Working out what we’re doing: day one of One Week, One Tool

Hard at work in The Well

I’m sitting in a hotel next to the George Mason University’s Fairfax campus with a bunch of people I (mostly) met last night trying to work out what tool we’ll spend the rest of the week building. We’re all here for One Week, One Tool, a ‘digital humanities barn raising’ and our aim is to launch a tool for a community of scholarly users by Friday evening. The wider results should be some lessons about rapidly developing scholarly tools, particularly building audience-focused tools, and hopefully a bunch of new friendships and conversations, and in the future, a community of users and other developers who might contribute code. I’m particularly excited about trying to build a ‘minimum viable product‘ in a week, because it’s so unlike working in a museum. If we can keep the scope creep in check, we should be able to build for the most lightweight possible interaction that will let people use our tool while allowing room for the tool to grow according to uses.

We met up last night for introductions and started talking about our week. I’m blogging now in part so that we can look back and remember what it was like before we got stuck into building something – if you don’t capture the moment, it’s hard to retrieve. The areas of uncertainty will reduce each day, and based on my experience at hack days and longer projects, it’s often hard to remember how uncertain things were at the start.

Are key paradoxes of #owot a) how we find a common end user, b) a common need we can meet and c) a common code language/framework?
— Mia (@mia_out) July 29, 2013

Meghan herding cats to get potential ideas summarised

Today we heard from CHNM team members Sharon Leon on project management, Sheila Brennan on project outreach and Patrick Murray-John on coding and then got stuck into the process of trying to figure out what on earth we’ll build this week. I don’t know how others felt but by lunchtime I felt super impatient to get started because it felt like our conversations about how to build the imaginary thing would be more fruitful when we had something concrete-ish to discuss. (I think I’m also used to hack days, which are actually usually weekends, where you’ve got much less time to try and build something.) We spent the afternoon discussing possible ideas, refining them, bouncing up and down between detail, finding our way through different types of jargon, swapping between problem spaces and generally finding our way through the thicket of possibilities to some things we would realistically want to make in the time. We went from a splodge of ideas on a whiteboard to more structured ‘tool, audience, need’ lines based on agile user stories, then went over them again to summarise them so they’d make sense to people viewing them on ideascale.

#owotleaks #owot – we’re building a tool that converts whiteboard brainstorming notes into fully developed applications
— Jack Dougherty (@DoughertyJack) July 29, 2013

So now it’s over to you (briefly). We’re working out what we should build this week, and in addition to your votes, we’d love you to comment on two specific things:

  • How would a suggested tool change your work? 
  • Do you know of similar tools (we don’t want to replicate existing work)?
So go have a look at the candidate ideas at http://oneweekonetool.ideascale.com and let us know what you think. It’s less about voting than it is about providing more context for ideas you like, and we’ll put all the ideas through a reality check based on whether it has identifiable potential users and whether we can build it in a few days. We’ll be heading out to lunch tomorrow (Viriginia time) with a decision, so it’s a really short window for feedback: 10am American EST. (If it’s any consolation, it’s a super-short window for us building it too.)

Update Tuesday morning: two other participants have written posts, so go check them out! Amanda Visconti’s Digital Projects from Start to Finish: DH Mentorship from One Week One Tool (OWOT), Brian Croxall’s Day 1 of OWOT: Check Your Ego at the Door and Jack Dougherty’s Learning Moments at One Week One Tool 2013, Day 1.

Planes, trains and automobiles…

This week I’m heading to Lincoln, Nebraska for Digital Humanities 2013 (abstracts) (where I’m also doing a half-day workshop on ‘Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects‘ and attending my first meeting as a member of the ACH Executive Council).

After DH2013, I’m gradually making my way east by Amtrak and Greyhound, ending up at One Week, One Tool (‘a digital humanities barn raising’!). I’ll be in Chicago from Sunday afternoon (July 21) until late 22nd, arriving in Cleveland on the 23rd and jumping on another bus to Pittsburgh for  July 24-27. If you’re going to be nearby and fancy a chat about crowdsourcing, museums or digital history, or have a suggestion for sights I should see, let me know! You can get a sense of my interests at the never-properly updated Upcoming talks and travel and My PhD research.

DHOxSS: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m just back from giving at a lightning talk for the Cultural Connections strand of the [email protected] Summer School 2013, and since the projector wasn’t working to show my examples during my talk I thought I’d share my notes (below) and some quick highlights from the other presentations.

Mark Doffman said that it’s important that academic work challenges and provokes, but make sure you get headlines for the right reasons, but not e.g. on how much the project costs. He concluded that impact is about provocation, not just getting people to say your work is wonderful.

Gurinder Punn of the university’s Isis Innovation made the point that intellectual property and expertise can be transferred into businesses by consulting through your department or personally. (And it’s not just for senior academics – one of the training sessions offered to PhD students at the Open University is ‘commercialising your research’).

Giles Bergel @ChapBookPro spoke on the Broadside Ballads Online (blog), explaining that folksong scholarship is often outside academia – there’s a lot of vernacular scholarship and all sorts of domain specialists including musicians. They’ve considered crowdsourcing but want to be in a position to take the contributions as seriously as any print accession. They also have an image-match demonstrator from Oxford’s Visual Geometry Group which can be used to find similar images on different ballad sheets.

Christian von Goldbeck-Stier offered some reflections on working with conductors as part of his research on Wagner. And perfectly for a summer’s day:

Christian quotes Wilde on beauty: “one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime…” http://t.co/8qGE9tLdBZ #dhoxss
— Pip Willcox (@pipwillcox) July 11, 2013

My talk notes: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m interested in academic engagement from two sides – for the past decade or so I was a museum technologist; now I’m a PhD student in the Department of History at the Open University, where I’m investigating the issues around academic and ‘amateur’ historians and scholarly crowdsourcing.

