My Europeana Tech keynote: Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation

This is a slightly abridged version of my notes for my keynote, ‘Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation’ at EuropeanaTech (#etech11) in Vienna in October 2011.

Introduction 
I’m really excited about being here to talk about some of my favourite things with you. I think helping people appreciate cultural heritage is one of the best jobs in the world so I feel lucky to be here with people working toward the same goal.

This is a chance to remind ourselves why we should get audiences participating digitally – how does it benefit both GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) and their audiences? I’m going to take you through some examples of digital participation and explain why I think they’re useful case studies. I’ll finish by summarising what we can learn from those case studies, looking for tips you can take back to your organisations. Hopefully we’ll have time for a few questions or some discussion.

Why enable participation?
Isn’t it easier to just keep doing what we’re already doing? Maybe not – here are some problems your GLAM organisation might be facing…

You need to think digitally to enable participation at scale – to reach not tens or hundreds, but thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. As cultural heritage organisations, we have lots of experience with access and participation at reference desks and in galleries. We are good at creating experiences to engage, delight, and educate in person, but these are limited by the number of staff required, the materiality of the objects or documents, the size of a venue, its location and opening hours. We’re still learning how to translate those brilliant participative experiences into the digital domain…

Collections are big, resources are small. In most cases we’re still digitising catalogue records, let alone taking images and writing beautiful contextualised interpretative material for our collections. We’ll be at it for centuries if we try to do it alone…

What’s more, it’s not enough for content to be online – it has to be findable. Our digitised content is still not very discoverable in search engines – which means it’s effectively invisible to most potential audiences. We need better content to help search engines find the stuff we’ve put so much work into putting online. For example, I wanted to use Europeana images to illustrate my slides, but I had trouble finding images to match my ideas – but if other people had tagged them with words like ‘happiness’, ‘excitement’, ‘crowds’, I might have been able to find what I needed.

User-contributed content can help bridge the ‘semantic gap’ between the language used in catalogues and the language that most people would use to look for content.

Even when our content is found by our audiences, it’s not always very accessible without information about the significance, and cultural and historical context of the item. Further, in Europeana’s case, there’s a gap between the many languages of the user community and the catalogue metadata; as well as gaps between historical and contemporary language. Sadly, at the moment, many records lack enough context for a non-expert to have a meaningful experience with them.

Why support participation?
So, those are some of the problems we’re looking for solve… what are the benefits of digital participation?
Firstly, the benefits to organisations

Engagement and participation is often part of your core mission.

inspire, passion, educate, enhance, promote preserve, record, access, learn, discover, use, memory, culture, conservation, innovation

I had a look at some mission statements from various museums, libraries, and archives, and these are the words that frequently occurred. The benefits of audience participation are both tangible and intangible, and exactly how they relate to your mission (and can be measured in relation to it) depends on the organisation. And don’t forget that access may not be enough if your content isn’t also discoverable and engaging.

Participation can increase traffic. It’s pretty simple – if content is more discoverable, more people will discover it. If audiences can actively participate, they’ll engage with your collections for longer, and return more often. They may even turn into physical visitors or buy something online…

Turn audiences into advocates – there are many people who forget that GLAMs even exist once they’ve left school – but these are often the people we can reach with digital projects. When people directly benefit from your resources, they know why your organisation is important. You’re no longer dusty old stuff in boxes, you’re their history, part of the story of how their lives came to be and how their future is formed.  When people have a great experience with you, they become fans. When you encourage people to participate in meaningful work, they gain a sense of ownership and pride. These intangible outcomes can be as important as the content created through audience participation.  It’s a chance to let people see the full complexity of what you do, how much work goes into providing access and interpretation; understand that what they see on the shelves or in the galleries is the tip of the iceberg..

There are more experts outside your GLAM than within. Participatory projects let you access external knowledge.  This knowledge can include the experience of using, repairing or building an object; memories of the events or places you’ve recorded; or it may be specialist knowledge they’ve built through their own research. Let them share their knowledge with you, and through you, with your audiences.

Finally, the rest of the world is moving from broadcast to dialogue and interaction. If you spend time around kids, you may have seen them interact with old-fashioned screens – for them, an interface you can only look at is broken.

Benefits to audience

It’s all very well saying participation creates deeper engagement, but rather than tell you again, I’d rather show you with a quick thought experiment.

First I want you to imagine taking a photo of an object in a museum. Ok – so, how many times do you really go back and look at that photo? How much do you remember about that object? Do you find yourself thinking about it later? Do you ever have a conversation with friends about it?

Now I want you to imagine sketching the object, perhaps at this handy sketching station in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.

As you draw, you’ll find yourself engaging with the particular materiality of the object – the details of its construction, the way time has affected it. You may start wondering about the intention of the creators, what it was like to use it or encounter it in everyday life. In having an active relationship with that object, you’ve engaged more deeply, perhaps even changed a little as a result. New questions have been raised that you may find yourself pondering, and may even decide to find out more, and start your own research, or share your feelings with others.

