Museums and the audience comments paradox

I was at the Imperial War Museum for an advisory board meeting for the Social Interpretation project recently, and had a chance to reflect on my experiences with previous audience participation projects.  As Claire Ross summarised it, the Social Interpretation project is asking: does applying social media models to collections successfully increase engagement and reach?  And what forms of moderation work in that environment – can the audience be trusted to behave appropriately?

One topic for discussion yesterday was whether the museum should do some ‘gardening’ on the comments.  Participation rates are relatively high but some of the comments are nonsense (‘asdf’), repetitive (thousands of variants of ‘Cool’ or ‘sad’) or off-topic (‘I like the museum’) – a pattern probably common to many museum ‘have your say’ kiosks.  Gardening could involve ‘pruning’ out comments that were not directly relevant to the question asked in the interactive, or finding ways to surface the interesting comments.  While there are models available in other sectors (e.g. newspapers), I’m excited by the possibility that the Social Interpretation project might have a chance to address this issue for museums.

A big design challenge for high-traffic ‘have your say’ interactives is providing a quality experience for the audience who is reading comments – they shouldn’t have to wade through screens of repeated, vacuous or rude comments to find the gems – while appropriately respecting the contribution and personal engagement of the person who left the comment.

In the spirit of ‘have your say’, what do you think the solution might be?  What have you tried (successfully or not) in your own projects, or seen working well elsewhere?

Update: the Social Interpretation have posted I iz in ur xhibition trolling ur comments:

“One of the most discussed issues was about what we have termed ‘gardening comments’ but to put it bluntly it’s more a case of should we be ‘curating the visitor voice’ in order to improve the visitor experience? It’s a difficult question to deal with… 

We are at the stage where we really do want to respect the commenter, but also want to give other readers a high value experience. It’s a question of how we do that, and will it significantly change the project?”

If you found this post, you might also be interested in Notes from ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’.

Update, March 2014: I’ve just been reading a journal article on ‘Normative Influences on Thoughtful Online Participation’. The authors set out to test this hypothesis:

‘Individuals exposed to highly thoughtful behavior from others will be more thoughtful in their own online comment contributions than individuals exposed to behavior exhibiting a low degree of thoughtfulness.’ 

Thoughtful comments were defined by the number of words, how many seconds it took to write them, and how much of the content was relevant to the issue discussed in the original post. And the results? ‘We found significant effects of social norm on all three measures related to participants’ commenting behavior. Relative to the low thoughtfulness condition, participants in the high thoughtfulness condition contributed longer comments, spent more time writing them, and presented more issue-relevant thoughts.’ To me, this suggests that it’s worth finding ways to highlight the more thoughtful comments (and keeping pulling out those ‘asdf’ weeds) in an interactive as this may encourage other thoughtful comments in turn.

Reference: Sukumaran, Abhay, Stephanie Vezich, Melanie McHugh, and Clifford Nass. “Normative Influences on Thoughtful Online Participation.” In Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 3401–10. Vancouver, BC, Canada: ACM, 2011.

How things change: the Google Art Project (again)

The updated Google Art Project has been launched with loads more museums contributing over 30,000 artworks.  The interface still seems a bit sketchy to me (sometimes you can open links in a new tab, sometimes you can’t; mystery meat navigation; the lovely zoom option isn’t immediately discoverable; the thumbnails that appear at the bottom don’t have a strong visual connection with the action that triggers their appearance; and the only way I could glean any artist/title information about the thumbnails was by looking at the URL), but it’s nice to see options for exploring by collection (collecting institution, I assume), date or artist emphasised in the interface. 

Anyway, it’s all about the content – easy access to high-quality zoomable images of some of the world’s best artworks in an interface with lots of relevant information and links back to the holding institution is a win for everyone.  And if the attention (and traffic) makes museums a little jealous, well, it’ll be fascinating to see how that translates into action.  After all, keeping up with the Joneses seems to be one way museums change…

Reading some online stories about the launch, I was struck by how far conversations about traditional and online galleries have come.  From one:

As users explore the galleries they can also add comments to each painting and share the whole collection with friends and family. Try doing that in the Tate Modern. Actually, don’t.