As I’ve moved into academia, I’ve discovered there’s often a disconnect between academia and museum practice (to take an example I know well), and that their different ways of working can make connecting difficult, even before they try to actually collaborate. But it’s worth it because the reward is more relevant, cutting-edge research that directly benefits practitioners in the relevant fields and has greater potential impact.

I tend to focus on engagement through participation and crowdsourcing, but engagement can be as simple as blogging about your work in accessible terms: sharing the questions that drive your research, how you’ve come to some answers, and what that means for the world at large; or writing answers to common questions from the public alongside journal articles.

Plan it

For a long time, museums worked with two publics: visitors and volunteers. They’d ask visitors what they thought in ‘have your say’ interactives, but to be honest, they often didn’t listen to the answers. They’d also work with volunteers but sometimes they valued their productivity more than they valued their own kinds of knowledge. But things are more positive these days – you’ve already heard a lot about crowdsourcing as a key example of more productive engagement.

Public engagement works better when it’s incorporated into a project from the start. Museums are exploring co-curation – working with the public to design exhibitions. Museums are recognising that they can’t know everything about a subject, and figuring out how to access knowledge ‘out there’ in the rest of the world. In the Oramics project at the Science Museum (e.g. Oramics to Electronica or Engaging enthusiasts online), electronic musicians were invited to co-curate an exhibition to help interpret an early electronic instrument for the public. 

There’s a model from ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research’ (or ‘citizen science’) I find useful in my work when thinking about how much agency the public has in a project, and it’s also useful for planning engagement projects. Where can you benefit from questions or contributions from the public, and how much control are you willing to give up? 

Contributory projects designed by scientists, with participants involved primarily in collecting samples and recording data; Collaborative projects in which the public is also involved in analyzing data, refining project design, and disseminating findings; Co-created projects are designed by scientists and members of the public working together, and at least some of the public participants are involved in all aspects of the work. (Source: Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education (full report, PDF, 3 MB))

Do it

Museums have learnt that engaging the public means getting out of their venues (and their comfort zones). One example is Wikipedians-in-Residence, including working with Wikipedians to share images, hold events and contribute to articles. (e.g. The British Museum and MeA Wikipedian-in-Residence at the British MuseumThe Children’s Museum’s Wikipedian in Residence). 
It’s not always straightforward – museums don’t do ‘neutral’ points of view, which is a key goal for Wikipedia. Museums are object-centric, Wikipedia is knowledge-centric. Museums are used to individual scholarship and institutional credentials, Wikipedia is consensus-driven and your only credentials are your editing history and your references. Museums are slowly learning to share authority, to trust the values of other platforms. You need to invest time to learn what drives the other groups, how to talk with them and you have to be open to being challenged.

Mean it

Done right, engagement should be transformative for all sides. According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, engagement ‘is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.’ Saying something is ‘open to the public’ is easy; making efforts to make sure that it’s intellectually and practically accessible takes more effort; active outreach is a step beyond open. It’s not the same as marketing – it may use the same social media channels, but it’s a conversation, not a broadcast. It’s hard to fake being truly engaged (and it’s rude) so you have to mean it – doing it cynically doesn’t help anyone.

Asking people to do work that helps your mission is a double win. For example, Brooklyn Museum’s ‘Freeze Tag‘ ask members of their community to help moderate tags entered by people elsewhere – they’re trusting members of the community to clean up content for them.

Enjoy it

My final example is the National Library of Ireland on Flickr Commons, who do a great job of engaging people in Irish history, partly through their enthusiasm for the subject and partly through the effort they put into collating comments and updating their records, showing how much they value contributions. 

Almost by definition, any collaboration around engagement will be with people who are interested in your work, and they’ll bring new perspectives to it. You might end up working with international peers, academics from different disciplines, practitioner groups, scholarly amateurs or kids from the school down the road. And it’s not all online – running events is a great way to generate real impact and helps start conversations with potential for future collaboration.

You might benefit too! Talking about your research sometimes reminds you why you were originally interested in it… It’s a way of looking back and seeing how far you’ve come. It’s also just plain rewarding seeing people benefit from your research, so it’s worth doing well.


Thanks again to Pip Willcox for the invitation to speak, and to the other speakers for their fascinating perspectives.  Participation and engagement lessons from cultural heritage and academia is a bit of a hot topic at the moment – there’s more on it (including notes from a related paper I gave with Helen Weinstein) at Participatory Practices.

Setting off small fireworks: leaving space for curiosity

Remember when blog posts didn’t need titles, didn’t need to be long or take ages to write, and had nothing to do with your ‘personal brand’? I’ve realised that while I’m writing up the PhD I’ll barely blog at all if I don’t blog like it’s 2007 and just share interesting stuff when I’ve got a moment. Here goes…

I’ve been interested in the role of curiosity in engaging people with museum collections since I evaluated museum ‘tagging’ crowdsourcing games for my MSc project and learnt that the randomness of the objects presented made players really curious about what would appear next, and in turn that curiosity was one reason they kept playing. It turns out other metadata game designers have noticed the same effect. Flanagan and Carini (2012) wrote: ‘Curiosity and doubt are key design opportunities. … In a number of instances, players became so curious about the images they were tagging that they would tag images with inquiry phrases, such as “want to know more about this culture.”‘

I returned to ‘curiosity’ for a talk I gave at the iSay conference in Leicester, where I related it to Raddick et al’s (2009) ‘Levels of Engagement’ in citizen science, where Level 2 participation in community discussion (e.g. forums on crowdsourcing sites) and Level 3 is ‘working independently on self-identified research projects’. To me, this suggested you should leave room for curiosity and wonder to develop – it might turn into a new personal journey for the participant or visitor, or even a new research question for a crowdsourcing project.

