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 ‘MCG@30’, 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.

Museum pecha kucha night

The first museum pecha kucha night was held in London at the British Museum on June 18, 2009. I took rough notes during the presentations, and have included the slides and notes from my own presentation. The event used the tag ‘mwpkn’ to gather together tweets, photos, etc. The focus of this first museum pecha kucha was on sharing insights and inspiration from the Museums and the Web conference held in Indianapolis in April.

The event was organised by Shelley Mannion, who introduced the event, emphasising that it was about fun and connecting the museum tech community in an interesting way.

Gail Durbin (V&A), takeaways from MW2009
She’s a practical person, looks for ideas to nick. Good idea as things get hazy after a conference, good intentions disappear.

First takeaway – Dina Helal let her play with her iPhone, decided she had to have one. She liked her mobile for the first time in her life.

Second – twittering was very important. Decided to do something with it. Twittering is hard, sending out messages that are interesting is difficult.

Enthusiasm at conferences is short lived – e.g. people excited about wedding site, but did they send in wedding photos? She talked to people about a self-portraiture idea, ‘life on a postcard’, but hasn’t had a single response.

RSS feeds – came away knowing we had to review our RSS feeds, had been without attention for a long time.

Learnt that wikis are very hard work, they don’t automatically look after themselves.
Creative use of Flickr – museum ‘my karsh‘ collection

Resolved that had to work with Development. Looking at something like the British Library’s – adopt a book for fathers day.

Something that bothers her – many museums think of ‘Web 2.0’ just as more channels to push out information, there’s no sense of pulling in information about visitors.

Beck Tench, one of the most interesting people she met at the conference – practice and work go together very closely. Flickr plant project. She wants to get staff involved – has meeting on Fridays, in local bar, tweets to everyone, conducts something called Experimonth.

Last thing learnt – librarians have better cakes.

Silvia Filippini Fantoni (British Museum and Sorbonne University)
Silvia makes a plea for extra seconds as a non-native speaker (and synthesis not the best feature of Italians). Lecturer in museum informatics and evaluation methods at Sorbonne and project manager for multimedia guide project at British Museum.

So her focus at the conference was mostly on guides. Particularly Samis and Pau and others. Mini workshops and workshops on the topic before and during the conference. Demos from Paul Clifford (Museum of London). Exhibitors. Lots of museums are planning to develop applications.

Interest in using mobile technology as an interpretive tool is constantly growing, especially delivered on visitors own devices. Proliferations of mobile platforms. Proliferation of different functionalities – not just audio – visual, games, way finding, web access and communication, notes and comments. Have all these new platforms and functionalities improved the visitor experience? Yes, but there are some disadvantages.

Asks: aren’t we trying to do too much? Are we trying to turn a useful interpretive tool into something too complex? Aren’t we forgetting about core audio guide audience?

Are people interested in using their own devices? Do they have the time to pre-download, do they bring their devices? Samis and Pau – the answer is no/not yet. For the medium and short term still need to provide media in the museums. Touch screen devices are easier to use. Limited functionality makes interface simpler. Focus on content – AV messages, touch and listen.
Importance of sharing and learning from best practice. Some efforts at and after MW2009 – handheldconference.org. Discussion of developing open source content management system for mobile devices – contact Nancy Proctor.

Daniel Incandela (Indianapolis Museum of Art)
He’s from America so should have extra time too. Also sick and medicated (so at least one of us will have a good time during the presentation).

Enjoys robots, dinosaurs, football and a good point. On holiday while here.

Slide – Shelley’s twitter profile – she’s responsible for him being here while on holiday.

He blogged about preparing for the presentation and got a comment from one of the pecha kucha founders – the main thing is to have fun, be passionate about something you love.

Twitterfall on the big screen was a major breakthrough at MW2009, (#mw2009 trended as a topic and attracted the attention of) pantygirl.

Digital story telling and tech can’t happen without support, Max Anderson has been dream leader.

He’s here representing IMA so going to showcase some projects – Roman Art from Louvre webisodes – paved the way for informal, agile, multiple content source creation.

