Museums + AI, New York workshop notes

I’ve just spent Monday and Tuesday in New York for a workshop on ‘Museums + AI’. Funded by the AHRC and led by Oonagh Murphy and Elena Villaespesa, this was the second workshop in the year-long project.

Photo of workshop participants
Workshop participants

As there’s so much interest in artificial intelligence / machine learning / data science right now, I thought I’d revive the lost art of event blogging and share my notes. These notes are inevitably patchy, so keep an eye out for more formal reports from the team. I’ve used ‘museum’ throughout, as in the title of the event, but many of these issues are relevant to other collecting institutions (libraries, archives) and public venues. I’m writing this on the Amtrak to DC so I’ve been lazy about embedding links in text – sorry!

After a welcome from Pratt (check out their student blog https://museumsdigitalculture.prattsi.org/), Elena’s opening remarks introduced the two themes of the workshop: AI + visitor data and AI + Collections data. Questions about visitor data include whether museums have the necessary data governance and processes in place; whether current ethical codes and regulations are adequate for AI; and what skills staff might need to gain visitor insights with AI. Questions about collections data include how museums can minimise algorithmic biases when interpreting collections; whether the lack of diversity in both museum and AI staff would be reflected in the results; and the implications of museums engaging with big tech companies.

Achim Koh’s talk raised many questions I’ve had as we’ve thought about AI / machine learning in the library, including how staff traditionally invested with the authority to talk about collections (curators, cataloguers) would feel about machines taking on some of that work. I think we’ve broadly moved past that at the library if we can assume that we’d work within systems that can distinguish between ‘gold standard’ records created by trained staff and those created by software (with crowdsourced data somewhere inbetween, depending on the project).

John Stack and Jamie Unwin from the (UK) Science Museum shared some the challenges of using pre-built commercial models (AWS Rekognition and Comprehend) on museum collections – anything long and thin is marked as a ‘weapon’ – and demonstrated a nice tool for seeing ‘what the machine saw’ https://johnstack.github.io/what-the-machine-saw/. They don’t currently show machine-generated tags to users, but they’re used behind-the-scenes for discoverability. Do we need more transparency about how search results were generated – but will machine tags ever be completely safe to show people without vetting, even if confidence scores and software versions are included with the tags?

(If you’d like to see what all the tagging fuss is about, I have an older hands-on work sheet for trying text and images with machine classification software at http://www.openobjects.org.uk/2017/02/trying-computational-data-generation-and-entity-extraction/ )

Andrew Lih talked about image classification work with the Metropolitan Museum and Wikidata which picked up on the issue of questionable tags. Wikidata has a game-based workflow for tagging items, which in addition to tools for managing vandalism or miscreants allows them to trust the ‘crowd’ and make edits live immediately. Being able to sift incorrect from correct tags is vital – but this in turn raises questions of ‘round tripping’ – should a cultural institution ingest the corrections? (I noticed this issue coming up a few times because it’s something we’ve been thinking about as we work with a volunteer creating Wikidata that will later be editable by anyone.) Andrew said that the Met project put AI more firmly into the Wikimedia ecosystem, and that more is likely to come. He closed by demonstrating how the data created could put collections in the centre of networks of information http://w.wiki/6Bf Keep an eye out for the Wiki Art Depiction Explorer https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1H87K5yjlNNivv44vHedk9xAWwyp9CF9-s0lojta5Us4/edit#slide=id.g34b27a5b18_0_435

Jeff Steward from Harvard Art Museums gave a thoughtful talk about how different image tagging and captioning tools (Google Vision, Imagga, Clarifai, Microsoft Cognitive Services) saw the collections, e.g. Imagga might talk about how fruit depicted in a painting tastes: sweet, juicy; how a bowl is used: breakfast, celebration. Microsoft tagger and caption tools have different views, don’t draw on each other.

Chris Alen Sula led a great session on ‘Ethical Considerations for AI’.

That evening, we went to an event at the Cooper Hewitt for more discussion of https://twitter.com/hashtag/MuseumsAI and the launch of their Interaction Lab https://www.cooperhewitt.org/interaction-lab/ Andrea Lipps and Harrison Pim’s talks reminded me of earlier discussion about holding cultural institutions to account for the decisions they make about AI, surveillance capitalism and more. Workshops like this (and the resulting frameworks) can provide the questions but senior staff must actually ask them, and pay attention to the answers. Karen Palmer’s talk got me thinking about what ‘democratising AI’ really means, and whether it’s possible to democratise something that relies on training data and access to computing power. Democratising knowledge about AI is a definite good, but should we also think about alternatives to AI that don’t involve classifications, and aren’t so closely linked to surveillance capitalism and ad tech?

The next day began with an inspiring talk from Effie Kapsalis on the Smithsonian Institution’s American Women’s History Initiative https://womenshistory.si.edu/ They’re thinking about machine learning and collections as data to develop ethical guidelines for AI and gender, analysing representations of women in multidisciplinary collections, enhancing data at scale and infusing the web with semantic data on historical women.

Shannon Darrough, MoMA, talked about a machine learning project with Google Arts and Culture to identify artworks in 30,000 installation photos, based on 70,000 collection images https://moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/history/identifying-art It was great at 2D works, not so much 3D, installation, moving image or performance art works. The project worked because they identified a clear problem that machine learning could solve. His talk led to discussion about sharing training models (i.e. once software is trained to specialise in particular subjects, others can re-use the ‘models’ that are created), and the alignment between tech companies’ goals (generally, shorter-term, self-contained) and museums’ (longer-term, feeding into core systems).

I have fewer notes from talks by Lawrence Swiader (American Battlefield Trust) with good advice on human-centred processes, Juhee Park (V&A) on frameworks for thinking about AI and museums, Matthew Cock (VocalEyes) on chat bots for venue accessibility information, and Carolyn Royston and Rachel Ginsberg (on the Cooper Hewitt’s Interaction Lab), but they added to the richness of the day. My talk was on ‘operationalising AI at a national library’, my slides are online https://www.slideshare.net/miaridge/operationalising-ai-at-a-national-library The final activity was on ‘managing AI’, a subject that’s become close to my heart.

Notes from Digital Humanities 2019 (DH2019 Utrecht)

My rough notes from the Digital Humanities 2019 conference in Utrecht. All the usual warnings about partial attention / tendency for distraction apply. My comments are usually in brackets.

I found the most useful reference for the conference programme to be https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&presentations=show but it doesn’t show the titles or abstracts for papers within panels.

Some places me and my colleagues were during the conference: https://blogs.bl.uk/digital-scholarship/2019/07/british-library-digital-scholarship-at-digital-humanities-2019-.html http://livingwithmachines.ac.uk/living-with-machines-at-digital-humanities-2019/

DH2019 Keynote by Francis B. Nyamnjoh, ‘African Inspiration for Understanding the Compositeness of Being Human through Digital Technology’

https://dh2019.adho.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Nyamnjoh_Digital-Humanities-Keynote_2019.pdf

  • Notion of complexity, and incompleteness familiar to Africa. Africans frown on attempts to simplify
  • How do notions of incompleteness provide food for thought in digital humanities?
  • Nyamnjoh decries the sense of superiority inspired by zero sum games. ‘Humans are incomplete, nature is incomplete. Religious bit. No one can escape incompleteness.’ (Phew! This is something of a mantra when you work with collections at scale – working in cultural institutions comes with a daily sense that the work is so large it will continue after you’re just a memory. Let’s embrace rather than apologise for it)
  • References books by Amos Tutuola
  • Nyamnjoh on hidden persuaders, activators. Juju as a technology of self-extension. With juju, you can extend your presence; rise beyond ordinary ways of being. But it can also be spyware. (Timely, on the day that Zoom was found to allow access to your laptop camera – this has positives and negatives)
  • Nyamnjoh: DH as the compositeness of being; being incomplete is something to celebrate. Proposes a scholarship of conviviality that takes in practices from different academic disciplines to make itself better.
  • Nyamnjoh in response to Micki K’s question about history as a zero-sum game in which people argue whether something did or didn’t happen: create archives that can tell multiple stories, complexify the stories that exist

DH2019 Day 1, July 10

LP-03: Space Territory GeoHumanities

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=455&presentations=show Locating Absence with Narrative Digital Maps

How to combine new media production with DH methodologies to create kit for recording and locating in the field.

