Talking to IT students about the cultural heritage sector, and a small ‘woot’

I’ve just written a report of a visit I made with June (our diversity manager) and Bilkis (our web content manager) to Kingston University to talk to students from the Faculty of Computing, Information Systems and Mathematics about the role of IT professionals in museums.

The full post is on the Museum of London blog (‘Why should IT students consider working in cultural heritage?‘) but I thought it was worth linking to here because the discussion raised lots of interesting questions that might benefit from a wider audience:

How can we engage with our audiences? How would you challenge us, as a museum, do to a better job? Is there obvious stuff we’re missing? Do you have an idea for a project a museum could work with you on? Do you want to contribute to our work? Do you have any more questions about museum jobs?

On a more theoretical level, what effect might new methods of collecting objects or stories have – does it create a new kind of visibility for content from IT literate people with reliable access to the internet? How can we engage with people who aren’t comfortable online?

I think I got more out of the session than the students did, and it’s nice to think that one or two of them might consider working in a museum when they graduate.

And the small ‘woot’? This blog has been listed as an example of a ‘programming and development blog’ in the ComputerWeekly.com IT Blog Awards 08. I have no idea how that happened, but it’s very flattering.

Notes from ‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

There are my notes from the data burst ‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’ by Fiona Romeo, at the MCG Spring meeting. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

Fiona’s slides for ‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’ are online.

This was a quick case study: could they use information visualisation to make more of collections datasets? [The site discussed isn’t live yet, but should be soon]

A common visualisation method is maps. It’s a more visual way for people to look at the data, it brings in new stories, and it helps people get sense of the terrain in e.g. expeditions. They exported data directly from MultiMimsy XG and put it into KML templates.

Another common method is timelines. If you have well-structured data you could combine the approaches e.g. plotting stuff on map and on a timeline.

Onto the case study: they had a set of data about memorials around the UK/world. It was quite rich content and they felt that a catalogue was probably not the best way to display it.

They commissioned Stamen Design. They sent CSV files for each table in the database, and no further documentation. [Though since it’s MultiMimsy XG I assume they might have sent the views Willo provide rather than the underlying tables which are a little more opaque.]

Slide 4 lists some reasons arguments for trying visualisations, including the ability to be beautiful and engaging, provocative rather than conclusive, appeal to different learning styles and to be more user-centric (more relevant).

Some useful websites were listed, including the free batchgeocode.com, geonames and getlatlong.

‘Mine the implicit data’ to find meaningful patterns and representations – play with the transcripts of memorial texts to discover which words or phrases occur frequently.

‘Find the primary objects and link them’ – in this case it was the text of the memorials, then you could connect the memorials through the words they share.

The ‘maritime explorer’ will let you start with a word or phrase and follow it through different memorials.

Most interesting thing about the project is the outcome – not only new outputs (the explorer, KML, API), but also a better understanding of their data (geocoded, popular phrases, new connections between transcripts), and the idea that CSV files are probably good enough if you want to release your data for creative re-use.

Approaches to metadata enhancement might include curation, the application of standards, machine-markup (e.g. OpenCalais), social tagging or the treatment of data by artisans. This was only a short (2 – 3 weeks) project but the results are worth it.

[I can’t wait to try the finished ‘explorer’, and I loved the basic message – throw your data out there and see what comes back – you will almost definitely learn more about your data as well as opening up new ways in for new audiences.]

Notes from ‘Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from the presentation ‘Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors’ by Linda Ellis at the MCG Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post.

Linda’s slides for Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors are online.

This was a two year project, fit around their other jobs [and more impressive for that]. The project created British Sign Language video guides for Bantock House. The guides are available on mp3 players and were filmed on location.

Some background:
Not all ‘deaf’ people are the same – there’s a distinction between ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’. The notation ‘d/Deaf’ is often used. Deaf people use sign language as their first language and might not know English; deaf people probably become deaf later in life, and English is their first language. The syntax of British Sign Language (BSL) is different to English syntax. Deaf people will generally use BSL syntax, but deaf people might use signs with English grammar. Not all d/Deaf people can lip-read.

Deaf people are one of the most excluded groups in our society. d/Deaf people can be invisible in society as it’s not obvious if someone is d/Deaf. British sign language was only recognised as an official language in March 2003.

Their Deaf visitors said they wanted:
Concise written information; information in BSL; to explore exhibits independently; stories about local people and museum objects; events just for Deaf people (and dressing up, apparently).

