Alex Ball — Interests
The use of ICT in the Library and Information sector has always been something that has interested me, and has been a theme running through my career.
My current main responsibility is running and developing the University of Bath Research Data Archive, which is built on top of EPrints. So as well as being a Research Data Librarian, I am also an EPrints developer, and by extension a Perl developer. But I like to think of myself as a library developer more generally, and I’ve put my skills to use in other ways, such as the RDA Metadata Standards Catalog and the GW4 Research Data Triage Tool.
In my previous roles I have worked on a range of technical issues:
- metadata for scientific and other research data;
- use of metrics in evaluating data quality and tracking impact;
- data licensing and the legal interoperability of data;
- citing research data;
- Web archiving;
- long term archiving of computer-aided design (CAD) models;
- resource discovery tools and networks.
While I don’t get to work on all of these all the time, I do keep coming back to them every so often. For example, one of my early roles was working on resource discovery tools for public library stock (supporting interlibrary lending) and now I’m plugging our data repository into infrastructures for global research data discovery.
The thing that got me into coding was learning to write documents using LaTeX. Even though LaTeX documents are mainly marked-up plain text, there is a Turing-complete programming language underneath for changing how the document turns out.
I started with customizing documents individually, then saving my changes to reusable packages. Now I maintain packages that others might be able to use as well:
Beamerswitch, for convenient mode switching (and additional handout layouts) in Beamer
Oxref, a set of biblatex styles inspired by the Oxford Guide to Style and New Hart’s Rules
Official LaTeX (and CSL) implementations of the University of Bath Harvard citation style
Unofficial slide template for University of Bath presentations
Unofficial slide templates for Research Data Alliance presentations
Experimental package for drawing Interactive Fiction maps using TikZ
My first foray into writing actual programs was in the context of the KIM Project. I wrote a desktop Java application, RRoRIfE, for calculating migration pathways between CAD formats based on priorities for significant properties.
Going to the JISC Developer Happiness Days introduced me to a whole range of new programming languages, an experience for which I am eternally grateful. These days, when I need to automate a task, I generally turn to Python and write a command-line application. Most of these are highly task specific, but here are a couple that might be of interest:
I also wrote the RDA Metadata Standards Catalog as a Python (Flask) Web application.
Even though Python is great for productivity, I do try to learn the basics of a new language each year to broaden my horizons a bit, so I have dipped a metaphorical toe in languages like Ruby, Scala, Erlang, Clojure, Scheme, Lua and Elixir. And of course I use Perl for the day job.
I am an enthusiast for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Having experienced the upgrade treadmill of proprietary commercial software and the somewhat murky and icky world of shareware, coming to FOSS culture felt like a tremendous relief.
I started trying out Linux distributions around 2005, and found myself drawn to Ubuntu, but I finally took the plunge and moved my laptop over to Kubuntu in February 2008, when the RAM went bad and Windows couldn’t cope. Having managed to get just about everything I wanted running smoothly on XP, it was a bit of a pain learning how to do it all again on Linux, but having completed the transition I found I really enjoyed it.
I was very lucky that my employer was and is willing to tolerate non-standard IT setups, as I switched over to running Linux on my work machines as well in 2011 and have been using it full time ever since. Not only do I find it generally pleasant to work with, I think it has also helped me improve much faster as a developer.
While at the DCC, I delivered a modest amount of training in research data management to academic support staff. In my first two years with the University of Bath Research Data Service, one of my main responsibilities was training staff and postgraduate students, again in research data management.
In 2019, I qualified as a Carpentries instructor, which means I now teach practical coding and data science skills to library and information-related staff and other non-data scientists. I have found the skills I’ve learned useful in all sorts of ways, and I love being able to pass them one to others.
My biggest hobby is music. At one point I was Grade VIII standard on the flute, and although I’m no pianist I can bash out the odd tune on a keyboard. I mainly sing nowadays, particularly with my local parish church choir and the St George Singers (see us in action). In times gone by I have sung with the Elizabethan Madrigal Singers (University of Wales, Aberystwyth), the Wykeham Singers (New College, Oxford), Wedmore Opera, and the Somerset County Youth Choir. I was also a founding member of a short-lived 3-5 part a cappella group called The QuadWranglers, for which I contributed about a third of the music we performed – mostly light-hearted material.
These days I write my music using Lilypond, a process made considerably more pleasant by the Frescobaldi editor (others are available). I have tried several applications over the years and out of all of them I’ve found Lilypond to be the most future-proof and give the best output. Being text-based, it is also really good for putting compositions under version control.
As a youth I enjoyed reading Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books, and my some of my earliest computing lessons involved playing text adventures on a BBC Micro. So imagine my delight on discovering a thriving Interactive Fiction community. I’ve been playing my way some of the classics and even written a couple of my own adventures.
Web design is something for which I have developed a morbid fascination, not that you'd know it from some of my early attempts. Having said that, the site I set up for my family in 2004 was ahead of its time, being a static website generated from dynamic source code, before it was fashionable or indeed pleasant to do so.
I confess to a weakness for “cult TV”, from the early shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who to the more modern ones like, erm, Doctor Who.