Art Babble. IMA blog – ripped off other museums – gives many departments from museum a digital voice.

Half time experiment with awkward silence (blank slide). [In the pub afterwards, I discovered that this actually made at least one of the English people feel socially awkward!]

Brooklyn Museum – for him the real innovators for digital content for museums, won many awards at MW2009.

Te Papa’s ‘build a squid’ had him at ‘hello’. First example of a museum project that actually went viral?

Perhaps we could upgrade MW site? Better integration of social media, multimedia from previous conferences.

Loves Bruce Wyman – reason to go to MW2010.

art:21 – smart team, good approaches to publishing across platforms.

Wonders about agility – love new and emerging projects (?) we hear about at conferences, but how do we face an idea and deal with own internal issues?

The Dutch at Indy (were great) – but somewhere outside north America next for Museums and the Web?

Philip Poole (British Museum)
Everything I got from MW2009 can be put into one statement – spread it about. Enable your content to be spread by other people through APIs.

Does spreading out content dilute our authority? By putting it onto other websites, putting it in contact with other people. No, of course not.

Video was big at MW2009.

If going to use different platforms, will people come? We need to tailor content to different websites – can’t just build it and assume people will come. Persian coins vs. ritual Mayan sacrifice on YouTube – which will get bigger audience? [Pick content delivery to suit audience and context.]

Platforms include ArtBabble, YouTube (shorter, edgier), iTunes U. Viral content – we can put features on our website, but a YouTube or Vimeo audience are going to spread things better. iTunes, U, can download and listen on train – takes out of website entirely.

Stats are important – e.g. need to include stats of video on different platforms, make sure people above you recognise the value in that. DCMS – very basic stats – perhaps they should be asking for different stats. “If DCMS ask how much video we put on YouTube, we’d all start doing it.” [Brilliant point]

API – take content from website and put elsewhere. IMA Explore section – advertise the repeating pattern in their URLs – someone used them but wasn’t going very well, they got in contact with him and helped him succeed, now biggest referrer outside search engines. He wants to do that for the British Museum – he knows the quirks, the data.

Why the ‘softly softly’ approach? Creating an entire API interface is huge mountain, people above you will want to avoid it if you show them the size of the whole mountain.

Digital NZ – fantastic example. Can create custom search, embed on website, also into gallery and people can vote for it

The British Museum is a museum of the world for the world, why should their web presence be any different?

Mia Ridge (Science Museum)
Yes, that’s me. My slides on ‘Bubbles and Easter eggs – Museum Pecha Kucha’ are on slideshare – scroll down the page for full text and notes – or available as a PDF (2mb).

I talked about:

  • keeping the post-conference momentum going, particularly the ‘do one thing’ idea;
  • museum technologists as ‘double domain experts’;
  • not hiding museum geeks like Easter eggs but making more of them as a resource;
  • the responsibilities of museum geeks as their expertise is recognised;
  • breaking down internal silos; intelligent failure;
  • broken metrics and better project design (pitch the goal, not the method);
  • audience expectations in 2009;
  • possible first questions for digital projects and taking a whole museum view for new projects;
  • who’s talking/listening to your audiences? trust and respect your audiences;
  • your museum is an iceberg (lots of the good stuff is hidden);
  • (s)mash the system (hold a mashup day);
  • and a challenge for your museum – has the web fundamentally changed your organisation?

Frankie Roberto (Rattle)
Went to the conference with a ‘fan’ hat on, just really enjoys museums. Loved the zoo – live exhibits are interactive, visceral. Role of live interpretation – how could it work with digital technology? Everyone loves dinosaur – Indy Children’s Museum. All museums should have a carousel (can’t remember what he was going to say about it).

The Power of Children; making a difference – really powerful stories.

Still thinking about the idea of creating visceral experiences.

ArtBabble – shouldn’t generally create silos but ArtBabble spotted that YouTube wasn’t working for certain types of content.

Davis LAB – kiosks and sofa. Said ‘we are on the web’.

Drupal – lots of museums switching to it.