Suggestions:
Put videos on website to tell people what to expect when they visit. But think about what you put on website – they’re Deaf, not stupid, and can read addresses and opening hours, etc. Put a mobile number on publicity so that Deaf people can text about events – it’s cheap and easy to do but can make a huge difference. If you’re doing audience outreach with social software, don’t just blog – think about putting signed videos on YouTube. Use local Deaf people, not interpreters. Provide d/Deaf awareness training for all staff and volunteers. Provide written alternatives to audio guides; add subtitles and an English voice over signed video if you can afford it.

Notes from Museums Computer Group (MCG) Spring Conference, Swansea

These are my notes from the Museums Computer Group (MCG) Spring meeting, held at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, Wales, on April 23, 2008.

Nearly all the slides are online and I also have some photos and video from the National Waterfront Museum. If you put any content about the event online please also tag it with ‘MCGSpring2008’ so all the content about this conference can be found.

The introduction by Debbie Richards mentioned the MCG evaluation project, of which more later in ‘MCG Futures’.

I have tried to cover points that would be of general interest and not just the things that I’m interested in, but it’s still probably not entirely representative of the presentations.

Debbie did a great job of saying people’s names as they asked questions and I hope I’ve managed to get them right, but I haven’t used full names in case my notes on the questions were incorrect. Please let me know if you have any clarifications or corrections.

If I have any personal comments, they’ll be in [square brackets] below. Finally, I’ve used CMS for ‘content management systems’ and CollMS for ‘collections management systems’.

I’ve made a separate post for each paper, but will update and link to them all here as I’ve make them live. The individual posts include links to the specific slides.

‘New Media Interpretation in the National Waterfront Museum’

‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’

‘The Welsh Dimension’

‘Museums and Europeana – the European Digital Library’

‘MCG Futures’

‘Building a bilingual CMS’

‘Extending the CMS to Galleries’

‘Rhagor – the collections based website from Amgueddfa Cymru’

‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’

‘Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors’

‘National Collections Online Feasibility Study’

Notes from ‘National Collections Online Feasibility Study’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from Bridget McKenzie’s presentation, ‘National Collections Online Feasibility Study’ at the MCG Spring meeting. Bridget’s slides are online: National Collections Online Feasibility Study’. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

The partners in the National Collections Online Feasibility Study are the National Museum Director’s Conference, the V&A, the National Museum of Science and Industry, the National Maritime Museum, and Culture 24 (aka the 24 Hour Museum).

The brief:
Is it possible to create a discovery facility that integrates national museum collections; provides seamless access to item-level collections; a base on which build learning resources and creative tools? And can the nationals collaborate successfully?

The enquiry:
What’s the scope? What’s useful to different partners? What can be learnt from past and current projects? How can it help people explore collections? How can it be delivered?

There’s a workshop on May 9th, with some places left, and another on June 18th; reports at the end of May and July.

Community of enquiry… people from lots of different places.

What are they saying?
“Oh no, not another portal!”
“You need to go to where the eyeballs are” – they’re at Google and social networking sites, not at portals (but maybe at a few museum brands too).

It has to be understood in the context of why people visit museums. We don’t know enough about how people use (or want to use) cultural collections online.

There’s some worry about collaborative projects taking visits from individual sites. [Insert usual shtick about the need to the online metrics for museums to change from raw numbers to something like engagement or reach, because this is an institutional concern that won’t go away.]

“Don’t reinvent the wheel, see how other projects shape up”: there’s a long list of other projects on slide 9!

It’s still a job to understand the options, to think about they can be influenced and interoperate.

“We have to build the foundations first”
Needs: audience research – is there a market need for integrated collections?; establish clarity on copyright [yes!]; agreement on data standards; organisational change – communicate possibilities, web expertise within museums; focus on digitising stuff and getting it out there.

[re: the audience – my hunch is that most ‘normal’ people are ‘museum agnostic’ when they’re looking for ‘stuff’ (and I mean ‘stuff’, not ‘collections’) – they just want to find 18th century pictures of dogs, or Charles and Di wedding memorabilia; this is different to someone looking for a ‘branded’ narrative, event or curated experience with a particular museum.]

“Let’s just do small stuff”
Need to enable experiment, follow the Powerhouse example; create a sandbox; try multiple approaches – microformats, APIs, etc. [Woo!]

Does a critical mass of experimentation mean chaos or would answers emerge from it?

What does this mean?
Lots of options; questions about leadership; use the foundations already there – don’t build something big; need an market- or audience-led approach; sector leadership need to value and understand emerging technology.

