Links of interest – November 2009

I’ve fallen into the now-familiar trap of posting interesting links on twitter and neglecting my blog, but twitter is currently so transitory I figure it’s worth collecting the links for perusal at your leisure. Sometimes I’ll take advantage of the luxury of having more than 140 characters and add comments [in brackets].

  • ‘vision video’ for Project Natal – lots of UX challenges but the hardware and software sound amazing already http://procrastineering.blogspot.com/2009/06/project-natal.html [physical and gestural interfaces, spatial, facial recognition – all kinds of “we’re living in the future” stuff]
  • Museum website sharing… RT @LSpurdle: The project plan and final report for the Pre-Raphaelite project are here Pre-Raphaelite resource site
  • Thoughtful piece on twitter and nature of engagement at confs When Social Technologies Become AntiSocial (HT @jtrant) [part of an on-going debate about whether the ‘backchannel’ should be made public during conference presentations. My gut feeling is that it’s distracting, and as in this case, sometimes particularly unfair on the speaker. I do think twitter displays elsewhere in a conference work really well. The backchannel is so useful for all the social and peer connection stuff at conferences, but ultimately you’re in a session to listen to the speakers and most of us find concentrating on one thing for a long period of time difficult enough these days so might need all the help we can get.]
  • “Let’s make public speaking and public listening an art form.” spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective (HT @zambonini) [danah boyd’s perspective on the event that triggered the above post]
  • No public back channel – ‘My vote would be to take the toy away from the kids until they can act old enough to use it.’ http://bit.ly/2GbzmH [public back channel again]
  • research gems: ‘it’s like a vicious circle, except it’s not that vicious, it’s just a circle’ http://is.gd/53noQ [just plain funny]
  • Brilliant for cultural heritage RT @givp RT @yunilee Unbelievable software turns average webcam into 3D scanner. http://tinyurl.com/ykpzc2e [not real time, I assume – but it could be brilliant for quick and dirty object digitisation]
  • RT @dannybirchall: What do you think of my new website? http://www.wellcomecollection.org/
  • Nice one! RT @richbs: Beautiful visualisation of V&A Collections from The Times on Saturday
  • Academic Journal Racket – ‘the IOP Physics package … is costing us an amount close to the annual salary of a lecturer.’
  • advertisers don’t get it. Using personal profiles for marketing messages destroys the value of the platform A Friend’s Tweet Could Be an Ad
  • V cool! RT @marialgilbert: Esquire magazine’s current issue includes augmented reality http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGwHQwgBzSI Consumer buys ‘key’ to content.
  • Aren’t museums already broadcasters, on the internet? Or does TV trump YouTube? “Museums and broadcasters must work together” [I do have a blind spot around the ‘museums as broadcasters’ idea – maybe I already take it as a given, or maybe it’s because I don’t have a TV? @NickPoole1 has been tweeting about it a bit, but I think I prefer ‘museums as platform’ to ‘museums as broadcasters’. Spaces for learning, discussion, reflection. Possibly related to Clay Shirky’s talk at the Smithsonian – ‘If you think of every artefact as a latent community, much of social values comes from convening platforms available for people to start sharing value in communities of practice. … If you think value is only things that you buy and manage and control… being a platform increases value for and the loyalty of the people who go there.’]
  • Blimey! RT @bus_tops: The Illustrated Man: How LED Tattoos Could Make Your Skin a Screen
  • Amazed by these stats ‘MSN Hotmail’s remained the most popular email service provider’ at 33%, Yahoo 14%, Gmail 6% [It really annoys me that Nomensa don’t link to the original source for their stories. They post great content, but it’s unusable without proper attribution]
  • Nice one! RT @museweb:Museums and the Web Copyright Form reworked as a non-exclusive license [related: “really enjoyed this post from @lisadempster http://tr.im/EPzH about her personal experience as author publishing with Creative Commons”]
