Slides and talk from ‘Cosmic Collections’ paper

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

Cosmic Collections: creating a big bang?

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Slide 1 (solar rays – Cosmic Collections):

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

Image credits include:

Mash the state

‘Cosmic Collections’ – my MW2010 paper online

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

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

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

Cosmic Collections – the results are in. And can you help us ask the right questions?

For various reasons, the announcement of the winners of our mashup competition has been a bit low key – but we’re working on a site that combines the best bits of the winners, and we’ll make a bit more of a song and dance about it when that’s ready.

I’d like to take the opportunity to personally thank the winners – Simon Willison and Natalie Down in first place, and Ryan Ludwig as runner-up – and equally importantly, those who took part but didn’t win; those who had a play and gave us some feedback; those who helped spread the word, and those who cheered along the way.

I have a cheeky final request for your time.  I would normally do a few interviews to get an idea of useful questions for a survey, but it’s not been possible lately. I particularly want to get a sense of the right questions to ask in an evaluation because it’s been such a tricky project to explain and ‘market’, and I’m far too close to it to have any perspective.  So if you’d like to help us understand what questions to ask in evaluation, please take our short survey – or leave a comment here or on the Cosmic Collections wiki.  I’m writing a paper on it at the moment, so hopefully other museums (and also the Science Museum itself) will get to learn from our experiences.

And again – my thanks to those who’ve already taken the survey – it’s been immensely useful, and I really appreciate your honesty and time.

Nine days to go! And entering Cosmic Collections just got easier

Quoting myself over on the museum developers blog, Cosmic Collections – do one thing and do it well:

I’ve realised that there may be some mismatch between the way mashups tend to work, and the scope we’ve suggested for entries to our competition. The types of interfaces someone might produce with the API may lend themselves more to exploring one particular idea in depth than produce something suitable for the broadest range of our audiences.

So I’m proposing to change the scope for entries to the competition, to make it more realistic and a better experience for entrants: I’d like to ask you to build a section of a site, rather than a whole site. The scope for entrants would then be: “create something that does one thing, and does it well”. Our criteria – use of collections data, creativity, accessibility, user experience and ease of deployment and maintenance – are still important but we’ll consider them alongside the type of mashup you submit.

I’ve updated the Cosmic Collections competition page to reflect this change. This page also features a new ‘how to take part’ section, including a direct link to the API and to a discussion group.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this change – there’s an email address lurking on the competition page, and I’m on twitter @mia_out and @coscultcom.

In other news, programmableweb published a blog post about the competition today: Science Museum Opens API and Challenges Developers to Mashup the Cosmos. Woo!

And I don’t know if it’s any kind of consolation if you’re entering, but I’ll be working right alongside you up until Friday 28th, on an assignment for my MSc.

‘Cosmic Collections’ launches at the Science Museum this weekend

I think I’ve already said pretty much everything I can about the museum website mashup competition we’re launching around the ‘Cosmos and Culture’ exhibition, but it’d be a bit silly of me not to mention it here since the existence and design of the project reflects a lot of the issues I’ve written about here.

If you make it along to the launch at the Science Museum on Saturday, make sure you say hello – I should be easy to find cos I’m giving a quick talk at some point.
Right now the laziest thing I could do is to give you a list of places where you can find out more:
Finally, you can talk to us @coscultcom on twitter, or tag content with #coscultcom.
Btw – if you want an idea of how slowly museums move, I think I first came up with the idea in January (certainly before dev8D because it was one of the reasons I wanted to go) and first blogged about it (I think) on the museum developers blog in March. The timing was affected by other issues, but still – it’s a different pace of life!

Final thoughts on open hack day (and an imaginary curatr)

I think hack days are great – sure, 24 hours in one space is an artificial constraint, but the sheer brilliance of the ideas and the ingenuity of the implementations is inspiring. They’re a reminder that good projects don’t need to take years and involve twenty circles of sign-off, even if that’s the reality you face when you get back to the office.

I went because it tied in really well with some work projects (like the museum metadata mashup competition we’re running later in the year or the attempt to get a critical mass of vaguely compatible museum data available for re-use) and stuff I’m interested in personally (like modern bluestocking, my project for this summer – let me know if you want to help, or just add inspiring women to freebase).

I’m also interested in creating something like a Dopplr for museums – you tell it what you’re interested in, and when you go on a trip it makes you a map and list of stuff you could see while you’re in that city.

Like: I like Picasso, Islamic miniatures, city museums, free wine at contemporary art gallery openings, [etc]; am inspired by early feminist history; love hearing about lived moments in local history of the area I’ll be staying in; I’m going to Barcelona.

The ‘list of cultural heritage stuff I like’ could be drawn from stuff you’ve bookmarked, exhibitions you’ve attended (or reviewed) or stuff favourited in a meta-museum site.

(I don’t know what you’d call this – it’s like a personal butlr or concierge who knows both your interests and your destinations – curatr?)

The talks on RDFa (and the earlier talk on YQL at the National Maritime Museum) have inspired me to pick a ‘good enough’ protocol, implement it, and see if I can bring in links to similar objects in other museum collections. I need to think about the best way to document any mapping I do between taxonomies, ontologies, vocabularies (all the museumy ‘ies’) and different API functions or schemas, but I figure the museum API wiki is a good place to draft that. It’s not going to happen instantly, but it’s a good goal for 2009.

These are the last of my notes from the weekend’s Open Hack London event, my notes from various talks are tagged openhacklondon.

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 – 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).

Notes from ‘The API as Curator’ and on why museums should hire programmers

These are my notes from the third paper ‘The API as Curator‘ by Aaron Straup Cope in the Theoretical Frameworks session chaired by Darren Peacock at Museums and the Web 2008. The slides for The API as Curator are online.

