Can ugly babies save museums?

Since coming across Ugly Renaissance Babies, I’ve been wondering: is Tumblr* the best thing to happen to broad public engagement with art history**?  They’re dead simple posts – an image and a short comment, but they spread widely (as you can see from the number of re-posts), and arguably make renaissance art more interesting to people who wouldn’t normally view it.  Can sites that curate content from across different collections like this create serendipity through decontextualisation, and bring art history to the masses?

Like image macros, they can bring history and popular culture together in amusing ways (e.g. Joseph Ducreux, the Bayeux Tapestry and song lyrics), but is this irreverent commentary and re-contextualisation exactly the kind of thing that skeptical curators worried about when we were all getting excited about online collections?  So I also have an entirely different question – does it matter to museums, galleries if (like the V&A) your painting appears in Ugly Renaissance Babies?

 Attributed to Master of the Kress Epiphany, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers (detail), around 1480-1500; We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.
Attributed to Master of the Kress Epiphany, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers (detail), around 1480-1500
‘We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.’

Is it ok to point out ‘bad’ art like this?  Visitors often make rude comments about the ugly babies or whatever as they pass through museum galleries, but unless someone is there to hear them their comments are ephemeral.

And does it matter if the site author doesn’t link back to the holding collection or image source?  [I think it does – for context and finding related items more than ownership, but I’ve been told that’s a museum-y way of looking at it.]

I posted the tumblr link and asked some of these questions a while ago on Twitter, but frustratingly, I can’t get back as far as the original post in the @-mentions page so I’m missing any comments I didn’t reply directly to at the time.  (The reliability of free social media services is a whole other post…)  The one set of comments I can retrieve was from Erika Taylor (@erikajoy), who said, ‘surely you would be proud as punch having an original renaissance ugly baby in your collection? May change the significance perhaps’ … ‘an interesting additional social significance to add to whatever the existing significance is’ and best of all,

‘also, how cool would it be if museums collected memes of their paintings back into their collection.’ 

Finally, since this is presumably my last post for the year, I’d like to thank you for reading and commenting, and for inspiring conversations at conferences and on twitter – may your 2012 bring wondrous things to you and yours.

* insert your favourite social media service here.
** I suspect artistic objects are more ‘portable’ than social history or science objects, as they make visual sense without a story explaining what they are or why they’re important.

Why do people rally to save libraries but not museums?

An experiment capturing a conversation with Storify…

Huge thanks to everyone who contributed and let me share their comments. P.S. You know your sector is loved when there’s a Ryan Gosling ‘hey girl’ tumblr about you…

My Europeana Tech keynote: Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation

This is a slightly abridged version of my notes for my keynote, ‘Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation’ at EuropeanaTech (#etech11) in Vienna in October 2011.

I’m really excited about being here to talk about some of my favourite things with you. I think helping people appreciate cultural heritage is one of the best jobs in the world so I feel lucky to be here with people working toward the same goal.

This is a chance to remind ourselves why we should get audiences participating digitally – how does it benefit both GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) and their audiences? I’m going to take you through some examples of digital participation and explain why I think they’re useful case studies. I’ll finish by summarising what we can learn from those case studies, looking for tips you can take back to your organisations. Hopefully we’ll have time for a few questions or some discussion.

Why enable participation?
Isn’t it easier to just keep doing what we’re already doing? Maybe not – here are some problems your GLAM organisation might be facing…

You need to think digitally to enable participation at scale – to reach not tens or hundreds, but thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. As cultural heritage organisations, we have lots of experience with access and participation at reference desks and in galleries. We are good at creating experiences to engage, delight, and educate in person, but these are limited by the number of staff required, the materiality of the objects or documents, the size of a venue, its location and opening hours. We’re still learning how to translate those brilliant participative experiences into the digital domain…

Collections are big, resources are small. In most cases we’re still digitising catalogue records, let alone taking images and writing beautiful contextualised interpretative material for our collections. We’ll be at it for centuries if we try to do it alone…

What’s more, it’s not enough for content to be online – it has to be findable. Our digitised content is still not very discoverable in search engines – which means it’s effectively invisible to most potential audiences. We need better content to help search engines find the stuff we’ve put so much work into putting online. For example, I wanted to use Europeana images to illustrate my slides, but I had trouble finding images to match my ideas – but if other people had tagged them with words like ‘happiness’, ‘excitement’, ‘crowds’, I might have been able to find what I needed.

User-contributed content can help bridge the ‘semantic gap’ between the language used in catalogues and the language that most people would use to look for content.

Even when our content is found by our audiences, it’s not always very accessible without information about the significance, and cultural and historical context of the item. Further, in Europeana’s case, there’s a gap between the many languages of the user community and the catalogue metadata; as well as gaps between historical and contemporary language. Sadly, at the moment, many records lack enough context for a non-expert to have a meaningful experience with them.

Why support participation?
So, those are some of the problems we’re looking for solve… what are the benefits of digital participation?
Firstly, the benefits to organisations

Engagement and participation is often part of your core mission.

inspire, passion, educate, enhance, promote preserve, record, access, learn, discover, use, memory, culture, conservation, innovation

I had a look at some mission statements from various museums, libraries, and archives, and these are the words that frequently occurred. The benefits of audience participation are both tangible and intangible, and exactly how they relate to your mission (and can be measured in relation to it) depends on the organisation. And don’t forget that access may not be enough if your content isn’t also discoverable and engaging.