  • This is ace, I love museum trails ‘Same-sex desire and gender identity‘ at the British Museum
  • Not sure about PDF but useful still RT @zambonini: Just discovered www.tweetdoc.org – an easy way of saving (PDF) twitter search results
  • BBC bows to SEO‘ – longer headlines on story pages, shorter on indexes for same stories
  • RT @coscultcom we’ve listened to your comments and changed our criteria – do one thing and do it well. More info at Cosmic Collections – do one thing and do it well
  • Fail! RT @bwyman: MS’s IE9 team blog post about standards and interoperability requires a silverlight install http://is.gd/4YjAP
  • RT @Wittylama: new blog: my recommendation to #GLAM for the #wikimedia collab. with highest return for lowest risk http://bit.ly/2FGKZT
  • interesting but terrifying ‘The future of entertainment: outside the box‘ vs ‘reasons why adults and teens use online networks‘ (and next slide)
  • thoughtful discussion of the post-release life and impact of a museum API http://bit.ly/2MPqEi from @brooklynmuseum
  • ace posts on visualising museum data http://tr.im/FbsD http://tr.im/FbsT (and built in reading list if you’re into infovis) on Museum Pipes [also on infographics, infovis: “infographics xkcd style http://xkcd.com/657/large/“]
  • RT @bathlander: You can now search all the public collections of the Smithsonian in one place! http://collections.si.edu 2.3 million records
  • I love this comic because a) it’s about coffee and b) it’s an ace infographic
  • NMI at Walker Art Center are my heroes ‘New Media kills in the Walker’s pumpkin carving contest’ http://bit.ly/1FGstB (HT @danielincandela)
  • EU says you must accept browser cookies?! http://is.gd/4SI4Y No way, urgh (HT @benosteen)
  • Hmm, wonder if I could hook online coll pages RT @lorcanD: Virtual International Authority File. Thom Hickey article. http://bit.ly/2HKf6X
  • RT @librarianbyday: If Your Patrons Continually Use Your Catalog the Wrong Way the Problem Isn’t Them http://bit.ly/R1eH (via @NancyProctor)
  • The ‘What is keeping women out of technology?’ article confuses ‘technology’ with ‘networking’ http://bit.ly/2hcLTz [The ‘phone, handbag’ thing is ridiculous – even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter why you don’t answer the phone, and I’m pretty sure we have some methods for asynchronous communication these days – ooh, like voicemail, email, direct message… It’s a shame the author doesn’t really get around to addressing his original question, except to say that he doesn’t want to hear any of the reasons commonly given. Why ask then?]
  • RT @gkob:funny how well @stefanomaz summarizes the triplification hype RT @sclopit: Data Smoke and Mirrors http://bit.ly/5fJv3
  • “this is my freaking HOUSE” – issues with ‘the gathering clouds of a location-based privacy storm’ http://tr.im/EvTX [and] social media makes your privacy leaky, because as careful as you are, even geek friends can be unsavvy about privacy and social media
  • RT @elyw: check out Museum Victoria’s new History & Technology collections online
  • Excellent insight into problems with large sites RT @bwyman: American Airlines fires UX designer for caring too much http://is.gd/4O6q2
  • I can’t believe this kid is only 16. ‘Digital Open Winners: Australian Teen Crafts “Sneaky” Games’ http://bit.ly/2FzBoz
  • no idea where this link came from so no HT but wow! AR with movable screen shows what church would look like un-destroyed http://tr.im/E4BM
  • A response to A N Wilson in the Mail ‘An uncertain scientist’s guide to taking risks’ http://tr.im/E4xP Also good on climate change action [earlier tweet: “Ha ha ha, hilarious article by A N Wilson about the trouble with scientists. http://bit.ly/3jCVUc HT @benosteen“]
  • such a simple but brilliant accessibility idea – magnifier application in Nokia phones for help with fine print http://is.gd/4McVg
  • Excellent post – IMA’s Rob Stein on benefits and challenges of transparency and museums http://is.gd/4McL8
  • ALA on websites for learners… they ‘need an environment that is narrative, interactive, and discoverable.’ http://bit.ly/2FfzSL
And stuff I really must find time to read properly:
Finally, a tweet about an interview with me about the Cosmic Collections competition.
I really should group those tweets and replace all the shortened links with the full URLs but it’s already taken a surprisingly long time to put this post together.

