diamond geezer

 Saturday, September 04, 2010

Story of LondonI know you've been refreshing since mid-August, waiting for news. But rejoice, because the Story of London festival website is now live. And today we can finally see what cultural treats Boris has lined up for us during the first ten days of October. With a little persistence we can, anyway.

The list of events was supposed to be available on June 30th, according to a timeline deleted from the City Hall website yesterday. But no. Then there was a promise earlier this week that it would be up by September 2nd, but no again. That date was quietly amended to September 3rd, and so it was that the website quietly dribbled out yesterday afternoon. Now today you can hunt through the 100+ events via a map, a search box or a lot of clicking. Actually, a heck of a lot of clicking.

Let's start with the easy-to-find option - the list of three 'Festival Highlights' on the home page. Event 1 is called "London Without... Bazalgette", which is "a guided trail that celebrates one of London’s most important if not fragrant, inventions - the sewage system invented by Victorian Engineer Joseph Bazalgette." Great idea. The two-hour walk features scratch and sniff cards (for that pre- and post-sewer experience) and gin (possibly the real thing, possibly another scratch and sniff card, the listing's not clear). Check the sidebar and you'll see that this walk costs £10, so it's not cheap, and it's running four times starting at (allegedly) 9am. The date graphic is so large that it unintentionally obscures some of the event details, oops. There's also a Google map showing the meeting point, which is the Bazalgette statue on the Embankment near Waterloo Bridge. According to the website this is in the "Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea", which it clearly isn't. According to the website "the trail takes in hidden parts of the Embankment, the remarkable Crossness Pumping station and the Broad Street pump memorial and pub", which is clearly impossible during a 2-hour walk unless someone's got a motor launch to nip the tour party down to Thamesmead. And according to the website if you want tickets you have to book via www.fastetickets.com/sparkculture, which my web browser informs me is a broken link. If it's any comfort, none of the other 100+ event listings appear to be quite this rubbish.

But to find the other 100+ event listings you have to go hunting. Starting with a big long list spread over 13 pages in which each event appears as a thumbnail and a chopped-off summary. In some cases the chopped-off summary reveals enough to entice you in (the London Fire Brigade Museum's holding an open day, you say?). In other cases the first 200 characters reveal nothing (what on earth is the "CoolTan Arts Largactyl Shuffle celebrating World Mental Health Day", and where is it, and do I care?). Click and you can find out more, but you have to click once for each event's details - the site never shows more than one at a time. I lost motivation well before reading number 121, and you probably will too.

But don't worry, because you can also search the listings by type of event - narrow the field down to just walks or just exhibitions or just family-friendly stuff. Although be warned that 70 of the events are classified as talks, which doesn't really narrow things much. But don't worry, because you can also search by specialist interest - be that art or film or medicine or fashion or science or whatever. Or you can search by date - which generates a list headed by events happening on every day of the festival, but with most of the special one-offs hidden away on subsequent pages. But you won't find anything at all without searching. And you still have to click a heck of a lot of times to read everything that might be of interest.

But don't worry, because there's also a map. You can scan around your neighbourhood and see what the festival's offering in your backyard, if anything. That's nothing at all if you live in Hillingdon, Harrow, Enfield, Haringey, Wandsworth, Merton, Croydon or Kingston. And just a single event location in Hounslow, Ealing, Croydon, Sutton, Bexley, Havering, Brent and Barnet. Still, that's only half of London I've mentioned there - you might be lucky and live in the other half. In which case be warned that the map only shows the first event in any one location, so if the second or third event might interest you, sorry, you won't see them here.

My apologies if you're the lovely people who put the website together, because I've long had a bee in my bonnet about the dysfunctionality of most modern event-listing websites. I firmly believe that this kind of bitty database-driven website is the online equivalent of hiding all your best treasures in a bran tub and then inviting members of the public to dip their hand in. They might find the event that's a perfect match, but unless they choose to search appropriately they'll never find it before walking away. And then lots of genuinely good events go unnoticed and nobody turns up and the organisers' hard work goes unappreciated, and all because the search engine was inadequate.

What I much prefer to see is a human-compiled summary, not an auto-generated churn list. I like events ordered by relevance, not shuffled by computer. I like to read an overview containing all salient details, not just clickable headlines. Ideally I like a big pdf/booklet with everything in, so I can flick through and scan everything and pick out the good bits. Maybe the Story of London people have just such a leaflet planned, in which case I'll be very happy later in the month. But until then, sorry, you'll have to plough through the website and find the good bits for yourself. And there are quite a few. But I bet you don't spot them all before giving up.

» Sunday update: Ian's compiled the SoL database into a map and a spreadsheet. His thoughts are here.

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