The reason I’m posting now is that I just came across Langer’s definition of ‘mindfulness’: ‘the “state of mind that results from drawing novel distinctions, examining information from new perspectives, and being sensitive to context. It is an open, creative, probabilistic state of mind in which the individual might be led to finding differences among things thought similar and similarities among things thought different” (Langer 1993, p.44).’ in Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson (1995). Further:

‘Exhibits that facilitate mindfulness display information in context and present various viewpoints. For example, Langer (1993, p.47) contrasts the statement “The three main reasons for the Civil War were…” with the statement “From the perspective of the white male living in the twentieth century, the main reasons for the Civil War were…” (p.47). The latter approach calls for thoughtful comparisons. For example, How did women feel during the Civil War? the old? the old from the North? the black male today? and so on.’

I don’t know about you, but my curiosity was piqued and my mind started going in lots of different directions. The second question carefully creates a gap just big enough to let a hundred new questions through and is a brilliant example of why both museum interpretation and participatory projects should leave room for curiosity…

Works cited:

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Kim Hermanson. 1995. “Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: Why Does One Want to Learn?” In Public Institutions for Personal Learning: Establishing a Research Agenda, edited by John Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, 66 – 77. Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums. [This is seriously ace, track down a copy if you can]
  • Flanagan, Mary, and Peter. 2012. “How Games Can Help Us Access and Understand Archival Images.” American Archivist 75 (2): 514–537.
  • Raddick, M. Jordan, Georgia Bracey, K. Carney, G. Gyuk, K. Borne, J. Wallin, and S Jacoby. 2009. “Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade.” In Astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. Vol. 2010. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

(Ok, so a post with references is not exactly blogging like it’s 2006, but you’ve got to start somewhere…)
(Someone is literally setting off fireworks somewhere nearby. I have no idea why.)
(And yeah, I am working on a Saturday night. Friends don’t let friends do PhDs, innit.)

We’re all looking at the stars: citizen science projects at ZooCon13

Last Saturday I escaped my desk to head to the Physics department at the University of Oxford and be awed by what we’re learning about space (and more terrestrial subjects) through citizen science projects run by Zooniverse at ZooCon13. All the usual caveats about notes from events apply – in particular, assume any errors are mine and that everyone was much more intelligent and articulate than my notes make them sound. These notes are partly written for people in cultural heritage and the humanities who are interested in the design of crowdsourcing projects, and while I enjoyed the scientific presentations I am not even going to attempt to represent them!  Chris Lintott live-blogged some of the talks on the day, so check out ‘Live from ZooCon‘ for more. If you’re familiar with citizen science you may well know a lot of these examples already – and if you’re not, you can’t really go wrong by looking at Zooniverse projects.

Aprajita Verma kicked off with SpaceWarps and ‘Crowd-sourcing the Discovery of Gravitational Lenses with Citizen Scientists’. She explained the different ways gravitational lenses show up in astronomical images, and that ‘strong gravitational lensing research is traditionally very labour-intensive’ – computer algorithms generate lots of false positives, so you need people to help. SpaceWarps includes some simulated lenses (i.e. images of the sky with lenses added), mostly as a teaching tool (to provide more examples and increase familiarity with what lenses can look like) but also to make it more interesting for participants. The SpaceWarps interface lets you know when you’ve missed a (simulated, presumably) lens as well as noting lenses you’ve marked. They had 2 million image classifications in the first week, and 8500 citizen scientists have participated so far, 40% of whom have participated in ‘Talk‘, the discussion feature. As discussed in their post ‘What happens to your markers? A look inside the Space Warps Analysis Pipeline‘, they’ve analysed the results so far on ranges between astute/obtuse and pessimistic/optimistic markers – it turns out most people are astute. Each image is reviewed by ten people, so they’ve got confidence in the results.

Karen Masters talked about ‘Cosmic Evolution in the Galaxy Zoo’, taking us back to the first Galaxy Zoo project’s hopes to have 30,000 volunteers and contrasting that with subsequent peer-reviewed papers that thanked 85,000, or 160,000 or 200,000 volunteers. The project launched in 2007 (before the Zooniverse itself) to look at spiral vs elliptical galaxies and it’s all grown from there. The project has found rare objects, most famously the pea galaxies, and as further proof that the Zooniverse is doing ‘real science online’, the team have produced 36 peer reviewed paper, some with 100+ citations. At least 50 more papers have been produced by others using their data.

Phil Brohan discussed ‘New Users for Old Weather’. The Old Weather project is using data from historic ships logs to help answer the question ‘is this climate change or just weather?’. Some data was already known but there’s a ‘metaphorical fog’ from missing observations from the past. Since the BBC won’t let him put a satellite in a Tardis, they’ve been creative about finding other sources to help lift ‘the fog of ignorance’. This project has long fascinated me because it started off all about science: in Phil’s words, ‘when we started all this, I was only thinking about the weather’, but ended up being about history as well: ‘these documents are intrinsically interesting’– he learnt what else was interesting about the logs from project participants who discovered the stories of people, disasters and strange events that lay within them. The third thing the project has generated (after weather and history) is ‘a lot of experts’. One example he gave was evidence of the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic on board ship, which was investigated after forum posts about it. There’s still a lot to do – more logs, including possibly French and Dutch – to come, and things would ideally speed up ‘by a factor of ten’.