Richard Morgan (V&A) on APIS – ask, what is your museum good at?, and build an API for that – it may not be collections stuff.

‘Things to do’ page on V&A. Good way of highlighting ways to interact on website.

Semantic data, Aaron’s talk on interpretation of bias, relocation from Flickr photos.
Breaking down ideas about authority on where an area is bounded by. OpenStreetMap – wants to add a historical layer to that so can scroll backwards and forwards in time. [I should ask whether this means layering old maps (with older street layouts like pre-Great Fire of London, or earlier representations?). Geo-rectification is expensive because it’s time-consuming, but could it be crowdsourced? Geo-locating old images would be easier for the average person to do.]

Open Plaques – alpha project.

Thinks we won’t need to digitise in the future as stuff will be born digital (ha, as if! Though it depends where you draw the lines about the end of collections – in my imagination they’re like that warehouse scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc and we won’t run out of things to properly digitise any time soon. Still, it’s a useful question.)

Dan Zambonini (Box UK)
‘Every film needs a villain’. In his impressions and insights from MW2009 he’ll say things we may or may not agree with.

Slide – stuff we can do vs. stuff we can’t do on either side of a gulf of perceived complexity. It’s hard to progress from one to the other. Three questions to bridge gap – how to make relevant to everyday job, how to show advantages, how to make it easy.

Then he realised should talk about personal things – people and connections made. About people, stuff that happens in the evening. The evening drinks don’t happen at UKMW – it’s a shame we have to go to the other side of the world to talk to each other. [It does it you’re at an event like mashed museum the day before – another reason to open it up to educators, curators, etc.]

Small museums vs. big museums – [should make stuff accessible to small museums.] Can get value by helping people. (He tells his ex-girlfriend that ) small is the new big. Also small quick wins. Break down the big things into smaller things, find ways can get to them through small changes in behaviour, bits of information.

How small is small? Greater or less than one day. If less than a day, might as well try it. If it’s going to take a week, not small.

Museums should share data – not just as API – share data on traffic, spill gossip on marketing costs, etc. [Information is power, etc]

Celebrate failure – admit that some things go wrong.

Bigger picture – be honest. Tell us when to shut up (on e.g. the Museum Tech Pecha Kucha‘ event on slideshare (and mine has now got an audio track, thanks to Shelley).

Tom Morris, SPARQL and semweb stuff – tech talk at Open Hack London

Tom Morris gave a lightning talk on ‘How to use Semantic Web data in your hack‘ (aka SPARQL and semantic web stuff).

He’s since posted his links and queries – excellent links to endpoints you can test queries in.

Semantic web often thought of as long-promised magical elixir, he’s here to say it can be used now by showing examples of queries that can be run against semantic web services. He’ll demonstrate two different online datasets and one database that can be installed on your own machine.

First – dbpedia – scraped lots of wikipedia, put it into a database. dbpedia isn’t like your averge database, you can’t draw a UML diagram of wikipedia. It’s done in RDF and Linked Data. Can be queried in a language that looks like SQL but isn’t. SPARQL – is a w3c standard, they’re currently working on SPARQL 2.

Go to dbpedia.org/sparql – submit query as post. [Really nice – I have a thing about APIs and platforms needing a really easy way to get you to ‘hello world’ and this does it pretty well.]

[Line by line comments on the syntax of the queries might be useful, though they’re pretty readable as it is.]

‘select thingy, wotsit where [the slightly more complicated stuff]’

Can get back results in xml, also HTML, ‘spreadsheet’, JSON. Ugly but readable. Typed.

[Trying a query challenge set by others could be fun way to get started learning it.]

One problem – fictional places are in Wikipedia e.g. Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto.

Libris – how library websites should be
[I never used to appreciate how much most library websites suck until I started back at uni and had to use one for more than one query every few years]

Has a query interface through SPARQL

Comment from the audience BBC – now have SPARQL endpoint [as of the day before? Go BBC guy!].