Notes from ‘Rhagor – the collections based website from Amgueddfa Cymru’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

There are my notes from the presentation ‘Rhagor – the collections based website from Amgueddfa Cymru’ by Graham Davies at the MCG Spring meeting.

This paper talked about the CMS discussed in Building a Bilingual CMS.

‘Rhagor’ is Welsh for more – the project is about showing more of the collections online. It’s not a ‘virtual museum’.

With this project, they wanted to increase access to collections and knowledge associated with those collections; to explain more about collections than can be told in galleries with space limitations; and to put very fragile objects online.

[He gave a fascinating example of a 17th century miniature portrait with extremely fragile mica overlays – the layers have been digitised, and visitors to the website can play dress-up with the portrait layers in a way that would never be physically possible.]

The site isn’t just object records, it also has articles about them. There’s a basic article structure (with a nice popout action for images) that deals with the kinds of content that might be required. While developing this they realised they should test the usability of interface elements with general users, because the actions aren’t always obvious to non-programmers.

They didn’t want to dumb down their content so they’ve explain with a glossary where necessary. Articles can have links to related articles; other parts of the website and related publications, databases etc. Visitors can rate articles – a nice quick simple bit of user interactivity. Visitors can share articles on social networking sites, and the interface allows them to show or hide comments on site. Where articles are geographically based, they can be plotted onto a map. Finally, it’s all fully bilingual. [But I wondered if they translate comments and the replies to them?]

In their next phase they want to add research activities and collections databases. They’re also reaching out to new audiences through applications like Flickr and Google Earth, to go to where audiences are. If the content is available, audiences will start to make links to your content based on their interests.

The technology itself should be invisible, user has enriched experience through the content.

Questions:
Alex: to what extent is this linked with collection management system (CollMS)? Graham: it’s linked to their CMS (discussed in earlier papers), not their CollMS. They don’t draw directly from CollMS into CMS. Their CollMS is working tool for curators, needs lots of data cleaning, and doesn’t necessarily have the right content for web audiences; it’s also not bilingual.

Notes from ‘Extending the CMS to Galleries’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from the presentation, Extending the CMS to Galleries by Dafydd James at the MCG Spring meeting. Dafydd’s slides for Extending the CMS to Galleries are online. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

This paper talked about extending the CMS discussed in Building a Bilingual CMS. See also notes from the following talk on ‘Rhagor – the collections based website from Amgueddfa Cymru‘.

Oriel I [pronounced ‘Oriel Ee’ rather than ‘Oriel one’ as I first thought] is an innovative and flexible gallery, created under budget constraints. Dafydd worked with the curatorial departments and exhibition designer.

It feeds 15 interactive touchscreens, 7 video streams, sound, content can be updated by curatorial department. They’re using Flash, it was a better option at time than HTML/Javascript, and it can be used alongside PHP for data.

They assigned static IP addresses to all PCs in gallery. Web pages ran in kiosk software on Windows XP PCs.

They had to get across to curators that they didn’t have much room for lots of text, especially as it’s bilingual. The system responds quickly if user interacts – on release action, though interactions need to be tested with ‘normal’ people. Pre-loading images helps.

Future plans: considering changing some of the software to HTML/Javascript, as there are more Javascript libraries are available now, and it can be faster to load, and it’s open source. Also upgrading to a newer version of Flash as it’s faster.

They’re looking at using Linux, they want more flexibility than Site Kiosk which uses an IE6 engine.

They’re thinking about logging user actions to find out what the popular content is, get user feedback, and they’re trialling using handhelds with the CMS to deliver smaller versions of webpages.

Notes from ‘Building a bilingual CMS’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from Chris Owen’s presentation, ‘Building a bilingual CMS’ (for the National Museum of Wales) at the MCG Spring meeting. Chris’ slides for ‘Building a bilingual CMS’ are online. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

Why did they build (not buy) a CMS?
Immediate need for content updating, integration of existing databases.
Their initial needs were simple – small group of content authors, workflow and security weren’t so important.
Aims: simplicity, easy platform for development, extensible, ease of use for content authors, workflow tailored to a bilingual site, English and Welsh kept together so easier to maintain.

It’s used on main website, intranet, SCAN (an educational website), Oriel I (more on that later in a later talk), gallery touch-screens and CMS admin.

The website includes usual museum-y stuff like visitor pages, events and exhibitions, corporate and education information, Rhagor (their collections area – more on that later too) and blogs.