In Brooke Simmons’ talk on ‘Future plans for Galaxy Zoo’, she raised the eternal issue of what to call participants in crowdsourcing: ‘just call everyone collaborators’. ‘Citizen scientists’ makes a distinction between paid and unpaid scientists, as does ‘volunteers’. She wants to help people do their own science, and they’re working on making it easier than downloading and learning how to use more complicated tools. As an example, she talked about people collecting ‘galaxies with small bulges’ and analysing the differences in bulges (like a souped-up Galaxy Zoo Navigator?). She also talked about Zoo Teach, with resources for learning at all ages.

After the break we learnt about ‘The Planet 4 Invasion’, the climate and seasons of Mars from Meg Schwamb and about Solar Stormwatch in ‘Only you can save planet Earth!’ from Chris Davis, who was also presenting research from his student Kim Tucker-Wood (sp?). Who knew that solar winds could take the tail off a comet?!

Next up was Chris Lintott on ‘Planet Hunting with and without Kepler’. Science communication advice says ‘don’t show people graphs’, and since Planet Hunters is looking at graphs for fun, he thought no-one would want to do Planet Hunters. However, the response has surprised him. And ‘it turns out that stars are actually quite interesting as well’. In another example of participants going above and beyond the original scope of the project, project participants watched a talk streamed online on ‘heartbeat binaries’, and went and found 30 of them from archives, their own records and posted them on the forum.  Now a bunch of Planet Hunters are working with Kepler team to follow them up.  (As an aside, he showed a screenshot of a future journal paper – the journal couldn’t accept the idea that you could be a Planet Hunter and not be part of an academic team so they’re listed as the Department of Astronomy at Yale.)

The final speaker was Rob Simpson on ‘The Future of the Zooniverse’.  To put things in context, he said the human race spends 16 years cumulatively playing the game Angry Birds every day; people spend 2 months every day on the Zooniverse. In the past year, the human race spent 52 years on the Zooniverse’s 15 live projects (they’ve had 23 projects in total). The Andromeda project went through all their data in 22 days – other projects take longer, but still attract dedicated people.  In the Zooniverse’s immediate future are ‘tools for (citizen) scientists’ – adding the ability to do analysis in the browser, ‘because people have a habit of finding things, just by being given access to the data’. They’re also working on ‘Letters‘ – public versions of what might otherwise be detailed forum posts that can be cited, and as a form of publication, it puts them ‘in the domain’.  They’re helping people communicate with each other and embracing their ‘machine overlords’, using Galaxy Zoo as a training tool for machine learning.  As computers get more powerful, the division of work between machines and people will change, perhaps leaving the beautiful, tricky, or complex bits for humans. [Update, June 29, 2013: Rob’s posted about his talk on the Zooniverse blog, ’52 Years of Human Effort’, and corrected his original figure of 35 years to 52 years of human effort.]

At one point a speaker asked who in the room was a moderator on a Zooniverse project, and nearly everyone put their hand up. I felt a bit like giving them a round of applause because their hard work is behind the success of many projects. They’re also a lovely, friendly bunch, as I discovered in the pub afterwards.

Conversations in the pub also reminded me of the flipside of people learning so much through these projects – sometimes people lose interest in the original task as their skills and knowledge grow, and it can be tricky to find time to contribute outside of moderating.  After a comment by Chris at another event I’ve been thinking about how you might match people to crowdsourcing projects or tasks – sometimes it might be about finding something that suits their love of the topic, or that matches the complexity or type of task they’ve previously enjoyed, or finding another unusual skill to learn, or perhaps building really solid stepping stones from their current tasks to more complex ones. But it’s tricky to know what someone likes – I quite like transcribing text on sites like Trove or Notes from Nature, but I didn’t like it much on Old Weather. And my own preferences change – I didn’t think much of Ancient Lives the first time I saw it, but on another occasion I ended up getting completely absorbed in the task. Helping people find the right task and project is also a design issue for projects that have built an ‘ecosystem’ of parts that contribute to a larger programme, as discussed in ‘Using crowdsourcing to manage crowdsourcing’ in Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage and ‘A suite of museum metadata games?’ in Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections.

An event like ZooCon showed how much citizen science is leading the way – there are lots of useful lessons for humanities and cultural heritage crowdsourcing. If you’ve read this thinking ‘I’d love to try it for my data, but x is a problem’, try talking to someone about it – often there are computational techniques for solving similar problems, and if it’s not already solved it might be interesting enough that people want to get involved and work with you on it.

‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – the Museums Computer Group in Belfast

Last week I was in Belfast for the Museum Computer Group‘s Spring event, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, fabulously organised by Alan Hook (Lecturer, University of Ulster) and Oonagh Murphy (MCG Committee member and PhD Researcher, University of Ulster) with support from the MCG Committee, and hosted by the University of Ulster’s Centre for Media Research.

Like other recent MCG event reports, I’m also writing as the Chair of the group, so you may think I’m biased when I say it was an excellent day with great speakers, but if I am at all biased, I promise it’s only a tiny bit! I’ve posted my talk notes at ‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at MCGPlay, Belfast.

The MCG’s Spring Meeting is an opportunity to take a wider theme than our annual Museums on the Web conference (which as the name suggests, is generally about things that touch on museums on the web). This year’s topic was ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, with presentations on playful experiences from site-specific theatre, rapid prototyping and hack days, big budget and experimental games. The event was an opportunity to bring museum staff and researchers together with game and interaction designers, and the ‘regional showcase’ of lightning talks about projects from local practitioners further helped introduce people to the great work already going on in Northern Ireland and hopefully start some local collaborations. As Alan pointed out in his introduction, it was also a chance to think about the impact of research and start conversations between museums and academia.

