diamond geezer

 Monday, June 01, 2009

Story of LondonToday sees the start of the Story of London festival, a month-long Boris-led celebration of the capital's heritage. There are hundreds of events, most based around four themed weekends (walks, film, history and architecture). Fantastic, eh? I read all about it in a glossy 20-page leaflet that fell out of Saturday's newspaper. It made the whole thing look very impressive, but didn't quite give me all the details I needed to actually attend anything. Instead it informed me that "precise details of all of them can be found on the website: www.london.gov.uk/storyoflondon". And that's where the whole thing falls over, because the website is an impractical quagmire. Where shall we start?

Let's start with events happening next weekend, the festival's Walking Weekend. There are apparently "over 150 walks", although the website only lists 114. Some of these walks are probably local to you, and many look excellent. The problem is that all 114 walks are lumped together in a headline-only list, spread over 12 pages, with no way of re-grouping them by theme, location, time, provider or price. There's no overview of, say Blue Badge Guide-led walks, or free walks, or southwest London walks. Instead you have to trudge through the entire list, clicking on anything that sounds interesting to discover more, then clicking back to continue your trawl. Fancy a nice walk on Saturday morning followed by a nice walk on Saturday afternoon? Good luck finding two that mesh together.

Many of these walks would have been happening anyway and have simply attached themselves to the Story of London festival to attract publicity. Some aren't walks at all, just tours of buildings. One of the free walks had a booking deadline last Friday, before any of the festival's (rather belated) publicity began, so you've already missed your chance. Only 22 of the weekend's guided walks are free, the rest cost an average of £7 each (I shouldn't grumble, but I'm used to free festival events - which is clearly not the Boris way). And 24 of the walks listed aren't even taking place during the Walking Weekend at all, which is just sloppy website construction.

To save you having to pick through the SoL event swamp, here's a list of the free walks on offer next weekend (plus, where possible, a direct link to the organiser's website). I've asterisked what I think are the highlights.
Sat & Sun: Heritage of London Walking Trails (three East End explorations each day - I did two of these last year and they were excellent)***
Sat 10:30am: Harrow Heritage Trust (five proper suburban walks - shame they're all on at the same time)*
Sat 11am: The Great Fire of 1666 and the Rebuilding of London (only 18 places, must be pre-booked, so I bet that's full)
Sat 11am: A Historic Walk of Lower Edmonton (pre-booking essential)
Sat 11am-4pm: Peninsula Voices GPS Audio Walk (stick on some headphones and discover North Greenwich's local history)**
Sat & Sun 11am: Wellcome Collection guided walks (medical mayhem in Holborn and Greenwich)
Sat & Sun 3pm: From the Romans to Rock 'n' Roll (a historical Holborn wander)
Sun 11am: Black History Walking Tour (kicks off at the Imperial War Museum)
Sun 11am-4pm: Walking West London's waterways (plus narrowboat trips)*

The festival's later weekends are a little easier to navigate, mainly because there's not much actually going on so the list of events is considerably briefer. On the whole, however, I suspect most people who end up on the website are going to lose interest clicking before they find all the gems that might have been of interest to them. And that's a shame, because events which might have been very popular risk going unnoticed and under-attended.

There is a mapsearch based on your postcode, which is quite good at getting summaries of what's on near you, but events don't open in new windows which is a pain, and the "See all results as a text list" option churns out a huge list ordered alphabetically, not by proximity. There's also the opportunity to search by date, but with the usual problem of one-off events being scattered amongst lists of month-long non-events (which is precisely the same annoying problem that plagues the - suspiciously similar - Visit London website). Sorry, it's alphabetical order or nothing, because that's all the software seems to be able to cope with. Thankfully there are also some useful "itinerary" pages (like, for example, this list of free theatre tours), otherwise event-spotting would be a real nightmare.

Let's test this out. The fabulous Crossness Pumping Station will be open on one particular day in June. How long will it take you to find out precisely when? There are also some special events happening at City Hall. Time yourself and see how long it takes you to find them. And there are only two one-off events on Thursday 18th June. How quickly can you discover them (if you can even be bothered)?

It's a shame, but event-listing websites appear to be increasingly drawn towards impractical automated database-driven solutions. It's like throwing several sparkly needles into a haystack, then inviting readers to try to find them. We need more listings pages written by human beings, not auto-generated by computer. Pages where somebody's selected, ordered and recommended events objectively, not assumed that they're all of equal value. Pages where you can view details of more than one event at a time, rather than having to click click click all the time to uncover what's relevant. Pages that don't leave you hunting through hundreds of pins on a slowly-generated map. Pages where events are listed in order of specialness, or rarity, not A first and Z last. Pages that are more like leaflets, and less like headline summaries. Obviously a human overview costs more, but that's because it's far more useful. Somebody somewhere needs to realise that codemonkey-generated websites aren't the optimal systems for generating comprehensive stakeholder solutions.

Sorry, I could go on and on about inadequate listing-engines for ages, it's a hobbyhorse of mine. I don't enjoy slagging off publicly funded websites, but I do despair when they could so obviously be more useful. In the meantime good luck in getting hold of a Story of London booklet, otherwise who knows what you're going to miss.

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