Why georeference? Situate context, comparison old and new maps, feature extraction, or exploring map complexity.

Maps Re-imagined: Digital, Informational, and Perceptional Experimentations in Progress by Tyng-Ruey Chuang, Chih-Chuan Hsu, Huang-Sin Syu used OpenStreetMap with historical Taiwanese maps. Interesting base map options inc ukiyo style https://bcfuture.github.io/tileserver/Switch.html

Oceanic Exchanges: Transnational Textual Migration And Viral Culture

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=477&presentations=show Oceanic Exchanges studies the flow of information, searching for historical-literary connections between newspapers around the world; seeks to push the boundaries of research w newspapers

  • Challenges: imperfect comparability of corpora – data is provided in different ways by each data provider; no unifying ontology between archives (no generic identification of specific items); legal restrictions; TEI and other work hasn’t been suitable for newspaper research
  • Limited ability to conduct research across repositories. Deep semantic multilingual text mining remains a challenge. Political (national) and practical organisation of archives currently determines questions that can be asked, privileges certain kinds of enquiry.
  • Oceanic Exchanges project includes over 100 million pages. Corpus exploration tool needed to support: exploring data (metadata and text); other things that went by too quickly.

The Past, Present and Future of Digital Scholarship with Newspaper Collections

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=483&presentations=show

I was on this panel so I tweeted a bit but have no notes myself.

Working with historical text (digitised newspapers, books, whatever) collections at scale has some interesting challenges and rewards. Inspired by all the newspaper sessions? Join an emerging community of practitioners, researchers and critical friends via this document from a ‘DH2019 Lunch session – Researchers & Libraries working together on improving digitised newspapers’ https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JJJOjasuos4yJULpquXt8pzpktwlYpOKrRBrCds8r2g/edit

Complexities, Explainability and Method

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=486&presentations=show I enjoyed listening to this panel which is so far removed from my everyday DH practice.

Other stuff

Tweet: If you ask a library professional about digitisating (new word alert!) a specific collection and they appear to go quiet, this is actually what they’re doing – digitisation takes shedloads of time and paperwork https://twitter.com/CamDigLib/status/1148888628405395456

Posters

@LibsDH ADHO Lib & DH SIG meetup

There was a lunchtime meeting for ‘Libraries and Digital Humanities: an ADHO Special Interest Group’, which was a lovely chance to talk libraries / GLAMs and DH. You can join the group via https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfswiaEnmS_mBTfL3Bc8fJsY5zxhY7xw0auYMCGY_2R0MT06w/viewform or the mailing list at http://lists.digitalhumanities.org/mailman/listinfo/libdh-sig

DH2019 Day 2, July 11

XR in DH: Extended Reality in the Digital Humanities

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=523&presentations=show

Another panel where I enjoyed listening and learning about a field I haven’t explored in depth. Tweet from the Q&A: ‘Love the ‘XR in DH: Extended Reality in the Digital Humanities’ panel responses to a question about training students only for them to go off and get jobs in industry: good! Industry needs diversity, PhDs need to support multiple career paths beyond academia’

Data Science & Digital Humanities: new collaborations, new opportunities and new complexities

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=532&presentations=show Beatrice Alex, Anne Alexander, David Beavan, Eirini Goudarouli, Leonardo Impett, Barbara McGillivray, Nora McGregor, Mia Ridge

My work with open cultural data has led to me asking ‘how can GLAMs and data scientists collaborate to produce outcomes that are useful for both?’. Following this, I presented a short paper, more info at http://www.openobjects.org.uk/2019/07/in-search-of-the-sweet-spot-infrastructure-at-the-intersection-of-cultural-heritage-and-data-science/ https://www.slideshare.net/miaridge/in-search-of-the-sweet-spot-infrastructure-at-the-intersection-of-cultural-heritage-and-data-science.

As summarised in tweets:

  • https://twitter.com/semames1/status/1149250799232540672, ‘data science can provide new routes into library collections; libraries can provide new challenging sources of information (scale, untidy data) for data scientists’;
  • https://twitter.com/sp_meta/status/1149251010025656321 ‘library staff are often assessed by strict metrics of performance – items catalog, speed of delivery to reading room – that isn’t well-matched to messy, experimental collaborations with data scientists’;
  • https://twitter.com/melissaterras/status/1149251480576303109 ‘Copyright issues are inescapable… they are the background noise to what we do’;
  • https://twitter.com/sp_meta/status/1149251656720289792 ‘How can library infrastructure change to enable collaboration with data scientists, encouraging use of collections as data and prompting researchers to share their data and interpretations back?’;
  • (me) ‘I’m wondering about this dichotomy between ‘new’ or novel, and ‘useful’ or applied – is there actually a sweet spot where data scientists can work with DH / GLAMs or should we just apply data science methods and also offer collections for novel data science research? Thinking of it as a scale of different aspects of ‘new to applied research’ rather than a simple either/or’.

SP-19: Cultural Heritage, Art/ifacts and Institutions

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=462&presentations=show

“Un Manuscrit Naturellement ” Rescuing a library buried in digital sand

  • 1979, agreement with Ministry of Culture and IRHT to digitise all manuscripts stored in French public libraries. (Began with microfilm, not digital). Safe, but not usable. Financial cost of preserving 40TB of data was prohibitive, but BnF started converting TIFFs to JP2 which made storage financially feasible. Huge investment by France in data preservation for digitised manuscripts.
  • Big data cleaning and deduplication process, got rid of 1 million files. Discovered errors in TIFF when converting to JP2. Found inconsistencies with metadata between databases and files. 3 years to do the prep work and clean the data!
  • ‘A project which lasts for 40 years produces a lot of variabilities’. Needed a team, access to proper infrastructure; the person with memory of the project was key.

A Database of Islamic Scientific Manuscripts — Challenges of Past and Future

  • (Following on from the last paper, digital preservation takes continuous effort). Moving to RDF model based on CIDOC-CRM, standard triple store database, standard ResearchSpace/Metaphactory front end. Trying to separate the data from the software to make maintenance easier.

Analytical Edition Detection In Bibliographic Metadata; The Emerging Paradigm of Bibliographic Data Science

  • Tweet: Two solid papers on a database for Islamic Scientific Manuscripts and data science work with the ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) plus reflections on the need for continuous investment in digital preservation. Back on familiar curatorial / #MuseTech ground!
  • Lahti – Reconciling / data harmonisation for early modern books is so complex that there are different researchers working on editions, authors, publishers, places

Syriac Persons, Events, and Relations: A Linked Open Factoid-based Prosopography

  • Prosopography and factoids. His project relies heavily on authority files that http://syriaca.org/ produces. Modelling factoids in TEI; usually it’s done in relational databases.
  • Prosopography used to be published as snippets of narrative text about people that enough information was available about
  • Factoid – a discrete piece of prosopographical information asserted in a primary source text and sourced to that text.
  • Person, event and relation factoids. Researcher attribution at the factoid level. Using TEI because (as markup around the text) it stays close to the primary source material; can link out to controlled vocabulary
  • Srophe app – an open source platform for cultural heritage data used to present their prosopographical data https://srophe.app/
  • Harold Short says how pleased he is to hear a project like that taking the approach they have; TEI wasn’t available as an option when they did the original work (seriously beautiful moment)
  • Why SNAP? ‘FOAF isn’t really good at describing relationships that have come about as a result of slave ownership’
  • More on factoid prosopography via Arianna Ciula https://factoid-dighum.kcl.ac.uk/

