big ones—write in and let us know what bug UI changes you see).
Previously there were two main styles of view: map with points on it, and grid of photos. Hybrid puts these together, showing the map with points on the right and a gallery of thumbnails (just of the data points in the current map view) on the left. This goes a long way in making it easy for a viewer to make connections between where things have been collected and the images that make up the data.
You still cannot see which thumbnail belongs to which data point, except by trying to find a zoom level on the map that makes this obvious. It is often hard to find the place a surprising photo was taken.
Edit: I found today that siftr now does show you where a data point lies. This makes Hybrid view very useful! In Hybrid View, hover your mouse cursor over the image whose location you want to find. The image and corresponding map marker jump a bit, allowing you to find it.
Siftr now does a much better job of moving you through the many parts of creating something, whether this is the author creating the siftr or the mapper creating a datapoint. Each step is simple and gentle and leads to the next. Out mapping I found it quite easy to tap, tap, tap my way through multiple entries.
Siftr has made some big strides to being easier, more reliable to use, and is likely useful in far more situations than it has been in the past. That is not to say that it doesn’t have rough edges or room to improve. I don’t want to make a laundry list of bugs and problems here, but maybe knowing about a couple of these can help head off any sense of unease when you’re getting started. I have found that knowing that there will be rough edges tames my expectations in a way that usually helps me get down to the mapping itself, and more easily distinguished between something that’s incorrect or inconvenient, and something that really prevents me from using this tool for real work.
For instance, siftr crashes a fair bit. I haven’t lost data or had it crash while in the middle of creating a data point. It mostly happens when I come back to it after a few idle minutes. This could be annoying but it’s not really so bad, and reminding myself of that is really all I need to forget about it in practice.
But the lack of video recording really does mean I can’t use siftr for lots of things that are ehtnographic in nature, like how Tim Frandy used the ARIS notebook in his Folklore 101 courses.
So here’s a couple things you might want to know.
Categories are King
Category is the primary control you have over your collection. If this fits your data, siftr works well. If not, you’re mostly stuck with it. This came up in my last blog post about siftr because at that time categories had recently replaced the tagging system siftr was born with. Categories are very strong. They are linked with the color of map icon, and while you can turn individual categories one/off in the interface (along with other customizations) you cannot choose to view your data from a perspective other than categories. And you must pick from one of a very few color schemes to represent those categories. More often than not I find the palettes inappropriate for my categories, and feel a bit hamstrung by the number and variety of colors an author can select. It is a rare situation where there is any real correlation between the possible color of a category and its meaning. I still miss being able to define your own icons to represent data.
The Color Trap
However, one annoyance with categories is at least less. You can change which color from the palette represents a given category. If you end up with a category that has a terrible mismatch, say “cold” is represented by red, just open up your categories in the siftr editor and click on the red dot next to “cold”. This will allow you to choose another of the six available colors instead. This can also be helpful if you have more categories than colors and wish to have some control over the redundancy.
Perhaps in the future you’ll be able to choose not just from on-palette colors, or in my dreams, be able to use this same interface to upload a custom map icon. That would lose the nice blending of points visual that is used to un-crowd the map at different zoom levels, but to be honest, this feature has always demo’d better than it has served my actual data. It tends to be over-aggressive in coalescing points so that it is hard to see where data points really are. Often this is a more important thing to see than a not-too-crowded map.
Maybe a bit too clean
In general, there’s still work to be done on making certain ideas and actions intuitive. The UI feels a lot like iOS 7 to me. It is clean and spare. It feels nice to look at on its own. But the spareness of the UI makes it easy to sometimes not see that there’s a button or option. In the editor for instance, there are a mixture of tabs at various levels, and some of the options are labeled only with images, not text. This has the overall effect of making it easy to not see where you set a certain parameter, or if you’re new, that that parameter is something you can set. In the screenshot below, we are in the “map options” tab of the editor, tab 2 across the top left of the screen, highlighted with thin blue line that is easy to miss. We are also in a nested set of tabs, indicated by icons without labels on the top right. Which tab we are in is indicated by the darkness of the icon. Below those, we are making a choice between two map styles, indicated by a thin blue outline. These too are illustrated by small images. There is description text for the active choice but not the inactive one. The huge map on the left (I believe) is only relevant to the (currently in the screenshot) inactive choice “focus on map” but it is still the dominant part of the screen.