Nine days to go! And entering Cosmic Collections just got easier

Quoting myself over on the museum developers blog, Cosmic Collections – do one thing and do it well:

I’ve realised that there may be some mismatch between the way mashups tend to work, and the scope we’ve suggested for entries to our competition. The types of interfaces someone might produce with the API may lend themselves more to exploring one particular idea in depth than produce something suitable for the broadest range of our audiences.

So I’m proposing to change the scope for entries to the competition, to make it more realistic and a better experience for entrants: I’d like to ask you to build a section of a site, rather than a whole site. The scope for entrants would then be: “create something that does one thing, and does it well”. Our criteria – use of collections data, creativity, accessibility, user experience and ease of deployment and maintenance – are still important but we’ll consider them alongside the type of mashup you submit.

I’ve updated the Cosmic Collections competition page to reflect this change. This page also features a new ‘how to take part’ section, including a direct link to the API and to a discussion group.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this change – there’s an email address lurking on the competition page, and I’m on twitter @mia_out and @coscultcom.

In other news, programmableweb published a blog post about the competition today: Science Museum Opens API and Challenges Developers to Mashup the Cosmos. Woo!

And I don’t know if it’s any kind of consolation if you’re entering, but I’ll be working right alongside you up until Friday 28th, on an assignment for my MSc.

Organisational pain

If you work in a large organisation (or a cultural heritage organisation of almost any size), you may find cathartic release in reading this response to criticism of a large website from a member of its internal webteam:

…simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake. You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives. It only takes a few hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in your post. But doing the design isn’t the hard part, and I think that’s what a lot of outsiders don’t really get, probably because many of them actually do belong to small, just-get-it-done organizations. But those of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even a simple redesign must overcome, and not many, I’ll bet, are jumping on this same bandwagon. They know what it’s like.

As always, I’m not particularly pointing the finger at my own institution, but I’ve definitely been there. Cultural heritage institutions tend to have bonus! added! overload on web teams, so the list of improvements you want to make is always much longer than the resources you have available.

‘Cosmic Collections’ launches at the Science Museum this weekend

I think I’ve already said pretty much everything I can about the museum website mashup competition we’re launching around the ‘Cosmos and Culture’ exhibition, but it’d be a bit silly of me not to mention it here since the existence and design of the project reflects a lot of the issues I’ve written about here.

If you make it along to the launch at the Science Museum on Saturday, make sure you say hello – I should be easy to find cos I’m giving a quick talk at some point.
Right now the laziest thing I could do is to give you a list of places where you can find out more:
Finally, you can talk to us @coscultcom on twitter, or tag content with #coscultcom.
Btw – if you want an idea of how slowly museums move, I think I first came up with the idea in January (certainly before dev8D because it was one of the reasons I wanted to go) and first blogged about it (I think) on the museum developers blog in March. The timing was affected by other issues, but still – it’s a different pace of life!

On ‘cultural heritage technologists’

A Requirements Engingeering lecture at uni yesterday discussed ‘satisfaction arguments’ (a way of relating domain knowledge to the introduction of a new system in an environment), emphasising the importance of domain knowledge in understanding user and system requirements – an excellent argument for the importance of cultural heritage technologists in good project design.  The lecture was a good reminder that I’ve been meaning to post about ‘cultural heritage technologists’ for a while. In a report on April’s Museums and the Web 2009, I mentioned in passing:

…I also made up a new description for myself as I needed one in a hurry for moo cards: cultural heritage technologist. I felt like a bit of a dag but then the lovely Ryan from the George Eastman House said it was also a title he’d wanted to use and that made me feel better.