Participation can increase traffic. It’s pretty simple – if content is more discoverable, more people will discover it. If audiences can actively participate, they’ll engage with your collections for longer, and return more often. They may even turn into physical visitors or buy something online…

Turn audiences into advocates – there are many people who forget that GLAMs even exist once they’ve left school – but these are often the people we can reach with digital projects. When people directly benefit from your resources, they know why your organisation is important. You’re no longer dusty old stuff in boxes, you’re their history, part of the story of how their lives came to be and how their future is formed.  When people have a great experience with you, they become fans. When you encourage people to participate in meaningful work, they gain a sense of ownership and pride. These intangible outcomes can be as important as the content created through audience participation.  It’s a chance to let people see the full complexity of what you do, how much work goes into providing access and interpretation; understand that what they see on the shelves or in the galleries is the tip of the iceberg..

There are more experts outside your GLAM than within. Participatory projects let you access external knowledge.  This knowledge can include the experience of using, repairing or building an object; memories of the events or places you’ve recorded; or it may be specialist knowledge they’ve built through their own research. Let them share their knowledge with you, and through you, with your audiences.

Finally, the rest of the world is moving from broadcast to dialogue and interaction. If you spend time around kids, you may have seen them interact with old-fashioned screens – for them, an interface you can only look at is broken.

Benefits to audience

It’s all very well saying participation creates deeper engagement, but rather than tell you again, I’d rather show you with a quick thought experiment.

First I want you to imagine taking a photo of an object in a museum. Ok – so, how many times do you really go back and look at that photo? How much do you remember about that object? Do you find yourself thinking about it later? Do you ever have a conversation with friends about it?

Now I want you to imagine sketching the object, perhaps at this handy sketching station in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.

As you draw, you’ll find yourself engaging with the particular materiality of the object – the details of its construction, the way time has affected it. You may start wondering about the intention of the creators, what it was like to use it or encounter it in everyday life. In having an active relationship with that object, you’ve engaged more deeply, perhaps even changed a little as a result. New questions have been raised that you may find yourself pondering, and may even decide to find out more, and start your own research, or share your feelings with others.

Perhaps surprisingly, even the act of tagging an object has a similar effect, because you have to pay it some attention to say something about it…

A big benefit for audiences is that participation is rewarding. There are many reasons why, but these are some I think are relevant to participation. Games researcher Jane McGonigal (Gaming the future of museumssays people crave:

1. satisfying work to do
2. the experience of being good at something
3. time spent with people we like
4. the chance to be a part of something bigger

Participation in digital cultural heritage projects can meet all those needs.

Types of participation

The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education came up with these forms of public participation in science research. Nina Simon of the Museum 2.0 blog mapped them to museums and added ‘co-option’; I’ve included ‘platform’.

  • Contributory – Most GLAM user-generated content projects. Designed by the organisation, the public contributes data.
  • Collaborative – the public may be active partners in some decisions, but the project is lead by the organisation
  • Co-creative – all partners define goals and make decisions together
  • Platform – organisation as venue or host for other activity.

It’s also important to remember that there are some types of participation where the value lies mostly in the effect of the act of creation for the individual – for example, most commenting doesn’t add much to my experience of the thing commented on. However, sometimes there’s also value more widely – for example, when someone comments and includes a new fact or interesting personal story. Taking this further, participatory projects can be designed so that each contribution helps meet a defined goal. Crowdsourcing involves designing carefully scaffolded tasks so that the general public can contribute to a shared goal. Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage is probably most often contributory rather than collaborative or co-creative.

Case studies
I’ve chosen two established examples and two experimental ones to demonstrate how established digital participation is, and also where it’s going…

Flickr Commons – I’m sure you’ve all probably heard of this, but it’s a great reminder of how effective simply sharing content in places where people hang out can be. The first tip: go fishing where the fish are biting. Find the digital spaces where people are already engaging with similar content.

Example page: [Sylvia Sweets Tea Room, corner of School and Main streets, Brockton, Mass.].  You can see from the number of views, comments, tags, favourites and notes that organisations are still finding much higher levels of discoverability, traffic and user contributions on the Commons than they’d ever get on their own, individual sites. It’s also a nice example of the public identifying a location, and there are wonderful personal recollections and family histories in the comments below.

Trove – crowdsourcing OCR correction.  Tasks like OCR correction that require judgement or complicated visual processing are perfect for crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing can solve real problems – helping scientists identify galaxies and proteins that could save lives, or providing data about climate change through history. In this example, crowdsourcing is helping correct optical character recognition (OCR) errors. In the example here, the correction is subtle, but as someone from the location described, I can tell you that the transcription now makes a lot more sense… And making that correction felt good.

According to the National Library of Australia, by February 2011 they had ‘20,000+ people helping out and 30 million lines of text had been corrected during the last 2 years’. This is a well-designed interface. Their clear ‘call to action’ – ‘fix this text’ – is simple and located right where it needs to be.  Another tip: you don’t need to register, but you can if you want to track your progress. Registration isn’t a barrier, and it’s presented as a benefit to the audience, not the organisation. They’ve also got a forum as a platform for conversation between participants.

So, crowdsourcing is great. But as crowdsourcing gets more popular, you will be competing for ‘participation bandwidth’ with other participatory and crowdsourcing projects – people will be deciding whether to work with your site or something else that meets their needs… What to do?