The first session after my talk was ‘Play: A Northern Ireland Showcase’ and began with Lyndsey Jackson (@LyndseyJJacksonof Kabosh talking about ‘Immersive Theatre and Digital Experience’ and their site-specific theatre company. Their material is the buildings, people and stories of Northern Ireland and they work with unusual spaces – anywhere but a theatre. They’re dealing with two interesting constraints – the stories of buildings might be complicated, contested or difficult, and while they want to give audiences the chance to navigate an experience for themselves, they’re aware that ‘theatre is a game – it has rules, boundaries, you can bend them but it confuses people when you break them’. In a lovely departure from some museum experiences, they don’t try to give their audiences all the answers – sometimes they want to give people some information in a way that starts them asking questions so they have to look things up themselves if they want to know more. I wish I’d had longer in Belfast to see one of their shows or try ‘Belfast Bred‘.

Oonagh (@oonaghtweets) presented some results from her audit of the online presences of museums in Northern Ireland and the question she set out to test: that professional development hack days can help the sector. Find out more at her MW2013 paper on ‘This is Our Playground‘; but one fascinating snippet was that museum studies students are quite conservative, ‘museums have rules for a reason’, and take a while to warm to the concept of prototyping. Alan (@alan_hook) talked about MYNI photo competition, asking ‘is Northern Ireland ready for play in these spaces?’, games that work with ‘civic pride’, the realities of designing mobile experiences around 3G coverage and expensive data plans, and shared some reflections on the process, including his questions about the ethics of crowdsourcing images and the differences between academic and industry timelines.

 The next session was ‘Games: Best Practice and Innovative Approaches’. First up, Sharna Jackson (@sharnajackson), czar of Tate Kids, presented on the past, present and future of play at Tate. She pointed out that games can bring in hard-to-reach audiences, can be a gateway to engagement with deeper content, and can be a work of art in themselves. I loved her stance on web vs device-specific apps – while tablets are increasingly popular, their aim is to reach wide audiences so jumping into apps might not be right choice for limited budgets. Her lessons included: know your audience, what they expect; start playing games so you know what mechanics you like so you’ve got context for decisions and so you get what’s great about games; your mission, content and goals all influence what kinds of games it makes sense for you to make; if planning to let users generate content, you need a strategy to manage it. Be clear about what games are – respect the medium.

Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) of the Wellcome Collection talked about ‘Truth and Fact: Museums and Public Engagement, including the High Tea evaluation‘s findings that ‘piracy is the most effective form of distribution’ so designing games to be ripped or seeded on portals can help achieve wider goals. He also talked about the differences between history and science games, as well as some of the unique hazards of working in museums with large, closely related collections – one memory game was ‘punishing you with intense sense of similarity of items in Henry Wellcome’s collection’.

The final presentation in the session was Alex Moseley on the educational potential of low budget games. His talk included a tiny taster of alternative reality gameplay and discussion of some disruptive, slightly subversive elements of ARGs you could use independently. His seven step process: identify key concepts or constraints want to get across; situate them in real activities; think of a real problem or challenge; add narrative to deepen the context; create a prototype; test it with colleagues/visitors; refine, retest and release. He also raised some challenges for museums: if players suggest something good in an ARG, it could be incorporated and effect the outcome – but this might be tricky for museums to manage with limited resources.

One interesting test that emerged from the panel discussion was whether something was ‘Belfast good’. As Oonagh said, ‘Is this good or is it ‘Belfast-good’ because if it’s Belfast-good, then not good enough’. Asking whether a project is ‘museum good’ or ‘academic good’ might be a useful test in the future… The session also lead to ‘chocolate covered broccoli‘ references overtaking ‘gamification’ as the new buzzword bingo winner.

The lightning talks covered a range of interesting projects from local organisations, in part with the idea of helping start local conversations. Some of the projects we heard about from @takebackbelfast, @stephentshaw, @designzoo and @Lancorz were really inspiring and just plain cool.  It was also refreshing to hear outsider’s perspectives on what museums do: one guy said ‘people bring their own knowledge, experiences and devices to museums – why do you need big interactive installations?’.
The day finished with a twenty minute play test of Alex Moseley’s ‘curate-a-fact’ game then we headed off to the pub for some well-deserved #drinkingaboutmuseums.

The MCG usually holds its Spring Meeting somewhere outside London, but it’s a long time since we’ve been in Belfast – it might have been a long time coming, but Belfast did themselves proud. I was really encouraged by the excellent work going on in the region and the creativity and energy of the people and projects in the room. Huge thanks to all the participants, chairs, speakers and organisers for putting together a great day!

Thanks to the university, we were able to (mostly) live stream the talks, and had people watching at their desk in Leicester or London and even from a train in New York! We also had a live tweeter @JasonAPurdy on the @cmr_ulster account plus loads of tweeters in the audience to help capture the day. Alex has also posted his thoughts on ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – well worth a read.

‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at MCGPlay, Belfast

These are my rough notes for my talk on ‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at Museum Computer Group‘s Spring event, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ (or #MCGPlay). My aim was to introduce the Museums Computer Group, discuss some of the challenges museums and their staff are facing and think about how to create opportunities from those challenges. I’ve posted my notes about the other talks at MCGPlay at ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – the Museums Computer Group in Belfast.

Play testing Alex’s game at #MCGPlay

I started with some information about the MCG – our mission to connect, support and inspire people working with museum technology (whether technologists, curators, academics, directors or documentation staff) and how that informs the events we run and platforms like our old-school but effective mailing list, whose members who can between them answer almost any museumy question you can think of. As a practioner-led group of volunteers, the MCG can best fulfill its mission by acting as a platform, and with over 1000 members on our mailing list and hundreds of attendees at events, we can help people in the sector help and inspire each other in a mutually supportive space. We’ve also been involved in projects like the Semantic Web Think Tank (2006-2007), Mashed Museum hack days (2007, 2008) and LIVE!Museum (2009-2010). Apparently list discussions even inspired Culture24’s Let’s Get Real analytics project! In response to surveys with our members we’re experimenting with more regional events, and with event formats like the ‘Failure Swapshop’ we trialled early this week and #drinkingaboutmuseums after the conference. (On a personal note, reviewing our history and past events was a lovely excuse to reflect on the projects and events the MCG community has been involved in and also to marvel at how young familiar faces looked at past events).