Perhaps surprisingly, even the act of tagging an object has a similar effect, because you have to pay it some attention to say something about it…

A big benefit for audiences is that participation is rewarding. There are many reasons why, but these are some I think are relevant to participation. Games researcher Jane McGonigal (Gaming the future of museumssays people crave:

1. satisfying work to do
2. the experience of being good at something
3. time spent with people we like
4. the chance to be a part of something bigger

Participation in digital cultural heritage projects can meet all those needs.

Types of participation

The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education came up with these forms of public participation in science research. Nina Simon of the Museum 2.0 blog mapped them to museums and added ‘co-option’; I’ve included ‘platform’.

  • Contributory – Most GLAM user-generated content projects. Designed by the organisation, the public contributes data.
  • Collaborative – the public may be active partners in some decisions, but the project is lead by the organisation
  • Co-creative – all partners define goals and make decisions together
  • Platform – organisation as venue or host for other activity.

It’s also important to remember that there are some types of participation where the value lies mostly in the effect of the act of creation for the individual – for example, most commenting doesn’t add much to my experience of the thing commented on. However, sometimes there’s also value more widely – for example, when someone comments and includes a new fact or interesting personal story. Taking this further, participatory projects can be designed so that each contribution helps meet a defined goal. Crowdsourcing involves designing carefully scaffolded tasks so that the general public can contribute to a shared goal. Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage is probably most often contributory rather than collaborative or co-creative.

Case studies
I’ve chosen two established examples and two experimental ones to demonstrate how established digital participation is, and also where it’s going…

Flickr Commons – I’m sure you’ve all probably heard of this, but it’s a great reminder of how effective simply sharing content in places where people hang out can be. The first tip: go fishing where the fish are biting. Find the digital spaces where people are already engaging with similar content.

Example page: [Sylvia Sweets Tea Room, corner of School and Main streets, Brockton, Mass.].  You can see from the number of views, comments, tags, favourites and notes that organisations are still finding much higher levels of discoverability, traffic and user contributions on the Commons than they’d ever get on their own, individual sites. It’s also a nice example of the public identifying a location, and there are wonderful personal recollections and family histories in the comments below.

Trove – crowdsourcing OCR correction.  Tasks like OCR correction that require judgement or complicated visual processing are perfect for crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing can solve real problems – helping scientists identify galaxies and proteins that could save lives, or providing data about climate change through history. In this example, crowdsourcing is helping correct optical character recognition (OCR) errors. In the example here, the correction is subtle, but as someone from the location described, I can tell you that the transcription now makes a lot more sense… And making that correction felt good.

According to the National Library of Australia, by February 2011 they had ‘20,000+ people helping out and 30 million lines of text had been corrected during the last 2 years’. This is a well-designed interface. Their clear ‘call to action’ – ‘fix this text’ – is simple and located right where it needs to be.  Another tip: you don’t need to register, but you can if you want to track your progress. Registration isn’t a barrier, and it’s presented as a benefit to the audience, not the organisation. They’ve also got a forum as a platform for conversation between participants.

So, crowdsourcing is great. But as crowdsourcing gets more popular, you will be competing for ‘participation bandwidth’ with other participatory and crowdsourcing projects – people will be deciding whether to work with your site or something else that meets their needs… What to do?

Well, it turns out that crowdsourcing games can act as ‘participation engines’…

[I then talked about ‘a small tagging game I researched, designed and made in my evenings and weekends, so that you can see the potential for crowdsourcing games even for GLAMs that don’t have a lot of resources’ – if you’re curious, it’s probably easiest to check out the slides at http://www.slideshare.net/miaridge/everyone-wins-crowdsourcing-games-and-museums alongside the video at http://vimeo.com/26858316].

Because crowdsourcing games can be more accessible to the general public, they can also increase the number of overall contributors, as well as encouraging each contributor to stay for longer, do more work, engage more deeply. Crowdsourcing games can be much more productive than a non-game interface by encouraging people to spend more time and play with more content. If games not suitable for your audience, you can adopt some of the characteristics of games – clear initial tasks to start with and a sense of the rules of the game, good feedback on the results of player actions towards a goal, mastering new skills and providing interesting problems to solve…

Continuing the [Europeana Tech] theme of openness, this project was only possible because the Science Museum (UK) and the Powerhouse Museum had APIs into their object records – I was able to create a game that united their astronomy objects without ever having to negotiate a partnership or licensing agreement.

Oramics – co-creation (and GLAM as platform).  My final example is something I worked on just before I left the Science Museum but I make the caveat that I can’t claim any credit for all the work done since, and I haven’t seen any internal evaluation on the project.

The Oramics project was a conscious experiment in co-curation and public history, part of a wider programme of research. This is the Oramics machine. It’s a difficult object to interpret – it’s a hand-built synthesiser, and not much to look at – it’s all about how it sounded, but it’s too fragile to restore to working order. So the museum needed help interpreting the object, in understanding how to explain its significance and market it to new audiences. They tried a few different things in this project… They worked with young people from the National Youth Theatre who met museum staff to learn about the people who invented and built the machine, and they visited the object store to see the machine. They worked with developers to make an app to recreate the sounds of the synthesiser so that people could make new music with it. They also worked with a group of co-curators recruited online to help make it interesting to general visitors as well as music fans – the original call to action was something like ‘we have an amazing object we need to bring to life, and six empty cases – help us fill them!’.