Day 3, July 12

Complexities in the Use, Analysis, and Representation of Historical Digital Periodicals

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=527&presentations=show

  • Torsten Roeder: Tracing debate about a particular work through German music magazines and daily newspapers. OCR and mass digitisation made it easier to compose representative text corpora about specific subjects. Authorship information isn’t available so don’t know their backgrounds etc, means a different form of analysis. ‘Horizontal reading’ as a metaphor for his approach. Topic modelling didn’t work for looking for music criticism.
  • Roeder’s requirements: accessible digital copies of newspapers; reliable metadata; high quality OCR or transcriptions; article borders; some kind of segmentation; deep semantic annotation – ‘but who does what?’ What should collection holders / access providers do, and what should researchers do? (e.g. who should identify entities and concepts within texts? This question was picked up in other discussion in the session, on twitter and at an impromptu lunchtime meetup)
  • Zeg Segal. The Periodical as a Geographical Space. Relation between the two isn’t unidirectional. Imagined space constructed by the text and its layout. Periodicals construct an imaginary space that refers back to the real. Headlines, para text, regular text. Divisions between articles. His case study for exploring the issues: HaZefirah. (sample slide image https://twitter.com/mia_out/status/1149581497680052224)
  • Nanette Rißler-Pipka, Historical Periodicals Research, Opportunities and Limitations. The limitations she encounters as a researcher. Building a corpus of historical periodicals for a research question often means using sources from more than one provider of digitised texts. Different searches, rights, structure. (The need for multiple forms of interoperability, again)
  • Wants article / ad / genre classifications. For metadata wants, bibliographical data about the title (issue, date); extractable data (dates, names, tables of contents), provenance data (who digitised, when?). When you download individual articles, you lose the metadata which would be so useful for research. Open access is vital; interoperability is important; the ability to create individual collections across individual libraries is a wonderful dream
  • Estelle Bunout. Impresso providing exploration tools (integrate and decomplexify NLP tools in current historical research workflows). https://impresso-project.ch/app/#/
  • Working on: expanding a query – find neighbouring terms and frequent OCR errors. Overview of query: where and when is it? Whole corpus has been processed with topic modelling.
  • Complex queries: help me find the mention of places, countries, person in a particular thematic context. Can save to collection or export for further processing.
  • See the unsearchable: missing issues, failure to digitise issues, failure to OCRise, corrupt files
  • Transparency helps researchers discover novel opportunities and make informed decisions about sources.
  • Clifford Wulfman – how to support transcriptions, linked open data that allows exploration of notions of periodicity, notions of the periodical. My tweet: Clifford Wulfman acknowledging that libraries don’t have the resources to support special ‘snowflake’ projects because they’re working to meet the most common needs. IME this question/need doesn’t go away so how best to tackle and support it?
  • Q&A comment: what if we just put all newspapers on Impresso? Discussion of standardisation, working jointly, collaborating internationally
  • Melodee Beals comments: libraries aren’t there just to support academic researchers, academics could look to supporting the work of creative industries, journalists and others to make it easier for libraries to support them.
  • Subject librarian from Leiden University points out that copyright limits their ability to share newspapers after 1880. (Innovating is hard when you can’t even share the data)
  • Nanette Rißler says researchers don’t need fancy interfaces, just access to the data (which probably contradicts the need for ‘special snowflake’ systems and explains why libraries can never ever make all users happy)

LP-34: Cultural Heritage, Art/ifacts and Institutions

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=516&presentations=show

(I was chairing so notes are sketchier)

  • Mark Hill, early modern (1500-1800 but 18thC in particular) definitions of ‘authorship’. How does authorship interact with structural aspects of publishing? Shift of authorship from gentlemanly to professional occupation.
  • Using the ESTC. Has about 1m actors, 400k documents with actors attached to them. Actors include authors, editors, publishers, printers, translators, dedicatees. Early modern print trade was ‘trade on a human scale’. People knew each other ‘hand-operated printing press required individual actors and relationships’.
  • As time goes on, printers work with fewer, publishers work with more people, authors work with about the same number of people.
  • They manually created a network of people associated with Bernard Mandeville and compared it with a network automatically generated from ESTC.
  • Looking at a work network for Edmond Hoyle’s Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. (Today I learned that Hoyle’s Rules, determiner of victory in family card games and of ‘according to Hoyle’ fame, dates back to a book on whist in the 18thC)
  • (Really nice use of social network analysis to highlight changes in publisher and authorship networks.) Eigenvector very good at finding important actors. In the English Civil War, who you know does matter when it comes to publishing. By 18thC publishers really matter. See http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-2364/19_paper.pdf for more.

Richard Freedman, David Fiala, Andrew Janco et al

  • What is a musical quotation? Borrowing, allusion, parody, commonplace, contrafact, cover, plagiat, sampling, signifying.
  • Tweet: Freedman et al.’s slides for ‘Citations: The Renaissance Imitation Mass (CRIM) and The Quotable Musical Text in a Digital Age’ https://bit.ly/CRIM_Utrecht are a rich introduction to applications of #DigitalMusicology encoding and markup
  • I spend so much time in text worlds that it’s really refreshing to hear from musicologists who play music to explain their work and place so much value on listening while also exploiting digital processing tools to the max

Digging Into Pattern Usage Within Jazz Improvisation (Pattern History Explorer, Pattern Search and Similarity Search) Frank Höger, Klaus Frieler, Martin Pfleiderer

Impromptu meetup to discuss issues raised around digitised newspapers research and infrastructure

See notes about DH2019 Lunch session – Researchers & Libraries working together on improving digitised newspapers. 20 or more people joined us for a discussion of the wonderful challenges and wish lists from speakers, thinking about how we can collaborate to improve the provision of digitised newspapers / periodicals for researchers.

Theorising the Spatial Humanities panel

https://www.conftool.pro/dh2019/index.php?page=browseSessions&path=adminSessions&print=export&ismobile=false&form_session=539&presentations=show

  • ?? Space as a container for understanding, organising information. Chorography, the writing of the region.
  • Tweet: In the spatial humanities panel where a speaker mentions chorography, which along with prosopography is my favourite digital-history-enabled-but-also-old concept
  • Daniel Alves. Do history and literature researchers feel the need to incorporate spatial analysis in their work? A large number who do don’t use GIS. Most of them don’t believe in it (!). The rest are so tired that they prefer theorising (!!) His goal, ref last night keynote, is not to build models, tools, the next great algorithm; it’s to advance knowledge in his specific field.
  • Tweet: @DanielAlvesFCSH Is #SpatialDH revolutionary? Do history and literature researchers feel the need to incorporate spatial analysis in their work? A large number who do don’t use GIS. Most of them don’t believe in it(!). The rest are so tired that they prefer theorising(!!)
  • Tweet: @DanielAlvesFCSH close reading is still essential to take in the inner subjectivity of historical / literary sources with a partial and biases conception of space and place
  • Tien Danniau, Ghent Centre for Digital Humanities – deep maps. How is the concept working for them?
  • Tweet: Deep maps! A slide showing some of the findings from the 2012 NEH Advanced Institute on spatial narratives and deep mapping, which is where I met many awesome DH and spatial history people #DH2019pic.twitter.com/JiQepz7kH5
  • Katie McDonough, Spatial history between maps and texts: lessons from the 18thC. Refers to Richard White’s spatial history essay in her abstract. Rethinking geographic information extraction. Embedded entities, spatial relations, other stuff.
  • Tweet: @khetiwe24 references work discussed in https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13658816.2019.1620235?journalCode=tgis20 … noting how the process of annotating texts requires close reading that changes your understanding of place in the text (echoing @DanielAlvesFCSH ‘s earlier point)
  • Tweet: Final #spatialDH talk ‘towards spatial linguistics’ #DH2019 https://twitter.com/mia_out/status/1149666605258829824
  • Tweet #DH2019 Preserving deep maps? I’d talk to folk in web archiving for a sense of which issues re recording complex, multi-format, dynamic items are tricky and which are more solveable

Closing keynote: Digital Humanities — Complexities of Sustainability, Johanna Drucker

(By this point my laptop and mental batteries were drained so I just listened and tweeted. I was also taking part in a conversation about the environmental sustainability of travel for conferences, issues with access to visas and funding, etc, that might be alleviated by better incorporating talks from remote presenters, or even having everyone present online.)