Playing with mulgara, open source java triple store. [mulgara looks like a kinda faceted search/browse thing] Has own query language called TQL which can do more intresting things than SPARQL. Why use it? Schemaless data storage. Is to SQL what dynamic typing is to static typing. [did he mean ‘is to sparql’?]

Question from audence: how do you discover what you can query against?
Answer: dbpedia website should list the concepts they have in there. Also some documentation of categories you can look at. [Examples and documentation are so damn important for the update of your API/web service.]

Coming soon [?] SPARUL – update language, SPARQL2: new features

The end!

[These are more (very) rough notes from the weekend’s Open Hack London event – please let me know of clarifications, questions, links or comments. My other notes from the event are tagged openhacklondon.

Quick plug: if you’re a developer interested in using cultural heritage (museums, libraries, archives, galleries, archaeology, history, science, whatever) data – a bunch of cultural heritage geeks would like to know what’s useful for you (more background here). You can comment on the #chAPI wiki, or tweet @miaridge (or @mia_out). Or if you work for a company that works with cultural heritage organisations, you can help us work better with you for better results for our users.]

There were other lightning talks on Pachube (pronounced ‘patchbay’, about trying to build the internet of things, making an API for gadgets because e.g. connecting hardware to the web is hard for small makers) and Homera (an open source 3d game engine).

The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee @ Nesta

The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee at Nesta, London, July 8.

My notes from the Nesta event, The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, held in London on July 8, 2008.

nesta panel
Panel at ‘The Future of the Web’ with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Nesta

As usual, let me know of any errors or corrections, comments are welcome, and comments in [square brackets] are mine. I wanted to get these notes up quickly so they’re pretty much ‘as is’, and they’re pretty much about the random points that interested me and aren’t necessarily representative. I’ve written up more detailed notes from a previous talk by Tim Berners-Lee in March 2007, which go into more detail about web science.

[Update: the webcast is online at http://www.nesta.org.uk/future-of-web/ so you might as well go watch that instead.]

The event was introduced by NESTA’s CEO, Jonathan Kestenbaum. Explained that online contributions from the pre-event survey, and from the (twitter) backchannel would be fed into the event. Other panel members were Andy Duncan from Channel 4 and the author Charlie Leadbeater though they weren’t introduced until later.

Tim Berners-Lee’s slides are at http://www.w3.org/2008/Talks/0708-ws-30min-tbl/.

So, onto the talk:
He started designing the web/mesh, and his boss ‘didn’t say no’.

He didn’t want to build a big mega system with big requirements for protocols or standards, hierarchies. The web had to work across boundaries [slide 6?]. URIs are good.

The World Wide Web Consortium as the point where you have to jump on the bob sled and start steering before it gets out of control.

Producing standards for current ideas isn’t enough; web science research is looking further out. Slide 12 – Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) – analysis and synthesis; promote research; new curriculum.

Web as blockage in sink – starts with a bone, stuff builds up around it, hair collect, slime – perfect for bugs, easy for them to get around – we are the bugs (that woke people up!). The web is a rich environment in which to exist.

Semantic web – what’s interesting isn’t the computers, or the documents on the computers, it’s the data in the documents on the computers. Go up layers of abstraction.

Slide on the Linked Open Data movement (dataset cloud) [Anra from Culture24 pointed out there’s no museum data in that cloud].

Paraphrase, about the web: ‘we built it, we have a duty to study it, to fix it; if it’s not going to lead to the kind of society we want, then tweak it, fix it’.

‘Someone out there will imagine things we can’t imagine; prepare for that innovation, let that innovation happen’. Prepare for a future we can’t imagine.

End of talk! Other panelists and questions followed.

Charles Leadbeater – talked about the English Civil War, recommends a book called ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. The bottom of society suddenly had the opportunity to be in charge. New ‘levellers‘ movement via the web. Participate, collaborate, (etc) without the trappings of hierarchy. ‘Is this just a moment’ before the corporate/government Restoration? Iterative, distributed, engaged with practice.

