Screenshot of art map project

Working on self initiated projects in ‘work hours’ & the value of dedicating time to your passions

A case study on artmapproject.com

Background

I cannot tell you how many heated debates i’ve been part of in discussing the art and culture of my home city of Manchester…or indeed, the apparent lack of it. I had been often been told in the past by friends that Manchester has ‘no art scene’. My argument being that there were surely artists, art and culture, but a lack of community that I could find. I found it incredible that there was not one place to find all of Manchester’s cultural institutions, galleries and underground venues. If I, who had lived here my entire life, who works in the arts and heritage industry, who obsesses about culture in work and social time couldn’t find what was happening, how the hell could anyone else?

Around the time of these arguments (about two years ago) I set about researching where I could find art in Manchester. Where I could hunt down changing exhibitions and undiscovered permanent collections. Rediscovering my own city as it were. I collated information about the large venues and the small, popup exhibits and the permanent displays. I accumulated so much data, for no reason other than to use this information for myself to keep up to date with the culture of the city.

I had no idea how time consuming it would be. Even finding websites for some venues proved a challenge let alone finding their phone numbers, their listings, their addresses!?* How hardcould that be, how hard should that be? I was collecting data without an end goal and it was taking up so much of my spare time. What was I going to do with it?

At the time I was just collecting it because I was learning about the city, about what I was missing out on. I toyed with the idea of using it to further my interests in generative art, using the data to make beautiful installations. I have several ideas for data manipulation that I just don’t have the time to develop and all the while I’m aimlessly collecting latitudes and longitudes of every Manchester art related venue I could find!

I had to eventually put this ‘project’ on the back burner as I had several huge museum projects running concurrently requiring my undivided attention. I continued to use my information to brush up on what was going on, but for nothing else than to quench my own thirst for culture.

I started mentioning the project recently to friends, after a twitter buddy of mine, Darren Murphy (@bonesmurphy) tweeted about needing a repository for manchester’s art venues. I was like, “well, actually, i’ve collected shed loads of info and I’ve started making something”.

Coupled with the great response i’ve had from my ‘Manchester…for the cultured’ google map, I thought this culture database was something I should actually finally develop in some way, and until Darren had said it out loud, aka, actually someone else wanted to use it, I hadn’t realised how useful that could be.

Idea Development

Two months ago I booked in my own development time, and with no funding I embarked on a mammoth task with no clear end point. I knew I needed to use this information somehow in a relevant and useful way. To build something online for like minded people to use and with a goal of letting the wider public know that Manchester did in-fact have an art scene and it wasn’t as underground as some people may have thought.

I knew I wanted to list the data I had found, I also knew I wanted to plot those venues on a map. Further to that, I wanted to give the public immediate access to further information. Whether that be an easy way to find the contact details, website, Twitter account or Facebook page. Or even where they can find the venue in their city! I’ve linked the data to other repositories, finding and listing every connection a venue has to the BBC Your Paintingsarchive- giving the user a chance to SEE art at the click of a button. I’ve furthered this data by actually showing what exhibits the venues are showing at that moment in time. I was hoping users might stumble across a venue or exhibition they didn’t even know existed while also keeping on top of those they already knew.

Listing the exhibitions has been a complete pain in all honesty. If you think that most of these places didn’t have all their information in one place, its a jump to think that they might actually list their exhibitions in a way that’s readable. I started by writing scripts to scrape data, but without one way of always listing, there is no way this could run without constant coding updates and rewrites. In fact, it was actually quicker to manually collate this once a week than to write a script for every single type of listings page that exists to collect their own content. This. is. ridiculous.

How can it stay relevant? I’m hoping that AMP can become a place for venue’s themselves to update their own information. To keep the community updated off their own back. To change the way these institutions think about how people keep in the loop. I’m hoping the community will also help to keep this up to date. I’m hoping venues, institutions and exhibitors will see the benefit of letting the wider public know they exist and want to keep the site running. I’m hoping this will become a force of its own, data generated by the people who want to see it used.