Well, it turns out that crowdsourcing games can act as ‘participation engines’…

[I then talked about ‘a small tagging game I researched, designed and made in my evenings and weekends, so that you can see the potential for crowdsourcing games even for GLAMs that don’t have a lot of resources’ – if you’re curious, it’s probably easiest to check out the slides at alongside the video at].

Because crowdsourcing games can be more accessible to the general public, they can also increase the number of overall contributors, as well as encouraging each contributor to stay for longer, do more work, engage more deeply. Crowdsourcing games can be much more productive than a non-game interface by encouraging people to spend more time and play with more content. If games not suitable for your audience, you can adopt some of the characteristics of games – clear initial tasks to start with and a sense of the rules of the game, good feedback on the results of player actions towards a goal, mastering new skills and providing interesting problems to solve…

Continuing the [Europeana Tech] theme of openness, this project was only possible because the Science Museum (UK) and the Powerhouse Museum had APIs into their object records – I was able to create a game that united their astronomy objects without ever having to negotiate a partnership or licensing agreement.

Oramics – co-creation (and GLAM as platform).  My final example is something I worked on just before I left the Science Museum but I make the caveat that I can’t claim any credit for all the work done since, and I haven’t seen any internal evaluation on the project.

The Oramics project was a conscious experiment in co-curation and public history, part of a wider programme of research. This is the Oramics machine. It’s a difficult object to interpret – it’s a hand-built synthesiser, and not much to look at – it’s all about how it sounded, but it’s too fragile to restore to working order. So the museum needed help interpreting the object, in understanding how to explain its significance and market it to new audiences. They tried a few different things in this project… They worked with young people from the National Youth Theatre who met museum staff to learn about the people who invented and built the machine, and they visited the object store to see the machine. They worked with developers to make an app to recreate the sounds of the synthesiser so that people could make new music with it. They also worked with a group of co-curators recruited online to help make it interesting to general visitors as well as music fans – the original call to action was something like ‘we have an amazing object we need to bring to life, and six empty cases – help us fill them!’.

While the main outputs of all this activity are pretty traditional – a performance event, an exhibition – it’s also been the catalyst for the creation of an ad hoc online community and conversations on Facebook and blogs.

As Clay Shirky told the Smithsonian 2.0 workshop in 2009, it’s possible that “the artefact itself has created the surface to which the people adhere. … Every artefact is a latent community”. It’s nice to think we’re finally getting to that point.

Best practice tips
So what do you need to think about to design a participatory project?

  • Have an answer to ‘Why would someone spend precious time on your project?’
  • Be inspired by things people love
  • Design for the audience you want
  • Make participating pleasurable
  • Don’t add unnecessary friction, barriers
  • Show how much you value contributions
  • Validate procrastination – offer the opportunity to make a difference, and show, don’t tell, how it’s making a difference
  • Make it easy to start participating, design scaffolded tasks to keep people going
  • Let audiences help manage problems
  • Test with users; iterate; polish
  • Empower audience to keep the place tidy – let them know what’s acceptable and what’s discouraged and how they can help.

Best practice within your GLAM
How can your organisation make the most of the opportunities digital participation provides?

  • Have a clear objective
  • Know how to measure success
  • Allow for community management resources
  • Realistically assess fears, decide acceptable risk
  • Put the audience’s needs first. You need a balance between the task want to achieve, the skills and knowledge of audience and the content you have to work with.
  • Fish where the fish are – find the spaces where people are already engaging with similar content and see how you can slot in, don’t expect people to find their way to you.
  • Decide where it’s ok to lose control – let go… you may find audiences you didn’t expect, or people may make use your content in ways you never imagined. Watch and learn – another reason to iterate and go into public beta earlier rather than later.
  • Open data – let people make new things with your content. Bad people will do it anyway, but by not having open data, you’re preventing exactly the people you want to work with from doing anything with your data. Unclear or closed licenses are the biggest barrier that friendly hackers and developers raise with me when I ask about cultural heritage data…

In a 2008 post about museum-as-platform, Nina Simon says it’s about moving from controlling everything to providing expertise; learning to change from content provider to platform. [More recently, Rob Stein posted about participatory culture and the subtle differences between authoritarian and authoritative approaches.]

Perhaps most important of all – enjoy experiencing your collections through new eyes!

Notes on current issues in Digital Humanities

In July 2011, the Open University held a colloquium called ‘Digital technologies: help or hindrance for the humanities?’, in part to celebrate the launch of the Thematic Research Network for Digital Humanities at the OU.  A full multi-author report about the colloquium (titled ‘Colloquium: Digital Technologies: Help or Hindrance for the Humanities?’) will be coming out in the ‘Digital Futures Special Issue Arts and Humanities in HE’ edition of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education soon, but a workshop was also held at the OU’s Milton Keynes campus on Thursday to discuss some of the key ideas that came from the colloquium and to consider the agenda for the thematic research network.  I was invited to present in the workshop, and I’ve shared my notes and some comments below (though of course the spoken version varied slightly).