Although, of course, you can – it’s traditionally known as ‘having a conversation in a museum’. 
But in 2012, is visiting a website and sharing links online seen as a reasonable stand-in for the physical visit to a museum, leaving the in-person gallery visit for ‘purists’ and enthusiasts?  (This might make blockbuster exhibtions bearable.)  Or, as the consensus of the past decade has it, does it just whet the appetite and create demand for an experience with the original object, leading to more visits?

‘I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think’

More and more open and/or linkable cultural heritage data is becoming available, which means the next big challenge for memory institutions is dealing with ‘death by aggregation: creating meaningful, engaging experiences of individual topics or objects within masses of digital data.  With that in mind, I’ve been wondering about the application of Roland Barthes‘ concepts of studium and punctum to large online collections.  (I’m in the middle of research interviews for my PhD, and it’s amazing what one will think about in order to put off transcribing hours of recordings, but bear with me…)

Studium, in Wikipedia’s definition, is the ‘cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph’.  While Barthes was writing about photography, I suspect studium describes the average, expected audience response to well-described images or objects in most collections sites – a reaction that exists within the bounds of education, liking and politeness.  However, punctum – in Barthes’ words, the ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’ – describes the moment an accidentally poignant or meaningful detail in an image captures the viewer.  Punctum is often personal to the viewer, but when it occurs it brings with it ‘a power of expansion’: ‘I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think’.  You cannot design punctum, but can we design collections interfaces to create the serendipitous experiences that enable punctum?  Is it even possible with images of objects, or is it more likely to occur with photographic collections?

While thinking about this, I came across an excellent post on Understanding Compelling Collections by John Coburn (@j0hncoburn) in which he describes some pilots on ‘compelling historic photography’ by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. The experiment asked two questions: ‘Which of our collections best lends themselves to impulse sharing online?’ and ‘Which of our collections are people most willing to talk about online?’.  It’s well worth reading both for their methods and their results, which are firmly grounded in the audiences’ experience of their images: a ‘key finding from our trial with Flickr Commons was that the mass sharing of images often only became possible when a user defined or redefined the context of the photograph’, ‘there’s a very real appetite on Facebook for old photography that strongly connects to a person’s past’.

Coming back to Barthes, their quest for images that ‘immediately resonated with our audience on an emotional level and without context’ is almost an investigation of enabling punctum; their answer: anything that How To Be a Retronaut would share’, is probably good enough for most of us for now.  To summarise, they’re ‘era-specific, event-specific, moment-specific’ images that ‘disrupt people’s model of time’, that ‘tap into magic and the sublime’, and that ‘stir your imagination, not demand prior knowledge or interest’.  They’re small, tightly-curated, niche-interest sets of images with evocative titles.

That’s not how we generally think about or present online collections.  But what if we did?

[Update, May 16, 2012.

This post, from Flickr members co-curating an exhibition with the National Maritime Museum, offers another view – is the public searching for punctum when they view photographic collections, and does the museum/archive way of thinking about collections iron out the quirks that might lead to punctum?

‘It is frightening to imagine what treasures will never see the light of day from the collection at the Brass Foundry. I got the sense that the Curators and the National Maritime Museum in general see these images as closely guarded historical documents and as such offer insight location, historical events and people in the image. There seems to be a lack of artistic appreciation for the variety of unusual and standalone images in the collection, raising an important question concerning the value attributed to each photograph when interpreted by an audience with different aesthetic interests. … In my opinion it is the ‘unknown’ quality of photography that initially inspires engagement and subsequently this process encourages an exploration of our own identity and how we as individuals create meaning.’  Source: ‘The Brass Foundary Visit 19/04/2012’]

Can you capture visitors with a steampunk arm?

Credits: Science Museum

This may be familiar to you if you’ve worked on a museum website: an object will capture the imagination of someone who starts to spread the link around, there’s a flurry of tweets and tumblrs and links (that hopefully you’ll notice in time because you’ve previously set up alerts for keywords or URLs on various media), others like it too and it starts to go viral and 50,000 people look at that one page in a day, 20,000 the next, furious discussions break out on social media and other sites… then they’re gone, onto the next random link on someone else’s site.  It’s hugely exciting, but it can also feel like a missed opportunity to show these visitors other cool things you have in your collection, to address some of the issues raised and to give them more information about the object.