How did they build it?
[In rough order] They built the admin web application; created CMS with simple data structures, added security and workflow to admin, added login features to CMS, integrated admin site and CMS, migrated more complex data structures, added lots of new features.

They developed with future uses in mind but also just got on with it.

Issues around bilingual design:
Do you treat languages equally? Do you use language-selection splash screens or different domain names?
Try to localise URLs (e.g. use aliases for directories and pages so /events/ and /[the Welsh word for events]/ do the same [appropriate] thing and Welsh doesn’t seem like an afterthought). Place the language switch in a consistent location; consider workflow for translation, entering content, etc.

Use two-character language codes (en/cy), organise your naming conventions for files and for database fields so Welsh isn’t extra (e.g. collections.en.html and the equivalent .cy.html); don’t embed localised strings in code. [It’s all really nicely done in XML, as they demonstrated later.]

Coding tip: pull out the right lang at the start in SQL query; this minimises bugs and the need to refer to language later.

It’s built on XML, as they have lots of databases and didn’t want to centralise/merge them together; this means they can just add news ones as needed.

Slide 16 shows the features; it compares pretty well to bigger open-source projects out there. It has friendly URLs, less chance of broken links, built in AJAX features and they’ve integrated user authentication, groups so there’s one login for whole website for users. The site has user comments (with approval) and uses reCaptcha. There’s also a slide on the admin features later – all very impressive.

They’ve used OO design. Slide 18 shows the architecture.

Content blocks are PHP objects – the bits that go together that make the page. Localised. Because links are by ID they don’t break when pages are moved. They’re also using mootools.

The future: they want to have more user-centric features; work with the [Welsh project] People’s Collection and other collaborations; APIs with other sites for web 2.ish things; more use of metadata features; they will make it open source if people think it’s useful.

They would really open it up, via something like sourceforge, but would take lead.

[Overall it’s a really impressive bit of work, sensibly designed and well implemented. Between that and the Indianapolis Museum of Art I’ve seen some really nice IT web tools in museums lately. Well done them!]

Notes from ‘MCG Futures’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from ‘MCG Futures’ Jon Pratty and Ross Parry (presented by Jon Pratty) at the Museums Computer Group (MCG) Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. If I’ve made any comments below they’re in [square brackets]. The slides for MCG Futures are online.

Jon: in this presentation will outline the evaluation process, present some of the feedback to date and the timescales.

We’ve got our work cut out getting level and quality of feedback we need.

Disclaimer: he’s not presenting the personal views of Jon or Ross; but presenting what the membership think so far.

The MCG has an ‘astonishing heritage’ of meetings and discussions held across the country and throughout the year [slide 2 is a list of all the meetings – this is the 51st]. There’s a rich archive of content, proceedings, papers, etc. The MCG has a valuable archive, culture, way of working and communal history.

As the web starts to move faster than the organisation, what do you do? What does the momentum of technology mean. Are we keeping up with changes?

Slide 3 is the timetable for consultation, formulation and action – changes to be agreed at the AGM in autumn 2008. Slides 5 – 10 present some of the feedback so far.

Are we reaching out far and hard enough? They’ve had 20 – 25 specific feedback emails, fewer from the online form. They will be asking other organisations how they do it to so can get more feedback. The big steps that might be coming require feedback from bigger sample of membership. [So if you want to see change, you have to send comments! It’s ok to be critical, and it’s ok to write about what you like already.]

The Autumn meeting will be crucial – if there are going to be changes, information has to go out before the Annual General Meeting so the membership have time and notice to consider those changes.

It’s going to happen relatively quickly – it’s ‘not a long period of navel-gazing’.

Some thoughts based on comments so far:
Is MCG a collection of voices or a unified voice?
Do we set agendas or reflect them?
Are we as technologists [doers] disenfranchised from the people who make decisions?
Web or print?
What’s the role of newsletter?
Would you want a blog? (As this asks more of a group of people or MCG committee if so, how would that work?)
What about membership fees.

Questions – what about the:
Function: advocacy, research, collaboration?
Governance: structure, responsibility, size?
Interactions: frequency, location, focus?
Membership: composition, benefits, cost?
Outputs: newsletter, reports, web?
Affiliations: professional, governmental, commercial?

[If you missed the first call for feedback, you can email Debbie Richards, use the feedback form, or discuss it on the MCG list. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a member, or not in IT/a technologist or not a web person – your opinion is valuable.]

