This is the story about connections. It's a little long, so you may need to settle in. It's not another glance-over item, you can devour in seconds. You'll have to find yourself a comfy chair and put down your busines.
A community, a student and a local business all manage to intersect. A couple weeks ago I met recent Hopkins graduate Tom Smith. Tom invented the Gado. Actually, it’s Gado 2. Tom’s wanted to be able to digitize old newspaper articles, clippings and miscellaneous bits of news for the Baltimore Afro-American (the “AFRO”) newspaper. Tom’s releasing the design of his invention to the public. He believes in the open access aspect of education and knowledge sharing. He could make a tidy little profit from his labors, and down the road perhaps he will. But needless to say, it’s a very noble enterprise he’s embarked upon, and much better than any dollars and cents appraisals, he’s engaged a part of the Baltimore community that was ---at best---existing on the perimeter of technology and digitization. The information accrued by the AFRO after all these years is historically priceless, and tells the tale of the African-American story in the City of Baltimore, along with the evolution of Baltimore City itself. That someone comes along, invents the machinery that allows this history to be witnessed online allows for no small sense of wonder.
The intersection of Tom’s invention with the AFRO is one of those small phenomenons that often pass unnoticed in the world of big stories and ideas. How this all started can be traced to an early curiousity Tom had about his family’s origins. His family had roughly 5,000 pictures of various family members, and he scanned them all and created a family archive. He said it took “all summer”, just as he said it took all summer to redo the Gado from version 1 to version 2. I mentioned to Tom that he and I have a very different interpretation of “summer”. Here's an interview that we did at the AFRO.
Q: Tom, how did you get started with the Gado.
A: I started out working on the east Baltimore history project, that was part of a class I was taking called “The Power of Place,” We started out doing oral histories and then I started to focus on east Baltimore. The neighborhoods by Hopkins, and the stories who lived in those neighborhood. I tried looking for images to match some of these stories, images that would reflect that community. I didn’t find any, and there were none that were digitized. That seemed really weird to me because you have this whole area and it’s been there forever. I ended up tagging along with the “Diaspora Pathways: Archival Access Project”. Which is a collaboration between Hopkins and the Afro, funded by the Mellon Foundation. But they didn’t have any money to do any digitization. There were millions of images and they were just sitting there at the Afro, and nobody could access them. I started thinking how could I help solve this problem. I’ve always done hardware and software development, particularly Open Source, which is everything you create----in terms of software and what you create---is open to public domain. So I started with some existing Open Source material, and realized I could build a robot.
Q The reception that’s at Homewood on February 22nd, will your work be there?
A Yes, Alex (Alex Neville, Digitization Consultant) will be there with the machine doing a demo. One of the other components is to take the images that we’re getting so that community members, or scholars might want to come here and study. People working with newspapers, or a book, or may even a film---could illustrate a story, or use the images. Of course, they’d need to contact the AFRO. With the Gado, I could find the image and pay for it right through the website. As opposed to (without digitization) finding the image through the collection (this could take hours and hours), and then having someone scan it and then having it delivered to you for your research. We wanted to create something that was really sustainable, and could really support itself. Currently, we’re funded by the ABELL Foundation and the Sheridan Libraries. We started off being located in the Center for Social Concern building. Now we’re situated in the Emerging Technology Center which is the city-supported tech incubator. The original Gado took about 2 minutes to scan, but this version scans in about 42 seconds for a full resolution.
Q And how did Alex (Neville) come into the project?
A We were friends at Hopkins, I started working on the project, but was spending so much of my time administering the project and working on the technology, I didn’t have time to work on the day-to-day. And also I needed somebody else to look at things and say “this makes sense,” or “this needs work”. So we were at lunch or something……and I said to him, “hey you should really come take a look at it”.
(Alex says he’s there to oversee things and make sure the robot doesn’t smash itself against a wall or something)
Q Tom, correct me if I’m wrong, but you could make some serious money with this machine, right?
A My goal is to keep the machine totally open so that anybody who wants to use it, or expand upon it can do that. But at the same time, if somebody comes up with a great new use for it, that also will be in the public domain. I think this is a good way to support the open source community. The hope is that we have a component (the machine) and the software that’s sustainable. (He laughs) I’m not opposed to making money, and certainly one of the things we’re looking at from a service model is working in a consulting aspect. I think you can work with organizations and businesses, while at the same time, working with those around you. I think I’ve always had an interest in social enterprise and the more we started working at the AFRO with these images, that we realized there are so many organizations that have these kinds of images----and that there’s a real audience for them. If we can scan 10,000 images and license at least 3% of them, then you really start to have an income stream that’s meaningful to an organization like the AFRO.
Q Talk about the initial Gado.
A Yes, we built this HUGE, massive machine that was just too big, and too clunky and it had all these pieces, massive wires----and we ended up having to get it out of here (the Afro Building)
Q (Alonzo, laughing because getting to the archives room WHILE WALKING is a mazz all by itself)
A We ended up needing a couple guys to finally get it out, but I scanned about 1,000 images just to sort of prove that the idea would work. I had the images, the machinery but I was about to graduate and I didn’t want to just let it go. I had worked with the Sheridan Libraries before to create some software for the oral history project, which is still online and works pretty well. So I proposed this robot, and, well, luckily I was able to get the start-up funding from the Center for Africana Studies. My goal is to keep the machine totally open so that anybody who wants to use it, or expand upon it can do that. But at the same time, if somebody comes up with a great new use for it, that also will be in the public domain. I think this is a good way to support the open source community. The hope is that we have a component (the machine) and the software that’s sustainable. (He laughs) I’m not opposed to making money, and certainly one of the things we’re looking at from a service model is working in a consulting aspect. I think you can work with organizations and businesses, while at the same time, working with those around you. I think I’ve always had an interest in social enterprise and the more we started working at the AFRO with these images, that we realized there are so many organizations that have these kinds of images----and that there’s a real audience for them. If we can scan 10,000 images and license at least 3% of them, then you really start to have an income stream that’s meaningful to an organization like the AFRO.
To me, this story isn't about finances, or do-gooding. Sure, you could insert them if you want. You could make a strong case for Open Access, because this shoe sure fits. But what I was MOST pleasantly surprised by was the level of engagement between Tom's invention and how it unlocks the past. A past tucked away in file cabinets, living in the dark. But, somebody invents a machine, and the sun shines on everything. A part of Baltimore has became brightly illuminated.
Alonzo LaMont email@example.com
Working on the GADO, Tom Smith (left) and Alex Neville