I’d expanded further on it for the first Museums Pecha Kucha night in London:

Museum technologists are not merely passive participants in the online publication process. We have skills, expertise and experience that profoundly shape the delivery of services. In Jacob Nielsen’s terms, we are double domain experts.  This brings responsibilities on two fronts – for us, and for the museums that employ us.

Nielsen describes ‘double usability specialists’ or ‘double experts’ as those with expertise in human-computer interaction and in the relevant domain or sector (e.g. ref).  He found that these double experts were more effective at identifying usability issues, and I’ve extrapolated from that to understand the role of dual expertise in specifying and developing online and desktop applications.
Commenters in the final session of MW2009 conference described the inability of museums to recognise and benefit from the expertise of their IT or web staff, instead waiting until external gurus pronounced on the way of the future – which turns out to be the same things museum staff had been saying for years.  (Sound familiar?)

So my post-MW2009 ‘call to arms’ said “museums should recognise us (museum technologists) as double domain experts. Don’t bury us like Easter eggs in software/gardens. There’s a lot of expertise in your museum, if you just look. We can save you from mistakes you don’t even know you’re making. Respect our expertise – anyone can have an opinion about the web but a little knowledge is easily pushed too far”.

However, I’m also very aware of our responsibilities. A rough summary might be:

Museum technologists have responsibilities too.  Don’t let recognition as a double domain expert make you arrogant or a ‘know it all’. Be humble. Listen. Try to create those moments of understanding, both yours from conversation with others, and others from conversation with you – and cherish that epiphany.  Break out of the bubble that tech jargon creates around our discussions.  Share your excitement. Explain how a new technology will benefit staff and audiences, show them why it’s exciting. Respect the intelligence of others we work with, and consider it part of our job to talk to them in language they understand. Bring other departments of the museum with us instead of trying to drag them along.

Don’t get carried away with idea that we are holders of truth; we need to take advantage of the knowledge and research of others. Yes, we have lots of expertise but we need to constantly refresh that by checking back with our audiences and internal stakeholders. We also need to listen to concerns and consider them seriously; to acknowledge and respect their challenges and fears.  Finally, don’t be afraid to call in peers to help with examples, moral support and documentation.

My thoughts on this are still a work in progress, and I’d love to hear what you think.  Is it useful, is it constructive?  Does a label like ‘cultural heritage technologist’ or ‘museum technologist’ help others respect your learning and expertise?  Does it matter?

[Update, April 2012: as the term has become more common, its definition has broadened.  I didn’t think to include it here, but to me, a technologist ia more than just a digital producer (as important as they are) – while they don’t have to be a coder, they do have a technical background. Being a coder also isn’t enough to make one a technologist as it’s also about a broad range of experience, ideally across analysis, implementation and support.  But enough about me – what’s your definition?]

About ‘lessons from a decade of museum websites’

An article I wrote for Museum iD, ‘an independent ideas exchange and thinktank for museums and heritage professionals’ has been published online. The entire version of ‘Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites’ is available online, but as a taster, it starts:

2009 may be remembered as the year when various financial crises gave us time and cause to stop and reflect on the successes and failures of the past decade or so of museums on the web. This reflection is aided by the maturity of the web as a technical platform – models are now available for most common applications of cultural heritage online, and a substantial body of experience with digitisation and web projects exists within the cultural heritage sector. It also offers an opportunity to pose some questions about the organisational changes museums might face as both the expectations of our audiences and our own working practices have been influenced by our interactions online.

Some of it’s really practical, and comes from my desire to share the lessons I’ve learnt over ten years in the cultural heritage sector:

Based on my experience and on that of other museum technologists, I’ve listed some sample questions about your audiences, content and organisational goals related to the project. The answers to these questions will begin to reveal the types of interactions your audiences could have with your content, with each other and with the museum itself. In turn, focussing on those social and functional interactions you wish to support will determine the website and interaction metaphors suitable for your project.