Need new kinds of language – dichotomies like producer/consumer are disabling. Is the web – a mix of academic, geek, rebel, hippie and peasant village cultures – a fundamentally different way of organising, will it last? Are open, collaborative working models that deliver the goals possible? Can we prevent creeping re-regulation that imposes old economics on the new web? e.g. ISPs and filesharing. Media literacy will become increasingly important. His question to TBL – what would you have done differently to prevent spam while keeping the openness of the web? [Though isn’t spam more of a problem for email at the moment?]

Andy Duncan, CEO of Channel 4 – web as ‘tool of humanity’, ability for humans to interact. Practical challenges to be solved. £50million 4IP fund. How do we get, grow ideas and bring them to the wider public, and realise the positive potential of ideas. Battle between positive public benefit vs economic or political aspects.

The internet brings more/different perspectives, but people are less open to new ideas – they get cosy, only talk to like-minded people in communities who agree with each other. How do you get people engaged in radical and positive thinking? [This is a really good observation/question. Does it have to do with the discoverability of other views around a topic? Have we lost the serendipity of stumbling across random content?]

Open to questions. ‘Terms and conditions’ – all comments must have a question mark at the end of them. [I wish all lectures had this rule!]

Questions from the floor: 1. why is the semantic web taking so long; 2. 3D web; 3. kids.
TBL on semantic web – lots of exponential growth. SW is more complicated to build than HTML system. Now has standard query language (SPARQL). Didn’t realise at first that needed a generic browser and linked open data. (Moving towards real world).

[This is where I started to think about the question I asked, below – cultural heritage institutions have loads of data that could be open and linked, but it’s not as if institutions will just let geeks like me release it without knowing where and why and how it will be used – and fair enough, but then we need good demonstrators. The idea that the semantic web needs lots of acronyms (OWL, GRDDL, RDF, SPARQL) in place to actually happen is a perception I encounter a lot, and I wanted an answer I could pass on. If it’s ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’, then even better…]

Questions from twitter (though the guy’s laptop crashed): 4. will Google own the world? What would Channel 4 do about it?; 5. is there a contradiction between [collaborative?] open platform and spam?; 6. re: education, in era of mass collaboration, what’s the role of expertise in a new world order? [Ooh, excellent question for museums! But more from the point of view of them wondering what happens to their authority, especially if their collections/knowledge start to appear outside their walls.]

AD: Google ‘ferociously ambitious in terms of profit’, fiercely competitive. They should give more back to the UK considering how much they take out. Qu to TBL re Google, TBL did not bite but said, ‘tremendous success; Google used science, clustering algorithms, looked at the web as a system’.
CL re qu 5 – the web works best through norms and social interactions, not rules. Have to be careful with assumption that can regulate behaviour -> ‘norm based behaviour’. [But how does that work with anti-social individuals?]
TBL re qu 6: e.g. MIT Courseware – experts put their teaching materials on the web. Different people have different levels of expertise [but how are those experts recognised in their expert context? Technology, norms/links, a mixture?]. More choice in how you connect – doesn’t have to be local. Being an expert [sounds exhausting!] – connect, learn, disseminate – huge task.

Questions from the floor: 7. ISPs as villains, what can they do about it?; 9. why can’t the web be designed to use existing social groups? [I think, I was still recovering from asking a question] TBL re qu 7 and ISPs ‘give me non-discriminatory access and don’t sell my clickstream’. [Hoorah!]