Finally, the DH2020 conference is calling for reviewers. Reviewing is an excellent way to give something back to the DH community while learning about the latest work as it appears in proposals, and perhaps more importantly, learning how to write a good proposal yourself. Find out more: http://dh2020.adho.org/cfps/reviewers/

Notes from ‘AI, Society & the Media: How can we Flourish in the Age of AI’

Before we start: in the spirit of the mid-2000s, I thought I’d have a go at blogging about events again. I’ve realised I miss the way that blogging and reading other people’s posts from events made me feel part of a distributed community of fellow travellers. Journal articles don’t have the same effect (they’re too long and jargony for leisure readers, assuming they’re accessible outside universities at all), and tweets are great for connecting with people, but they’re very ephemeral. Here goes…

BBC Broadcasting House

On September 3 I was at BBC Broadcasting House for ‘AI, Society & the Media: How can we Flourish in the Age of AI?’ by BBC, LCFI and The Alan Turing Institute. Artificial intelligence is a hot topic so it was a sell-out event. My notes are very partial (in both senses of the word), and please do let me know if there are errors. The event hashtag will provide more coverage: https://twitter.com/hashtag/howcanweflourish.

The first session was ‘AI – What you need to know!’. Matthew Postgate began by providing context for the BBC’s interest in AI. ‘We need a plurality of business models for AI – not just ad-funded’ – yes! The need for different models for AI (and related subjects like machine learning) was a theme that recurred throughout the day (and at other events I was at this week).

Adrian Weller spoke on the limitations of AI. It’s data hungry, compute intensive, poor at representing uncertainty, easily fooled by adversarial examples (and more that I missed). We need sensible measures of trustworthiness including robustness, fairness, protection of privacy, transparency.

Been Kim shared Google’s AI principles: https://ai.google/principles She’s focused on interpretability – goals are to ensure that our values are aligned and our knowledge is reflected. She emphasised the need to understand your data (another theme across the day and other events this week). You can an inherently interpretable machine model (so it can explain its reasoning) or can build an interpreter, enabling conversations between humans and machines. You can then uncover bias using the interpreter, asking what weight it gave to different aspects in making decisions.

Jonnie Penn (who won me with an early shout out to the work of Jon Agar) asked, from where does AI draw its authority? AI is feeding a monopoly of Google-Amazon-Facebook who control majority of internet traffic and advertising spend. Power lies in choosing what to optimise for, and choosing what not to do (a tragically poor paraphrase of his example of advertising to children, but you get the idea). We need ‘bureaucratic biodiversity’ – need lots of models of diverse systems to avoid calcification.

Kate Coughlan – only 10% of people feel they can influence AI. They looked at media narratives re AI on axes of time (ease vs obsolescence), power (domination vs uprising), desire (gratification vs alienation), life (immortality vs inhumanity). Their survey found that each aspect was equally disempowering. Passivity drives negative outcomes re feelings about change, tech – but if people have agency, then it’s different. We need to empower citizens to have active role in shaping AI.

The next session was ‘Fake News, Real Problems: How AI both builds and destroys trust in news’. Ryan Fox spoke on ‘manufactured consensus’ – we’re hardwired to agree with our community so you can manipulate opinion by making it look like everyone else thinks a certain way. Manipulating consensus is currently legal, though against social network T&S. ‘Viral false narratives can jeopardise brand trust and integrity in an instant’. Manufactured outrage campaigns etc. They’re working on detecting inorganic behaviour through the noise – it’s rapid, repetitive, sticky, emotional (missed some).

One of the panel questions was, would AI replace journalists? No, it’s more like having lots of interns – you wouldn’t have them write articles. AI is good for tasks you can explain to a smart 16 year old in the office for a day. The problematic ad-based model came up again – who is the arbiter of truth (e.g. fake news on Facebook). Who’s paying for those services and what power does it give them?

This panel made me think about discussions about machine learning and AI at work. There are so many technical, contextual and ethical challenges for collecting institutions in AI, from capturing the output of an interactive voice experience with Alexa, to understanding and recording the difference between Russia Today as a broadcast news channel and as a manipulator of YouTube rankings.

Next was a panel on ‘AI as a Creative Enabler’. Cassian Harrison spoke about ‘Made By Machine’, an experiment with AI and archive programming. They used scene detection, subtitle analysis, visual ‘energy’, machine learning on the BBC’s Redux archive of programmes. Programmes were ranked by how BBC4 they were; split into sections then edited down to create mini BBC4 programmes.

Kanta Dihal and Stephen Cave asked why AI fascinates us in a thoughtful presentation. It’s between dead and alive, uncanny (and lots more but clearly my post-lunch notetaking isn’t the best).

Anna Ridler and Amy Cutler have created an AI-scripted nature documentary (trained on and re-purposing a range of tropes and footage from romance novels and nature documentaries) and gave a brilliant presentation about AI as a medium and as a process. Anna calls herself a dataset artist, rather than a machine learning artist. You need to get to know the dataset, look out for biases and mistakes, understand the humanness of decisions about what was included or excluded. Machines enact distorted versions of language.

Text from slide is transcribed above
Diane Coyle on ‘Lessons for the era of AI’

I don’t have notes from ‘Next Gen AI: How can the next generation flourish in the age of AI?’ but it was great to hear about hackathons where teenagers could try applying AI. The final session was ‘The Conditions for Flourishing: How to increase citizen agency and social value’. Hannah Fry – once something is dressed up as an algorithm it gains some authority that’s hard to question. Diane Coyle talked about ‘general purpose technologies’, which transform one industry then others. Printing, steam, electricity, internal combustion engine, digital computing, AI. Her ‘lessons for the era of AI’ were: all technology is social; all technologies are disruptive and have unpredictable consequences; all successful technologies enhance human freedoms’, and accordingly she suggested we ‘think in systems; plan for change; be optimistic’.

Konstantinos Karachalios called for a show of hands re who feels they have control over their data and what’s done with it? Very few hands were raised. ‘If we don’t act now we’ll lose our agency’.

I’m going to give the final word to Terah Lyons as the key takeaway from the day: ‘technology is not destiny’.

I didn’t hear a solution to the problems of ‘fake news’ that doesn’t require work from all of us. If we don’t want technology to be destiny, we all need pay attention to the applications of AI in our lives, and be prepared to demand better governance and accountability from private and government agents.

(A bonus ‘question I didn’t ask’ for those who’ve read this far: how do BBC aims for ethical AI relate to the introduction compulsory registration to access tv and radio? If I turn on the radio in my kitchen, my listening habits aren’t tracked; if I listen via the app they’re linked to my personal ID).

Crowdsourcing workshop at DH2016 – session overview

A quick signal boost for the collaborative notes taken at the DH2016 Expert Workshop: Beyond The Basics: What Next For Crowdsourcing? (held in Kraków, Poland, on 12 July as part of the Digital Humanities 2016 conference, abstract below). We’d emphasised the need to document the unconference-style sessions (see FAQ) so that future projects could benefit from the collective experiences of participants. Since it can be impossible to find Google Docs or past tweets, I’ve copied the session overview below. The text is a summary of key takeaways or topics discussed in each session, created in a plenary session at the end of the workshop.