While the main outputs of all this activity are pretty traditional – a performance event, an exhibition – it’s also been the catalyst for the creation of an ad hoc online community and conversations on Facebook and blogs.

As Clay Shirky told the Smithsonian 2.0 workshop in 2009, it’s possible that “the artefact itself has created the surface to which the people adhere. … Every artefact is a latent community”. It’s nice to think we’re finally getting to that point.

Best practice tips
So what do you need to think about to design a participatory project?

  • Have an answer to ‘Why would someone spend precious time on your project?’
  • Be inspired by things people love
  • Design for the audience you want
  • Make participating pleasurable
  • Don’t add unnecessary friction, barriers
  • Show how much you value contributions
  • Validate procrastination – offer the opportunity to make a difference, and show, don’t tell, how it’s making a difference
  • Make it easy to start participating, design scaffolded tasks to keep people going
  • Let audiences help manage problems
  • Test with users; iterate; polish
  • Empower audience to keep the place tidy – let them know what’s acceptable and what’s discouraged and how they can help.

Best practice within your GLAM
How can your organisation make the most of the opportunities digital participation provides?

  • Have a clear objective
  • Know how to measure success
  • Allow for community management resources
  • Realistically assess fears, decide acceptable risk
  • Put the audience’s needs first. You need a balance between the task want to achieve, the skills and knowledge of audience and the content you have to work with.
  • Fish where the fish are – find the spaces where people are already engaging with similar content and see how you can slot in, don’t expect people to find their way to you.
  • Decide where it’s ok to lose control – let go… you may find audiences you didn’t expect, or people may make use your content in ways you never imagined. Watch and learn – another reason to iterate and go into public beta earlier rather than later.
  • Open data – let people make new things with your content. Bad people will do it anyway, but by not having open data, you’re preventing exactly the people you want to work with from doing anything with your data. Unclear or closed licenses are the biggest barrier that friendly hackers and developers raise with me when I ask about cultural heritage data…

In a 2008 post about museum-as-platform, Nina Simon says it’s about moving from controlling everything to providing expertise; learning to change from content provider to platform. [More recently, Rob Stein posted about participatory culture and the subtle differences between authoritarian and authoritative approaches.]

Conclusion
Perhaps most important of all – enjoy experiencing your collections through new eyes!

‘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 steve.museum 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!]

‘Museums meet the 21st century’ – OpenTech 2010 talk

These are my notes for the talk I gave at OpenTech 2010 on the subject of ‘Museums meet the 21st Century’. Some of it was based on the paper I wrote for Museums and the Web 2010 about the ‘Cosmic Collections’ mashup competition, but it also gave me a chance to reflect on bigger questions: so we’ve got some APIs and we’re working on structured, open data – now what? Writing the talk helped me crystallise two thoughts that had been floating around my mind. One, that while “the coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else”, that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to build it – developers are a vital link between museum APIs, linked data, etc and the general public; two, that we really need either aggregated datasets or data using shared standards to get the network effect that will enable the benefits of machine-readable museum data. The network effect would also make it easier to bridge gaps in collections, reuniting objects held in different institutions. I’ve copied my text below, slides are embedded at the bottom if you’d rather just look at the pictures. I had some brilliant questions from the audience and afterwards, I hope I was able to do them justice. OpenTech itself was a brilliant day full of friendly, inspiring people – if you can possibly go next year then do!

Museums meet the 21st century.
Open Tech, London, September 11, 2010

Hi, I’m Mia, I work for the Science Museum, but I’m mostly here in a personal capacity…

Alternative titles for this talk included: ’18th century institution WLTM 21st century for mutual benefit, good times’; ‘the Age of Enlightenment meets the Age of Participation’. The common theme behind them is that museums are old, slow-moving institutions with their roots in a different era.

Why am I here?

The proposal I submitted for this was ‘Museums collaborating with the public – new opportunities for engagement?’, which was something of a straw man, because I really want the answer to be ‘yes, new opportunities for engagement’. But I didn’t just mean any ‘public’, I meant specifically a public made up of people like you. I want to help museums open up data so more people can access it in more forms, but most people can’t just have a bit of a tinker and create a mashup. “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else” – but that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to build it. Audiences out there need people like you to make websites and mobile apps and other ways for them to access museum content – developers are a vital link in the connection between museum data and the general public.

So there’s that kind of help – helping the general public get into our data; and there’s another kind of help – helping museums get their data out. For the first, I think I mostly just want you to know that there’s data out there, and that we’d love you to do stuff with it.

The second is a request for help working on things that matter. Linkable, open data seems like a no-brainer, but museums need some help getting there.

Museums struggle with the why, with the how, and increasingly with the “we are reducing our opening hours, you have to be kidding me”.

