Archive for the 'Behind the scenes at Te Ara' Category

Singing the praises of statistics

A love of numbers: Census and Statistics Department staff hard at work in 1946 (click for image credit)

The joy of numbers: Census and Statistics Department staff hard at work in 1946 (click for image credit)

Let me confess, I love working with statistics. I have gone so far as to like the Statistics New Zealand and New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings pages on Facebook. Social media at its best!

Te Ara is littered with stats so I get to indulge my fascination fairly regularly. We have stats on the most popular sports by gender, temperature variations and cannabis use. Themes on the places of New Zealandethnic groupsiwi and economy are full of numbers.

This superabundance of stats makes for a lot of work – they need updating unless their significance is historic. We’ve been able to turn our attention to such updates now that the first build of Te Ara is complete. So far we have updated the New Zealand Peoples and Iwi entries in line with 2013 census results, and we have begun work on census updates for the Places entries.

These jobs are huge but made so much easier by Statistics New Zealand’s excellent main website and its data hub NZ.Stat. Unlike the websites of some other national statistics offices, both of these are pretty intuitive and straightforward to use. If I can’t find what I want, an email or phone call to the helpdesk invariably yields a quick answer. So thanks Stats NZ, you are great.

Stay tuned for more new numbers on Te Ara later this year.

From the Te Ara inbox

Water race on the Otago goldfields (click for image credit)

Water race on the Otago goldfields (click for image credit)

Those of us who work behind the scenes at Te Ara have an interesting range of jobs that include responding to the many comments and enquiries we receive through our inbox. Occasionally we get fan mail: just yesterday one user wrote that he had just discovered our website while searching for information about gold in Otago. He commented that Te Ara ‘is an amazing website with a ridiculous amount of content’ and added that it ‘deserves more recognition’. We couldn’t agree more – emails like this really make our day!

Often, however, people are after information or help – asking us to identify an unusual bird, spider or some other critter (we have no scientists on staff, so have to refer these queries to other experts), seeking permission to reproduce our text or images, or wanting clarification of a point of fact. Recently I corresponded with the president of the New Zealand Horse Network, who wanted to know the exact date horses first arrived in New Zealand – was it 22 or 23 December 1814? It turns out that our entry on horses says it was the 22nd, whereas the entry in the 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand says the 23rd. After some to-ing and fro-ing, we concluded that the first horses arrived by ship at the Bay of Islands on 22 December, but were unloaded the next day.

Speaking of the 1966 Encyclopedia, many people assume its entries are up to date, though of course they were written nearly 50 years ago. Often the information they give is still very relevant, while sometimes it is clearly outdated but of historical interest. We present these entries on the Te Ara website as ‘a blast from the past’, and have a policy of not updating or correcting them, reasoning that people who are following up a particular topic will be keen to compare different perspectives over time. We do have a disclaimer on each page which warns users that the ’66 entries have been superseded, but sometimes people do not read it and write in complaining that material is out of date or incorrect. As a result, we are currently looking at design enhancements to make the disclaimer more prominent.

We are, however, always interested to hear from users who can help us make our Te Ara or Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entries more accurate or informative. As someone who was lucky enough to work on the original DNZB project, I am always particularly delighted when someone, usually a family member, writes in to offer us a photograph of a biography subject. Just before Christmas, I had a nice exchange with an Englishman married to a descendant of Sophia Louisa Taylor. Not only did he draw our attention to the existence of a lovely portrait of Sophia, he pointed out an error in the biography. This currently states that Sophia ‘was a domineering mother who thought nobody good enough for her daughters, although she was a disappointed when they did not marry.’ As my correspondent noted, one of them did in fact marry, as his wife is a great-granddaughter of Sophia! I checked back to our paper file and found that this information was known to our researchers back in the 1990s, but for some reason did not make it into the entry. We will be correcting the text shortly, and will follow up the portrait, which shows Sophia to be as beautiful as she was strong-willed.

On earthquakes and updates

Rock fall at Redcliffs, February 2011 (click for image credit)

Rock fall at Redcliffs, February 2011 (click for image credit)

Now that Te Ara’s first build is complete, we have turned our attention to the mammoth task of updating existing content. We are yet to finalise our approach to updating, but we recognised that one set of entries had to be done first – the Canterbury region and places entries.

