How did ‘play’ shape the design and experience of creating Serendip-o-matic?

Here are my notes from the Digital Humanities 2014 paper on ‘Play as Process and Product’ I did with Brian Croxall, Scott Kleinman and Amy Papaelias based on the work of the 2013 One Week One Tool team.

Scott has blogged his notes about the first part of our talk, Brian’s notes are posted as ‘“If hippos be the Dude of Love…”: Serendip-o-matic at Digital Humanities 2014‘ and you’ll see Amy’s work adding serendip-o-magic design to our slides throughout our three posts.

I’m Mia, I was dev/design team lead on Serendipomatic, and I’ll be talking about how play shaped both what you see on the front end and the process of making it.

How did play shape the process?

The playful interface was a purposeful act of user advocacy – we pushed against the academic habit of telling, not showing, which you see in some form here. We wanted to entice people to try Serendipomatic as soon as they saw it, so the page text, graphic design, 1 – 2 – 3 step instructions you see at the top of the front page were all designed to illustrate the ethos of the product while showing you how to get started.

How can a project based around boring things like APIs and panic be playful? Technical decision-making is usually a long, painful process in which we juggle many complex criteria. But here we had to practice ‘rapid trust’ in people, in languages/frameworks, in APIs, and this turned out to be a very freeing experience compared to everyday work.
Serendip-o-matic_ Let Your Sources Surprise You.png
First, two definitions as background for our work…

Just in case anyone here isn’t familiar with APIs, APIs are a set of computational functions that machines use to talk to each other. Like the bank in Monopoly, they usually have quite specific functions, like taking requests and giving out information (or taking or giving money) in response to those requests. We used APIs from major cultural heritage repositories – we gave them specific questions like ‘what objects do you have related to these keywords?’ and they gave us back lists of related objects.
2013-08-01 10.14.45.jpg
The term ‘UX‘ is another piece of jargon. It stands for ‘user experience design’, which is the combination of graphical, interface and interaction design aimed at making products both easy and enjoyable to use. Here you see the beginnings of the graphic design being applied (by team member Amy) to the underlying UX related to the 1-2-3 step explanation for Serendipomatic.

Feed.

serendipomatic_presentation p9.png
The ‘feed’ part of Serendipomatic parsed text given in the front page form into simple text ‘tokens’ and looked for recognisable entities like people, places or dates. There’s nothing inherently playful in this except that we called the system that took in and transformed the text the ‘magic moustache box’, for reasons lost to time (and hysteria).

Whirl.

These terms were then mixed into database-style queries that we sent to different APIs. We focused on primary sources from museums, libraries, archives available through big cultural aggregators. Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America have similar APIs so we could get a long way quite quickly. We added Flickr Commons into the list because it has high-quality, interesting images and brought in more international content. [It also turns out this made it more useful for my own favourite use for Serendipomatic, finding slide or blog post images.] The results are then whirled up so there’s a good mix of sources and types of results. This is the heart of the magic moustache.

Marvel.

User-focused design was key to making something complicated feel playful. Amy’s designs and the Outreach team work was a huge part of it, but UX also encompasses micro-copy (all the tiny bits of text on the page), interactions (what happened when you did anything on the site), plus loading screens, error messages, user documentation.

We knew lots of people would be looking at whatever we made because of OWOT publicity; you don’t get a second shot at this so it had to make sense at a glance to cut through social media noise. (This also meant testing it for mobiles and finding time to do accessibility testing – we wanted every single one of our users to have a chance to be playful.)


Without all this work on the graphic design – the look and feel that reflected the ethos of the product – the underlying playfulness would have been invisible. This user focus also meant removing internal references and in-jokes that could confuse people, so there are no references to the ‘magic moustache machine’. Instead, ‘Serendhippo’ emerged as a character who guided the user through the site.

moustache.png But how does a magic moustache make a process playful?

magicmoustachediagram.jpgThe moustache was a visible signifier of play. It appeared in the first technical architecture diagram – a refusal to take our situation too seriously was embedded at the heart of the project. This sketch also shows the value of having a shared physical or visual reference – outlining the core technical structure gave people a shared sense of how different aspects of their work would contribute to the whole. After all, if there aren’t any structure or rules, it isn’t a game.