Chicken and the egg

Which comes first – museums get together and release interesting data in a usable form under a useful licence and developers use it to make cool things, or developers knock on the doors of museums saying ‘we want to make cool things with your data’ and museums get it sorted?

At the moment it’s a bit of both, but the efforts of people in museums aren’t always aligned with the requests from developers, and developers’ requests don’t always get sent to someone who’ll know what to do with it.

So I’m here to talk about some stuff that’s going on already and ask for a reality check – is this an idea worth pursuing? And if it is, then what next?
If there’s no demand for it, it won’t happen. Nick Poole, Chief Executive, Collections Trust, said on the Museums Computer Group email discussion list: “most museum people I speak to tend not to prioritise aggregation and open interoperability because there is not yet a clear use case for it, nor are there enough aggregators with enough critical mass to justify it.”

But first, an example…

An experiment – Cosmic Collections, the first museum mashup competition

The Cosmic Collections project was based on a simple idea – what if a museum gave people the ability to make their own collection website for the general public? Way back in December 2008 I discovered that the Science Museum was planning an exhibition on astronomy and culture, to be called ‘Cosmos & Culture’. They had limited time and resources to produce a site to support the exhibition and risked creating ‘just another exhibition microsite’. I went to the curator, Alison Boyle, with a proposal – 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. Astronomy is one of the few areas where the amateur can still make valued scientific contributions, so the idea was a good match for museum mission, exhibition content, technical context, and hopefully developers – but was that enough?

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 there was also doubt about whether anyone would actually use a museum API, whether we could justify an investment in APIs and machine-readable data. And can you really crowdsource the creation of collections interfaces? The Cosmic Collections competition was a way of finding out.

Lessons? An API isn’t a magic bullet, you still need to support the dev community, and encourage non-technical people to find ways to play with it. But the project was definitely worth doing, even if just for the fact that it was done and the world didn’t end. Plus, the results were good, and it reinforced the value of working with geeks. [It also got positive coverage in the technical press. Who wouldn’t be happy to hear ‘the museum itself has become an example of technological innovation’ or that it was ‘bringing museums out into the open as places of innovation’?]

Back to the chicken and the egg – linking museums

So, back to the chicken and the egg… Progress is being made, but it gets bogged down in discussions about how exactly to get data online. Museums have enough trouble getting the suppliers they work with to produce code that meets accessibility standards, let alone beautifully structured, re-usable open data.

One of the reasons open, structured data is so attractive to museum technologists is that we know we can never build interfaces to meet the needs of every type of audience. Machine-readable data should allow people with particular needs to create something that supports their own requirements or combines their data with ours to make lovely new things.

Explore with us – tell museums what you need

So if you’re someone who wants to build something, I want to hear from you about what standards you’re already working with, which formats work best for you…

To an extent that’s just moving the problem further down the line, because I’ve discovered that when you ask people what data standards they want to use, and they tell you it turns out they’re all different… but at least progress is being made.

Dragons we have faced

I think museums are getting to the point where they can live with the 80% in the interest of actually getting stuff done.

Museums need to get over the idea that linkable data must be perfect – perfectly clean data, perfectly mapped to perfect vocabularies and perfectly delivered through perfect standards. Museums are used to mapping data from their collections management systems for a known end-use, they’ve struggled with open-ended requirements for unknown future uses.

The idea that aggregated data must be able to do everything that data provided at source can do has held us back. Aggregated data doesn’t need to be able to do everything – sometimes discoverability is enough, as long as you can get back to the source if you need the rest of the data. Sometimes it’s enough to be able to link to someone else’s record that you’ve discovered.

Museum data and the network effect

One reason I’m here (despite the fact that public speaking is terrifying) is a vision of the network effect that could apply when we have open museum data.

We could re-unite objects across time and place and people, connecting visitors and objects, regardless of owing institution or what type of object or information it is. We could create highlight collections by mining data across museums, using the links people are making between our collections. We can help people tell their local stories as well as the stories about big subject and world histories. Shared data standards should reduce learning curve for people using our data which would hopefully increase re-use.

Mismatches between museums and tech – reasons to be patient

So that’s all very exciting, but since I’ve also learnt that talking about something creates expectations, here are some reasons to be patient with museums, and tolerant when we fail to get it right the first time…

IT is not a priority for most museums, keeping our objects secure and in one piece is, as is getting some of them on display in ways that make sense to our audiences.

Museums are slow. We’ll be talking about stuff for a long time before it happens, because we have limited resources and risk-averse institutions. Museum project management is designed for large infrastructure projects, moving hundreds of delicate objects around while major architectural builds go on. It’s difficult to find space for agility and experimentation within that.

Nancy Proctor from the Smithsonian said this week: “[Museum] work is more constrained than a general developer” – it must be of the highest quality; for everybody – public good requires relevance and service for all, and because museums are in the ‘forever business’ it must be sustainable.