And some of it comes from a desire to see museums communicate better internally, and to make the most of existing knowledge and resources, no matter where it sits in the organisation:

Some of the questions above may seem rather daunting, but by involving staff from a range of disciplines in the project’s earliest scoping stages, you gain a greater variety of perspectives and make available a wider range of possible solutions. Inviting others to participate in the initial stages of project design and taking advantage of the innovation and expertise in your organisation is a good way to discover reusable resources, bring to light any internal duplications or conflicts, and to ‘reality check’ your idea against organisational mission and operational reality. For example, most museums contain people who spend their days talking to audiences and watching them interact with exhibits and interpretative content – observations that can help bridge the gap between the physical and online audience experience. Similarly, museum technologists are not merely passive conduits in the online publication process but often have skills, expertise and experience that can profoundly shape the delivery of services.

If you need to understand emerging technologies, ‘mash-up days’ are among the lightweight, inexpensive but potentially high-impact ways to enable staff to research and experiment with new platforms while engaging in cross-departmental collaboration. Cross-specialism workshops, ‘unconferences’ , social media communication tools and even traditional meetings are a great way to create space for innovation while benefiting from years of institutional knowledge and bridging the disconnect that sometimes exists between departments. Integrating social and participatory (or ‘Web 2.0’) applications for collaboration and consultation into organisational practice can improve the chances of success for web projects by allowing staff to become as familiar as their audiences with the potential of these tools.

A lot of my thinking harks back to the ideas that coalesced around the Museums and the Web conference earlier this year, summarised here and here.

Finally, I snuck in a challenge at the end: “Our audiences have fundamentally changed as a result of their interactions online – shouldn’t the same be true of our organisations?“.

Let’s push things forward – V&A and British Library beta collections search

The V&A and the British Library have both recently released beta sites for their collections searches.  I’d mentioned the V&A’s beta collections search in passing elsewhere, but basically it’s great to see such a nicely designed interface – it’s already a delight to use and has a simplicity that usually only comes from lots of hard work – and I love that the team were able to publish it as a beta.  Congratulations to all involved!

(I’m thinking about faceted browsing for the Science Museum collections, and it’s interesting to see which fields the V&A have included in the ‘Explore related objects’ panel (example).  I’d be interested to see any usability research on whether users prefer ‘inline’ links to explore related objects (e.g. in the ‘tombstone data’ bit to the right of the image) or for the links to appear in a distinct area, as on this site. )

I’m not sure how long it’s been live, but the British Library beta catalogue search features a useful ‘Refine My Results’ panel on the right-hand side of the search results page.  

There’s also a ‘workspace’, where items and queries can be saved and managed.  I think there’s a unique purpose for users of the BL search that most sites with ‘save your items’ functions don’t have – you can request items directly from your workspace in advance for delivery when next in the library.  My friendly local British Library regular says the ability to save searches between sessions is immensely useful.  You can also export to delicious, Connotea, RefWorks or EndNote, so your data is transportable, though unfortunately when I tested my notes on an item weren’t also exported.  I don’t have a BL login so I haven’t been able to play with their tagging system.

They’ve included a link to a survey, which is a useful way to get feedback from their users.

Both beta sites are already useful, and I look forward to seeing how they develop.

What’s the point of museum collections online?

Earlier this week I posted on our developer blog to ask ‘what’s your number one question about presenting museum collections online?‘.

Merel van der Vaart (@MerelVaart on twitter), who has just finished an internship with the Science Museum’s climate change content team, posed an interesting question in response:

“I’m still struggling to decide what the value of online access is. Not  that I think it’s bad, but how exactly is it good?”