Rey from SoundCloud in Berlin helped conceive the name ‘Art Map Project’ after a recent trip to meet up. A name we felt signifies the collaboration involved in making the site a reality and hopefully how it will continue to stay relevant, by user input.

This is when a personal project is perfect to tackle in ‘work time’. First of all i’m using information i’ve collected out of being passionate about culture, and secondly i’m about to teach myself how to develop ideas in a new way. For this project I started with a completely clean slate, I had never developed online in such an in-depth way, or from the ground up for a site before. I had to teach myself pretty much everything from scratch to get this working in the public domain.

I’d never worked so in depth with PHP or linked databases, with JSON, data interchanging, or customisable mapping. I do regular web development, but often only on smaller projects, or using systems that bolt onto each other quite easily to create the desired effect. Museum software takes up almost all of my time so delving into the larger web projects i’ve often left to other pure web devs. This was an opportunity to teach myself, to push what I knew and to learn some more on top. I wanted to get my workflow in line, to brush up on best practices and dive in head first into a development environment i’ve never dared touch before. To create something from scratch and to populate it with my data. I was petrified but ready for a challenge.

Managing the project

As I said, this is a personal project, I have no funding, or support to make it. It’s been completely built off my own back and in work and spare time. Managing the idea has been something I wanted to do right, from the beginning. If I was using my work time (and therefore losing money), I wanted to make sure I wasn’t wasting it by bad planning.

Studio Contents and I used Tariff Street’s Appsalve to keep track of bugs, ideas and to-do’s. Giving us one place to discuss the project and giving me a clean check list of work to do and issues to fix. This really has taken the project from scraps of emails and hand written notes to a repository for discussion and development.

Design

James Gilbert (Studio Contents) was convinced to devote his spare time for free to come up with branding and an initial design for the site, together we went through several revisions, and are still refining and updating. The site has organically grown around user experience and the growth of the idea, and I can’t ever see the design process ending.

We worked closely together to choose colours, typefaces and come up with the final grid system. We knew we wanted a responsive layout and felt it was a great opportunity to go about this in the best way possible, with lots of planning!

The design is still not final, we’re constantly reviewing, rejigging and it really is evolving as the weeks go by. A lot of people in the digital world talk about Agile development, a strategy we definitely use on this project day to day. Agile design however is not always mentioned. In this project, working this way has been a necessity rather than a choice, and it’s been perfect.

James often simplifies, removing unnecessary visual elements. He’s not going to be happy it’s being discussed here as he isn’t finished making the site design ‘perfect’. Without being able to book his time out for a couple of weeks we both have to be happy with what’s been created so far. Saying that, will it ever be finished? I don’t think there will be ever a time when this design (or project for that matter) will be ‘signed off’.

We often work together on projects and this seemed perfect to help streamline our combined workflow. I’ve used processes and tools I didn’t even know existed, and also those I was aware of but had no reason to use before. If I was booking my time out to build this then I wanted to do it properly, even if I had no clue how I that was actually going to pan out.

Development

Framework

I’ve built AMP in the PHP framework ‘Yii‘, it’s been highly recommended by my office buddies atTariff Street. As I said before, i’ve often built sites using WordPress, Perch, Cargo, or even static in some cases. Never had I built around a bare bones framework to create a site that perfectly suits my needs.

Thanks to the Tariff Street devs being so in depth with Yii i’ve been able to go to them for advice and guidance when i’ve exhausted all other avenues. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot fromJames Galley who has kindly helped me through many frustrations. Which i’m sure aren’t over! It has been a steep learning curve, but this is a tool I am immediately taking into my next project for Salford Museum & Art Gallery.

Maps

I orginally built an early version of AMP using the Google Maps API, and although this worked fine, after a suggestion by Mike Stephens I gave MapBox a whirl.