To help focus the presentations, Professor John Wolffe (who was chairing) suggested we address the following points:

  1. What, for you, were the two most important insights arising from last July’s colloquium?
  2. What should be the two key priorities for the OU’s DH thematic research network over the next year, and why?
Notes on the colloquium and current issues in the Digital Humanities

Introduction – who I am as context for how I saw the colloquium
Before I started my PhD, I was a digital practitioner – a programmer, analyst, bearer of Zeitgeisty made-up modern job titles – situated in an online community of technologists loosely based in academia, broadcasting, libraries, archives, and particularly, in public history and museums. That’s really only interesting in the context of this workshop because my digital community is constituted by the very things that challenge traditional academia – ad hoc collaboration, open data, publicly sharing and debating thoughts in progress.

For people who happily swim in this sea, it’s hard to realise how new and scary it can be, but just yesterday I was reminded how challenging the idea of a public identity on social media is for some academics, let alone the thought of finding time to learn and understand yet another tool. As a humanist-turned-technologist-turned-humanist, I have sympathy for the perspective of both worlds.

The two most important insights arising from last July’s colloquium?
John Corrigan‘s introduction made it clear that the answer to the question ‘what is digital humanities’ is still very open, and has perhaps as many different answers as there are humanists. That’s both exciting and challenging – it leaves room for the adaptation (and adoption) of DH by different humanities disciplines, but it also makes it difficult to develop a shared language for collaboration, for critiquing and peer reviewing DH projects and outputs… [I’ve also been wondering whether ‘digital humanities’ would eventually devolve into the practices of disciplines – digital history, etc – and how much digital humanities really works across different humanities disciplines in a meaningful way, but that’s a question for another day.]

In my notes, it was the discussion around Chris Bissel‘s paper on ‘Reality and authenticity’, Google Earth and archaeology that also stood out – the questions about what’s lost and gained in the digital context are important, but, as a technologist, I ask us to be wary of false dichotomies. There’s a danger in conflating the materiality of a resource, the seductive aura of an original document, the difficulties in accessing it, in getting past the gatekeepers, with the quality of the time spent with it; with the intrinsic complexity of access, context, interpretation… The sometimes difficult physical journey to an archive, or the smell of old books is not the same as earned access to knowledge.

What should be the two key priorities for the OU’s DH thematic research network over the next year?
[I don’t think I did a very good job answering this, perhaps because I still feel too new to know what’s already going on and what could be added. Also, I’m apparently unable to limit myself to two.]
I tend to believe that the digital humanities will eventually become normalised as just part of how humanities work, but we need to be careful about how that actually happens.

The early adopters have blazed their trails and lit the way, but in their wake, they’ve left the non-early adopters – the ordinary humanist – blinking and wondering how to thrive in this new world. I have a sense that digital humanities is established enough, or at least the impact of digitisation projects has been broad enough, that the average humanist is expected to take on the methods of the digital humanist in their grant and research proposals and in their teaching – but has the ordinary humanist been equipped with the skills and training and the access to technologists and collaborators to thrive? Do we need to give everyone access to DH101?

We need to deal with the challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly publication models, peer review and the inescapable REF. We need to understand how to judge the processes as well as the products of research projects, and to find better ways to recognise new forms of publication, particularly as technology is also disrupting the publication models that early career researchers used to rely on to get started.

Much of the critique of digital working was about what it let people get away with, or how it risks misleading the innocent researcher. As with anything on a screen, there’s an illusion of accuracy, completeness, neatness. We need shared practices to critique visualisations and discuss what’s really available in database searches, the representativeness of digital repositories, the quality of transcriptions and metadata, the context in which data was created and knowledge produced… Translating the slipperiness of humanities data and research questions into a digital world is a juicy challenge but it’s necessary if the potential of DH is to be exploited, whether by humanities scholars or the wider public who have new access to humanities content. ‘natural order of things’.

Digitality is no excuse to let students (or other researchers) get away with sloppy practice. The ability to search across millions of records is important, but you should treat the documents you find as rigorously as you’d treat something uncovered deep in the archives. Slow, deep reading, considering the pages or documents adjacent to the one that interests you, the serendipitous find – these are all still important. But we also need to help scholars find ways to cope with the sheer volume of data now available and the probably unrealistic expectations of complete coverage of all potential sources this may create. So my other key priority is working out and teaching the scholarly practices we need to ensure we survive the transition from traditional to digital humanities.

In conclusion, the same issues – trust, authority, the context of knowledge production – are important for my digital and my humanities communities, but these concepts are expressed very differently in each. We need to work together to build bridges between the practices of traditional academia and those of the digital humanities.

Notes from EuropeanaTech 2011

Some very scrappy notes from the EuropeanaTech conference held in Vienna this week as I prepare a short talk for the Open data in cultural heritage (LODLAM-London) event tonight… For a different perspective there’s an overview post at EuropeanaTech – är det här framtidens kulturarv? and I’ll link to any others I find.  I’ve also put up some photos of ten questions attendees asked about Europeana, with written answers from the break-out exercise.  I’ll tidy up and post my keynote notes in a few days, and I’ll probably summarise things a bit more then.

Max Kaiser: Europeana is like a cruise ship with limited room to move, hackathons inject Europeana with a bit more agility… Build real stuff for real people with real business requirements – different to building prototypes and proofs of concept – requires different project culture.