Participant introductions and interests – live notes
Ethics, Labour, sensitive material

Key takeaway – questions for projects to ask at the start; don’t impose your own ethics on a project, discussing them is start of designing the project.

Where to start
Engaging volunteers, tips including online communities, being open to levels of contribution, being flexible, setting up standards, quality
Workflow, lifecycle, platforms
What people were up to, the problems with hacking systems together, iiif.io, flexibility and workflows
Public expertise, education, what’s unique to humanities crowdsourcing
The humanities are contestable! Responsibility to give the public back the results of the process in re-usable
Options, schemas and goals for text encoding
Encoding systems will depend on your goals; full-text transcription always has some form of encoding, data models – who decides what it is, and when? Then how are people guided to use it?Trying to avoid short-term solutions
UX, flow, motivation
Making tasks as small as possible; creating a sense of contribution; creating a space for volunteers to communicate; potential rewards, issues like badgefication and individual preferences. Supporting unexpected contributions; larger-scale tasks
Project scale – thinking ahead to ending projects technically, and in terms of community – where can life continue after your project ends
Finding and engaging volunteers
Using social media, reliance on personal networks, super-transcribers, problematic individuals who took more time than they gave to the project. Successful strategies are very-project dependent. Something about beer (production of Itinera Nova beer with label containing info on the project and link to website).
Ecosystems and automatic transcription
Makes sense for some projects, but not all – value in having people engage with the text. Ecosystem – depending on goals, which parts work better? Also as publication – editions, corpora – credit, copyright, intellectual property
Plenary session, possible next steps – put information into a wiki. Based around project lifecycle, critical points? Publication in an online journal? Updateable, short-ish case studies. Could be categorised by different attributes. Flexible, allows for pace of change. Illustrate principles, various challenges.

Short-term action: post introductions, project updates and new blog posts, research, etc to https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A0=CROWDSOURCING – a central place to send new conference papers, project blog posts, questions, meet-ups.

The workshop abstract:

Crowdsourcing – asking the public to help with inherently rewarding tasks that contribute to a shared, significant goal or research interest related to cultural heritage collections or knowledge – is reasonably well established in the humanities and cultural heritage sector. The success of projects such as Transcribe Bentham, Old Weather and the Smithsonian Transcription Center in processing content and engaging participants, and the subsequent development of crowdsourcing platforms that make launching a project easier, have increased interest in this area. While emerging best practices have been documented in a growing body of scholarship, including a recent report from the Crowd Consortium for Libraries and Archives symposium, this workshop looks to the next 5 – 10 years of crowdsourcing in the humanities, the sciences and in cultural heritage. The workshop will gather international experts and senior project staff to document the lessons to be learnt from projects to date and to discuss issues we expect to be important in the future.

Photo by Digital Humanities ‏@DH_Western
Photo by Digital Humanities ‏@DH_Western

The workshop is organised by Mia Ridge (British Library), Meghan Ferriter (Smithsonian Transcription Centre), Christy Henshaw (Wellcome Library) and Ben Brumfield (FromThePage).

If you’re new to crowdsourcing, here’s a reading list created for another event.

 

The state of museum technology?

On Friday I was invited to Nesta‘s Digital Culture Panel event to respond to their 2015 Digital Culture survey on ‘How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology’ (produced with Arts Council England (ACE) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)). As Chair of the Museums Computer Group (MCG) (a practitioner-led group of over 1500 museum technology professionals), I’ve been chatting to other groups about the gap between the digital skills available and those needed in the museum sector, so it’s a subject close to my heart. In previous years I’d noted that the results didn’t seem to represent what I knew of museums and digital from events and working in the sector, so I was curious to see the results.

Digital Culture 2015 imageSome of their key findings for museums (PDF) are below, interspersed with my comments. I read this section before the event, and found I didn’t really recognise the picture of museums it presented. ‘Museums’ mightn’t be the most useful grouping for a survey like this – the material that MTM London’s Ed Corn presented on the day broke the results down differently, and that made more sense. The c2,500 museums in the UK are too varied in their collections (from dinosaurs to net art), their audiences, and their local and organisational context (from tiny village museums open one afternoon a week, to historic houses, to university museums, to city museums with exhibitions that were built in the 70s, to white cube art galleries, to giants like the British Museum and Tate) to be squished together in one category. Museums tend to be quite siloed, so I’d love to know who fills out the survey, and whether they ask the whole organisation to give them data beforehand.

According to the survey, museums are significantly less likely to engage in:

  • email marketing (67 per cent vs. 83 per cent for the sector as a whole) – museums are missing out! Email marketing is relatively cheap, and it’s easy to write newsletters. It’s also easy to ask people to sign up when they’re visiting online sites or physical venues, and they can unsubscribe anytime they want to. Social media figures can look seductively huge, but Facebook is a frenemy for organisations as you never know how many people will actually see a post.
  • publish content to their own website (55 per cent vs. 72 per cent) – I wasn’t sure how to interpret this – does this mean museums don’t have their own websites? Or that they can’t update them? Or is ‘content’ a confusing term? At the event it was said that 10% of orgs have no email marketing, website or Facebook, so there are clearly some big gaps to fill still.
  • sell event tickets online (31 per cent vs. 45 per cent) – fair enough, how many museums sell tickets to anything that really need to be booked in advance?
  • post video or audio content (31 per cent vs. 43 per cent) – for most museums, this would require an investment to create as many don’t already have filmable material or archived films to hand. Concerns about ‘polish’ might also be holding some museums back – they could try periscoping tours or sharing low-fi videos created by front of house staff or educators. Like questions about offering ‘online interactive tours of real-world spaces’ and ‘artistic projects’, this might reflect initial assumptions based on ACE’s experience with the performing arts. A question about image sharing would make more sense for museums. Similarly, the kinds of storytelling that blog posts allow can sometimes work particularly well for history and science museums (who don’t have gorgeous images of art that tell their own story).
  • make use of social media video advertising (18 per cent vs. 32 per cent) – again, video is a more natural format for performing arts than for museums
  • use crowdfunding (8 per cent vs. 19 per cent) – crowdfunding requires a significant investment of time and is often limited to specific projects rather than core business expenses, so it might be seen as too risky, but is this why museums are less likely to try it?
  • livestream performances (2 per cent vs. 12 per cent) – again, this is less likely to apply to museums than performing arts organisations

One of the key messages in Ed Corn’s talk was that organisations are experimenting less, evaluating the impact of digital work less, and not using data in digital decision making. They’re also scaling back on non-core work; some are focusing on consolidation – fixing the basics like websites (and mobile-friendly sites). Barriers include lack of funding, lack of in-house time, lack of senior digital managers, slow/limited IT systems, and lack of digital supplier. (Many of those barriers were also listed in a small-scale survey on ‘issues facing museum technologists’ I ran in 2010.)

When you consider the impact of the cuts year on year since 2010, and that ‘one in five regional museums at least part closed in 2015‘, some of those continued barriers are less surprising. At one point everyone I know still in museums seemed to be doing at least one job on top of theirs, as people left and weren’t replaced. The cuts might have affected some departments more deeply than others – have many museums lost learning teams? I suspect we’ve also lost two generations of museum technologists – the retiring generation who first set up mainframe computers in basements, and the first generation of web-ish developers who moved on to other industries as conditions in the sector got more grim/good pay became more important. Fellow panelist Ros Lawler also made the point that museums have to deal with legacy systems while also trying to look at the future, and that museum projects tend to slow when they could be more agile.

Like many in the audience, I really wanted to know who the ‘digital leaders’ – the 10% of organisations who thought digital was important, did more digital activities and reaped the most benefits from their investment – were, and what made them so successful. What can other organisations learn from them?