This playfulness meant that writing code (in a new language, under pressure) could then be about making the machine more magic, not about ticking off functions on a specification document. The framing of the week as a challenge and as a learning experience allowed a lack of knowledge or the need to learn new skills to be a challenge, rather than a barrier. My role was to provide just enough structure to let the development team concentrate on the task at hand.

In a way, I performed the role of old-fashioned games master, defining the technical constraints and boundaries much as someone would police the rules of a game. Previous experience with cultural heritage APIs meant I was able to make decisions quickly rather than letting indecision or doubt become a barrier to progress. Just as games often reduce complex situations to smaller, simpler versions, reducing the complexity of problems created a game-like environment.

UX matters


Ultimately, a focus on the end user experience drove all the decisions about the backend functionality, the graphic design and micro-copy and how the site responded to the user.

It’s easy to forget that every pixel, line of code or text is there either through positive decisions or decisions not consciously taken. User experience design processes usually involve lots of conversation, questions, analysis, more questions, but at OWOT we didn’t have that time, so the trust we placed in each other to make good decisions and in the playful vision for Serendipomatic created space for us to focus on creating a good user experience. The whole team worked hard to make sure every aspect of the design helps people on the site understand our vision so they can get with exploring and enjoying Serendipomatic.

Some possible real-life lessons I didn’t include in the paper

One Week One Tool was an artificial environment, but here are some thoughts on lessons that could be applied to other projects:

  • Conversations trump specifications and showing trumps telling; use any means you can to make sure you’re all talking about the same thing. Find ways to create a shared vision for your project, whether on mood boards, technical diagrams, user stories, imaginary product boxes. 
  • Find ways to remind yourself of the real users your product will delight and let empathy for them guide your decisions. It doesn’t matter how much you love your content or project, you’re only doing right by it if other people encounter it in ways that make sense to them so they can love it too (there’s a lot of UXy work on ‘on-boarding’ out there to help with this). User-centred design means understanding where users are coming from, not designing based on popular opinion.you can use tools like customer journey maps to understand the whole cycle of people finding their way to and using your site (I guess I did this and various other UXy methods without articulating them at the time). 
  • Document decisions and take screenshots as you go so that you’ve got a history of your project – some of this can be done by archiving task lists and user stories. 
  • Having someone who really understands the types of audiences, tools and materials you’re working with helps – if you can’t get that on your team, find others to ask for feedback – they may be able to save you lots of time and pain.
  • Design and UX resources really do make a difference, and it’s even better if those skills are available throughout the agile development process.

‘Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations’ at VALA2014

I’ve just spent a week in Melbourne (my home town, awww) for VALA2014. VALA is about ‘libraries, technology and the future’ and the conference theme for 2014 was ‘streaming with possibilities’. Kim Tairi‘s briefing (as Chair of the VALA2014 Conference Programme Committee) included the phrases ‘stories that will ignite, challenge and excite our audience’ and ‘don’t be afraid to be controversial or push the boundaries’, which was a brilliant challenge and turned out to be a great introduction to the ethos of the conference.

Image by Con Wiebrands 萬事如意 @flexnib

My keynote was on ‘Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations’. From my abstract: Should museums, libraries and archives be places for looking at old stuff other people have made, or could they also be places where new creations are inspired and made? If making – writing, designing, building – is the deepest level of engagement with heritage and culture, how can memory institutions avoid the comforting but deadly trap of broadcasting at the public and instead create spaces for curating, creating or conversing with them? Somehow that meant a romp through banana pianos, the link between knitting and historic newspapers, why I like coding, the value of tinkering, secret shoppers and the fact that everyone is a maker of some sort (or was in the past).

Update: videos of the keynotes are now available online! I haven’t watched any cos I don’t have the Silverlight. I’d recommend them all, but I’m particularly looking forward to re-watching Gene Tan and Matt Finch‘s keynotes.

I’m sharing my slides below, but Slideshare seems to have stopped including the speaker notes so they’re best viewed in conjunction with either of the two blog posts about my keynote that appeared with impressive speed or the tweets from my session. I’ve storified the tweets at Tweets from keynote ‘Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations’ at VALA14 – the audience did a fantastic job of summarising my speech, adding their own questions and comments, and sharing links to the sites and projects I mentioned. Yay, librarians! The two posts are Deborah ‘@deborahfitchett‘ Fitchett’s Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations and Richard ‘@penanghill‘ Hayward’s Mia Ridge on the Maker Movement (on an unrelated-but-home town note, Richard was my boss many, many years ago!).
 

Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations from Mia

Huge thanks to the organisers for the invitation to speak, to the conference staff for making everything run so smoothly, to the other keynotes for their inspiration and to the attendees for being such good sports.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael John Gorman, The Ablative Museum

Possible principles for ‘the open museum’?

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

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

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

Emerging themes from UKMW13

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening notes for Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’

It’ll take me a few days to digest the wonderfulness that was MCG’s UK Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’, so in lieu of a summary, here are my opening notes for the conference… (With the caveat that I didn’t read this but still hopefully hit most of these points on the day).

Welcome to Museums on the Web 2013! I’m Mia Ridge, Chair of the Museums Computer Group.

Hopefully the game that began at registration has helped introduce you to some people you hadn’t met before…You can vote on the game in the auditorium over the lunch break, and the winning team will be announced before the afternoon tea break. Part of being a welcoming community is welcoming others, so we tried to make it easier to start conversations. If you see someone who maybe doesn’t know other people at the event, say hi. I know that many of you can feel like you’re working alone, even within a big organisation, so use this time to connect with your peers.

This week saw the launch of a report written for Nesta, the Arts Council, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council in relation to the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, ‘Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology‘. One line in the report stood out: ‘Museums are less likely than the rest of the sector to report positive impacts from digital technologies’ – which seems counter-intuitive given what I know of museums making their websites and social media work for them, and the many exciting and effective projects we’ve heard about over the past twelve years of MCG’s UK Museums on the Web conferences (and on our active discussion list).

The key to that paradox may lie in another statement in the report: museums report ‘lower than average levels of digital expertise and empowerment from their senior management and a lower than average focus on digital experimentation, and research and development’.* (It may also be that a lot of museum work doesn’t fit into an arts model, but that’s a conversation for another day.) Today’s theme almost anticipates this – our call for papers around ‘Power to the people’ asked for responses around the rise of director-level digital posts the rise of director-level digital posts and empowering museum staff to learn through play as well as papers on grassroots projects and the power of embedding digital audience participation and engagement into the overall public engagement strategy for a museum.

Today we’ll be hearing about great projects from museums and a range of other organisations, but reports like this – and perhaps the wider issue of whether senior management and funders understand the potential of digital beyond new forms of broadcast and ticket sales – raises the question of whether we’re preaching to the converted. How can we help others in museums benefit from the hard-won wisdom and lessons you’ll hear today?

The Museums Computer Group has always been a platform for people working with museum technology who want to create positive change in the sector: our motto is ‘connect, support, inspire’, and we’re always keen to hear your ideas about how we can help you connect, support and inspire you, but as a group we should also be asking: how can we share our knowledge and experience with others? It can be difficult to connect with and support others when you’re flat out with your own work, yet the need to scale up the kinds of education we might have done with small groups working on digital projects is becoming more urgent as audience expectations change and resources need to be spent even more carefully. Ultimately we can help each other by helping the sector get better at technology and recognise the different types of expertise already available within the heritage sector. Groups like the MCG can help bridge the gap; we need your voices to reach senior management as well as practitioners and those who want to work with museums who’ll shape the sector in the future.

It’s rare to find a group so willing to share their failures alongside their successes, so willing to generously share their expertise and so keen to find lessons in other sectors. We appreciate the contributions of many of you who’ve spoken honestly about the successes and failures of your projects in the past, and applaud the spirit of constructive conversation that encourages your peers to share so openly and honestly with us. I’m looking forward to learning from you all today.

* Update to add a link to an interview with MTM’s Richard Ellis who co-authored the Nesta report, who says the ‘sheer extent of the divide between those in the know and those not’ was one of the biggest surprises working in the culture sector.

DHOxSS: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m just back from giving at a lightning talk for the Cultural Connections strand of the Digital.Humanities@Oxford Summer School 2013, and since the projector wasn’t working to show my examples during my talk I thought I’d share my notes (below) and some quick highlights from the other presentations.

Mark Doffman said that it’s important that academic work challenges and provokes, but make sure you get headlines for the right reasons, but not e.g. on how much the project costs. He concluded that impact is about provocation, not just getting people to say your work is wonderful.