There are three key aspects to riding these waves of interest: the ability to spot content that’s suddenly getting a lot of hits; the ability to respond with interesting, relevant content while the link is still hot (i.e. within anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days); and the ability to put that relevant content on the page where fly-by-night visitors will see it.

For many museums, caught between a templated CMS and layers of sign-off for new content , it’s not as easy as it sounds.  When the Science Museum’s ‘steampunk artificial arm’ started circulating on twitter and then made boingboing, I was able to work with curators to get a post on the collections blog about it the next day, but then there was no way of adding that link to the Brought to Life page that was all most people saw.

In his post on “The Guardian’s Facebook app”, Martin Belam discusses how their Facebook app has helped archived content live again:

Someone shares an old article with their friends, some of their friends either already use or install the app, and the viral effect begins to take hold. … We’ve got over 1.3 million articles live on the website, so that is a lot of content to be discovered, and the app means that suddenly any page, languishing unloved in our database, can become a new landing page. When an article becomes popular in the app, we sometimes package it with content. Because we know the attention has come at a specific time from a specific place, we can add related links that are appropriate to the audience rather than to the original content. …when you’ve got the audience there, you need to optimise for them

As a content company with great technical and user experience teams, the Guardian is better placed to put together existing content around a viral article, but still, I’m curious: are any museums currently managing to respond to sudden waves of interest in random objects?  And if so, how?

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

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

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

Anyway, on with my notes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a screenshot of the games I made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of the non-museum (and death by aggregation)

A bit of an art museum/gallery-focussed post… And when I say ‘post’, I mean ‘vaguely related series of random thoughts’… but these ideas have been building up and I might as well get them out to help get them out of ‘draft’.

Following on from various recent discussions (especially the brilliantly thought-provoking MCG’s Spring meeting ‘Go Collaborate’) and the launches over the past few months of the Google Art Project, Artfinder and today’s ‘Your Paintings‘ from the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, I’ve been wondering what space is left for galleries online.  (I’ve also been thinking about Aaron’s “you are about to be eaten by robots” and the image of Google and Facebook ‘nipping at your heels’ to become ‘the arbiter of truth for ideas’ and the general need for museums to make a case for their special place in society.)  Between funding cuts on the one hand, and projects from giants like Google and the BBC and even Europeana on the other, what can galleries do online that no-one else can?

So I asked on twitter, wondering if the space that was left was in creating/curating specialist interest and/or local experiences… @bridgetmck responded “Maybe the space for museums to work online now is meaning-making, intellectual context, using content to solve problems?”  The idea of that the USP of an museum is based on knowledge and community rather than collections is interesting and something I need to think about more.

The twitter conversation also branched off into a direction I’ve been thinking about over the past few months – while it’s great that we’re getting more and more open content [seriously, this is an amazing problem to have], what’s the effect of all this aggregation on the user experience?  @rachelcoldicutt had also been looking at ‘Your Paintings’ and her response was to my ‘space’ question was: “I think the space left is for curation. I feel totally overwhelmed by ALL THOSE paintings. It’s like a storage space not a museum”.  She’d also just tweeted “are such enormous sites needed when you can search and aggregate? Phaps yes for data structure/API, but surely not for *ppl*” which I’m quoting because I’ve been thinking the same thing.

[Update 2, July 14: Or, as Vannevar Bush said in ‘As We May Think‘ in 1945: “There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”]

Have we reached a state of ‘death by aggregation’?  Even the guys at Artfinder haven’t found a way to make endless lists of search results or artists feel more like fun than work.

Big aggregated collections are great one-stop shops for particular types of researchers, and they’re brilliant for people building services based on content, but is there a Dunbar number for the number of objects you can view in one sitting?  To borrow the phrase Hugh Wallace used at MuseumNext, ‘snackable‘ or bite-sized content seems to fit better into the lives of museum audiences, but how do we make collections and the knowledge around them ‘snackable’?  Which of the many ways to curate that content into smaller sets – tours, slideshows, personal galleries, recommender systems, storytelling – works in different contexts?  And how much and what type of contextual content is best, and what is that Dunbar number?  @benosteen suggested small ‘community sets’ or “personal ‘threads'” – “interesting people picking 6->12 related items (in their opinion) and discussing them?”.  [And as @LSpurdle pointed out, what about serendipity, or the ‘surprising beauty’ Rachel mentioned?]