I’ve also included below some further notes on why, how, whether museums should hire programmers, as this was a big meme at the conference and Aaron’s paper made a compelling case for geeks in art, arty geeks and geeky artists.

You might have noticed it’s taken me a while to catch up on some of my notes from this conference, and the longer I leave it the harder it gets. As always, any mistakes are mine, any comments corrections are welcome, and the comments in [square brackets] below are mine.

The other session papers were Object-centred democracies: contradictions, challenges and opportunities by Fiona Cameron and Who has the responsibility for saying what we see? mashing up Museum and Visitor voices, on-site and online by Peter Samis; all the conference papers and notes I’ve blogged have been tagged with ‘MW2008‘.

Aaron Cope: The API as curator.

The paper started with some quotes as ‘mood music’ for the paper.

Institutions are opening up, giving back to the communitiy and watching what people build.

It’s about (computer stuff as) plumbing, about making plumbing not scary. If you’re talking about the web, sooner or later you’re going to need to talk about computer programming.

Programmers need to be more than just an accessory – they should be in-house and full-time and a priority. It boils down to money. You don’t all need to be computer scientists, but it should be part of it so that you can build things.

Experts and consumers – there’s a long tradition of collaboration in the art community, for example printmaking. Printers know about all the minutiae (the technical details) but/so the artists don’t have to.

Teach computer stuff/programming so that people in the arts world are not simply consumers.

Threadless (the t-shirt site) as an example. Anyone can submit a design, they’re voted on in forum, then the top designs are printed. It makes lots of money. It’s printmaking by any other name. Is it art?

“Synthetic performances” Joseph Beuys in Second Life…

It’s nice not to be beholden to nerds… [I guess a lot of people think that about their IT department. Poor us. We all come in peace!]

Pure programming and the “acid bath of the internet”.

Interestingness on Flickr – a programmer works on it, but it’s not a product – (it’s an expression of their ideas). Programming is not a disposable thing, it’s not as simple as a toaster. But is it art? [Yes! well, it can be sometimes, if a language spoken well and a concept executed elegantly can be art.]

API and Artspeak – Aaron’s example (a bit on slide 15 and some general mappy goodness).

Build on top of APIs. Open up new ways to explore collection. Let users map their path around your museum to see the objects they want to see.

Their experience at Flickr is that people will build those things (if you make it possible). [Yay! So let’s make it possible.]

There’s always space for collaboration.

APIs as the nubby bits on Lego. [Lego is the metaphor of the conference!]

Flickr Places – gazetteer browsing.

[Good image on slide 22]: interpretation vs intent, awesome (x) vs time (y). You need programmers on staff, you need to pay them [please], you don’t want them to be transient if you want to increase smoothness of graph between steps of awesomeness. Go for the smallest possible release cycles. Small steps towards awesome.

Questions for the Theoretical Frameworks session
Qu from the Science Museum Minnesota: how to hire programmers in museums – how to attract them? when salaries are crap.
Aaron – teach it in schools and go to computer science departments. People do stuff for more than just money.

Qu on archiving UGC and other stuff generated in these web 2.0 projects… Peter Samis – WordPress archives things. [So just use the tools that already exist]

Aaron – build it and they will come. Also, redefine programming.

There’s a good summary of this session by Nate at MW2008 – Theoretical Frameworks.

And here’s a tragically excited dump from my mind written at the time: “Yes to all that! Now how do we fund it, and convince funders that big top-down projects are less likely to work than incremental and iterative builds? Further, what if programmers and curators and educators had time to explore, collaborate, push each other in a creative space? If you look at the total spend on agencies and external contractors, it must be possible to make a case for funding in-house programmers – but silos of project-based funding make it difficult to consolidate those costs, at least in the UK.”

Continuing the discussion about the benefits of an in-house developer team, post-Museums and the Web, Bryan Kennedy wrote a guest post on Museum 2.0 about Museums and the Web in Montreal that touched on the issue:

More museums should be building these programming skills in internal teams that grow expertise from project to project. Far too many museums small and large rely on outside companies for almost all of their technical development on the web. By and large the most innovation at Museums and the Web came from teams of people who have built expertise into the core operations of their institution.

I fundamentally believe that at least in the museum world there isn’t much danger of the technology folks unseating the curators of the world from their positions of power. I’m more interested in building skilled teams within museums so that the intelligent content people aren’t beholden to external media companies but rather their internal programmers who feel like they are part of the team and understand the overall mission of the museum as well as how to pull UTF-8 data out of a MySQL database.

I left the following comment at the time, and I’m being lazy* and pasting here to save re-writing my thoughts:

Good round-up! The point about having permanent in-house developers is really important and I was glad to see it discussed so much at MW2008.

It’s particularly on my mind at the moment because yesterday I gave a presentation (on publishing from collections databases and the possibilities of repositories or feeds of data) to a group mostly comprised of collections managers, and I was asked afterwards if this public accessibility meant “the death of the curator”. I’ve gathered the impression that some curators think IT projects impose their grand visions of the new world, plunder their data, and leave the curators feeling slightly shell-shocked and unloved.

One way to engage with curatorial teams (and educators and marketers and whoever) and work around these fears and valuable critiques is to have permanent programmers on staff who demonstrably value and respect museum expertise and collections just as much as curators, and who are willing to respond to the concerns raised during digital projects.

There’s a really good discussion in the comments on Bryan’s post. I’m sure this is only a sample of the discussion, but it’s a bit difficult to track down across the blogosphere/twitterverse/whatever and I want to get this posted some time this century.

* But good programmers are lazy, right?