Gurinder Punn of the university’s Isis Innovation made the point that intellectual property and expertise can be transferred into businesses by consulting through your department or personally. (And it’s not just for senior academics – one of the training sessions offered to PhD students at the Open University is ‘commercialising your research’).

Giles Bergel @ChapBookPro spoke on the Broadside Ballads Online (blog), explaining that folksong scholarship is often outside academia – there’s a lot of vernacular scholarship and all sorts of domain specialists including musicians. They’ve considered crowdsourcing but want to be in a position to take the contributions as seriously as any print accession. They also have an image-match demonstrator from Oxford’s Visual Geometry Group which can be used to find similar images on different ballad sheets.

Christian von Goldbeck-Stier offered some reflections on working with conductors as part of his research on Wagner. And perfectly for a summer’s day:

Christian quotes Wilde on beauty: “one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime…” http://t.co/8qGE9tLdBZ #dhoxss
— Pip Willcox (@pipwillcox) July 11, 2013

My talk notes: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m interested in academic engagement from two sides – for the past decade or so I was a museum technologist; now I’m a PhD student in the Department of History at the Open University, where I’m investigating the issues around academic and ‘amateur’ historians and scholarly crowdsourcing.

As I’ve moved into academia, I’ve discovered there’s often a disconnect between academia and museum practice (to take an example I know well), and that their different ways of working can make connecting difficult, even before they try to actually collaborate. But it’s worth it because the reward is more relevant, cutting-edge research that directly benefits practitioners in the relevant fields and has greater potential impact.

I tend to focus on engagement through participation and crowdsourcing, but engagement can be as simple as blogging about your work in accessible terms: sharing the questions that drive your research, how you’ve come to some answers, and what that means for the world at large; or writing answers to common questions from the public alongside journal articles.

Plan it

For a long time, museums worked with two publics: visitors and volunteers. They’d ask visitors what they thought in ‘have your say’ interactives, but to be honest, they often didn’t listen to the answers. They’d also work with volunteers but sometimes they valued their productivity more than they valued their own kinds of knowledge. But things are more positive these days – you’ve already heard a lot about crowdsourcing as a key example of more productive engagement.

Public engagement works better when it’s incorporated into a project from the start. Museums are exploring co-curation – working with the public to design exhibitions. Museums are recognising that they can’t know everything about a subject, and figuring out how to access knowledge ‘out there’ in the rest of the world. In the Oramics project at the Science Museum (e.g. Oramics to Electronica or Engaging enthusiasts online), electronic musicians were invited to co-curate an exhibition to help interpret an early electronic instrument for the public. 

There’s a model from ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research’ (or ‘citizen science’) I find useful in my work when thinking about how much agency the public has in a project, and it’s also useful for planning engagement projects. Where can you benefit from questions or contributions from the public, and how much control are you willing to give up? 

Contributory projects designed by scientists, with participants involved primarily in collecting samples and recording data; Collaborative projects in which the public is also involved in analyzing data, refining project design, and disseminating findings; Co-created projects are designed by scientists and members of the public working together, and at least some of the public participants are involved in all aspects of the work. (Source: Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education (full report, PDF, 3 MB))

Do it

Museums have learnt that engaging the public means getting out of their venues (and their comfort zones). One example is Wikipedians-in-Residence, including working with Wikipedians to share images, hold events and contribute to articles. (e.g. The British Museum and MeA Wikipedian-in-Residence at the British MuseumThe Children’s Museum’s Wikipedian in Residence). 
It’s not always straightforward – museums don’t do ‘neutral’ points of view, which is a key goal for Wikipedia. Museums are object-centric, Wikipedia is knowledge-centric. Museums are used to individual scholarship and institutional credentials, Wikipedia is consensus-driven and your only credentials are your editing history and your references. Museums are slowly learning to share authority, to trust the values of other platforms. You need to invest time to learn what drives the other groups, how to talk with them and you have to be open to being challenged.

Mean it

Done right, engagement should be transformative for all sides. According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, engagement ‘is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.’ Saying something is ‘open to the public’ is easy; making efforts to make sure that it’s intellectually and practically accessible takes more effort; active outreach is a step beyond open. It’s not the same as marketing – it may use the same social media channels, but it’s a conversation, not a broadcast. It’s hard to fake being truly engaged (and it’s rude) so you have to mean it – doing it cynically doesn’t help anyone.

