My Bible Technology Wish List
Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. The truth of that statement has been echoed by tech leaders throughout my lifetime, and I’ve seen evidence of it throughout my career. Steve Jobs put it this way:
To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.
Ideas pile up in my notebooks and spreadsheets at a faster pace than I can check them off. Nearly every week I dream of new ways to communicate scripture in a digital world. Over the years, I’ve built a collection of Bible-related data, created visualizations, and developed several ways to explore interesting facts. Now, there are more things on my list than I can ever create by myself.
This post is that list.
I’m asking for help from the rare people interested in the Bible who also have skills wrangling data or writing code. If you have found this list of ideas and know a thing or two about technology, find a section below that matches your passion. Then, build something. If you make solid progress or want to work together, let me know.
I don’t collect data just to have it. I want to learn something from it, then teach others what I’ve learned. Visually encoding broad themes and connections among biblical subjects is an effective way to do that (and we’ve been doing it for centuries).
- Online Bible Maps. Some sites show places from the Bible overlaid as default placemarks on a standard Google map. All of these use background layers which show modern borders and roads or else show little more than land features. New features from Mapbox and Carto are making it easier to create custom maps that could show ancient place names and borders. Unlike static images, these maps would show regional names first, reveal large cities after zooming, then smaller areas when zooming further. The Pelagios project hosts a map like this of the ancient Greco-Roman world. We should do the same for maps of ancient Israel, surrounding kingdoms, and New Testament lands.
- N-gram comparisons. Google has 520 million English words scanned from books all the way back to 1500 A.D. They shared data showing the frequency of single words and phrases “n” words long. You can easily explore a string of words with their n-gram viewer, too. Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare phrases from the Bible (for a given English translation) with those in other books? What can that tell us about the influence the King James Version or Geneva Bible had on our language over time (don’t miss this video on common sayings we got from the KJV)? There are some pitfalls to such analysis, but still plenty of value to uncover.
- Name comparisons. My three sons are named after people in the Old Testament. How common is it for people to give biblical names to their children? The Social Security Administration releases baby name popularity data every year. It wouldn’t be too hard to do some comparisons and trends.
- Timelines. There are some great timelines that align biblical and world events. Only the most expensive software packages have anything detailed, searchable, and linked back to the text. It’s time for a free online version. The Biblical Timeline is out there, but it’s hard to use and lacks important features like zooming or filtering to a book.
- Weights and Measures. It’s important to relate older ways of measuring things with modern equivalents. It’s also hard to grasp distances in unfamiliar lands. Last year I saw Jessica Hullman demonstrate a tool which translates distances to familiar analogies. An 80-mile walk from Bethlehem to Egypt is easier to picture when I know that’s like walking from my house to the Fort Worth Zoo and most of the way back. Wolfram|Alpha does similar things with common measurements. Let’s make it simple for readers to see these analogies in-line with biblical text.
I’m encouraged by the growth of online Bible resoruces, especially developer-friendly ones. Next, we should do more than put a technological gilding on the same set of books we’ve had for a century. We need new data sets to enable new kinds of learning, such as:
- People’s relationships beyond genealogy. We already have good information about people’s lineage, but who were their friends? Who did they meet or conspire against? Sean Boisen created data like this at semanticbible.com for the New Testament. I’d like to see the same kind of thing for the whole Bible.
- Open-source timeline. A full timeline data set with passage references, durations, and a way to deal with uncertain dates would support the creation of an interactive timeline like the one under “Data Visualization” above. While there are a few sites with this sort of data, it isn’t open-source for all to use or it’s in a format that’s hard to use in an application.
- Tagged pronouns. Tim Morton, creator of Bible Analyzer, has allowed me to use and distribute data that tags pronouns describing persons of the Trinity. This lets us find verses about Jesus, God the Father, or the Holy Spirit that don’t mention them by name. This is important for search results or analysis about frequency of mentions. We should expand this data to all people and places like we have for the Trinity.
- Graph database migration. You’ve heard of the six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon game, right? Graph databases help you trace those relational paths. This kind of database powers Google’s Knowledge Graph. I want a similar knowledge graph of biblical data, so it makes sense to use that kind of data storage. It would help with linguistic analysis, too. So, I want to convert all the data I’ve collected (available on request) to a graph database instead of the normal table structure I have now. It would be easier to expand later and it makes complex algorithms simpler to write. Here’s a slideshow that walks through the advantages of graph databases: http://www.slideshare.net/maxdemarzi/graph-database-use-cases.
It’s one thing to have a vast library of searchable resources. It’s quite another to make it easy to use. There’s a lot of room to improve existing Bible apps, from the simplest interactions to smater content searches.
- Tailored search results. Right now, searching a Bible website or application returns lists of verses and sometimes sections of associated commentary, media, and other resources. I want these results to be more than lists of things I have to comb through. When searching for “Paul,” I want it to show a short bio and something that tells me he used to be called Saul. When typing “Abraham,” we should see biographical information and a few generations of his lineage (see, for instance, this Wolfram|Alpha query). For places, I want a map and a list of nearby places. Throw in a few key events that happened there, too. All of that should be complied from existing resources rather than forcing me to peck through each result, one at a time.
- Fast scrolling. Google Photos has the best scrollbar I’ve used. It’s like a measuring stick with tick marks at every month with photos and labels at every year. One tap-and-drag motion leads me to the section I want. Bible apps for touch screens make me tap and scroll too many times. A quick, draggable scroller would feel more like navigating a print Bible: one thumb action flips through the major sections and gets you close to the chapter you want. Then, one more tap or drag takes you to the right place.
- Persistent in-line information. Sometimes I can hover on a word to see quick definitions, footnotes, or images. That’s better than making users go to another screen to see the same information. But, this doesn’t work on touch screens where there’s no way to hover like you would with a mouse or trackpad. A better way is to show an information box between lines of text when you click (or tap) a word. It would stay there until the next click, and there can be several in view at once. My favorite text editors do this to help me edit related code, pick colors, or show error messages. I’d love to see that in Bible reading apps, too.
You don’t have to know a lot of code or be good at making beautiful visualizations to explain something about facts in the Bible. You can share your perspective on existing technology. Or, you could explain a passage using simple statistics, like: “Paul uses this word X times, which is unusual because that word is only mentioned Y times on average in other books.” Here are some more examples:
- Data-oriented Bible studies. Look, if FiveThirtyEight.com can apply statistical analysis to sports, politics, and culture, we can do that with biblical truths, too. There is an audience that would enjoy explanations of passages that include detailed numerical analysis. Of course, it must be done well. Data is only as good as the person’s skills interpreting it, carefully avoiding common biases.
- Bible app reviews. The average app review covers features and value. I’m interested to see (and write) more reviews of user experience and design philosophy. Technology decisions can help or hurt the process of a user discovering important parts of God’s story. I believe too much Bible software today makes it frustrating to do that, no matter how many resources it includes.
It’s a long list, but still just a taste of where technology can help people navigate and communicate the Bible to a digital world. There are too many things listed above for one person to build. Over the course of this year and beyond, I will build some of it as I’ve done since 2008.
If anything here interests you, I encourage you to start making what you want to see. Drop me a note when that happens. Learn what you need and do it well. Pray for the time and discipline to see it finished. That’s my plan and my prayer for 2017.