It seems that we still need to find ways to share lessons learnt, and to help everyone in the arts and cultural sectors learn how to make the most of digital technologies and social media.  Training that meets the right need at the right time is really hard to organise and fund, and there are already lots of pockets of expertise within organisations – we need to get people talking to each other more! As I said at the event, most technology projects are really about people. Front of house staff, social media staff, collections staff – everyone can contribute something.

If you were there, have read the report or explored the data, I’d love to know what you think. And I’ll close with a blatant plug: the MCG has two open calls for papers a year, so please keep an eye out for those calls and suggest talks or volunteer to help out!

My ‘Welcome’ notes for UKMW15 ‘Bridging Gaps, Making Connections’

I’m at the British Museum today for the Museums Computer Group‘s annual UK ‘Museums on the Web’ conference. UKMW15 has a packed line-up full of interesting presentations. As Chair of the MCG, I briefly introduced the event. My notes are below, in part to make sure that everyone who should be thanked is thanked! You can read a more polished version of this written with my Programme Committe Co-Chair Danny Birchall in a Guardian Culture Professionals article, ‘How digital tech can bridge gaps between museums and audiences‘.

Museums Computer Group logoUK Museums on the Web 2015: ‘Bridging Gaps, Making Connections’ #UKMW15

I’d like to start by thanking everyone who helped make today happen, and by asking the MCG Committee Members who are here today to stand up, so that you can chat to them, ideally even thank them, during the day. For those who don’t know us, the Museums Computer Group is a practitioner-lead group who work to connect, support and inspire anyone working in museum technology. (There are lots of ways to get involved – we’re electing new committee members at our AGM at lunchtime, and we will also be asking for people to host next year’s event at their museum or help organise a regional event.)

I’d particularly like to thank Ina Pruegel and Jennifer Ross, who coordinated the event, the MCG Committee members who did lots of work on the event (Andrew, Dafydd, Danny, Ivan, Jess, Kath, Mia, Rebecca, Rosie), and the Programme Committee members who reviewed presentation proposals sent in. They were: co-chairs: Danny Birchall and Mia Ridge, with Chris Michaels (British Museum), Claire Bailey Ross (Durham University), Gill Greaves (Arts Council England), Jenny Kidd (Cardiff University), Jessica Suess (Oxford University Museums), John Stack (Science Museum Group), Kim Plowright (Mildly Diverting), Matthew Cock (Vocal Eyes), Rachel Coldicutt (Friday), Sara Wajid (National Maritime Museum), Sharna Jackson (Hopster), Suse Cairns (Baltimore Museum of Art), Zak Mensah (Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives).

And of course I’d like to thank the speakers and session chairs, the British Museum, Matt Caines at the Guardian, and in advance I’d like to thank all the tweets, bloggers and photographers who’ll help spread this event beyond the walls of this room.

Which brings me to the theme of the event, ‘Bridging Gaps, Making Connections’. We’ve been running UK Museums on the Web since 2001; last year our theme was ‘museums beyond the web’ in recognition that barriers between ‘web teams’ and ‘web projects’ and the rest of the organisation were breaking down. But it’s also apparent that the gap between tiny, small, and even medium-sized museums and the largest, best-funded museums meant that digital expertise and knowledge had not reached the entire sector. The government’s funding cuts and burnout mean that old museum hands have left, and some who replace them need time to translate their experience in other sectors into museums. Our critics and audiences are confused about what to expect, and museums are simultaneously criticised for investing too much in technologies that disrupt the traditional gallery and for being ‘dull and dusty’. Work is duplicated across museums, libraries, archives and other cultural organisations; academic and commercial projects sometimes seem to ignore the wealth of experience in the sector.

So today is about bridging those gaps, and about making new connections. (I’ve made my own steps in bridging gaps by joining the British Library as a Digital Curator.) We have a fabulous line-up representing the wealth and diversity of experience in museum technologies.

So take lots of notes to share with your colleagues. Use your time here to find people to collaborate with. Tweet widely. Ask MCG Committee members to introduce you to other people here. Let people with questions know they can post them on the MCG discussion list and connect with thousands of people working with museums and technology. Now, more than ever, an event like this isn’t about technology; it’s about connecting and inspiring people.

Collaboration, constraints and cloning and ‘the open museum’: notes from UKMW13

MCG’s UK Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’ was held at Tate Modern on November 15, 2013. These are very selected notes but you can find out more about the sessions and see most slides on the MCG’s site. UKMW13 began with a welcome from me (zzz) and from Tate’s John Stack (hoorah!) then an announcement from our sponsors, Axiell Adlib and CALM, that CALM, Mimsy and AdLib are merging to create ‘next generation’ collections system – the old school collections management geek in me is really curious to see what that means for museums, libraries and archives and their data.

Our first keynote, Hannah Freeman, presented on the Guardian’s work to reach and engage new audiences. This work is underpinned by editor Alan Rusbridger’s vision for ‘open journalism‘:

‘journalism which is fully knitted into the web of information that exists in the world today. It links to it; sifts and filters it; collaborates with it and generally uses the ability of anyone to publish and share material to give a better account of the world’. 

At a casual glance the most visible aspect may be comments on pages, but the Guardian is aiming for collaborations between the reader and the newsroom – if you haven’t seen Guardian Witness, go check it out. (I suspect the Witness WWI assignment will do better than many heritage crowdsourcing efforts.) I know some museums are aiming to be of the web, not just on the web, but this ambition is usually limited to making their content of the web, while a commitment to open journalism suggests that the very core practices of journalism are open to being shaped by the public.

The Guardian is actively looking for ways to involve the audience; Freeman prompts editors and authors to look at interesting comments, but ‘following as well as leading is a challenge for journalists’. She said that ‘publication can be the beginning, not the end of the process’ and that taking part in the conversation generated is now part of the deal when writing for the Guardian (possibly not all sections, and possibly staff journalists rather than freelancers?). From a reader’s point of view, this is brilliant, but it raises questions about how that extra time is accounted for. Translating this into the museum sector and assuming that extra resources aren’t going to appear, if you ask curators to blog or tweet, what other work do you want them to give up?

Hannah Freeman, Guardian Community coordinator for culture at UKMW13. Photo: Andrew Lewis

Our closing keynote, the Science Gallery’s Michael John Gorman was equally impressive. Dublin’s Science Gallery has many constraints – a small space, no permanent collection, very little government funding, but he seems to be one of those people who sees interesting problems to solve where other people see barriers. The Science Gallery acts as funnel for ideas, from an open call for shows to some people working on their ideas as a ‘brains trust’ with the gallery and eventually a few ideas making it through the funnel and onto the gallery floor to incubate and get feedback from the public. Their projects have a sense of ‘real science’ about them – some have an afterlife in publications or further projects, some might go horribly wrong or just not work. I can’t wait until their gallery opens in London so I can check out some of their shows and see how they translate real scientific questions into interesting participatory experiences. Thinking back over the day, organisations like the Science Gallery might be the museum world’s version of open journalism: the Science Gallery’s ‘funnel’ is one way of putting the principles of the ‘open museum’ into practice (I’ve copied the Guardian’s 10 principles of open journalism below for reference).

Michael John Gorman, The Ablative Museum

Possible principles for ‘the open museum’?

While the theme of the day was the power of participation, I’ve found myself reflecting more on the organisational challenges this creates. Below are the Guardian’s 10 principles of open journalism. As many of the presentations at UKMW13 proved, museums are already doing some of these, but which others could be adapted to help museums deal with the challenges they face now and in the future?
  • It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response
  • It is not an inert, “us” or “them”, form of publishing
  • It encourages others to initiate debate, publish material or make suggestions. We can follow, as well as lead. We can involve others in the pre-publication processes
  • It helps form communities of joint interest around subjects, issues or individuals
  • It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web
  • It aggregates and/or curates the work of others
  • It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest
  • It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values
  • It recognizes that publishing can be the beginning of the journalistic process rather than the end
  • It is transparent and open to challenge – including correction, clarification and addition

The open museum isn’t necessarily tied to technology, though the affordances of digital platforms are clearly related, but perhaps its association with technology is one reason senior managers are reluctant to engage fully with digital methods?