Asking people to do work that helps your mission is a double win. For example, Brooklyn Museum’s ‘Freeze Tag‘ ask members of their community to help moderate tags entered by people elsewhere – they’re trusting members of the community to clean up content for them.

Enjoy it

My final example is the National Library of Ireland on Flickr Commons, who do a great job of engaging people in Irish history, partly through their enthusiasm for the subject and partly through the effort they put into collating comments and updating their records, showing how much they value contributions. 

Almost by definition, any collaboration around engagement will be with people who are interested in your work, and they’ll bring new perspectives to it. You might end up working with international peers, academics from different disciplines, practitioner groups, scholarly amateurs or kids from the school down the road. And it’s not all online – running events is a great way to generate real impact and helps start conversations with potential for future collaboration.

You might benefit too! Talking about your research sometimes reminds you why you were originally interested in it… It’s a way of looking back and seeing how far you’ve come. It’s also just plain rewarding seeing people benefit from your research, so it’s worth doing well.


Thanks again to Pip Willcox for the invitation to speak, and to the other speakers for their fascinating perspectives.  Participation and engagement lessons from cultural heritage and academia is a bit of a hot topic at the moment – there’s more on it (including notes from a related paper I gave with Helen Weinstein) at Participatory Practices.

Notes from ‘Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities’

Last week I attended a one-day conference, ‘Digital Impacts: Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities‘ (#oxcrowd), convened by Kathryn Eccles of Oxford’s Internet Institute, and I’m sharing my (sketchy, as always) notes in the hope that they’ll help people who couldn’t attend.

Stuart Dunn reported on the Humanities Crowdsourcing scoping report (PDF) he wrote with Mark Hedges and noted that if we want humanities crowdsourcing to take off we should move beyond crowdsourcing as a business model and look to form, nurture and connect with communities.  Alice Warley and Andrew Greg presented a useful overview of the design decisions behind the Your Paintings Tagger and sparked some discussion on how many people need to view a painting before it’s ‘completed’, and the differences between structured and unstructured tagging. Interestingly, paintings can be ‘retired’ from the Tagger once enough data has been gathered – I personally think the inherent engagement in tagging is valuable enough to keep paintings taggable forever, even if they’re not prioritised in the tagging interface.  Kate Lindsay brought a depth of experience to her presentation on ‘The Oxford Community Collection Model’ (as seen in Europeana 1914-1918 and RunCoCo’s 2011 report on ‘How to run a community collection online‘ (PDF)). Some of the questions brought out the importance of planning for sustainability in technology, licences, etc, and the role of existing networks of volunteers with the expertise to help review objects on the community collection days.  The role of the community in ensuring the quality of crowdsourced contributions was also discussed in Kimberly Kowal’s presentation on the British Library’s Georeferencer project. She also reflected on what she’d learnt after the first phase of the Georeferencer project, including that the inherent reward of participating in the activity was a bigger motivator than competitiveness, and the impact on the British Library itself, which has opened up data for wider digital uses and has more crowdsourcing projects planned. I gave a paper which was based on an earlier version, The gift that gives twice: crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage, but pushed my thinking about crowdsourcing as a tool for deep engagement with museums and other memory organisations even further. I also succumbed to the temptation to play with my own definitions of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage: ‘a form of engagement that contributes towards a shared, significant goal or research question by asking the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically’ or ‘productive public engagement with the mission and work of memory institutions’.

Chris Lintott of Galaxy Zoo fame shared his definition of success for a crowdsourcing/citizen science project: it has to produce results of value to the research community in less time than could have been done by other means (i.e. it must have been able to achieve something with crowd that couldn’t have without them) and discussed how the Ancient Lives project challenged that at first by turning ‘a few thousand papyri they didn’t have time to transcribe into several thousand data points they didn’t have time to read’.  While ‘serendipitous discovery is a natural consequence of exposing data to large numbers of users’ (in the words of the Citizen Science Alliance), they wanted a more sophisticated method for recording potential discoveries experts made while engaging with the material and built a focused ‘talk‘ tool which can programmatically filter out the most interesting unanswered comments and email them to their 30 or 40 expert users. They also have Letters for more structured, journal-style reporting. (I hope I have that right).  He also discussed decisions around full text transcriptions (difficult to automatically reconcile) vs ‘rich metadata’, or more structured indexes of the content of the page, which contain enough information to help historians decide which pages to transcribe in full for themselves.