How you can make a difference

Museums are slowly adapting to the participation models of social media. You can help museums create (backend) architectures of participation. Here are some places where you can join in conversations with museum technologists:

Museums Computer Group – events, mailing list http://museumscomputergroup.org.uk/ #ukmcg @ukmcg

Linking Museums – meetups, practical examples, experimenting with machine-readable data http://museum-api.pbworks.com/

Space Time Camp – Nov 4/5, #spacetimecamp

‘Museums and the Web’ conference papers online provide a good overview of current work in the sector http://www.archimuse.com/conferences/mw.html

So that‘s all fun, but to conclude – this is all about getting museums to the point where the technology just works, data flows like water and our energy is focussed on the compelling stories museums can tell with the public. If you want to work on things that matter – museums matter, and they belong to all of us – we should all be able to tell stories with and through museums.

Thank you for listening

Keep in touch at @mia_out or http://openobjects.org.uk/

Happy developers + happy museums = happy punters (my JISC dev8D talk)

This is a rough transcript of my lightning talk ‘Happy developers, happy museums’ at JISC’s dev8D ‘developer happiness’ days last week. The slides are downloadable or embedded below. The reason I’m posting this is because I’d still love to hear comments, ideas, suggestions, particularly from developers outside the museum sector – there’s a contact form on my website, or leave a comment here.

“In this talk I want to show you where museums are in terms of data and hear from you on how we can be more useful.

If you’re interested in updates I use my blog to [crap on a bit, ahem] talk about development at work, and also to call for comment on various ideas and prototypes. I’m interested in making the architecture and development process transparent, in being responsive to not only traditional museum visitors as end users, but also to developers. If you think of APIs as a UI for developers, we want ours to be both usable and useful.

I really like museums, I’ve worked in three museums (or families of museums) now over ten years. I think they can do really good things. Museums should be about delight, serendipity and answers that provoke more questions.

A recent book, ‘How does one become a scientist? : survey on the birth of a Vocation’ states that ‘60% of scientists over 30 and 40% of scientists under 30 note claim, without prompting, that the Palais de la Découverte [a science museum in Paris] triggered their vocation’.

Museums can really have an impact on how people think about the world, how they think about the possibilities of their lives. I think museums also have a big responsibility – we should be curating collections for current and future audiences, but also trying to provide access to the collections that aren’t on display. We should be committed to accessibility, transparency, curation, respecting and enabling expertise.

So today I’m here because we want to share our stuff – we are already – but we want to share better.

We do a lot of audience research and know a lot about some of our users, including our specialist users, but we don’t know so much about how people might use our data, it’s a relatively new thing for us. We’re used to saying ‘here are objects in a case, interpretation in label’, we’re not used to saying ‘here’s unmediated access, access through the back door’.

Some of the challenges for museums: technology isn’t that much of a challenge for us on the whole, except that there are pockets of excellence, people doing amazing things on small budgets with limited resources, but there are also a lot of old-fashioned monolithic project designs with big overheads that take a long time to deliver. Lots of people mean well but don’t know what’s possible – I want to spread the news about lightweight, more manageable and responsive ways of developing things that make sense and deliver results.

We have a lot of data, but a lot of it’s crap. Some of what we have is wrong. Some of it was written 100 years ago, so it doesn’t match how we’d describe things now.

We face big institutional challenges. Some curators – (though it does depend on the museum) – fear loss of control, fear intellectual vandalism, that mistakes in user-generated content published on museum sites will cause people to lose trust in museums. We have fears of getting the IT wrong (because for a while we did). Funding and metrics are a big issue – we are paid by how many people come through our door or come to our websites. If we’re doing a mashup, how do we measure the usage of that? Are we going to cost our organisations money if we can’t measure visits and charge back to the government? [This is particularly an issue for free museums in the UK, an interesting by-product of funding structures.]

Copyright is a huge issue. We might not even own an object that appears in our collections, we might not own the rights to the image of our object, or to the reproductions of an image. We might not have asked for copyright clearance at the time when an object was donated, and the cost of tracing it might be too high, so we can’t use that object online. Until we come up with a reliable model that reduces the risk to an institution of saying ‘copyright unknown’, we’re stuck.

The following are some ways I can think of for dealing with these challenges…
Limited resources – we can’t build an interface to meet every need for every user, but we can provide the content that they’d use. Some of the semantic web talks here have discussed a ‘thin layer’ of application over data, and that’s kind of where we want to go as well.

Real examples to reduce institutional fear and to provide real examples of working agile projects. [I didn’t mean strictly ‘agile’ methodology but generally projects that deliver early and often and can respond to the changing technical and social environment]

Finding ways for the sector to reward intelligent failure. Some museums will never ever admit to making a mistake. I’ve heard over the past few days that universities can be the same. Projects that are hyped up suddenly aren’t mentioned, and presumably it’s failed, but no-one [from the project] ever talks about why so we don’t learn from those mistakes. ‘Fail faster, succeed sooner’.
I’d like to hear suggestions from you on how we could deal with those challenges.

What are museums known for? Big buildings, full of stuff; experts; we make visitors come to us; we’re known for being fun; or for being boring.