Bill Thompson: pulling the analogue past into the digital future… We don’t live in a digital world and never will – the physical world is not going to vanish. We’ll remain embodied minds; will have co-existing analogue and digital worlds.Digital technologies shaping the possibilities we decide to embrace. … Can’t have a paradigm shift in humanities because no basic set of beliefs to argue with… But maybe the shift to digital is so fundamental that it could be called a paradigm shift. … Even if you don’t engage online, you’ll still live in a world shaped by the digital.  Those who are online will come to define the norms. … Revolutionary vanguard in our midst – hope lies with the programmers, the coders – the only weapon that matters is running code. Have to build on technologies that are open, only way to build diverse online culture that allows all voices to be heard. … Means open data in a usable form – properly formulated so can be interpreted by anyone or any program that wants it; integrate them into the broader cultural space. Otherwise just disconnected islands.

Two good reasons to endorse open linked data. We’re the first generation that’s capable of doing this – have the tools, network, storage, processes. Within our power to digitise everything and make it findable. We may also be the only generation that wants to do it – later generations will not value things that aren’t visible on the screen in the same way – they’ll forget the importance of the non-digital. So we’d better get on with it, and do it properly. LOD is a foundation that allows us to build in the future.

Panel discussion…

Qu: how does open theme fit with orgs with budget cuts and need to make more money?
BT: when need to make money from assets, openness is a real challenge. There are ways of making assets available to people that are unlikely to have commercial impact but could raise awareness e.g. low-res for public access, high-res for commercial use [a model adopted by many UK museums].

Jill Cousins: there’s a reputational need to put decent resolution images online to counter poor quality versions online.

Max: be clever – don’t make an exclusive contract with digitisation partners – make sure you can also give free access to it.
Jill Cousins: User always been central to Europeana though got slightly lost along the way as busy getting data.  …  Big stumbling block – licenses. Not just commercial reasons, also about reputational risk, loss of future earnings, fear of giving away something that’s valuable in future. Without CC licence, can’t publish as linked open data. Without it, commercial providers like INA can’t take the API. Can’t use blogs that have advertising on them. Couldn’t put it on Wikipedia. Or ArtFinder.  …  New [UK?] Renaissance report – metadata related to the digitised objects by cultural heritage orgs should be widely and freely available for re-use.
Workshops with content holders: Risks – loss of quality, loss of control, attribution, brand value, potential income (‘phantom income’), unwanted spillover effects – misuse/juxtaposition of data. Rwards: increasing relevance, increasing channels to end users, data enrichment, brand value, specific funding opportunties, discoverability, new customers, public mission, building expertise, desired spillover effects. … You are reliant on user doing the right thing with attribution….
Main risks: unwanted spillover effects, loss of attribution, loss of potential income. Main rewards: new customers, increasing relevance, public mission. But the risks diminshed as the rewards gain more prominence – overall outweighed the risks.  But address those 3 areas of risk.
What next? Operationalise some of the applications developed.  Yellow Kitchen Maid paper on the business of open data. Working together on difficulties faced by institutions and licensing open data.
[notes from day 2 to follow!]
Ten questions about Europeana…
10 questions (and one general question)
The general question was, what can the community building with domain experts, developers and researchers/R&D/innovation work package in Europeana 2.0 do?  (Something like that anyway, it was all a bit confusing by that point)
You had to pick a question and go into a group to try and answer it – I’ve uploaded photos of the answer sheets.
1 Open source – if Europeana using open source software and is open software, should it also become a community-driven development project?
2 Open source – are doubts about whether OSS provides quality services justified? What should be done to ensure quality?
3 Aggregation and metadata quality – what will be the role of aggregators, and what is role of Europeana in LOD future?
4 What can Europeana do which search engines can’t that justifies the extra effort of creating and managing structured metadata?
5 Is EDM [Europeana Data Model] still too complicated? If yes, what to simplify.
6 What is the actual value of semantic contexualisation, and could that not be produced by search engines?
7 enhance experience of exploring, discovering [see photo – it was too long to type in time!]
8 How important is multilingual access for discovery in Europeana? Which elements are the most important?
9 Can Europeana drive end-user engagement on the distributed sites and services of contributing archives?
10 How can we benefit from existing (local, international) communities in enriching the user experience on Europeana?

Usability: the key that unlocks geeky goodness

This is a quick pointer to three posts about some usability work I did for the JISC-funded Pelagios project, and a reflection on the process. Pelagios aims to ‘help introduce Linked Open Data goodness into online resources that refer to places in the Ancient World’. The project has already done lots of great work with the various partners to bring lots of different data sources together, but they wanted to find out whether the various visualisations (particularly the graph explorer) let users discover the full potential of the linked data sets.

I posted on the project blog about how I worked out a testing plan to encourage user-centred design and set up the usability sessions in Evaluating Pelagios’ usability, set out how a test session runs (with sample scripts and tasks) in Evaluating usability: what happens in a user testing session? and finally I posted some early Pelagios usability testing results. The results are from a very small sample of potential users but they were consistent in the issues and positive results uncovered.

The wider lesson for LOD-LAM (linked open data in library, archives, museums) projects is that user testing (and/or a strong user-centred design process) helps general audiences (including subject specialists) appreciate the full potential of a technically-led project – without thoughtful design, the results of all those hours of code may go unloved by the people they were written for. In other words, user experience design is the key that unlocks the geeky goodness that drives these projects. It’s old news, but the joy of user testing is that it reminds you of what’s really important…

Conference notes: Museums and Galleries Scotland’s ‘Collaborate to Compete’

My really quite rough-and-ready notes from Museums and Galleries Scotland’s ‘Collaborate to Compete’ conference.  I’ve already posted my introductory notes for the session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’, so these notes are about the keynotes and the other sessions I attended.

