Languages and Cultures for Australian Universities (LCNAU) is offering seed funding grant for projects related to their mission, in particular, projects presented at the 2011 colloquium. Raphael, Dan and myself will work on a research proposal around the possible integration of Marco Polo into a formal language curriculum.

This is crucial to the success of our project: if we can somehow integrate the activities of our website as part as the language teaching curriculum, we would be assured of a constant in-flow of volunteer translators. This was also the advice we received from Jeremy Goldkorn @danwei.

But this is also a great opportunities for universities. Language teachers know that the few contact hours between them and their students are insufficient for successful language learning outcomes. Teachers generally encourage language activities outside the classroom – clubs, theatre, exchange programs, etc. But, so far, there is no real program to integrate them, and find a way that participation in such activities could count as credits.

This seed grant is a great opportunity, and I really hope it works through!

I had a great conversation with Fau-Zii yesterday. I went out to Mount Waverley to discuss the next steps in web development, and Fau-Zii said he was happy to lead the next phase! I feel very good, having someone so professional and smart working with me. Web development is probably my weakest point – strange paradox for an IT start-up. But I guess the reason Marco Polo Project is an innovative platform is precisely because, unlike other IT projects, it comes from experience in writing and education, not IT development. Still, you need some expertise in that field. And Fau-Zii is an expert.

I was very lucky to meet Fau-Zii. It all started randomly with him answering an ad I put on Craigslist last March. First he gave us six months of free hosting on his servers, then started giving advice about development, and recently, was elected to the board.
So, now, with him in charge, all I have to do is find a couple of interns to do the work, and send them to his office. Meanwhile, he will be re-vamp the design. We went through the list of specifications together, and he said it was not unrealistic to have everything set up by February. Wow. It looks like this project might actually get off the ground now!

Last night, Raphael and I presented a poster on the Marco Polo Project at the first LCNAU Colloquium.  The poster was well received, and we had quite a few conversations with lecturers from around Australia. In particular, we had a wonderful chat with Beatrice Atherton from the University of Queensland, who promised to put us in contact with her colleagues in the Chinese department. The University of Queensland is building a translation program specialising in English-Chinese translation. Precisely the public we’re looking for!

This was the first official presentation of Marco Polo to an external audience, and it went OK. This bodes well for the future. Part of the success must be attributed to the beautiful graphic work done by wonderful Mathieu Vendeville.

In the evening, we stayed for the LCNAU dinner. I had a great conversation with my table partner, Lynne Li from RMIT. She gave me this interesting tip: I should not put aside writing in my Chinese learning, but copy characters. In her experience, students who regularly copy words are those who learn the best. I received similar advice from a philosophy teacher in preparatory class. In order to improve my writing skills, he once told me that I should copy. ‘Keep it a secret, but it’s the most effective way’. So I spent hours copying Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois in a little A5 notebook. And my writing improved. I will try that with Chinese now.

A few days ago, I exchanged emails with Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs the wonderful Danwei online magazine. I was introduced to Jeremy through Professor Geremie Barme at ANU, himself introduced by Jill Collins at the Australian Embassy in Beijing. Thank you networks! It is really precious, when you start a project like this one, to received some attention and support.

I was thrilled when I saw Jeremy’s email. He’s a legend – he’s been one of the most influential online writers in China for the last 8 years. And now he’s giving us advice. He confirmed our initial thought that crowd-sourcing would only really work if we built solid partnerships with teaching institutions, who would feed a regular inflow of fresh and motivated translators to our website. He also expressed concern about the quality of our translations – something most people have talked about. We will need to think about it more deeply, maybe find a way to pay translators to review advanced work, or have ‘sponsored’ articles, with a reward for the translator.

But now, my main feeling is confidence in the possibilities of the internet. Jeremy was very friendly, and very quick to contact us. Earlier this year, I had a similar thrill when I contacted, and they got back to us rightaway, telling us about their web system.

Right, we’re still a bunch of random friends buidling a website in our study. But I can see how, slowly, we’re beginning to exist as a group with a mission. It’s a great transition, towards a proper collective. Thank you Danwei for the tips. Let’s do this thing!

Back in Melbourne after two months in Tianjin, it’s time to launch the second phase of development for Marco Polo Project.

While in China, I made good contact with Nicolas Idier and Jill Collins at the French and Australian Embassy. I also talked extensively with Juliette Salabert, director of Alliance Francaise in Tianjin.

This Chinese time did not make me doubt about the feasibility of Marco Polo. The Chinese people I met, whether students at Alliance Francaise or friends of friends, were all very keen to promote Chinese culture, intent on improving their English and any other language they spoke, and constantly plugged into the internet. Idealistic only children are ideal users for our website!

So now, let’s get the thing started, and launch an improved version. Nicolas mentioned the possibility of taking part in French-Chinese cultural events or, if not, he offered to circulate our business cards at the many literary events that he attends around China. High level marketing – let’s be worthy of the generous offer. To work!

At last! The Marco Polo Project is online. It is not looking great yet, there is much much to do on it. But there is something. Something that didn’t exist before. What was just an idea, a mad plan jotted down on a notebook in the middle of the night, in a Tianjin Hotel room five months ago, now has come to life. This is soooo exciting!

We had our mid-term meeting for the Marco Polo project last Sunday, and the discussion went well. A few amendments to the constitution, but overall, everyone agreed. Now we’re making it. But wow, when was that moment in my life I took a right turn, and became the founder of an NGO? So random!

Yesterday, I’ve been working on drafting ‘user stories’ for the information architecture part of the Marco Polo project. It’s an interesting process: in order to develop the architecture and navigation plan of your website, you imagine a fictional user – giving him or her a name, an age, a profession, as well as a motive for visiting your website; then, you describe, in all details, the interaction between that fictional user and your intended website.

It a a fabulous visualisation technique, and suddenly raises many questions you wouldn’t ask yourself otherwise: she wants to input text but is not logged in – what action triggers an error message? is she redirected to a registration page? She wants to register, is that instant, or does she receive an email with an activation link? Little details and decisions you need to make.

I was reminded of things I read about architects – how the art of architecture is about building daring shapes in space, inspired from dreams or animals. But their art is, also, that of the mason, build something that holds together; and something even more down-to-earth, a kind of simple commonsense, or knowledge of the human – make sure there is a pathway to each room. Build in windows, plumbing, ventilation. Think where your doors will be.

But for a fiction writer, this process is more than just about making a blueprint. Believe it or not, I grew attached to my characters. I started wondering, will their life be changed by this website? Will they, or will they not contact another user? Will something happen then? It was exhilarating, to imagine as fiction something I want to bring to the world. Dangerous also – probably – taking me far from the mundane drafting of a business plan or of a budget, into my own fantasy-world, where volunteers jump in, enthusiasms feed each other, yet everyone does, to a point, exactly as I tell them.

Dan came with a nice surprise on Friday: he set up a demo website using googlesites to promote the Marco Polo Project. I had an intial feeling of – wooo, more work – but then very soon, I started thinking – how cool to have an attentive programmer friend, who takes initiatives. And it’s a good way to promote the idea. Check it out here.