I’m still thinking it all through, and will probably come back and update as I work it out.  In the meantime, what do you think?

[Update: I’ve only just remembered that I’d written about an earlier attempt to get to grips with the effects of aggregation and mental models of collections that might help museums serve both casual and specialist audiences in Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections? – it still needs a lot of thought and testing with actual users, I’d love to hear your thoughts or get pointers to similar work.]

Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections?

This is something I wrote for my MSc dissertation (‘Playing with difficult objects: game designs for crowdsourcing museum metadata’, view the games I built for it at or check out the paper (Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections) I wrote for Museums and the Web 2011) about the role of ‘distinctiveness’ in mental models about collections, that’s potentially relevant to discussions around telling stories with and collecting metadata about museum collections.   I’m posting it here for reference in the conversation about instances vs classes of objects that arose on the UKMCG list after the release of NMSI (Science Museum, National Media Museum, National Railway Museum) data as CSV.  One reason I’ve been thinking about ‘distinctiveness’ is because I’m wondering how we help people find the interesting records – the iconic objects, the intriguing stories – in a collection of 240,000 objects.

I’m interested in audiences’ mental models about when a record refers to the type of object vs the individual object – my sense is that ‘rockets’, in the model below, are generally thought of as the individual object, and that ‘sprockets’ are thought of as the type of object, but that it varies for ‘lockets’, depending how distinctive they are in relation to the person.

I’m also generally curious about the utility of the model, and would love to know of references that might relate to it (whether supporting or otherwise) – if you can think of any, let me know in the comments.

Not all objects are created equal

Both museum objects and the records about them vary in quality. Just as the physical characteristics of one object – its condition, rarity, etc – differ from another, the strength of its associations with important people, events or concepts will also vary. To complicate things further, as the Collections Council of Australia (2009) states, this ‘significance’ is ‘relative, contingent and dynamic’.

When faced with hundreds of thousands of objects, a museum will digitise and describe objects prioritised by ‘technical criteria (physical condition of the original material), content criteria (representativeness, uniqueness), and use criteria (demand)’ (Karvonen, 2010). In theory, all objects are registered by the collecting institution, so a basic record exists for each. Hopefully, each has been catalogued and the information transcribed or digitised to some extent, but this is often not the case. Records are often missing descriptions, and most lack the contextual histories that would help the general visitor understand its significance. Some objects may only have an accession number and a one word label, while those on display in a museum generally have well-researched metadata, detailed descriptions and related narratives or contextualised histories. Variable image quality (or lack of images) is an issue in collections in general. This project excludes object records without images but does include many poor-quality images as a result of importing records from a bulk catalogue.

This project posits that objects can be placed on a scale of ‘distinctiveness’ based on their visual attributes and the amount and quality of information about them. Within this project, bulk collections with minimal metadata and distinctiveness have been labelled ‘sprockets’, the smaller set of catalogued objects with some distinctiveness have been labelled ‘lockets’, and the unique, iconic objects with a full contextual history have been labelled ‘rockets’. This concept also references the English Heritage ‘building grades’ model (DCMS, 2010). During the project, the labels ‘heroic’, ‘semi-heroic’ and ‘bulk’ objects were also used.

These labels are not concerned with actual ‘significance’ or other valuation or priority placed on the object, but relate only to the potential mental models around them and data related to them – the potential for players to discover something interesting about them as objects, or whether they can just tag them on visual characteristics.

In theory there is a correlation between the significance of an object and the amount of information available about it; there may be particular opportunities for games where this is not the case.

Project label

Information type

Amount of information

Proportion of collection
Rockets Subjective Contextual history (‘background, events, processes and influences’) Tiny minority
Lockets Mostly objective, may be contextual to collection purpose Catalogued (some description) Minority
Sprockets Objective Registered (minimal) Majority

Table 1 Objects grouped by distinctiveness

This can also be represented visually as a pyramid model:

Figure 2 A figurative illustration of the relative numbers of different levels of objects in a typical history museum.

Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) (2010) Principles of Selection for Listing Buildings [Online] Available from:

Karvonen, M. (2010). “Digitising Museum Materials – Towards Visibility and Impact”. In Pettersson, S., Hagedorn-Saupe, M., Jyrkkiö, T., Weij, A. (Eds) Encouraging Collections Mobility In Europe. Collections Mobility. [Online] Available from:

Russell, R., and Winkworth, K. (2009). Significance 2.0: a guide to assessing the significance of collections. Collections Council of Australia. [Online] Available from:

Notes from Culture Hack Day (#chd11)

Culture Hack Day (#chd11) was organised by the Royal Opera House (the team being @rachelcoldicutt, @katybeale, @beyongolia, @mildlydiverting, @dracos – and congratulations to them all on an excellent event). As well as a hack event running over two days, they had a session of five minute ‘lightning talks’ on Saturday, with generous time for discussion between sessions. This worked quite well for providing an entry point to the event for the non-technical, and some interesting discussion resulted from it. My notes are particularly rough this time as I have one arm in a sling and typing my hand-written notes is slow.

Lightning Talks
Tom Uglow @tomux “What if the Web is a Fad?”
‘We’re good at managing data but not yet good at turning it into things that are more than points of data.’ The future is about physical world, making things real and touchable.

Clare Reddington, @clarered, “What if We Forget about Screens and Make Real Things?”
Some ace examples of real things: Dream Director; Nuage Vert (Helsinki power station projected power consumption of city onto smoke from station – changed people’s behaviour through ambient augmentation of the city); Tweeture (a conch, ‘permission object’ designed to get people looking up from their screens, start conversations); National Vending Machine from Dutch museum.

Leila Johnston, @finalbullet talked about why the world is already fun, and looking at the world with fresh eyes. Chromaroma made Oyster cards into toys, playing with our digital footprint.

Discussion kicked off by Simon Jenkins about helping people get it (benefits of open data etc) – CR – it’s about organisational change, fears about transparency, directors don’t come to events like this. Understand what’s meant by value – cultural and social as well as economic. Don’t forget audiences, it has to be meaningful for the people we’re making it (cultural products) for’.

Comment from @fidotheCultural heritage orgs have been screwed over by software companies. There’s a disconnect between beautiful hacks around the edges and things that make people’s lives easier. [Yes! People who work in cultural heritage orgs often have to deal with clunky tools, difficult or vendor-dependent data export proccesses, agencies that over-promise and under-deliver. In my experience, cultural orgs don’t usually have internal skills for scoping and procuring software or selecting agencies so of course they get screwed over.]

TU: desire to be tangible is becoming more prevalent, data to enhance human experience, the relationship between culture and the way we live our lives.

CR: don’t spend the rest of the afternoon reinforcing silos, shouldn’t be a dichotomy between cultural heritage people and technologists. [Quick plug for,, and as places where people interested in intersection between cultural heritage and technology can mingle – please let me know of any others!] Mutual respect is required.

Tom Armitage, @infovore “Sod big data and mashups: why not hack on making art?”
Making culture is more important than using it. 3 trends: 1) collection – tools to slice and dice across time or themes; 2) magic materials 3) mechanical art, displays the shape of the original content; 3a) satire – @kanyejordan ‘a joke so good a machine could make it’.

Tom Dunbar, @willyouhelp – story-telling possibilites of metadata embedded in media e.g. video [check out Waisda? for game designed to get metdata added to audio-visual archives]. Metadata could be actors, characters, props, action…

Discussion [?]:remixing in itself isn’t always interesting. Skillful appropriation across formats… Universe of editors, filterers, not only creators. ‘in editing you end up making new things’.

Matthew Somerville, @dracos, Theatricalia, “What if You Never Needed to Miss a Show?”
‘Quite selfish’, makes things he needs. Wants not to miss theatre productions with people he likes in/working on them. Theatricalia also collects stories about productions. [But in discussion it came up that the National Theatre asked him to remove data – why?! A recommendation system would definitely get me seeing more theatre, and I say that as a fairly regular but uninformed theatre-goer who relies on word-of-mouth to decide where to spend ticket money.]

Nick Harkaway, @Harkaway on IP and privacy
IP as way of ringfencing intangible ideas, requiing consent to use. Privacy is the same. Not exciting, kind of annoying but need to find ways to make it work more smoothly while still proving protection. ‘Buying is voting’, if you buy from Tesco, you are endorsing their policies. ‘Code for the change you want to see in the world’, build the tools you want cultural orgs to have so they can do better. [Update: Nick has posted his own notes at Notes from Culture Hack Day. I really liked the way he brought ethical considerations to hack enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible – the ability to say ‘no’ is important even if a pain for others.]