I’d reviewed the MCG list subject lines over the past few months to get a sense of the challenges or questions that digital museum people were facing:

  • Finding good web design/SEO/evaluation/etc agencies, finding good staff
  • The emergence of ‘head of digital’ roles
  • Online collections, managing digital assets; integration with Collections Management Systems and other systems
  • Integrating Collections Management Systems and 3rd party platforms like WordPress
  • Storytelling to engage the public
  • Museum informatics: CIDOC-CRM and other linked open data topics
  • ‘Create once, publish everywhere’ – can re-usable content really work?
  • Online analytics
  • Digital 3D objects – scanning, printing
  • Measuring the impact of social media
  • MOOCs (online courses)
  • Google Cultural Institute, Google Art Project, Artsy, etc
  • 3rd party tools – PayPal, Google Apps
  • Mobile – apps, well-designed experiences
  • Digital collections in physical exhibitions spaces
  • Touch tables/large-scale interactives
  • The user experience of user-generated content / co-produced exhibitions

Based on those, discussions at various meetings and reviews from other conferences, I pulled out a few themes in museum conversations:

  • ‘Strategically digital’ – the topic of many conversations over the past few years, including MCG’s Museums on the Web 2012, which was actually partly about saying that best solution for a project might not involve technology. Being ‘strategically digital’ offers some solutions to the organisational change issues raised by the mismatch between web speed and museum speed, and it means technology decisions should always refer back to a museum’s public engagement strategy (or infrastructure plans for background ICT services).
  • Mobile – your museum’s website probably has over 20% mobile visitors, so if you’re not thinking about the quality of their experience, you may be driving away business.
  • Immersive, challenging experiences – the influence of site-specific theatre, alternative reality games and transmedia experiences, the ever-new value of storytelling…
  • High-quality services integrated across the whole museum – new terms like service design and design thinking, are taking over from the old refrain of user-centred design, and going beyond it to test how the whole organisation appears to the customer – does it feel like a seamless, pleasurable (or at least not painful) experience? Museums are exploring new(ish) ways of thinking to solve old problems. As with mobile sites, you should be designing around your audiences needs, not your internal structures and complications.
  • Audience participation and engagement – we’ll hear about games over the day, but also think about crowdsourcing, asking the audience to help with tasks or share their knowledge with you.

And a few more challenges:

  • New models of authority and expertise – museum authority is challenged not only by audiences expecting to ‘curate’ their own experience but also by younger staff or people who’ve come from other sectors and have their own ideas about digital projects.
  • Constantly changing audience expectations – if you’ve ever seen kids smoosh their hands on a screen because they expect it to zoom in response to their touch, you’ll know how hard it is to keep up with consumer technologies. Expectations about the quality of the experience and the quality of the technology are always changing based on films, consumer products and non-museum experiences.
  • ‘Doing more with less’ (and then less again)
  • Figuring out where to ask for help – it can be hard to find your way through the jargon and figure out what language to use
  • Training and personal development – job swaps or mentoring might supplement traditional training

There’ll always be new things to learn, and new challenges, so find supportive peers to learn with. The MCG community is one of the ways that people can learn from each other, but the museum sector is full of smart people who are generous with their time and knowledge. Run a discussion group or seminar series over lunch or in the pub, even if you have to rope in other local organisations to make it happen, join in mailing lists, find blogs to follow, look for bursaries to get to events. The international Museums and the Web past papers are an amazing resource, and Twitter hashtags can be another good place to ask for help (check out Dana Allen-Greil’s ‘Glossary of Museum-Related Hashtags‘ for US-based pointers).

I finished by saying that despite all the frustrations, it’s an amazing time to work in or study the sector, so enjoy it! We shouldn’t limit ourselves to engaging audiences in play when we could be engaging ourselves in play.

Museums Computer Group: connect, support, inspire me

On the trickiness of crowdsourcing competitions: some lessons from Sydney Design

I generally maintain a diplomatic silence about crowdsourcing competitions when I’m talking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as I believe spec work (or asking people to invest time in creating designs then paying just one ‘winner’) is unethical, and it’s really tricky for design competitions to avoid looking like ‘spec work’. I discovered this for myself when I ran the ‘Cosmic Collections’ mashup competition, so I have a lot of sympathy for museums who unknowingly get it wrong when experimenting with crowdsourcing. I also tend not to talk about poorly conceived or executed crowdsourcing projects as it doesn’t seem fair to single out cultural heritage institutions that were trying to do the right thing against odds that ended up beating them, but I think the lessons to be drawn from the Sydney Design festival’s competition are important enough to discuss here.

'Is it a free poster yet?'
‘Is it a free poster yet?’

A crowdsourcing competition model that the museum had previously applied successfully (the Lace Award and Trainspotting, with prizes up to $AUD20,000 and display in the exhibition for winning designs) had a very different reception when the context and rewards changed. When the Powerhouse Museum’s design competition to produce the visual identity for the Sydney Design festival was launched with a $US1000 prize, the design community’s sensitivity to spec work and ‘free pitching’ was triggered, and they started throwing in some sarcastic responses.  The public feedback loop created as people could see previous designs and realised their own would also be featured on the site had a 4Chan-ish feel of a fun new meme about it, and once the norm of satirical responses was set, it was only going to escalate.