One of the recent changes puts total control on the rendering of the background map in the hands of the author. On the one hand this is a nice level of customization. On the other hand, if the mapper needs a satellite or street view, they are stuck with what the author wanted. And since the theme is the second among 3 tabs, and the editor does not directly force the author to see this screen, chances are the author does not know they are taking this control from the mapper. You have to go through a lot of views just to see how you have things set up even though there are not that many options altogether.
Compare that to the “settings” screenshot from my first siftr post. While not as pretty, I would take the old set up if I could.
On the whole it is hard to know that the tabs are nested, what the icons stand for, the difference between being in a tab among many and making a choice for your siftr, and what indicates selection. Most of the options of all sorts are vague because you have to go on image alone, or hard to discover because you might just miss that tab on your way through the editor. The layout looks nice in how it is spaced and how the elements sit on the eye. But functionality of knowing and setting the important options seems to be impaired somewhat. I work around this by double checking the screen to see if there’s a tab or other icon whose functionality might be almost hidden but which might be important. The literacy of “clicking stuff to see what it does” is an important one, so I’m not altogether sad. But I have already fielded a few questions on the forums from people missing these details.
Similarly, going back to edit data points is a bit of a murky “click and see” process.
Another area of confusion, this time as a mapper, surrounds image cropping. When taking the photo, it looks something like a 4:3 ratio, the picture you see after snapping is long, maybe 16:9 or 2:3, and then the thumbnail you see most easily afterwards is square. The image linked in the ulr in the .csv file is approximately 4:5 and 800 pixels wide. When images are quick notes, this isn’t too big a problem, but any time the content of the image is key and not just something that is in frame, this uncertainty with cropping can be maddening.
Let’s get siftring
I don’t want fault Field Day too much for the rough edges in siftr or the above gripes to cool you on what really is a great and easy to use tool for getting to know our world together. I think you run into these kinds of problems when you have to guess at what users might do rather than being able to work through actual use cases. With siftr and ARIS, we are often in the case of guessing what people will want to do with tools whose uses we hope to emerge in some sense from the existence of the tool.
So I imagine these kinds of things get better by people like us trying to actually use siftr to make things with each other, finding those rough edges, and documenting them. As Field Day (or someone else) gets a chance to take another pass on UI or the data fields or whatever, if they have these concrete examples in their pockets, it should be easier to find ways to make the tool fit its uses and users better.
Siftr is a great, unique tool that gives more scientists, educators, and communities new ways to send us outside into our worlds to explore and share what we find. The general character of the recent updates is quite encouraging and exciting. I have found that colleagues and acquaintances—from the sciences to the humanities and in-between—find a lot of relevance in what siftr can do, and have an easy time picking up and running with siftr when ARIS seems like too much trouble, and their reasons seem to boil down to a few simple things:
- Siftr has a tiny learning curve. It takes a few minutes to get fully.
- Siftr is a simple tool to use. An idea and a minute is all you need to get started.
- Siftr can support activities without a lot of up front work on the part of the teacher (or other sort of author). The content is created by the mappers by and large, and all they need is enough information to go out and find. You can even imagine that this step is minimal, and the first experience is more on-the-job training than data collection.
- Because siftr is so cross platform, there are few barriers to entry or how you might use it with a group.
Siftr is often the shortest distance to going outside and exploring our world together instead of learning just from our books individually.
Even for those edge cases that seem to fall outside siftr, I’d recommend creativity. For instance, take the problem of no audio notes in siftr. While it is not a total substitute, in many situations we might be able to dictate to our phones, using their ability to parse spoken language as a way of disintermediating the audio record in cases where analysis really begins once a transcript has been produced.
Try a siftr!
If you’re in the area, I have a few siftrs going, and if not there are a couple others you might want to join.
- UNM in spring – come with me to document the arrival of springtime on campus in plants, animals and people
- UNM Space as Play – this is the map of possible game locations and ideas across campus I’m putting together.
- Goathead – I’m hoping to eradicate some of these nuisance plants from the parts of my world where they are responsible for injuries and flat tires. If you succeed in removing a plant, take aa picture and share it with the rest of us.
- Zia Catcher – The Zia, that is the Zuni sun symbol, is on the NM state flag, but that’s not all. It’s everywhere around here: shirts, skin, beer cans, everything. I thought it might be fun to mark some of the places we see this adopted (by most) symbol of who and where we are. If you see them outside NM, that would be fine too.
- Digital graffiti gallery – This predates siftr itself and was my testing ground as siftr came to be and evolved. It was Ivan Kenarov’s project in my local games class in 2010, and is just a fantastic idea that has really stuck around for me and others. I wrote about my continued joy in using this as a lens to explore my community here, and there is a live siftr you can check out and contribute to.