Benches! Benches! Benches!

So the whole blogging thing kind of dried up for me a couple of years back.
It’s not that I don’t still feel ways about stuff, and I certainly haven’t lost my fondness for absurdly long, multi-claused run-on sentences that make readers think, ‘Christ, are you, like, allergic to full stops or something?” whilst gasping for breath should any of them be daft enough to attempt to read this shit out loud.

But everything is so noisy these days. (I turned 35 recently, so I am half way through my allotted 3 score years and 10, and consequently feel entitled to use terms like “these days”.) The online space, infinite though it may be, seems to be filling up with everyone and their cousin’s hot take on the news of the day. Sometimes this is thought-provoking, engaging, and provides valuable contribution to the global discussion. More often… well, not so much.

So I decided to stop shoveling content into the void, unless I felt I had something real and substantial to bring to the table. And, crucially, that I had the time and energy to reflect on it, and hone it to my satisfaction. All of which is a very plausible way of justifying to myself why I wasn’t going to spend my time on this anymore. Plus Dragon Age: Inquisition came out, so that was 200+ hours gone right there, and then I got super in to the whole Elder Scrolls thing having picked up Oblivion and Skyrim for something like £7 total in CEX, and, well, you get the idea of how I’ve spent my leisure time recently.

But there comes a time when even a dedicated gamer like me wonders if there might not be more productive pursuits through which to while away the hours. A few months back I had suggested to Terry that I would really like to collaborate on something with him. Terry always seems to be doing something interesting and cool, and I fancied getting in on that.

I was anticipating quite the challenge in picking the right project. Something multi-faceted that would provide an opportunity for me to develop new skills. Something involving actual, real-world, meat space, AFK interaction. I wanted a quantifiable way to measure impact. And yeah, I liked the idea of doing something nice. Not particularly clever, or lucrative, but the sort of endeavor that would make people go “Oh, what a lovely idea”.

About a decade ago Terry and I went to a sort of geo-caching type event that entailed running around the Covent Garden area looking for the mosaic tile renderings of Space Invaders which had appeared on walls around Europe. Some years after that we got into the habit of snapping photos of the blue memorial plaques that adorn various buildings, and uploading these to openplaques.org. And then last year the Pokémon GO craze swept the globe. All of these somehow percolated into a simple but immensely rewarding idea: let’s build an open database to track the location of memorial benches.

We aren’t the first people to have this idea. The skeleton came from a hack Terry encountered at a Bath hackathon which we married to parts of the openplaques model.

We liked the idea that this would produce a totally open data set. That anyone could contribute to it or access the content. We also wanted to make the code freely available, so if anyone felt so inclined they could suggest improvements, or even spin it off into a project of their own.

We also decided that this was a great opportunity for both of us to learn and develop new skills. Terry decided he wanted more experience working in the Agile methodology. I wanted to learn some proper programming. So we started with a bunch of user stories. I learnt how to use GitHub, and some HTML, and PHP. I also learned the dirty little secret that a big chunk of learning to code is literally googling whatever you are trying to do and copying off someone else who has done it already.

We built a database in MySQL. We built an interface, and dumped the whole thing online as a rough-and-ready Alpha product. Terry wrote a ReadMe file acknowledging the filthiness of our code and inviting improvements. We took a wander around our local area and uploaded a few pictures of memorial benches situated around the Iffley lock. And openbenches.org was born.

Terry tweeted to his 7,000 odd followers that we had done a thing, and in a surreal turn of events we were invited to record an interview with the BBC in July 2017.

Openbenches was all of about 2 weeks old at this point, and we had barely figured out what we were trying to achieve with this project. But we gamely trotted along to the BBC Radio Oxford studio and recorded a 5 minute interview with Radio Orkney who were interested in what we were doing. Pretty much on the fly we came up with a rationale for our endeavors: famous people get plaques when they die, and other people get benches, commissioned by their nearest and dearest. Memorial benches appear in local beauty spots; in parks and gardens, near canals and rivers, in cemeteries and coastal paths. And we decided to capture that data, and make it available to anyone. It creates an opportunity to get to know your local area, and to connect with the history of your local community. And a way to share the commemoration of loved ones more widely.

The broadcast went out at the start of August 2017 by which point we’d had about 400 records uploaded. A month later and we are closing in on 2,000. We’ve managed to convince friends, family, colleagues, and random strangers to get involved. On a mini break to East Anglia a few weeks ago we photographed dozens and dozens of benches dotted throughout Cambridge, Kings Lynn, Downham Market and along parts of the Norfolk Coast. A couple of weekends ago we took a day-trip to London and systematically documented the 140 or so benches in Berkeley Square. Over the course of several lunchtimes I recorded the benches in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. We took photo after photo, and then at home we would curl up on the sofa together with our laptops and upload the pictures.

It’s definitely turned into a labour of love. Some benches have made us laugh with their bittersweet gallows humour. Others have been more sobering – particularly where you can tell from the dates that someone has died tragically young. Some inscriptions are already fading to the point they are barely legible. Interestingly, this has added an additional aspect to this project: the physical bench and/or the printed information might be lost, but as long as we have a functioning server we can preserve that memory, and the data is freely available to be copied by anyone. Even if no-one is left who remembers the commemorated individual directly.

Death is sad and painful and inevitable. As an atheist and a rationalist I don’t believe in the concept of an immortal soul. I do not believe that there is any such thing as life after death. But people are connected, and the extent to which we interact in each others’ lives, and the effect we have on other people after we are gone is incontrovertible. So in a small way, openbenches.org is a way of paying tribute to that fact. Gone, but not forgotten. In loving memory.