Museum websites traditionally appear to be about where we are, when we’re open, what’s on, is there a cafe on site. Which is useful, but we can do a lot more.

Traditionally we’ve done pretty exhibition microsites, which are nice – they provide an experience of the exhibition before or after your visit. They’re quite marketing-led, they don’t necessarily provide an equivalent experience and they don’t really let you engage with the content beyond the fact that you’re viewing it.

We’re doing lots of collections online projects, some of these have ended up being silos – sometimes to the extent if we want to get data out of them, we have to screen-scrape our own data. These sites often aren’t as pretty, they don’t always have the same design and usability budgets (if any).

I think we should stick to what we’re really good at – understanding the data (collections), understanding how to mediate it, how to interpret it, how to select things that are appropriate for publication, and maybe open it up to other people to do the shiny pretty things. [Sounds almost like I’m advocating doing myself out of a job!]

So we have lots of objects, images, lots of metadata; our collections databases also include people, events, dates, places, businesses and organisations, lots of qualified information around things like dates, they’re not necessarily simple fields but that means they can convey a lot more meaning. I’ve included that because people don’t always realise we have information beyond objects and object metadata. This slide [11 below] is an example of one of the challenges – this box of objects might not be catalogued as individual instruments, it might just be catalogued as a ‘box of stuff’, which doesn’t help you find the interesting objects in the box. Lots of good stuff is hidden in this way.

We’re slowly getting there. We’re opening up access. We’re using APIs internally to share data between gallery interactives and the web, we’re releasing them as data points, we’re using them to provide direct access to collections. At the moment it still tends to be quite mediated access, so you’re getting a lot of interpretation and a fewer number of objects because of the resources required to create really nice records and the information around them.

‘Read access’ is relatively easy, ‘write access’ is harder because that’s when we hit those institutional issues around authority, authorship. Some curators are vaguely horrified that they might have to listen to what the public have to say and actually take some of it back into their collections databases. But they also have to understand that they can’t know everything about their collections, and there are some specialist users who will know everything there is to know about a particular widget on a particular kind of train. We’d like to capture that knowledge. [London Transport Museum have had a good go at that.]

Some random URLs of cool stuff happening in museums [http://dashboard.imamuseum.org/, http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/menu.php, http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/collections/, http://objectwiki.sciencemuseum.org.uk/] – it’s still very much in small pockets, it’s still difficult for museum staff to convince people to take what seems like a leap of faith and try these non-traditional things out.

We’re taking our content to where people hang out. We’re exploring things like Flickr Commons, asking people to tag and comment. Some museums have been updating collections records with information added by the public as a result. People are geo-tagging photos for us, which means you can do ‘then and now’ mashups without a big metadata enhancement budget.

I’d like to see an end to silos. We are kinda getting there but there’s not a serious commitment to the idea that we need to let things go, that we need to make sure that collections online shareable, that they’re interoperable, that they can mesh with other things.

Particularly for an education audience, we want to help researchers help themselves, to help developers help others. What else do we have that people might find useful?

What we can do depends on who you are. I could hope that things like enquiry-based learning, mashups, linked data, semantic web technologies, cross-collections searches, faceted browsing to make complex searches easy would be useful, that the concept of museums as a place where information lives – a happy home for metadata mapped around objects and authority records – are useful for people here but I wouldn’t want to put words into your mouths.

There’s a lot we can do with the technology, but if we’re investing resources we need to make sure that they’re useful. I can try things in my own time because it’s fun, but if we’re going to spend limited resources on interfaces for developers then we need to that it’s actually going to help some group of people out there.

The philosophy that I’m working with is ‘we’ve got really cool things, but we can have even cooler things if we can share what we have with everyone else’. “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else”. [This quote turns out to be on the event t-shirts, via CRIG!] So that said… any ideas, comments, suggestions?”

And that, thankfully, is where I stopped blathering on. I’ll summarise the discussion and post back when I’ve checked that people are ok with me blogging their comments.

[If the slide show below has a brown face on a black background, it’s the right one – slideshare’s embed seems to have had a hiccup. If it’s not that, try viewing it online directly.]

[My slide images include the Easter Egg museum in Kolomyya, Ukraine and ‘Laughter in Odd Places’ event at the Museum of London.]

This is a quick dump of some of the text from an interview I did at the event, cos I managed to cover some stuff I didn’t quite articulate in my talk:

[On challenges for museums:] We need to change institutional priorities to acknowledge the size of the online audience and the different levels of engagement that are possible with the online experience. Having talked to people here, museums also need to do a bit of a sell job in letting people know that we’ve changed and we’re not just great big imposing buildings full of stuff.

[What are the most exciting developments in the museum sector, online?] For digital collections, going outside the walls of the museum using geo-location to place objects in their original context is amazing. It means you can overlay the streets of the city with past events and lives. Outsourcing curation and negotiating new models of expertise is exciting. Overcoming the fear of the digital surrogate as a competitor for museum visits and understanding that everything we do builds audiences, whether digital or physical.