So the middle question  (Question 8) was me. It should have been something like ‘if there’s a tension between the top-down projects that don’t work, and simple protocols like HTML that do, and if the requirements of the ‘Semantic Web’ are top-down (and hard), how do we get away from the idea that the semantic web is difficult to just have the semantic web?’* but it came out much more messily than that as ‘the semantic web as proposed is a top-down system, but the reason the web worked was that it was simple, easy to participate, so how does that work, how do we get the semantic web?’ and his response started “Who told you SW is top down?”. It was a leading question so it’s my fault, but the answer was worth asking a possibly stupid/leading question. His full answer [about two minutes at 20’20” minutes in on the Q&A video] was: ‘Who on earth told you the semantic web was a top-down designed system? It’s not. It is totally bottom-out. In fact the really magic thing about it is that it’s middle-out as well. If you imagine lots of different data systems which talk different languages, it’s a bit like imagine them as a quilt of those things sewn together at the edges. At the bottom level, you can design one afternoon a little data system which uses terms and particular concepts which only you use, and connect to nobody else. And then, in a very bottom-up way, start meeting more and more people who’ll start to use those terms, and start negotiating with people, going to, heaven forbid, standards bodies and committees to push, to try to get other people to use those terms. You can take an existing set of terms, like the concepts when you download a bank statement, you’ll find things like the financial institution and transaction and amount have pretty much been defined by the banks, you can take those and use those as semantic web terms on the net. And if you want to, you can do that at the very top level because you might decide that it’s worth everybody having exactly the same URI for the concept of latitude, for the number you get out of the GPS, and you can join the W3C interest group which has gotten together people who believe in that, and you’ve got the URI, [people] went to a lot of trouble to make something which is global. The world works like that plug of stuff in the sink, it’s a way of putting together lots and lots of different communities at different levels, only some of them, a few of them are global. The global communities are hard work to make. Lots and lots and lots of them are local, those are very easy to make. Lots of important benefits are in the middle. The semantic web is the first technology that’s designed with an understanding of that’s how the world is, the world is a scale-free, fractal if you like, system. And that’s why it’s all going to work.’

[So I was asking ‘how do we get to the semantic web’ in the museum sector – we can do this. Put a dataset out there, make connections to the organisation next to you (or get your users to by gathering enough anonymised data on how they link items through searching and browsing). Then make another connection, and another. We could work at the sector (national or international) level too (stable permanent global identifiers would be a good start) but start with the connections. “Small pieces loosely joined” -> “small ontologies, loosely joined”. Can we make a manifesto from this?

There’s also a good answer in this article, Sir Tim Talks Up Linked Open Data Movement on internetnews.com.

“He urged attendees to look over their data, take inventory of it, and decide on which of the things you’d most likely get some use out of re-using it on the Web. Decide priorities, and benefits of that data reuse, and look for existing ontologies on the Web on how to use it, he continued, referring to the term that describes a common lexicon for describing and tagging data.”

Anyway, on with the show.]

[*Comment from 2015: in hindsight, my question speaks to the difficulties of getting involved in what appeared to be distant and top-down processes of ontology development, though it might not seem that distant to someone already working with W3C. And because museums are tricky, it turns out the first place to start is getting internal museum systems to talk to each other – if you can match people, places, objects and concepts across your archive, library and museum collections management systems, digital asset management system and web content management system, you’re in a much better position to match terms with other systems. That said, the Linking Museums meetups I organised in London and various other museum technology forums were really helpful.]

Questions from the floor: 10. do we have enough “bosses who don’t say no”?; 11. web to solve problems, social engineering [?]; 12. something on Rio meeting [didn’t get it all].

TBL re 10 – he can’t emulate other bosses but he tries to have very diverse teams, not clones of him/each other, committed, excited people and ‘give them spare time to do things they’re interested in’. So – give people spare time, and nurture the champions. They might be the people who seem a bit wacky [?] but nurture the ones who get it.

Qu 11 – conflicting demands and expectations of web. TBL – ‘try not to think of it as a thing’. It’s an infrastructure, connections between people, between us. So, are we asking too much of us, of humanity? Web is reflection of humanity, “don’t expect too little”.

TBL re qu 12 – internet governance is the Achilles heel of the web. No permission required except for domain name. A ‘good way to make things happen slowly is to get a bureaucracy to govern it’. Slowness, stability. Domain names should last for centuries – persistence is a really important part of the web.

CL re qu 11 – possibilities of self-governance, we ask too little of the web. Vision of open, collaborative web capable of being used by people to solve shared problems.

JK – (NESTA) don’t prescribe the outcome at the beginning, commitment to process of innovation.

Then Nesta hosted drinks, then we went to the pub and my lovely mate said “I can’t believe you trolled Tim Berners-Lee”. [I hope I didn’t really!]