I tend to think that everyone knows the benefits of online collections – providing access to museum objects and the knowledge around them, to start with – so it’s actually a really good question: why are we putting collections online?  Who does it benefit?  Are the benefits clear to others in the museum, and to our audiences?

I can think lots of answers, but the exercise of stopping and examining my automatic response was really useful.  I’m still thinking about the presentation on selling your ideas because  it’s made me realise the importance of having answers to questions we’d forgotten might be questions.

Top ten tips for selling your IT project

I’m spending two days in Manchester for the JISC event, Rapid Innovation in Development. I’ve already had some interesting, inspiring and useful conversations and I’m looking forward to tomorrow (and more importantly, getting some quality programming time to try them out).

The event has a focus on helping developers effectively market their projects or ideas to wider audiences (aka ‘normal people’). With that in mind, here are my notes from Alice Gugan’s talk on her ‘top ten tips for selling your project’.

She pointed out that it’s not exhaustive but does list the key tips to focus on.

  1. Focus on your audience. Who they are, their interests, their technical level. If you’re talking to a journalist, talk to who they’re writing for.
  2. USP – what is yours? How does your project really change the lives of your audience? This is your main message. What makes your project stand out?
  3. Short and snappy sub-points. Not too many, make sure they lead logically on from your main message.
  4. Be confident. Be sure of your ground, be believable, be enthusiastic.
  5. Project your voice!
  6. Engage eye contact with your interviewer – if you have to scan your notes, still try to make eye contact with the audience.
  7. No gimmicks! They can be great but they won’t necessarily make people remember what your project was about.
  8. No jargon! It’s often a barrier to your audience. This includes acronyms.
  9. Practice, practice, practice. But keep it fresh, enthusiastic and believable.
  10. Test it on a stranger and adjust according to their reactions.

All good points! Based on years of geek conversations across several domains, I’d suggest making your pitch into a story about the engaging/useful/inexpensive/secure (etc, you get the picture) experience someone has while using your product. You can always bring out the technical details and features list later – once you’ve got people interested.

It’s often hard to step back from the detailed perspective and remember how to talk about your project who haven’t been living with it daily, but if you can’t do that it’s hard to make the best of your work by sharing it with a wider audience.

Focusing on your audience can be tricky – it’s easier for pitches than more general presentations, but working out how to address audiences with different levels of technical or sector knowledge can be tricky. Maybe that’s why I like user stories as pitches – it makes you step back from the acronomic** detail and think about what really makes your idea unique.

** Yeah, I made that up, but it’s a nice cross between acronyms, macro and moronic.

[Update: thanks to Paul Walk for Alice’s surname.

Also, I’ve found myself thinking about the event quite a bit since Friday – both in terms of the tips for presenting technical projects to non-technical staff, and generally in terms of the useful tips and inspiring ideas I picked up in conversation with other attendees.  Congratulations to all concerned for a great event!]

Getting closer to a time machine-x-curator in your pocket

If life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans thenI’m glad I’ve been busy planning various things, because it meant that news of the EU-funded iTacitus project was a pleasant surprise. The project looked at augmented reality, itinerary planning and contextual information for cultural tourism.

As described on their site and this gizmowatch article, it’s excitingly close to the kind of ‘Dopplr for cultural heritage’ or ‘pocket curatr’ I’ve written about before:

Visitors to historic cities provide the iTacitus system with their personal preferences – a love of opera or an interest in Roman history, for example – and the platform automatically suggests places to visit and informs them of events currently taking place. The smart itinerary application ensures that tourists get the most out of each day, dynamically helping them schedule visits and directing them between sites.
Once at their destination, be it an archaeological site, museum or famous city street, the AR component helps bring the cultural and historic significance to life by downloading suitable AR content from a central server.

There’s a video showing some of the AR stuff (superimposed environments, annotated Landscapes) in action on the project site. It didn’t appear to have sound so I don’t know if it also demonstrated the ‘Spatial Acoustic Overlays’.