Slides and talk from ‘Cosmic Collections’ paper

This is a lazy post, a straight copy and paste of my presentation notes (my excuse is that I’m eight days behind on everything at work and uni after being grounded in the US by volcanic ash). Anyway, I hope you enjoy it or that it’s useful in some way.

Cosmic Collections: creating a big bang?

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Slide 1 (solar rays – Cosmic Collections):

The Cosmic Collections project was based on a simple idea – what if we gave people the ability to make their own collection website? The Science Museum was planning an exhibition on astronomy and culture, to be called ‘Cosmos & Culture’. We had limited time and resources to produce a site to support the exhibition and we risked creating ‘just another exhibition microsite’. So what if we provided access to the machine-readable exhibition content that was already being gathered internally, and threw it open to the public to make websites with it?  And what if we motivated them to enter by offering competition prizes?  Competition participants could win a prize and kudos, and museum audiences might get a much more interesting, innovative site.
The idea was a good match for museum mission, exhibition content, technical context, hopefully audience – but was that enough?
Slide 2 (satellite dish):
If we built an API, would anyone use it?
Can you really crowdsource the creation of collections interfaces?
The project gave me a chance to investigate some specific questions.  At the time, there were lots of calls from some quarters for museums to produce APIs for each project, but would anyone actually use a museum API?  The competition might help us understand whether or how we should invest in APIs and machine-readable data.
We can never build interfaces to meet the needs of every type of audience.  One of the promises of machine-readable data is that anyone can make something with your data, allowing people with particular needs to create something that supports their own requirements or combines their data with ours – but would anyone actually do it?
Slide 3 (map mashup):
Mashups combine data from one or more sources and/or data and visualisation tools such as maps or timelines.
I’m going to get the geek stuff out of the way and quickly define mashups and APIs…
Mashups are computer applications that take existing information from known sources and present it to the viewer in a new way. Here’s a mashup of content edits from Wikipedia with a map showing the location of the edit.
Slide 4 (APIs)
APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are a way for one machine to talk to another: ‘Hi Bob, I’d like a list of objects from you, and hey, Alice, could you draw me a timeline to put the objects on?’
APIs tell a computer, ‘if you go here, you will get that information, presented like this, and you can do that with it’.
A way of providing re-usable content to the public, other museums and other departments within our museum – we created a shared backend for web and gallery interactives.
I think of APIs as user interfaces for developers and wanted to design a good experience for developers with the same care you would for end users*.  I hoped that feedback from the competition could be used to improve the beta API
* we didn’t succeed in the first go but it’s something to aim for post-beta
Slide 5: (what if nobody came?)
AKA ‘the fears and how to deal with them’
Acknowledge those fears
Plan for the worst case scenario
Take a deep breath and do it anyway
And on the next slides, the results.  If I was replicating the real experience, you’d have several nerve-biting months while you waited for the museum to lumber into gear, planned the launch event, publicised the project in the participant communities… Then waited for results to come in. But let’s skip that bit…
Slide 6: (Ryan Ludwig’s
The results – our judges declared a winner and a runner-up, these are screenshots – this is the second prize winning entry.
People came to the party. Yay! I’d like to thank all the participants, whether they submitted a final entry or not. It wouldn’t have worked without them.
Slide 7: (Natalie and Simon’s
This is a screenshot from the winning site – it made the best use of the API and was designed to lure the visitor in and keep drawing them through the site.
(We didn’t get subject specialists scratching their own itch – maybe they don’t need to share their work, maybe we didn’t reach them. Would like to reach researchers, let them know we have resources to be used, also that they can help us/our audiences by sharing their work)
Slide 8: (astrolabe – what did we learn?)
People need (more) help to participate in a geektastic project like this
The dynamics of a competition are tricky
Mashups are shaped by the data provided – you get out what you put in
Can we help people bring their own content to a future mashup?
Slide 9: (evaluation)
I did a small survey to evaluate the project… Turns out the project was excellent outreach into the developer community. People were really excited about being invited to play with our data.  My favourite quote: “The very idea of the competition was awesome”
Slide 10: (paper sheet)
Also positive coverage in technical press. So in conclusion?
Slide 11: (Tim Berners-Lee):
“The thing people are amazed about with the web is that, when you put something online, you don’t know who is going to use it—but it does get used.”
There are a lot of opportunities and excitement around putting machine-readable data online…
Slide 12: Tim Berners-Lee 2:
But:  It doesn’t happen automatically; It’s not a magic bullet
But people won’t find and use your APIs without some encouragement. You need to support your API users. People outside the museum bring new ideas but there’s still a big role for people who really understand the data and audiences to help make it a quality experience…
Slide 13 (space):
What next?
Using the feedback to focus and improve collection-wide API
Adding other forms of machine-readable data
Connecting with data from your collections?
I’ve been thinking about how to improve APIs – offer subject authorities with links to collections, embed markup in the collections pages to help search engines understand our data…
I want more! The more of us with machine-readable data available for re-use, the better the cross-collections searches, the region or specialism-wide mashups… I’d love to be able to put together a mashup showing all the cultural heritage content about my suburb; all the Boucher self-portraits; all the inventions that helped make the Space Shuttle work…
Slide 14: (thank you)
If you’re interested in possibilities of machine-readable data and access to your collections, join in the conversation on the museum API wiki or follow along on twitter or on blogs.  Join in at
More at or @mia_out

Image credits include:

Mash the state

‘Cosmic Collections’ – my MW2010 paper online

My Museums and the Web 2010 paper is up at Cosmic Collections: Creating a Big Bang and I’m working on the slides now and I’m curious – what would you like to see more of in a presentation?  It’s only short (6 minutes) so I’m currently thinking setup (including lots of definitions for non-geeks), outcomes (did the project succeed?), and a bit on what I think the next steps are (basically a call to get your data online in re-usable formats).

I’m thinking of leading with this Tim Berners-Lee quote from an article in Prospect, Mash the state:

“The thing people are amazed about with the web is that, when you put something online, you don’t know who is going to use it—but it does get used.”