Home 9 Featured Posts 9 ATG Interviews Curtis Michelson, Founder of Minds Alert, LLC

ATG Interviews Curtis Michelson, Founder of Minds Alert, LLC

by | Jun 11, 2018 | 0 comments

By Tom Gilson (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) gilsont@cofc.edu
And Katina Strauch (Editor, Against the Grain) strauchk@cofc.edu


ATG: Curtis can you tell a little bit about your company Minds Alert? What does Minds Alert do? How does it relate to libraries and publishing?

CM: I founded the firm a few years ago because I wanted to have a consulting practice focused on Higher Ed in all its many beautiful aspects – universities campuses and administrations, libraries, learned societies and presses. My background going back a couple decades was building metadata systems for University Presses and when you work with metadata, you touch just about every part of a publishing workflow and you get to know many parts of the scholarly comms ecosystem. This consulting practice keeps me close to the nerds I love to hang with, too.

ATG: You recently published an article on the Educause Review website entitled “NextGen Innovation in Scholarly Communications: An Exemplary Collaboration between a Research Library and a Technology Partner.”  Exactly what partnership were you referring to? How did their collaboration work? Were students and/or faculty involved in the project?

CM: Well, it was a partnership between JSTOR Labs and Columbia Libraries and I think it was exemplary because, unlike many projects funded by big donors focused on big mission, this was bootstrapped, and pursued co-creatively. And, I should add as a personal note, ran circles in terms of quality output, around another project I had consulted on a year before. I was humbled. How did they pull this off? And how did they hit on such a good approach using less money and delivering working software in less time than everyone else. I wanted their secret sauce!

ATG: You mentioned it was “bootstrapped.” Where did their money come from?

CM: “Bootstrapped” in the sense that both sides provided resources, mostly in-kind. Columbia provided their own staff which consisted of a VP Technology, as well as two librarians, and of course they provided the meeting space itself for the design workshops, and they helped recruit end-users for testing the prototypes along the way. JSTOR Labs provided their own staff’s time and expertise. I interviewed five of their team members – Christina Spencer (ITHAKA’s manager of user research), Alex Humphreys (project lead), Ron Snyder (the technical architect), Matthew Loy (strategic initiatives manager), Beth Dufford (project facilitator) and Laura Brown (JSTOR Director). From the library side, I interviewed Barbara Rockenbach (Associate University Librarian for Research and Learning) who certainly felt the time invested was worth it for them.

ATG: In this collaboration between JSTOR Labs and Columbia University Libraries what did each of the partners need to bring to the table to make it a success?

CM: JSTOR Labs brought two ingredients if you will – the tech in their labs (some natural language processing technologies for parsing and making meaning from texts) and their quite evolved approach to value discovery. By that last part I mean they have a wonderful way of getting diverse folks together to collaborate and discover new solutions to vexing problems. That’s not easy in any context – for profit, nonprofit, or government, particularly in academe, where silos still rule and pecking orders persist a plenty.

Columbia libraries provided the just right location for idea exploration and testing, in context near the customer, as we like to say (it was an effort focused on improving the monographic reading experience after all). And they provided key library stakeholders and were able to lend credibility and gravitas to draw in heavy hitter directors from folks like AHA, MLA, etc.

ATG: You note that JSTOR Labs has a wonderful way of getting diverse folks together to collaborate and discover new solutions. Are you aware of examples other that this project?

CM: Yes, they do. In fact, when I called Alex Humphreys for some amplification on that point he said, “We’ve used a variation of this process on almost every one of JSTOR Labs’ projects and are big believers in how generative, effective and just-plain-fun it can be. We’ve tried, both in blog posts, videos, and many, many presentations to describe this process to encourage anyone who might want to try it.  I’m also encouraged that we’re now seeing forward-thinking grant-making organizations approach us about using the process on projects.”

ATG: Are the heavy hitter directors that JSTOR Labs was able to draw in names our readers would recognize?

CM: Sure, folks like Seth Denbo, executive director of AHA, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication at MLA, Amy Brand, director of MIT Press, Jevin West, from the DataLab at U of Washington and Laura Mandell, head of the Digital Humanities research center at Texas A&M. The key here is the diversity of the stakeholders who brought so many different skills and disciplines to the table; like, publishers, data scientists, librarians, etc.

ATG: We notice that the resulting Topicgraph tool is in beta. Is it available for other libraries to examine and provide input on?

CM: Yes, it is. And there’s a companion product called Text Analyzer which is even more extensible and able to be used by libraries via JSTOR’s rich APIs.

ATG: Do you have to subscribe to JSTOR to have access to the text analyzer?

CM: For libraries who just want to experiment with Text Analyzer’s simple direct interface, just go here, and try it out. That’s free and open to use, but of course, click thrus to the actual artifacts (full text) would require JSTOR account.
Text Analyzer also has a developer program which is in beta. But if you sign up for their partner program, your library’s dev team can access the power of Text Analyzer to catalog the library’s own material.

I’d also like to point out another really nice example of how this team communicates in a user-centered way the value of their products: this promo video for Text Analyzer is brilliant. Much that libraries can learn from their style of communication, too. Imagine if library OPACs documentation were put together like that?!

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