The UK Museums and the Web Conference will be at the University of Leicester on June 19, 2008.

Notes from ‘Museums and Europeana – the European Digital Library’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from David Dawson’ presentation ‘Europeana – Museums and the European Digital Library’ at the MCG Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. If I’ve made any comments below they’re in [square brackets].

David’s slides for ‘Europeana – Museums and the European Digital Library’ are online.

Europeana is new name for the European Digital Library (EDL).

The EDL is a political initiative – part of i2010 Eu’s IT strategy. It will provide a common point of multilingual access to online ‘stuff’. It includes the TEL project (The European Library – catalogue records of national libraries) and MICHAEL.

The Europeana ‘maquette’ was launched in February, showing how might work in a few years time. ‘One or two little issues still need working on’. ‘Themes’ aren’t really being taken forward. It has social tagging (going into faceted browsing [did I get that right?]). Works around who, what, where and when, and includes a timeline. It will have 7 million pieces of content.

Europeana and MICHAEL (multilingual websites/digital collections from cultural heritage sector across Europe).
MICHAEL doesn’t reach to item level, just collection descriptions. It also relates to collection descriptions in TEL.

Why are service registries needed?
Map of where content is and how it is managed.
Information Environment Service Registry
Machine to machine services; will know what schemas and terminologies have been used. Interoperability protocols.
(Translated subject terminology and screen material into Welsh.)

EDLNet project. Interoperability Working Group.
MinervaEC – the Minerva technical guidleines are being revised/updated. The previous guidelines were downloaded 60,000 times in 9 languages – this indicates the appetite for guidelines.

Slide 14 shows the path from institutional databases to national or theme/topic-based portals , from there into the EDL. [The metadata storage diagram on slide 15 is what’s currently being built, slide 14 is a year old.]

It will support RDF triples. It will offer simple, advanced and faceted search [faceted search as browsing].

APIs would provide the mechanism to enable many different uses of the metadata. The benefit is then in the underlying services, not just website. [But if we want APIs, we have to ask for them or they might not happen.]

How to promote your content in Europeana?
Create your content using open standards. If you are already using the Minerva technical standards, then you should be able to supply your metadata so it they can link into something that will go into Europeana.

You should use your existing metadata standards and prepare to map your data to domain-specific Dublic Core Application Profiles. [Does domain specific mean there won’t be one schema for museums, libraries, and archives; but possibly schemas for each? A really usable schema for museum data is the other thing we need to make APIs the truly useful tool they could be, even if different types of museums have slightly different requirements from a schema.]

Terminologies – prepare to take advantage of the semantic web. Publish terminologies and thesauri using SKOS – it’s machine readable, can be used by search engines. [Using computers to match ontologies? Semweb FTW! Sorry, got a bit excited.]

Register your content and services with existing registries like TEL and MICHAEL.

All EU member states must: increase digitisation, tackle access, sort IPR, enable preservation.

Practicalities: in the UK the People’s Network Discover Service (PNDS) currently harvests 500,000 digital objects. All MLA funded activity requires participation. Other projects, like Exploring 20th Century London, are using the PNDS infrastructure. The PNDS will contain an estimated 4 million digital objects by [the end of] 2008. It will be integrated into Culture 24 and the Collections Trust Subject Specialist Networks; part of same national infrastructure.

eContentPlus and EDLocal – support for institutions to get metadata into PNDS.

Timetable (slide 20): May 23, project conference launch [ask for information if you want to have your say]; June 4th, launch of Due Diligence Guidelines on Orphan Works [which will be useful for recent discussions about copyright and the cultural heritage sector].

23rd, 24th June – Europeana initial prototype reviewed – call for volunteers?
It’s important to have museums people at the conference in order to represent museum-specific requirements, including the need for an API. It might be possible to fund museum people to get there.

November 2008: high profile launch.

After May 23rd David will be on the other side of the fence, and his question will be ‘how can I get my content into the PNDS, Culture 24, Europeana?’.

Questions
Mike: is the API a must? David: it is for him, for the project managers it might be a maybe. Mike: without an API it will die a death.

Andrew: thanks to David for his work at the MLA (and the MCG). From May 24th [after David leaves], how does the MLA support this work? David: expecting announcment would have been made but as they haven’t yet it’s difficult to answer that.

Me: how can we as museums advocate or evangelise about the need for an API? David: go to the conference, represent views of institutions.

This session ended with thanks from Debbie and a round of applause for David’s contributions to the Museums Computer Group.