Chris Thorpe, @jaggeree. ArtFinder, “What if you could see through the walls of every museum and something could tell you if you’d like it?”

Culture for people who don’t know much about culture. Cultural buildings obscure the content inside, stop people being surprised by what’s available. It’s hard if you don’t know where to start. Go for user-centric information. Government Art Collection Explorer – ace! Wants an angel for art galleries to whisper information about the art in his ear. Wants people to look at the art, not the screen of their device [museums also have this concern]. SAP – situated audio platform. Wants a ‘flight data recorder’ for trips around cultural places.

Discussion around causes of fear and resistance to open data – what do cultural orgs fear and how can they learn more and relax? Fear of loss of provenance – response was that for developers displaying provenance alongside the data gives it credibility; counter-response was that organisations don’t realise that’s possible. [My view is that the easiest way to get this to change is to change the metrics by which cultural heritage organisations are judged, and resolve the tension between demands to commercialise content to supplement government grants and demands for open access to that same data. Many museums have developed hybrid ‘free tombstone, low-res, paid-for high-res’ models to deal with this, but it’s taken years of negotiation in each institution.] I also ranted about some of these issues at OpenTech 2010, notes at ‘Museums meet the 21st century’.

Other discussion and notes from twitter – re soap/drama characters tweeting – I managed to out myself as a Neighbours watcher but it was worth it to share that Neighbours characters tweet and use Facebook. Facebook relationship status updates and events have been included as plot points, and references are made to twitter but not to the accounts of the characters active on the service. I wonder if it’s script writers or marketing people who write the characters tweets? They also tweet in sync with the Australian showings, which raises issues around spoilers and international viewers.

Someone said ‘people don’t want to interact with cultural institutions online. They want to interact with their content’ but I think that’s really dependent on the definition of content – as pointed out, points of data have limited utility without further context. There’s a catch-22 between cultural orgs not yet making really engaging data and audiences not yet demanding it, hopefully hack days like CHD11 help bridge the gap and turn data into stories and other meaningful content. We’re coming up against the limits of what can be dome programmatically, especially given variation in quality and extent of cultural heritage data (and most of it is data rather than content).

[Update: after writing this I found a post The lightning talks at Culture Hack Day about the day, which happily picks up on lots of bits I missed. Oh, and another, by Roo Reynolds.]

After the lightning talks I popped over the road to check out the hacking and ended up getting sucked in (the lure of free pizza had a powerful effect!).  I worked on a WordPress plugin with Ian Ibbotson @ianibbo that lets you search for a term on the Culture Grid repository and imports the resulting objects into my museum metadata games so that you can play with objects based on your favourite topic.  I’ve put the code on github [] and will move it from my staging server to live over the next few days so people can play with the objects.  It’s such a pain only having one hand, and I’m very grateful to Ian for the chance to work together and actually get some code written.  This work means that any organisation that’s contributed records to the Culture Grid can start to get back tags or facts to enhance their collections, based on data generated by people playing the games.  The current 300-ish objects have about 4400 tags and 30 facts, so that’s not bad for a freebie. OTOH, I don’t know of many museums with the ability to display content created by others on their collections pages or store it in their collections management systems – something for another hack day?

Something I think I’ll play around with a bit more is the idea of giving cultural heritage data a quality rating as it’s ingested.  We discussed whether the ratings would be local to an app (as they could be based on the particular requirements of that application) or generalised and recorded in the CultureGrid service.  You could record the provence of a rating which might be an approach that combines the benefits of both approaches.  At the moment, my requirements for a ‘high quality’ record would be: title (e.g. ‘The Ashes trophy’, if the object has one), name or type of object (e.g. cup), date, place, decent sized image, description.

Finally, if you’re interested in hacking around cultural heritage data, there’s also historyhackday next weekend. I’m hoping to pop in (dependent on fracture and MSc dissertation), not least because in March I’m starting a PhD in digital humanities, looking at participatory digitisation of geo-located historical material (i.e. getting people to share the transcriptions and other snippets of ad hoc digitisation they do as part of their research) and it’s all hugely relevant.