The first speaker was Jeremy Johnson from Australia’s Sovereign Hill, on ‘Engaging with China: the new horizon for cultural and heritage tourism’.  He talked about their research-led marketing program aimed at getting Chinese visitors to Sovereign Hill, which included marketing work in China, hiring Chinese-speaking staff, and developing tailored tours and experiences.  They’ve also hosted Chinese student[?] teachers in their education department and organised touring exhibitions.  They also had to deal with talking about racism in the past treatment of Chinese Australians in Sovereign Hill – their technique is apparently to ‘tell it how it was’, but because Chinese Australians were ‘extraordinary contributors to society’ it was easy to focus on the many success stories.  In general, they’ve developed some experiences to meet the expectations of Chinese visitors, but still, ‘the museum product has to be respected’.

Top quotes included:

  • ‘you must be able to answer the question “what would make someone visit your museum?”‘ – there must be a compelling reason to visit
  • China is like 56 countries wrapped up into one. ‘Saying you’re going to China is like saying you’re going to Europe’
  • ‘Develop a market strategy to deliver visitor experiences at the right price’. The best marketing strategy can be undone if visitor experience does not meet the promise. Cultural awareness training essential for all staff and volunteers.
  • ‘Bear in mind China isn’t a democracy, not everyone gets access to Google’.

I then went to the first ‘New Partnerships’ seminar, where I heard lessons from the ‘Curious’ project at Glasgow Museums, including the possibility that ‘sustainability can be about working with different people at different stages rather than the one group of people working with the museum during the whole process’, and that ‘people put together objects in ways that curators never would’ (e.g. a ceramist put together objects from different parts of the world based on the presence of finger marks in the clay); partnership successes: mutual benefits, increased understanding, new opportunities, positive feedback; partnership challenges: managing expectations (also finding the right people to talk to), organisational structures, a draw on resources, tracking increases in visits.

In the same session, people from the ‘Smart Collaborations’ project talked about conceptual frameworks for collaboration, with a focus on attracting and retaining visitors within an area – it was hard to see the slides, but it seemed to be about designing experiences for tourists. The top tip was: don’t be afraid to use offers, vouchers, or other deals to attract customers; and capture data when getting people in.

The plenary talk before lunch was Stuart Dempster (JISC’s Strategic Content Alliance) on ‘Sustaining Digital Resources’ [earlier report at Business modelling and sustainability, new one will go live there next month ?]. If the digital age is a game-changer for institutions, how can bricks-and-mortar organisations not only be on the web, but of the web. What skills, licensing need to be in place? They’ve been looking at business models, including the effects of economic downturn and government cuts. Funded projects must deliver value to users, not just driven by curatorial concerns; a key concern is how to generate new forms of income with integrity.

Tips for communicating value to adminstrators: have a seat at the table whenever decisions are made about digital resources; engage administrators early to develop shared sense of responsibility for the project; have an advocacy campaign with users outside the institution so you’ve got voices of support when needed; identify different types of stakeholders and work appropriately with each – identify champions if you can.  Sustainable projects: empower leadership to define the mission and take action; create a strong value proposition; creatively manage costs; cultivate diverse sources of revenue; have a system of accountability.  Collaborations need consensus, communication, capacity, trust, metrics…

After lunch, Alphonse Umulisa, Director General of The Institute of National Museums of Rwanda spoke on ‘Repositioning Cultural Tourism’. Previously at the Museum of London, his job is to raise awareness about Rwanda’s history and heritage sites – difficult when Rwanda’s history is so painful. They’re trying to look forward to the future, and forget the past, but even knowing where to start was hard.  He said you can’t learn history in schools in Rwanda – it’s not taught – but you can learn Rwandan history in museums. The museums had to change from research institutions to learn how to attract tourists, and they had to get Rwandans visiting museums again. His talk was both utterly humbling – the Rwandan government’s vision for 2020 is for every family to have a cow – and inspiring – his motto is: ‘discover your museums, cherish your heritage’.

Tony Butler has posted his own notes from his inspiring talk on how the Museum of East Anglian Life transformed itself from a failing organisation to a thriving enterprise, and about his aim to make it a participative institution, a space for co-creation or to help people look at the world differently and to place the museum in the rhythm of daily life.

After my session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’, I went to a workshop on ‘Smarter Museums’ with Anne Murch (who prefers the concepts of resilience or entrepreneurship to ‘sustainability’).  The workshop covered the principles of a ‘thinking environment’: appreciation, attention, equality, incisive questions. We did a really interesting (and at first, challenging) exercise in pairs, where you had to either just listen, or just talk, for three minutes, before swapping with your partner.  It’s hard – if you’re meant to be listening, you want to encourage the person talking, or if you’re talking, you want to stop and let the other person have a go.  We did it again later, and it was much easier.  We were also asked to consider “if we knew that together we can have a thriving museum that provides the very best experience for our visitors, what would the org look and feel like? What is the shift we need to make to deliver this?”, and the importance of diversity as both the identity of the people that are shaping the future plans and the ideas that are generated. A team that takes a ‘diagonal slice’ across and down through the museum can be effective – the people with least power are often most creative and least encumbered. Another suggestion for better meetings was to frame each agenda item as a question.