Mashed museum and UK MW 2008 write-up

A report I wrote on ‘The 2008 Mashed Museum Day and UK Museums on the Web Conference‘ is now live on the Ariadne site. I’ve already reported on most of the sessions and the mashed museum day here, but the opportunity to reflect on the day and write for a different audience was useful. The review really made me appreciate that time and space away from all the noise of every day life in which to learn, try and think is incredibly important, whether you call it a workshop or an away day or something else entirely:

One lesson from the Mashed Museum day was that in a sector where innovation is often hampered by a lack of financial resources, time is a valuable commodity. A day away from the normal concerns of the office in ‘an environment free from political or monetary constraints’ is valuable and achievable without the framework of an organised event. An experimental day could also be run with ICT and curatorial or audience-facing staff experimenting with collections data together.

The Ariadne issue is packed full of articles I’ve marked ‘to read’, so you might also find them interesting.

MultiMimsy database extractions and the possibilities for OAI-based collections repositories

I’ve uploaded my presentation slides from a talk for the UK MultiMimsy Users group in Docklands last month to MultiMimsy database extractions and the possibilities for OAI-based collections repositories at the Museum of London.

The first part discusses how to get from a set of data in a collections management system to a final published website, looking at the design process and technical considerations. Willoughby’s use of Oracle on the back-end means that any ODBC-compliant database can query the underlying database and extract collections data.

The paper then looks at some of the possibilities for the Museum of London’s OAI-PMH repository. We’ve implemented an OAI repository for the People’s Network Discover Service (PNDS) for Exploring 20th Century London (which also means we’re set to get records into Europeana), but I hope that we can use the repository in lots of other ways, including the possibility of using our repository to serve data for federated searches.

There’s currently some discussion internationally in the cultural heritage sector about repositories vs federated search, but I’m not sure it’s an either/or choice. The reasons each are used are often to do with political or funding factors instead of the base technology, but either method, or both, could be used internally or externally depending on the requirements of the project and institution.

I can go into more detail about the scripts we use to extract data from MultiMimsy or send sample scripts if people are interested. They might be a good way to get started if you haven’t extracted data from MultiMimsy before but they won’t generally be directly relevant to your data structres as the use of MultiMimsy can vary so widely between types of museums, collections and projects.

Notes from ‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

There are my notes from the data burst ‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’ by Fiona Romeo, at the MCG Spring meeting. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

Fiona’s slides for ‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’ are online.

This was a quick case study: could they use information visualisation to make more of collections datasets? [The site discussed isn’t live yet, but should be soon]

A common visualisation method is maps. It’s a more visual way for people to look at the data, it brings in new stories, and it helps people get sense of the terrain in e.g. expeditions. They exported data directly from MultiMimsy XG and put it into KML templates.

Another common method is timelines. If you have well-structured data you could combine the approaches e.g. plotting stuff on map and on a timeline.

Onto the case study: they had a set of data about memorials around the UK/world. It was quite rich content and they felt that a catalogue was probably not the best way to display it.

They commissioned Stamen Design. They sent CSV files for each table in the database, and no further documentation. [Though since it’s MultiMimsy XG I assume they might have sent the views Willo provide rather than the underlying tables which are a little more opaque.]

Slide 4 lists some reasons arguments for trying visualisations, including the ability to be beautiful and engaging, provocative rather than conclusive, appeal to different learning styles and to be more user-centric (more relevant).

Some useful websites were listed, including the free batchgeocode.com, geonames and getlatlong.

‘Mine the implicit data’ to find meaningful patterns and representations – play with the transcripts of memorial texts to discover which words or phrases occur frequently.

‘Find the primary objects and link them’ – in this case it was the text of the memorials, then you could connect the memorials through the words they share.

The ‘maritime explorer’ will let you start with a word or phrase and follow it through different memorials.

Most interesting thing about the project is the outcome – not only new outputs (the explorer, KML, API), but also a better understanding of their data (geocoded, popular phrases, new connections between transcripts), and the idea that CSV files are probably good enough if you want to release your data for creative re-use.

Approaches to metadata enhancement might include curation, the application of standards, machine-markup (e.g. OpenCalais), social tagging or the treatment of data by artisans. This was only a short (2 – 3 weeks) project but the results are worth it.

[I can’t wait to try the finished ‘explorer’, and I loved the basic message – throw your data out there and see what comes back – you will almost definitely learn more about your data as well as opening up new ways in for new audiences.]

Notes from ‘Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from the presentation ‘Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors’ by Linda Ellis at the MCG Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post.

Linda’s slides for Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors are online.

This was a two year project, fit around their other jobs [and more impressive for that]. The project created British Sign Language video guides for Bantock House. The guides are available on mp3 players and were filmed on location.

Some background:
Not all ‘deaf’ people are the same – there’s a distinction between ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’. The notation ‘d/Deaf’ is often used. Deaf people use sign language as their first language and might not know English; deaf people probably become deaf later in life, and English is their first language. The syntax of British Sign Language (BSL) is different to English syntax. Deaf people will generally use BSL syntax, but deaf people might use signs with English grammar. Not all d/Deaf people can lip-read.