More importantly, there was a sense that Sydney Design was pulling a swifty. As Kate Sweetapple puts it in How the Sydney Design festival poster competition went horribly wrong:

‘The fundamental difference [to the previous competitions], however, is that by running the competition, the Museum pulled a substantial job – worth tens of thousands of dollars – out of the professional marketplace. The submissions to Love Lace and Trainspotting did not have a commercial context one year, and none the next.’

If the previous reward was mostly monetary, offering a lesser intrinsic reward in exchange for a previously extrinsic reward is unlikely to work. If there’s a bigger reward than than the competition brief itself would suggest, one important lesson is to make it unavoidably obvious. In this case, the Sydney Design Team’s response said ‘the Museum would have engaged the winning designer for further work and remuneration required to roll out the winning design into a more comprehensive marketing campaign’, but this wasn’t clear in the original brief. Many museum competitions display highly-ranked entries in their gallery spaces, and being exhibited in the museum or festival spaces might have been another form of valid reward, but only if it worked as an aspiration for the competition’s audience, who in this case might well have a breadth of experience and exposure that rendered it less valuable.

Finally, in working with museums online, I’ve noticed the harshness of criticism is often proportionate to how deeply people care about you or identify you with certain values they hold dear.  When you’re a beloved institution, people who care deeply about you feel betrayed when you get things wrong. As one commentator said in With friends like these, who needs enemies?, ‘Sydney Design are meant to be in our corner’. If you regard critics as ‘critical friends’ you can turn the relationship around (as Merel van der Vaart discusses in the ‘Opening up’ section of her post on lessons from the Science Museum’s Oramics exhibition) and build an even stronger relationship with them. Maybe Sydney Design can still turn this around…

Does ‘slow art day’ work online?

Saturday was ‘slow art day‘, and the Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) shared a Robert Hughes clip that really resonated with me:

‘We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.’

I was tied to my desk writing that day so I wondered how I could have a similar experience: can you ‘do’ slow art online? Assuming you can switch off all the other distractions of email, social media, flashing ads, etc, and ignore the fact that your house, office or library is full of other tasks and temptations, can you slow down and sit in front of one art work and have a similar experience through an image on a screen, or does being in a gallery add something to the process? On the other hand, high-resolution images and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) mean you can see details you’d never see in a gallery so you can explore the artwork itself more deeply*. And to remove the screen from the equation, would looking at a really good print of a painting be as rewarding as looking at the original? And what of installations and sculpture?

Related to that, I’ve been wondering how to relate online collections (whether thematic, exhibition-style or old school catalogues) to audience motivations for visiting museums. I’ve just been reading a great overview of people’s motivations for visiting museums in Dimitra Christidou’s Re-Introducing Visitors: Thoughts and Discussion on John Falk’s Notion of Visitors’ Identity-Related Visit Motivations. Christidou summarises Falk and Storksdieck’s 2005 research on ‘museum-specific identities’ reflecting visitor motivations:

  1. Explorers are driven by their personal curiosity, their urge to discover new things.
  2. Facilitators visit the museum on behalf of others’ special interests in the exhibition or the subject-matter of the museum.
  3. Experience seekers are these visitors who desire to see and experience a place, such as tourists.
  4. Professional hobbyists are those with specific knowledge in the subject matter of an exhibition and specific goals in mind.
  5. Rechargers seek a contemplative or restorative experience, often to let some steam out of their systems.
Once I’d gotten past the amusing mental image of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s head exploding at the concept of ‘big’ and ‘small’ online identities that change according to context, interests, motivations, etc**, I thought the article provided a useful framework for returning to the question of ‘what are museum websites for?‘. We can safely assume that most gallery sites consider the needs of ‘professional hobbyists’, but what of the other motivations? Some of these motivations are embedded in social experiences – do art sites enable multi-user experiences online, or do they assume that ‘sharing’ or facilitation only happens via social media? Does looking at art online go deep enough to count as an ‘experience’? And how much of the ‘recharging’ experience is tied to the act of getting to a particular space at a particular time, or to the affordances of the space itself and its physical separation from most distractions of the world?

What new motivations should be added for online experiences of museum exhibitions and objects? What’s enabled by the convenience, accessibility and discoverability of art online? And to return to slow art, how can museums use text and design to cue people to slow down and look at art for minutes at a time without getting in the way of people who want a quick experience? (And is this the same basic question I’d asked earlier about ‘enabling punctum’ or ‘what’s the effect of all this aggregation of museum content on the user experience‘?)

* Assuming you don’t look so closely that you slip into ‘inappropriate peering‘.
** I’m sure Zuckerberg knows people have different identities in different situations, it’s just more convenient for Facebook not to care. Christopher ‘moot’ Poole opposed this push quite well in a series of talks in 2011.

Notes from ‘Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities’

Last week I attended a one-day conference, ‘Digital Impacts: Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities‘ (#oxcrowd), convened by Kathryn Eccles of Oxford’s Internet Institute, and I’m sharing my (sketchy, as always) notes in the hope that they’ll help people who couldn’t attend.