The event closed with the launch of the National Strategy Consultation by Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Cultural & External Affairs National Strategy Consultation, with a speech that was a lovely celebration of the contribution of museums and cultural heritage to Scottish life.  The document itself outlines the context, guiding principles, vision, themes and objectives of the proposed sector consultation process, which will lead to the national strategy for Scotland’s Museums and Galleries.  (Interestingly, Australia is also running a ‘Digital Culture Public Sphere‘ consultation for input into National Cultural Policy.)

‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’ and ‘Collaborating to Compete’

[Update: I hope the presentations from the speakers are posted, as they were all inspiring in their different ways.  Bristol City Council’s civic crowdsourcing projects had impressive participation rates, and Phil Higgins identified the critical success factors as: choose the right platform, use it at the right stage, issue must be presented clearly. Joanne Orr talked about museum contexts that are encapsulating the intangible including language and practices (and recording intangible cultural heritage in a wiki) and I could sense the audience’s excitement about Andrew Ellis’ presentation on ‘Your Paintings’ and the crowdsourcing tagger developed for the Public Catalogue Foundation.]

I’m in Edinburgh for the Museums Galleries Scotland conference ‘Collaborating to Compete’. I’m chairing a session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’. In this context, the organisers defined entrepreneurship as ‘doing things innovatively and differently’, including new and effective ways of working. This session is all about working in partnerships and collaborating with the public. The organisers asked me to talk about my own research as well as introducing the session. I’m posting my notes in advance to save people having to scribble down notes, and I’ll try to post back with notes from the session presentations.

Anyway, on with my notes…

Welcome to this session on entrepreneurship and social media. Our speakers are going to share their exciting work with museum collections and cultural heritage.  Their projects demonstrate the benefits of community participation, of opening up to encourage external experts to share their knowledge, and of engaging the general public with the task of improving access to cultural heritage for all.  The speakers have explored innovative ways of working, including organisational partnerships and low-cost digital platforms like social media.  Our speakers will discuss the opportunities and challenges of collaborating with audiences, the issues around authority, identity and trust in user-generated content, and they’ll reflect on the challenges of negotiating partnerships with other organisations or with ‘the crowd’.

You’ll hear about two different approaches to crowdsourcing from Phil Higgins and Andy Ellis, and about how the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ project helps a diverse range of people collaborate to create knowledge for all.

I’ll also briefly discuss my own research into crowdsourcing through games as an example of innovative forms of participation and engagement.

If you’re not familiar with the term, crowdsourcing generally means sharing tasks with the public that are traditionally performed in-house.

Until I left to start my PhD, I worked at the Science Museum in London, where I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the history of science and technology more engaging, and the objects related to it more accessible. This inspired me when I was looking for a dissertation project for my MSc, so I researched and developed ‘Museum Metadata Games’ to explore how crowdsourcing games could get people to have fun while improving the content around ‘difficult’ museum objects.

Unfortunately (most) collections sites are not that interesting to the general public. There’s a ‘semantic gap’ between the everyday language of the public and the language of catalogues.

Projects like showed crowdsourcing helps, but it can be difficult to get people to participate in large numbers or over a long period of time. Museums can be intimidating, and marketing your project to audiences can be expensive. But what if you made a crowdsourcing interface that made people want to use it, and to tell their friends to use it? Something like… a game?

A lot of people play games… 20 million people in the UK play casual games. And a lot of people play museum games. Games like the Science Museum’s Launchball and the Wellcome Collection’s High Tea have had millions of plays.

Crowdsourcing games are great at creating engaging experiences. They support low barriers to participation, and the ability to keep people playing. As an example, within one month of launching, DigitalKoot, a game for National Library of Finland, had 25,000 visitors complete over 2 million individual tasks.

Casual game genres include puzzles, card games or trivia games. You’ve probably heard of Angry Birds and Solitaire, even if you don’t think of yourself as a ‘gamer’.

Casual games are perfect for public participation because they’re designed for instant gameplay, and can be enjoyed in a few minutes or played for hours.

Easy, feel-good tasks will help people get started. Strong game mechanics, tested throughout development with your target audience, will motivate on-going play and keep people coming back.

Here’s a screenshot of the games I made.

In the tagging game ‘Dora’s lost data’, the player meets Dora, a junior curator who needs their help replacing some lost data. Dora asks the player to add words that would help someone find the object shown in Google.

When audiences can immediately identify an activity as a game – in this the use of characters and a minimal narrative really helped – their usual reservations about contributing content to a museum site disappear.

The brilliant thing about game design is that you can tailor tasks and rewards to your data needs, and build tutorials into gameplay to match the player’s skills and the games’ challenges.

Fun is personal – design for the skills, abilities and motivations of your audience.

People like helping out – show them how their data is used so they can feel good about playing for a few minutes over a cup of tea.

You can make a virtue of the randomness of your content – if people can have fun with 100 historical astronomy objects, they can have fun with anything.

To conclude, crowdsourcing games can be fun and useful for the public and for museums. And now we’re going to hear more about working with the public… [the end!]

How to get published – Interface 2011 conference notes

These are my notes from the ‘how to get published’ session at InterFace 2011 – I’ve summarised some of the advice here in case it may help others, with the usual caveat that any mistakes are mine, etc.

