The Victoria Fringe and Structured Data

When you spend as much time as I do exploring the shiny and the brand new in the technology world, it’s easy to forget that the middle of the bell curve is receding into the distance. I sometimes get frustrated when Normal Humans, who (quite legitimately) don’t know any better, make poor decisions about their web presence.

Take, for example, the Victoria Fringe’s website. It’s nicely-designed, and accommodates almost all of my Fringe-going needs. There’s one glaring exception: the online schedule. They appear to have just converted the offline, hard copy schedule into HTML and dumped it on the site.

As you can see, it’s sorted by venue. There’s one page for each location where shows are running. That’s possibly a reasonable option for the printed schedule. On the other hand, it may be evidence of a classic information design mistake, where the designer chooses a structure that fits their needs instead of their users’. After all, the Fringe sorts its volunteers, technicians and shows by venue. You’d expect Fringe organizers to think of the schedule in those terms, too.

However, users may want to browse or search the show listings in different ways:

  • They may only be in town for a couple of days, so they only want to see shows for a particular date range.
  • They may only want to see comedies.
  • They may only want to see shows from out of town. All things being equal, traveling performers tend to produce better shows.
  • They may want to search for performers they’ve seen in previous years (either by the performer’s name or, for bonus points, by the titles of old shows).

Happily, this is a problem that the geeks have already solved. We can think of each show listing as ‘structured data’–each listing (or database record, if you like) has an expected series of values–show title, performers’ names, venue, dates, times and so forth. It’s really easy to host this information in a database and display it so that it’s easy to browse, sort and search.

I’m not sure about front-ends for these, but free database services like Google Base or Dabble DB would be a natural place to start. Even if the user interface was a little clunky in the first year, or a little messy to look at, I’m betting it would be an improvement on the current approach.

The problem, of course, is that this looks like a hard problem for a Normal Human. We need more Common Crafts, who are expert explainers of the new.


  1. and of course if you are a drupal shop or know somebody then you can do this with Drupal’s CCK and Views as Dale demonstrated on the Northern Voice site where we did it for the schedule (and if Dale had the time to be really fancy you could do some really weird and wonderful things!)

  2. Hehe. I like the term “Normal Humans”. I call them “civilians” 🙂

    I completely agree with you. Just dumping the schedule on to HTML

  3. Many non profit organizations would love to have a tech savvy guy like you, or one of your readers, volunteer to help solve their web problems. Be the change!

  4. I used DabbleDB for some work-related stuff the past year and have been really happy with the results. I’ve seen some examples of it being used with scheduling and this would be a great fit.

  5. Sure it’s an example of how a website could be better. But it’s not like Janet and Ian (permanent staff at the Fringe) wouldn’t like the site to work the way you say. But you are entirely going after the wrong people.

    Intrepid Theatre has a tiny tiny staff who work hard.

    Darren, you have the tools to help fix this. I know that Intrepid would love the help. But their budgets are stretched to the limit, as are most arts organizations in Canada.

  6. Ami: I’m not impugning the staff at the Fringe. That’s why I said they ‘quite legitimately’ have made a poor decision. I don’t expect them to know about this.

    Having been on the board of the Vancouver Fringe, I understand the scale of the issues that they face. IT innovation is rightfully at the very bottom of the list.

    My frustration arises from the fact that these tools are free and easy to use. There’s very little additional work in doing it the way I describe.

    But, I’m one of those advocates of ‘you are responsible for the problems you perceive’, so I spent a half hour and created a database for the Fringe on Dabble DB:

    It doesn’t look perfect at the moment, but it’s all the time I have right now. All the data is in there for those two sample shows.

    I don’t have time to manually enter the data for all the shows. Maybe they’ve got some long-suffering intern to do that? Or maybe it’s all in a spreadsheet for me in import? I shall email the Fringe and ask.

    Once all the data is in there, I can build the ‘views’ that I describe above.

  7. Sounds like you’ve just volunteered yourself, Darren.

    I can send you a text file to format, just say where.

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