A related question that arose from Hannah’s talk – are museums now in the media business, like it or not? And if our audiences expect museums to be media providers, how do we manage those expectations? (For an alternative model, read David Weinberger’s Library as Platform.)

Emerging themes from UKMW13

I’ve already posted my opening notes for Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’ but I want to go back to two questions I was poking around there: ‘how can technologists share our knowledge and experience with others?’, and ‘why isn’t the innovation we know happens in museum technology reflected in reports like last week’s ‘Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology‘? (Or, indeed, in the genre of patronising articles and blog posts hectoring museums for not using technology.) This seems more relevant than I thought it would be in 2013. Last year I was wondering how to define the membership of the Museums Computer Group when everyone in museums was a bit computer-y, but maybe broad digital literacy and comfort with technology-lead changes in museum practice is further off than I thought. (See also Rachel Coldicutt’s ‘I Say “Digital!”, You Say “Culture!”‘). How do we bridge the gap? Is it just a matter of helping every museum go through the conversations necessary to create a digital strategy and come out the other side? And whose job is it to help museum staff learn how to manage public engagement, ecommerce, procurement, hiring when the digital world changes so quickly?
Another big theme was a reminder of how much is possible when you have technical expertise on hand to translate all the brilliant ideas museums have into prototypes or full products. At one point I jokingly tweeted that the museum and heritage sector would make huge leaps if we could just clone Jim O’Donnell (or the BBC’s R&D staff). Perhaps part of the ‘museums are digitally innovative’/’museums suck at digital’ paradox is that technologists can see the potential of projects and assume that a new standard has been set, but it takes a lot more time and work to get them integrated into mainstream museum practice. Part of this may be because museums struggle to hire and keep really good developers, and don’t give their developers the time or headspace to play and innovate. (Probably one reason I like hackdays – it’s rare to get time to try new things when there is more worthy work than there is developer/technologist time – being inspired at conferences only goes so far when you can’t find a bit of server space and a free day to try something out.) This has also been a theme at the first day at MCN2013, from what I’ve seen on twitter/webcasts from afar, so it’s not only about the budget cuts in the UK. The Digital Culture report suggests that it may also be because senior management in museums don’t know how to value ‘digital experimentation’?

Other, more positive, themes emerged to link various presentations during the day. Community engagement can be hugely rewarding, but it takes resources – mostly staff time – to provide a conduit between the public and the organisation. It also takes a new mindset for content creators, whether journalists, educators or curators to follow the crowds’ lead, but it can be rewarding, whether it’s getting help identifying images from ‘armchair archaeologists’, working with online music communities to save their memories before they’re lost to living memory or representing residents experiences of their city. Both presenters and the audience were quick to raise questions about the ethics of participatory projects and the wider implications of content/item collecting projects and citizen history.

Constraints, scaffolding, the right-sized question or perfectly themed niche collection – whatever you call it, giving people boundaries when asking for contributions is effective. Meaningful participation is valued, and valuable.

Open content enables good things to happen. Digital platforms are great at connecting people, but in-person meetups and conversations are still special.

Finally, one way or another the audience will shape your projects to their own ends, and the audience proved it that day by taking to twitter to continue playing Curate-a-Fact between tea breaks.

We should have a proper archive of all the #UKMW13 tweets at some point, but in the meantime, here’s a quick storify for MCG’s Museums on the Web 2013: Power to the people. Oh, and thank you, thank you, thank you to all the wonderful people who helped the day come together.

‘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.

‘Behind-the-themes’ at the UK Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 ‘Strategica​lly Digital’

Full disclosure: I’m the Chair of the Museums Computer Group, and in this case I also chaired the Programme Committee, but I think we’ve put together a really strong programme.  I thought I’d provide some background here about where the themes came from.  (Also, I’ll take any excuse for a punning title.)

When putting together the themes, I reviewed reports from a number of international conferences and went through the archives of the MCG’s mailing list to get a sense of the issues that were both bugging our members on a daily basis and having an impact on museums more generally.  I’ve also spent time talking to staff in museums in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, the US and (of course) the UK and those conversations also informed the themes.  I also referred back to the MCG Committee‘s discussions about our vision for ‘[email protected]’, which included supporting our members by advocating for their work at higher levels of the museum sector. Hopefully this event is part of this process, as is a session on ‘digital strategy’ at the Museums Association conference.

For me, being ‘strategically digital’ means the 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).

Like our ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ Spring meeting that aimed to get museum technologists and educators talking and learning from each other, UKMW12 is about breaking out of our comfortable technology-focused bubble and making sure the goals and language of web and digital teams relate to the rest of the organisation; it’s also about helping the rest of the museum understand your work.  We’ve seen a range of people sign up for tickets so far, so hopefully the day will provide a chance for staff to understand more about the workings of their own museum as well as the museums presenting on the day.  The conference is grounded in reality: our speakers address both successes and failures in digital strategies and organisational change.  You can get a sneak preview of the range of discussion on the day at Andrew Dobson’s post on ‘10 things I have learned working for Sky‘, Tate’s Online Strategy or Caper on Happenstance, Simon Tanner’s ‘Balanced Value Impact Model‘ and of course through the talk abstracts in the programme.   Some of our best Museums on the Web conferences have featured a similar mix of fresh voices from outside the sector and hard-won wisdom from within the sector, so I have high hopes for this event.

After some thought, a call for papers and the input of the wonderful 2012 Programme Committee (Ross Parry, Melissa Terras, Carolyn Royston and Stuart Dunn), this is the result:

Logo that says: 'museums computer group: connect me, support me, inspire me'

The Museums Computer Group’s annual Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 – will be held at the Wellcome Collection in London on 30 November 2012.

UKMW12 is about being ‘strategically digital’. Responding to the issues faced by museums today, it’s an opportunity to take a step back from the everyday and think strategically about the impact of the digital revolution on your museum and on the sector as a whole, including themes such as: digitally enabling the modern museum and its staff; sustaining the digital agenda and the realities of digital strategies and organisational change; and the complexities of digital engagement and the impact of social media on audience expectations. 

UKMW12 brings together speakers from organisations including the Tate, the V&A, UCL, King’s College, the Guardian, Strategic Content Alliance, Collections Trust and Caper. 

As always, UK Museums on the Web is a day for being inspired by the latest ideas, for learning from case studies grounded in organisations like yours, and for networking with other technologists, curators, managers, academics, learning and marketing specialists in the museum and heritage sector. 

Don’t miss out! Book your ticket now at http://ukmw12.eventbrite.co.uk
Find out more about the conference at http://bit.ly/ukmw12.

If you’ve never been (or haven’t been for a while) to an MCG event, these posts link to several event reports from attendees and should give you an idea of who goes and what’s discussed: Your blog posts and tweets about ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ (Spring 2012); UKMW11 Blog Posts (theme: The innovative museum: creating a brighter future); UK Museums on the Web 2010.

On a personal note, this event will mark 30 years since the first ever Museums Computer Group event, and eight years since the first UK Museums on the Web conference – a milestone worth celebrating!  If you’d like to be an active part of the MCG’s future, we’ll be electing new committee members in the lunchtime AGM on November 30.  Get in touch if you’re curious about how you could contribute…

‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ conference

A quick report and Storify summary from Wednesday’s joint Museums Computer Group (MCG) and Digital Learning Network (DLNet) conference, ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums‘, which was held on 11 July 2012 at the University of Manchester.  I’m the Chair of the MCG and was on the Programming Committee for this event so I make absolutely no claim to impartiality, but I thought it went really well – great speakers and workshop leaders, enthusiastic and friendly participants and a variety of formats that kept energy levels up during the day.