Stuart Dunn reported on the Humanities Crowdsourcing scoping report (PDF) he wrote with Mark Hedges and noted that if we want humanities crowdsourcing to take off we should move beyond crowdsourcing as a business model and look to form, nurture and connect with communities.  Alice Warley and Andrew Greg presented a useful overview of the design decisions behind the Your Paintings Tagger and sparked some discussion on how many people need to view a painting before it’s ‘completed’, and the differences between structured and unstructured tagging. Interestingly, paintings can be ‘retired’ from the Tagger once enough data has been gathered – I personally think the inherent engagement in tagging is valuable enough to keep paintings taggable forever, even if they’re not prioritised in the tagging interface.  Kate Lindsay brought a depth of experience to her presentation on ‘The Oxford Community Collection Model’ (as seen in Europeana 1914-1918 and RunCoCo’s 2011 report on ‘How to run a community collection online‘ (PDF)). Some of the questions brought out the importance of planning for sustainability in technology, licences, etc, and the role of existing networks of volunteers with the expertise to help review objects on the community collection days.  The role of the community in ensuring the quality of crowdsourced contributions was also discussed in Kimberly Kowal’s presentation on the British Library’s Georeferencer project. She also reflected on what she’d learnt after the first phase of the Georeferencer project, including that the inherent reward of participating in the activity was a bigger motivator than competitiveness, and the impact on the British Library itself, which has opened up data for wider digital uses and has more crowdsourcing projects planned. I gave a paper which was based on an earlier version, The gift that gives twice: crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage, but pushed my thinking about crowdsourcing as a tool for deep engagement with museums and other memory organisations even further. I also succumbed to the temptation to play with my own definitions of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage: ‘a form of engagement that contributes towards a shared, significant goal or research question by asking the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically’ or ‘productive public engagement with the mission and work of memory institutions’.

Chris Lintott of Galaxy Zoo fame shared his definition of success for a crowdsourcing/citizen science project: it has to produce results of value to the research community in less time than could have been done by other means (i.e. it must have been able to achieve something with crowd that couldn’t have without them) and discussed how the Ancient Lives project challenged that at first by turning ‘a few thousand papyri they didn’t have time to transcribe into several thousand data points they didn’t have time to read’.  While ‘serendipitous discovery is a natural consequence of exposing data to large numbers of users’ (in the words of the Citizen Science Alliance), they wanted a more sophisticated method for recording potential discoveries experts made while engaging with the material and built a focused ‘talk‘ tool which can programmatically filter out the most interesting unanswered comments and email them to their 30 or 40 expert users. They also have Letters for more structured, journal-style reporting. (I hope I have that right).  He also discussed decisions around full text transcriptions (difficult to automatically reconcile) vs ‘rich metadata’, or more structured indexes of the content of the page, which contain enough information to help historians decide which pages to transcribe in full for themselves.

Some other thoughts that struck me during the day… humanities crowdsourcing has a lot to learn from the application of maths and logic in citizen science – lots of problems (like validating data) that seem intractable can actually be solved algorithmically, and citizen science hypothesis-based approach to testing task and interface design would help humanities projects. Niche projects help solve the problem of putting the right obscure item in front of the right user (which was an issue I wrestled with during my short residency at the Powerhouse Museum last year – in hindsight, building niche projects could have meant a stronger call-to-action and no worries about getting people to navigate to the right range of objects).  The variable role of forums and participants’ relationship to the project owners and each other came up at various points – in some projects, interactions with a central authority are more valued, in others, community interactions are really important. I wonder how much it depends on the length and size of the project? The potential and dangers of ‘gamification’ and ‘badgeification’ and their potentially negative impact on motivation were raised. I agree with Lintott that games require a level of polish that could mean you’d invest more in making them than you’d get back in value, but as a form of engagement that can create deeper relationships with cultural heritage and/or validate some procrastination over a cup of tea, I think they potentially have a wider value that balances that.

I was also asked to chair the panel discussion, which featured Kimberly Kowal, Andrew Greg, Alice Warley, Laura Carletti, Stuart Dunn and Tim Causer.  Questions during the panel discussion included:

  • ‘what happens if your super-user dies?’ (Super-users or super contributors are the tiny percentage of people who do most of the work, as in this Old Weather post) – discussion included mass media as a numbers game, the idea that someone else will respond to the need/challenge, and asking your community how they’d reach someone like them. (This also helped answer the question ‘how do you find your crowd?’ that came in from twitter)
  • ‘have you ever paid anyone?’ Answer: no
  • ‘can you recruit participants through specialist societies?’ From memory, the answer was ‘yes but it does depend’.
  • something like ‘have you met participants in real life?’ – answer, yes, and it was an opportunity to learn from them, and to align the community, institution, subject and process.
  • badgeification?’. Answer: the quality of the reward matters more than the levels (so badges are probably out).
  • ‘what happens if you force students to work on crowdsourcing projects?’ – one suggestion was to look for entries on Transcribe Bentham in a US English class blog
  • ‘what’s happened to tagging in art museums, where’s the new steve.museum or Brooklyn Museum?’ – is it normalised and not written about as much, or has it declined?
  • ‘how can you get funding for crowdsourcing projects?’. One answer – put a good application in to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Or start small, prove the value of the project and get a larger sum. Other advice was to be creative or use existing platforms. Speaking of which, last year the Citizen Science Alliance announced ‘the first open call for proposals by researchers who wish to develop citizen science projects which take advantage of the experience, tools and community of the Zooniverse. Successful proposals will receive donated effort of the Adler-based team to build and launch a new citizen science project’.
  • ‘can you tell in advance which communities will make use of a forum?’ – a great question that drew on various discussions of the role of communities of participants in supporting each other and devising new research questions
  • a question on ‘quality control’ provoked a range of responses, from the manual quality control in Transcribe Bentham and the high number of Taggers initially required for each painting in Your Paintings which slowed things down, and lead into a discussion of shallow vs deep interactions
  • the final questioner asked about documenting film with crowdsourcing and was answered by someone else in the audience, which seemed a very fitting way to close the day.
James Murray in his Scriptorium with thousands of word references sent in by members of the public for the first Oxford English Dictionary. Early crowdsourcing?

If you found this post useful, you might also like Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage or my earlier Museums and the Web paper on Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections.