The UK as a knowledge-based economy

Rather off-topic, but I wonder what role cultural heritage organisations might have in a knowledge economy. I would imagine that libraries and archives are already leading in that regard, but also that skills currently regarded as belonging to the ‘digital humanities’ will become more common.

In less than three years time, more than half of UK GDP will be generated by people who create something from nothing, according to the 2007 Developing the Future (DtF) report launched today at the British Library.

The report, commissioned by Microsoft and co-sponsored by Intellect, the BCS and The City University, London, sets out the key challenges facing the UK as it evolves into a fully-fledged knowledge-based economy. The report also sets out a clear agenda for action to ensure the UK maintains its global competitiveness in the face of serious challenges.

The report identifies a number of significant challenges that the technology industry needs to address if these opportunities are to be grasped. Primarily, these are emerging markets and skills shortages:

  • At current rates of growth China will overtake the UK in five years in the knowledge economy sector.
  • The IT industry faces a potential skills shortage: The UK’s IT industry is growing at five to eight times the national growth average, and around 150,000 entrants to the IT workforce are required each year. But between 2001 and 2006 there was a drop of 43 per cent in the number of students taking A-levels in computing.
  • The IT industry is only 20 per cent female and currently only 17 per cent of those undertaking IT-related degree courses are women. In Scotland, only 15 per cent of the IT workforce is female.

BCS: Developing the future.

The report also suggests that the ‘IT industry should look to dramatically increase female recruitment’ – I won’t comment for now but it will be interesting to see how that issue develops.

At UK Museums and the Web 2007 I suggested looking at how other sites differentiate user-generated content from institutionally-created content. In that light, this post could be of interest: Newspapers 2.0: How Web 2.0 are British newspaper web sites?

Over the last two weeks I’ve reviewed eight British newspaper web sites in depth, trying to identify where and how they are using the technologies that make up the so-called “Web 2.0” bubble. I’ve examined their use of blogs, RSS feeds, social bookmarking widgets, and the integration of user-generated content into their sites.

Tim Berners-Lee on the Semantic Web

Via O’Reilly GMT, this video: Inside the semantic Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee:

ZDNet’s David Berlind got some time with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Topics covered include the semantic Web (see also: Microformats), mashups, and the benefits of open standards versus proprietary development environments such as Flash and Silverlight.

Watch a community excavation in progress

The LAARC are doing a community excavation at the Michael Faraday School down in Southwark, and they’re putting photos and video as they go. I love the way they’re using Flickr notes to point out possible features (features are things like walls, ditches or pits). There’s also an experimental wiki (http://laarchaeology.wetpaint.com) and some youtube video (http://www.youtube.com/user/LAARCaeologist). Check out the photos at http://flickr.com/photos/laarc/collections/72157600500588102/

Disclosure: I have a vested interest because it’s a work project, but I’m also enjoying this way too much not to share it. We’ve been working with the LAARC (London Archaeological Archive Resource Centre, part of the Museum of London Group) on pilots for increasing user interaction and engagement.

Who’s talking about you?

This article explains how you can use RSS feeds to track mentions of your company (or museum) in various blog search sites: Ego Searches and RSS.

It’s a good place to start if you’re not sure what people are saying about your institution, exhibitions or venues or whether they might already be creating content about you. Don’t forget to search Flickr and YouTube too.

Are shared data standards and shared repositories the future?

I keep having or hearing similar conversations about shared repositories and shared data standards in places like the SWTT, Antiquist, the Museums Computers Group, the mashed museum group and the HEIRNET Data Sans Frontières. The mashed museum hack day also got me excited about the infinite possibilities for mashups and new content creation that accessible and reliable feeds, web services or APIs into cultural heritage content would enable.

So this post is me thinking aloud about the possible next steps – what might be required; what might be possible; and what might be desired but would be beyond the scope of any of those groups to resolve so must be worked around. I’ll probably say something stupid but I’ll be interested to see where these conversations go.

I might be missing out lots of the subtleties but seems to me that there are a few basic things we need: shared technical and semantic data standards or the ability to map between institutional standards consistently and reliably; shared data, whether in a central repository or a service/services like federated searches capable of bringing together individual repositories into a virtual shared repository. The implementation details should be hidden from the end user either way – it should Just Work.

My preference is for shared repositories (virtual or real) because the larger the group, the better the chance that it will be able to provide truly permanent and stable URIs; and because we’d gain efficiencies when introducing new partners, as well as enabling smaller museums or archaeological units who don’t have the technical skills or resources to participate. One reason I think stable and permanent URIs are so important is that they’re a requirement for the semantic web. They also mean that people re-using our data, whether in their bookmarks, in mashup applications built on top of our data or on a Flickr page, have a reliable link back to our content in the institutional context.

As new partners join, existing tools could often be re-used if they have a collections management system or database used by a current partner. Tools like those created for project partners to upload records to the PNDS (People’s Network Discovery Service, read more at A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes) for Exploring 20th Century London could be adapted so that organisations could upload data extracted from their collections management, digital asset or excavation databases to a central source.

But I also think that each (digital or digitised) object should have a unique ‘home’ URI. This is partly because I worry about replication issues with multiple copies of the same object used in various places and projects across the internet. We’ve re-used the same objects in several Museum of London projects and partnerships, but the record for that object might not be updated if the original record is changed (for example, if a date was refined or location changed). Generally this only applies to older projects, but it’s still an issue across the sector.

Probably more importantly for the cultural heritage sector as a whole, a central, authoritative repository or shared URL means we can publish records that should come with a certain level of trust and authority by virtue of their inclusion in the repository. It does require playing a ‘gate keeper’ role but there are already mechanisms for determining what counts as a museum, and there might also be something for archaeological units and other cultural heritage bodies. Unfortunately this would mean that the Framley Museum wouldn’t be able to contribute records – maybe we should call the whole thing off.

If a base record is stored in a central repository, it should be easy to link every instance of its use back to the ‘home’ URI, or to track discoverable instances and link to them from the home URI. If each digital or digitised object has a home URI, any related content (information records, tags, images, multimedia, narrative records, blog posts, comments, microformats, etc) created inside or outside the institution or sector could link back to the home URI, which would mean the latest information and resources about an object are always available, as well as any corrections or updates which weren’t replicated across every instance of the object.

Obviously the responses to Michelangelo’s David are going to differ from those to a clay pipe, but I think it’d be really interesting to be able to find out how an object was described in different contexts, how it inspired user-generated content or how it was categorised in different environments.

I wonder if you could include the object URL in machine tags on sites like Flickr? [Yes, you could. Or in the description field]

There are obviously lots of questions about how standards would be agreed, where repositories would be hosted, how the scope of each are decided, blah blah blah, and I’m sure all these conversations have happened before, but maybe it’s finally time for something to happen.

[Update – Leif has two posts on a very similar topic at HEIR tonic and News from the Ouse.

Also I found this wiki on the business case for web standards – what a great idea!]

[Update – this was written in June 2007, but recent movements for Linked Open Data outside the sector mean it’s becoming more technically feasible. Institutionally, on the other hand, nothing seems to have changed in the last year.]

“Sharing authorship and authority: user generated content and the cultural heritage sector” online now

I’ve put a rough and ready version of my paper from the UK museums and the web conference session on ‘The Personal Web’ online at Sharing authorship and authority: user generated content and the cultural heritage sector.

Back in the real world

I’m back in London after the 2007 Web Adept – UK Museums on the Web conference and the Mashed Museum hack day in Leicester. I’ll post my paper up later today. I think my head is still spinning from all the conversations and learning and hacking. I’ll write more when it’s all settled into my brain but one thing that’s clear is that the time might be ripe for the museums sector to pull together and think about and act on shared repositories, common or global object models, folksonomies, etc, in a strategic, transparent and gracious way. Maybe the papers presented this time next year will be about ‘the death of the institutional silo’.

On a personal note, I realised that I’ve used ‘extensible, re-usable and interoperable’ in every paper I’ve given in the past two years. I guess you can take the geek out of Open Source but you can’t take the Open Source out of the geek.