Charlotte Frost spoke (slides) about ‘PhD2Published‘, a site with advice, support and discussion about getting academic work published. As the site says, “Don’t underestimate how much of getting published comes down to knowing: A) How publishing works and what’s expected of you as a writer. B) Being professional, adaptable and easy to work with”.  She made the excellent point that if the jobs aren’t out there, you could pour your energies into getting your book pitched and written.  You also need to work out whether a book, journal articles or a mixture would work best for you (especially, I’d imagine, as publishers are taking on fewer books in this financial environment).  Thinking of academic publishing as part of the incremental progression of your career is useful – you don’t need to cram everything into one book.

Specific tips included:

  • make the book what you wish your thesis had been 
  • thinking about the book you wish you’d had available as an undergraduate also helps make your book marketable 
  • collect a list of courses that would put your book on their reading list (and why) 
  • consider the way that your book contributes to the identity of the publishing house and could make it a covetable feature 
  • bear the current financial situation in mind and include as much solid sales evidence as you can 
  • look at how publishing is changing and think about appropriate formats for your work 
  • think about where audiences for your work might be 
  • find out how publishers would like you to pitch and stick to their guidelines 
  • the tone of your pitch should be about why your book is a must-read (not a must-write) 
  • look for series or lists with publishers and tell them how your book would fit in that strand 
  • nail the very short text-only description right from the start 
  • find out if there are grants or awards that could support the publication of your book and let the publisher know 
  • line up a well-known and relevant academic to write a foreword for your book 
  • build and promote an expertise that’s tangential and helps bring other people to your work.
The next speaker was Ashgate’s Dymphna Evans with lots of useful and realistic advice on ‘Publishing your Monograph‘ (slides).  She started with the importance of choosing the right publisher – find someone who peer reviews, talk to colleagues about their experiences, and find publishers with lists or series in your field. Interestingly, she said it’s ok to choose more than one publisher (it will speed up the process, and you’ll get more feedback on your proposals), unless of course a publisher contacted you first.

Following the guidelines on a publisher’s website is vital – and check your proposal once you’ve completed it. You can send sample chapters but she doesn’t recommend you write the whole thing upfront in this current financial environment. Don’t send stuff you feel will need more work – publishers don’t have time to deal with it. Be aware of commercial considerations (most publishers require a minimum sale (maybe 300 books) but it doesn’t have to be a best seller). Be prepared to re-write your thesis. It helps to have published journal articles based on parts of your thesis if they can be re-written for the book. Ashgate have a guide on ‘transforming your thesis into a book‘ (PDF) on their website, and they also have general Proposal Guidelines for Humanities and Social Science authors.

Tips for your book proposal – choose a good title and prepare a thorough synopsis of each chapter. Be realistic about the deliery date. Think about illustrations (e.g. copyright). Don’t undersell yourself as an author. Consider the audience for your book (e.g. in Digital Humanities, don’t underestimate the professional audience for your book… draw out the practical applications of your research for professionals.). Ensure the proposal covers everything.

When making decisions, publishers consider factors including whether your book may fit in a series and whether it will meet sales expectations, and your proposal is peer-reviewed.  Peer reviews are subjective, so don’t be discouraged if they’re negative.  
If you get a publishing contract – read through it, check clauses with publisher if you’re not happy or don’t understand them. Check delivery date and conditions of delivery. Check which rights you are transferring (don’t need copyright, just publication rights). Is an e-book planned?
Read the publishers guidelines before preparing your final manuscript; clear all your copyright permissions and think about illustrations. [Which is useful advice even if you’re just writing a book chapter].  The editorial process includes a peer review of the final text (allow 8-10 weeks); marketing; editorial work; then finally the book is published (5-6 months after submitting)!

The final presentation in this session was Julianne Nyhan on ‘Book reviewing and the post-graduate‘ (slides).  Despite the title, she included websites, exhibitions, emerging technologies as well as books in her tips. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews publishes traditional reviews of about 2,500 words, and ‘review articles’ of about 7,000 words. Review articles are a a synthesis of existing works with the aim of reaching new conclusion or interpretations.

At the simplest level, reviewing books is a way to expand your library. Reviews aren’t peer reviewed in the strictest sense (though there is a quality bar), but review articles consistently appear among most cited papers in a given field, and it’s a way for post-graduate students to use stuff they can’t include in their thesis while getting their name and expertise known out there. It also gives you experience working with editors and publishers.

How to go about publishing book reviews:

  • Identify appropriate journals, establish their scope and mission, and review their reviews. 
  • Write a short email to Book Reviews Editor including: research area; details of previous reviews or publications; books requested/suggested (or types if nothing currently listed). Make a reasonable impression in your cover note. 
  • Agree on a realistic date for submission and keep to it. Iterate with editor about corrections and finally proof copies of work. 

There’s lots of information online on the hallmarks of a good review – it’s not simply a summary but a contextualisation of research – how does it relate to others in the field? Does it advance knowledge in some way? Discussion of the work in the wider intellectual context is an opportunity for you to make interesting connections and bring your personal viewpoint to the review. Be fair and balanced with well-justified and accurate criticisms/points of approval. Never use a big word where a small word will do; never use two words when one will do. Be careful of jargon – ask a colleague in another field to read.

You should look at journal ranking when identifying journals, but maybe rank is less important than whether the journal is open access (and is therefore likely to have higher impact).