We added revised and new content to Te Ara very quickly after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, but left the Canterbury entries as they were pre-quake. Pragmatism largely guided this decision, because we were fully occupied with our Social Connections and Government and Nation themes, but we also knew we should wait to see how the impact of the quakes on the region played out. Online encyclopedias are more responsive to change than their hard-copy counterparts but have the same responsibility to deliver accurate and complete information.

We have now published a new section on the quakes in the Canterbury region entry, and have updated text and added new visual resources through this and the Canterbury places entry. So many of the sites captured in existing photographs were either damaged or destroyed, and it was a sobering task combing through the entries to ensure we noted all the quake-related changes.

They are now full of quake facts and resources. For me, two new films we’ve added speak to the complexity of the quakes’ impact. An extended clip from Gerard Smyth’s compelling documentary When a city falls records the moment the 2011 quake struck and its immediate aftermath as terrified people gathered in the dust-filled city. Viewers get some insight into the horror of that day. The other film, a short piece on the Gap Filler project, portrays some of the positive community-building initiatives that came out of the quakes. These two films appropriately book-end the new content.

Picturing people

Aileen Stace and Fluffy in Stace's electric car, Atalanta (click for image credit)

Aileen Stace and Fluffy in Stace's electric car, Atalanta (click for image credit)

It is always a pleasure to announce the addition of images to the biographies section of our site. Recently 13 more were uploaded, some generously donated by descendants and others obtained by our researchers. I find it fascinating to put a face to a name – in the case of Minnie Dean, a notorious name (though she looks harmless enough here).

We’ve included some pictures of less well-known subjects, as well as the famous. It is so exciting to obtain photographs from family collections. Market gardener and winemaker Joe Ah Chan beams out from this candid photo, while midwife Inger Jacobsen and her husband sit proudly surrounded by their many children in a formal portrait.

We’ve also added to our gallery of artists and craftspeople. Clas Edvard Friström poses with his paint palette, while Margaret Butler is shown at work on a sculpture, ‘The shepherdess’. Pat Perrin sits for the photographer surrounded by examples of her innovative pottery.

Objects in the photographs often tell a story. The microscope to the side of the desk in this portrait of Charles Hercus proclaims his status as a scientist and medical researcher. Fashions and facial hair trends also send subtle messages. John O’Donovan looks every inch the gentleman with his neatly trimmed goatee, while Gilbert Mair was a swashbuckling figure in his day and would surely qualify as a hipster now with his luxuriant beard.

Finally, with the assistance of a descendant we have been able to include a lovely series of photographs of Aileen Stace throughout her life. Stace helped revive the craft of spinning, and also coped with disability in the days before much community assistance existed. These images from the family album show her as a teenager, with her supportive father and sisters, cuddling beloved pet dogs, and in her specially made electric car, which she named Atalanta. Her determination, courage and warmth shine out from these delightful photographs.

World famous in Te Ara

Nappy Valley: Reference Group manager Janine Faulknor, bottom right, and her siblings, about 1969 (click for image credit)

Nappy Valley: Reference Group manager Janine Faulknor, bottom right, and her siblings, about 1969 (click for image credit)

Te Ara staff are a dedicated lot, as evidenced not only by their long hours of hard work, but also by the way they’ve happily plundered their family photo collections and posed for photos themselves to help illustrate the site.

Resource researcher Melanie Lovell-Smith on her fourth birthday (unfortunately she had a stomach bug, hence the white bowl to her right)

Resource researcher Melanie Lovell-Smith on her fourth birthday (unfortunately she had a stomach bug, hence the white bowl to her right)

As well as the many Te Ara-ites who feature in the entry Te Ara – a history, staff who appear in Te Ara – at varying ages and degrees of cuteness – or who have volunteered their family members or treasures for the site include:

General editor Jock Phillips in his back garden in 1950s Christchurch (click for image credit)

General editor Jock Phillips in his back garden in 1950s Christchurch (click for image credit)