MapBox’s worldwide map is powered by the OpenStreetMap project. I loved the idea that the data is constantly being collected and the maps improved by crowd sourcing—Similar to AMPs own ethos. The MapBox API also seemed fairly easy to understand. Unfortunately after starting the build a couple of months ago, alot of my hard work was scrapped after MapBox joined forces with Leaflet and released a completely revised API and I had to rebuild from scratch. Which, weirdly, was fine by me! The API had become easier to use and implement, joining with Leaflet had made the features available a lot more powerful and although I had to rewrite, my understanding was better and this wasn’t so much a set back as an opportunity to refine.

Tools

I began by using Coda teamed with LiveReload for coding and testing. After a few weeks of getting comfortable with my workflow and preferred way of working, i’ve since transferred toSublime Text 2 and CodeKit as my favoured combination. This is another way I can see i’m continually improving, knowing what I like and dislike about certain tools and making my processes more effective.

I had never used online repositories before, i’ve never really had to honestly. This project has forced me to work locally, using Git Tower to track changes and using Beanstalk to automatically deploy (and roll back if required!). Two things I didn’t even know I was in desperate need of. I have to say a lot of my workflow improvements have come directly from discovering Chris Coyier and his super helpful screencasts. It really is a breath of fresh air to not get the ‘you’re an idiot if you’re not doing it this way’ attitude of most web ‘guru’s’. Coyier makes new processes less intimidating and exciting to delve into and is not at all patronising, which is refreshing.

I’ve learnt more about optimisation than I ever thought i’d need to. I’m changing the way i’m thinking about web development as the days go by. I’ve gained an understanding about Preprocessors for optimisation (I’m now using SASS, which I moved over to from LESS) and tools like Emmet that help me with my HTML and CSS workflow.

I’m getting faster and more accurate as the days go by. I’m not scared to tackle problems head on and only ask for guidance when I actually need to. Thanks to James Galley, Harry Baileyand Matt Chadwick for their patience and support. I’m lucky to be surrounded by such talented and inspirational developers.

Ongoing process

I have a huge list of “wants”, “needs” and “to do’s” to work through on the site, but i’m happy with the way it’s going. I feel like it’s a project that will always evolve and when time permits I am adding to and refining the user experience. Very much learning as I go along. Its not finished by a long shot. But it’s out there and people are using it. Not only that, but i’m being told its useful. WAHEY! Exactly why it exists.

Art Map Project, for me, was something I wanted to build for myself. A way of accessing art and culture in my city. A community of culture I am really involved with and very much interested in. I suppose AMP came from the desire to create something I myself would use, day to day. I think that’s what happens with most personal projects. Not making something you think everyone else would go crazy for, just something simple. A device that gets you the information that you yourself are lacking, that you NEED.

I’m happy to say it’s now online. Oh sure, it not perfect, but it’s constantly being worked on and I hope as the weeks and months go by it just gets more and more useful. I’m hoping some of the organisations that help support arts and culture in the community see the benefits of it existing and help me develop the idea to become self sufficient.

The site is also in the progress of becoming available to Berlin’s art venues. Growth I never expected from an idea born from being frustrated with a lack of information available.

The Moral

The moral of this particular story is, don’t be afraid to pass up some paid work if the goal in the long run is knowledge. I used to be petrified of saying no to work, to losing clients by being ‘booked up’, and worrying about concentrating on self initiated learning when I could be ‘working’. The point is, no amount of work can give me this same feeling, to have challenged myself and be motivated by the desire to learn. Look, I know its not Google, but to me the accomplishment has been just as big. I set a goal and made it.

I won’t be concerned with taking on larger web development projects in future. In fact i’ll relish it and have fun learning while I do! Go and have a look at the site for yourself, and if you have any suggestions on making it better, you want to collaborate, have ideas on how I can improve my processes, or just want to have a chat, then please do get in touch!

http://www.artmapproject.com/

*On a side note, if you’re an art institution, your landing page should have your name, address, phone number, twitter and Facebook url’s and a description at the bare minimum! To be extra lovely you should supply an RSS feed of your changing exhibitions. It’s so simple! And it will allow many websites to pull information and list you in several places.