My notes are sketchier than usual as I was co-chairing some of the sessions and keeping an eye on the running of the event, so this is more of an impressionistic overview than a detailed report.  There are already a number of other posts out there, and we’ll have the post from our official event blogger and illustrator up soon for more comprehensive accounts.

For the MCG, this event was experimental in a number of ways – in running an event with another practitioner organisation, in the venue, in running parallel workshops, buying in commercial wifi, and in devoting part of the day to an unconference – and I’m curious to know what response we get in the evaluation from the day.  (If you were there, our short feedback form is online.)

The event was designed to bring museum learning and technology staff together because we felt we were missing opportunities to benefit from each others skills and experience. I know technologists are grappling with measuring impact, and learning people with reaching new audiences in different ways – hopefully each group would have something to offer and something to learn, though it might mean seeing past each others jargon and understanding different views of the world. (This ‘Interloper Report‘ and comments from MW2012 provide some insight into the potential.) We planned the day as a mixture of inspiring talks and opportunities to get stuck into conversation about topical issues. It was also a day for making connections so we’d included coffee breaks, lunch and the unconference so that people could find others interested in similar things or to put faces to names from the MCG and DLNet lists and social media.
The various tweets I’ve added to storify do a reasonable job of covering the day, but I’ve left out things like the QR code discussion. Other conversations about generic learning outcomes have taken on a life of their own – for example, Rhiannon’s post ‘Generic Learning Outcomes – friend or foe?‘ seeks to understand why non-learning people don’t seem to like them.

I thought Nick Winterbotham‘s presentation of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) ‘self-evident truths’ was interesting, and some of his points were picked up and retweeted widely:

  • Our heritage is not about things it is about people
  • Everyone has a right to know about and be at ease with heritage
  • Heritage embraces the past and present of all cultures
  • Heritage is essential as the cradle of everyone’s tomorrow
  • Heritage encompasses all literature, science, technology, environments and arts
  • The multiple narratives of heritage deserve respect
  • Learning is an entitled journey, not a destination
  • Heritage learning is an entitlement for everyone
  • The development of heritage learning skills must be a perpetual excellence
  • Learning is not simply a justification for cultural spending, it is THE justification for cultural spending

Nick advocated for a world where no-one hesitates at taking a risk in learning, and said that we love art, digital culture because of how we feel about it, not what we know about it. He urged us to focus on how your audiences live, learn and love your subject matter; to acknowledge the intellectual generosity needed; and find the big idea that will transform your organisation.

Matthew Cock talked about the challenges of audiences, particularly around mobile. The three-pronged model for audiences in museums: attract -> engage -> impact.  He asked, when you see someone in a museum with a phone, what space are they in? Are they engaged, distracted, focused? Is it a sign of disrespect and disengagement or a sign of bonding with the group they’re with? And how do you know?

He talked about the work Morris Hargreaves McIntyre had done to understand their audiences and their varying motivations for visiting: social – museums as enjoyable place to spend time with friends and family; intellectual – interested in knowledge; emotional – experience what the past was like; spiritual – creative stimulation, quiet contemplation, etc.  (See also MHM’s Culture Segments report). How does this connect to using mobiles to engage people? People have different activities – chat, read, recording audio or photo, playing media back, share something via social media etc. Each fulfills a different need. The challenge is to match specific things you can do on a mobile with your motivations for visiting. He referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to think about the needs a museum satisfies in our lives and the experience economy.

People are seeking venues and events that engage them in a memorable (and authentic?) ways – we’re shifting from buying lots of stuff to seeking unique and engaging experiences. The visitor wants to walk away with the engagement having effected a transformation (the impact point of the three-pronged model). Measuring that impact is really hard. Evaluation can look at lots of things but it’s hard to understand the needs of our visitors and what works for them in this space.

Later I asked what Learning people like Nick could tell us technologists about measuring impact, but it seems like it’s the holy grail for their field too. Nick did mention that we go from a stage of cognitive to affective impact over time after an experience, which is a good start for thinking about this.  Judging from the response on twitter, I’m not the only one who thinks that measuring the impact of a museum experience and understanding whether it’s ephemeral or lifelong is one of the big tasks for museums right now.

John Coburn‘s presentation on the Hidden Newcastle app harked back to the buzz around storytelling
a few years ago, but it also resonated with conversations about the different types and purposes of museum websites – an app that’s not about sharing collections or objects but about sharing compelling stories fits firmly in the ‘messy middle‘.  In this case, ‘it’s the story that creates the impact, not the object. The value of the object is as the source for the story’. I love that they wanted to create intrigue about the people and the times in which they lived and compel exploration.

It was a difficult choice but I popped into the ‘tech on a budget’ workshop where Shona Carnall and Greg Povey presented some interesting ways to use existing, readily available technologies to create interactive experiences.

I’ll leave the detail of the other presentations to the storify below and other people’s posts and skip to the unconference.  Because time was short we asked for session ideas and votes from the podium, rather than letting people write ideas and put their votes up on a shared board.  After the unconference we all gathered again to hear what had been discussed in each group. The summaries were:
  • Commercial side of commissioning cool things: reluctant to put a price on it, but UK has cultural expectations around free museums which makes it harder to charge. Digital is received as god given right, something that should be free. But how come the West End theatre is able to charge so much for a ticket? Museums providing paid-for entertainment not just a browsing experience. We pay for entertainment but we don’t expect to be entertained in museums. 
  • Learning outcomes: friends or foe? Attitude is sometimes that learning outcomes are rubbish – decided generic learning outcomes (GLOs) are a really good thing. It’s not about shoe-horning facts into everything or pure knowledge transfer – it’s also about inspiration, experience, skills, wonderment. The wondrous Romans! Trying to change the stigma about what learning actually is, it’s an experience as much as formal education. Maybe ‘aims and objectives’ a better term than ‘learning outcomes’.
  • How do you evaluate wonderment – with difficulty. What is it? Element of surprise, something being visceral, physiological responses. Are adults too cynical for wonderment? ‘Smiling Victorians’ – challenge expectations. Imagine writing a budget to get iris recognition to measure wonder! Hard to measure or evaluate it but should always aspire to it.
  • Coherent experience, call to action in gallery to online with mobile in gallery: talked about pressure museums are under to introduce next tech, be whizzy, or is it addressing a real need? Can you piggyback on software that’s already out there?
  • Reaching different audiences: particularly teenagers: find out what inspires them, tap into that. What are the barriers to engaging them? They’re creative, maybe we should work with them to create digital offers, empower them. Apps for apps sake – under pressure to deliver them.
  • Big ideas: intellectual generosity. (Goodness! There was a long list of the characteristics MCG and DLNet would have if they were an animal or a tool…)  We are intricate explosions. Intricate – all the stuff we’re talking about is detailed and a little fragile but explosive because the world will catch fire with what we’re doing.
  • Failure confessionals: web content management systems – maybe simple is the way to go. Failure is a good thing, and at least we didn’t screw up like the bankers.
  • Social media audiences: does it make sense just to have one FB, twitter, etc account per org? Keeping a brand together is good but it doesn’t always make sense to lump all audience conversations into one channel.

And with the final thanks to the student volunteers, programme committee, unconference organisers and speakers (and particularly to Ade as local contact and Rhiannon as the tireless organiser that made it all happen), it was over.

We’re already looking ahead to the MCG’s Spring 2013 meeting, which may be an experimental ‘distributed’ meeting held in the same week or evening in different regional locations.  If you’re interested in hosting a small-scale event with us somewhere in the UK, get in touch!  We’re also thinking about themes for UK Museums on the Web 2012, so again, let us know if you have any ideas.