Deaf people are one of the most excluded groups in our society. d/Deaf people can be invisible in society as it’s not obvious if someone is d/Deaf. British sign language was only recognised as an official language in March 2003.

Their Deaf visitors said they wanted:
Concise written information; information in BSL; to explore exhibits independently; stories about local people and museum objects; events just for Deaf people (and dressing up, apparently).

Suggestions:
Put videos on website to tell people what to expect when they visit. But think about what you put on website – they’re Deaf, not stupid, and can read addresses and opening hours, etc. Put a mobile number on publicity so that Deaf people can text about events – it’s cheap and easy to do but can make a huge difference. If you’re doing audience outreach with social software, don’t just blog – think about putting signed videos on YouTube. Use local Deaf people, not interpreters. Provide d/Deaf awareness training for all staff and volunteers. Provide written alternatives to audio guides; add subtitles and an English voice over signed video if you can afford it.

Notes from Museums Computer Group (MCG) Spring Conference, Swansea

These are my notes from the Museums Computer Group (MCG) Spring meeting, held at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, Wales, on April 23, 2008.

Nearly all the slides are online and I also have some photos and video from the National Waterfront Museum. If you put any content about the event online please also tag it with ‘MCGSpring2008’ so all the content about this conference can be found.

The introduction by Debbie Richards mentioned the MCG evaluation project, of which more later in ‘MCG Futures’.

I have tried to cover points that would be of general interest and not just the things that I’m interested in, but it’s still probably not entirely representative of the presentations.

Debbie did a great job of saying people’s names as they asked questions and I hope I’ve managed to get them right, but I haven’t used full names in case my notes on the questions were incorrect. Please let me know if you have any clarifications or corrections.

If I have any personal comments, they’ll be in [square brackets] below. Finally, I’ve used CMS for ‘content management systems’ and CollMS for ‘collections management systems’.

I’ve made a separate post for each paper, but will update and link to them all here as I’ve make them live. The individual posts include links to the specific slides.

‘New Media Interpretation in the National Waterfront Museum’

‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’

‘The Welsh Dimension’

‘Museums and Europeana – the European Digital Library’

‘MCG Futures’

‘Building a bilingual CMS’

‘Extending the CMS to Galleries’

‘Rhagor – the collections based website from Amgueddfa Cymru’

‘Maritime Memorials, visualised’

‘Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors’

‘National Collections Online Feasibility Study’

Notes from ‘National Collections Online Feasibility Study’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from Bridget McKenzie’s presentation, ‘National Collections Online Feasibility Study’ at the MCG Spring meeting. Bridget’s slides are online: National Collections Online Feasibility Study’. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

The partners in the National Collections Online Feasibility Study are the National Museum Director’s Conference, the V&A, the National Museum of Science and Industry, the National Maritime Museum, and Culture 24 (aka the 24 Hour Museum).

The brief:
Is it possible to create a discovery facility that integrates national museum collections; provides seamless access to item-level collections; a base on which build learning resources and creative tools? And can the nationals collaborate successfully?

The enquiry:
What’s the scope? What’s useful to different partners? What can be learnt from past and current projects? How can it help people explore collections? How can it be delivered?

There’s a workshop on May 9th, with some places left, and another on June 18th; reports at the end of May and July.

Community of enquiry… people from lots of different places.

What are they saying?
“Oh no, not another portal!”
“You need to go to where the eyeballs are” – they’re at Google and social networking sites, not at portals (but maybe at a few museum brands too).

It has to be understood in the context of why people visit museums. We don’t know enough about how people use (or want to use) cultural collections online.

There’s some worry about collaborative projects taking visits from individual sites. [Insert usual shtick about the need to the online metrics for museums to change from raw numbers to something like engagement or reach, because this is an institutional concern that won’t go away.]

“Don’t reinvent the wheel, see how other projects shape up”: there’s a long list of other projects on slide 9!

It’s still a job to understand the options, to think about they can be influenced and interoperate.

“We have to build the foundations first”
Needs: audience research – is there a market need for integrated collections?; establish clarity on copyright [yes!]; agreement on data standards; organisational change – communicate possibilities, web expertise within museums; focus on digitising stuff and getting it out there.

[re: the audience – my hunch is that most ‘normal’ people are ‘museum agnostic’ when they’re looking for ‘stuff’ (and I mean ‘stuff’, not ‘collections’) – they just want to find 18th century pictures of dogs, or Charles and Di wedding memorabilia; this is different to someone looking for a ‘branded’ narrative, event or curated experience with a particular museum.]

“Let’s just do small stuff”
Need to enable experiment, follow the Powerhouse example; create a sandbox; try multiple approaches – microformats, APIs, etc. [Woo!]

Does a critical mass of experimentation mean chaos or would answers emerge from it?

What does this mean?
Lots of options; questions about leadership; use the foundations already there – don’t build something big; need an market- or audience-led approach; sector leadership need to value and understand emerging technology.