Some other thoughts that struck me during the day… humanities crowdsourcing has a lot to learn from the application of maths and logic in citizen science – lots of problems (like validating data) that seem intractable can actually be solved algorithmically, and citizen science hypothesis-based approach to testing task and interface design would help humanities projects. Niche projects help solve the problem of putting the right obscure item in front of the right user (which was an issue I wrestled with during my short residency at the Powerhouse Museum last year – in hindsight, building niche projects could have meant a stronger call-to-action and no worries about getting people to navigate to the right range of objects).  The variable role of forums and participants’ relationship to the project owners and each other came up at various points – in some projects, interactions with a central authority are more valued, in others, community interactions are really important. I wonder how much it depends on the length and size of the project? The potential and dangers of ‘gamification’ and ‘badgeification’ and their potentially negative impact on motivation were raised. I agree with Lintott that games require a level of polish that could mean you’d invest more in making them than you’d get back in value, but as a form of engagement that can create deeper relationships with cultural heritage and/or validate some procrastination over a cup of tea, I think they potentially have a wider value that balances that.

I was also asked to chair the panel discussion, which featured Kimberly Kowal, Andrew Greg, Alice Warley, Laura Carletti, Stuart Dunn and Tim Causer.  Questions during the panel discussion included:

  • ‘what happens if your super-user dies?’ (Super-users or super contributors are the tiny percentage of people who do most of the work, as in this Old Weather post) – discussion included mass media as a numbers game, the idea that someone else will respond to the need/challenge, and asking your community how they’d reach someone like them. (This also helped answer the question ‘how do you find your crowd?’ that came in from twitter)
  • ‘have you ever paid anyone?’ Answer: no
  • ‘can you recruit participants through specialist societies?’ From memory, the answer was ‘yes but it does depend’.
  • something like ‘have you met participants in real life?’ – answer, yes, and it was an opportunity to learn from them, and to align the community, institution, subject and process.
  • badgeification?’. Answer: the quality of the reward matters more than the levels (so badges are probably out).
  • ‘what happens if you force students to work on crowdsourcing projects?’ – one suggestion was to look for entries on Transcribe Bentham in a US English class blog
  • ‘what’s happened to tagging in art museums, where’s the new steve.museum or Brooklyn Museum?’ – is it normalised and not written about as much, or has it declined?
  • ‘how can you get funding for crowdsourcing projects?’. One answer – put a good application in to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Or start small, prove the value of the project and get a larger sum. Other advice was to be creative or use existing platforms. Speaking of which, last year the Citizen Science Alliance announced ‘the first open call for proposals by researchers who wish to develop citizen science projects which take advantage of the experience, tools and community of the Zooniverse. Successful proposals will receive donated effort of the Adler-based team to build and launch a new citizen science project’.
  • ‘can you tell in advance which communities will make use of a forum?’ – a great question that drew on various discussions of the role of communities of participants in supporting each other and devising new research questions
  • a question on ‘quality control’ provoked a range of responses, from the manual quality control in Transcribe Bentham and the high number of Taggers initially required for each painting in Your Paintings which slowed things down, and lead into a discussion of shallow vs deep interactions
  • the final questioner asked about documenting film with crowdsourcing and was answered by someone else in the audience, which seemed a very fitting way to close the day.
James Murray in his Scriptorium with thousands of word references sent in by members of the public for the first Oxford English Dictionary. Early crowdsourcing?

If you found this post useful, you might also like Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage or my earlier Museums and the Web paper on Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections.

Notes from THATCamp Feminisms West #tcfw

I’m just back from ten days in the US where I attended two events, both closely related to digital history, feminist digital humanities and women’s history (whether intellectual, science, education, etc related). I’m posting to mark the moment and to collect some links – I think I’m still digesting the many conversations and moments of insight.

THATCamp Feminisms West #tcfw

A THATCamp is a technology+humanities unconference, a format much loved in the digital humanities world. This one was conceived from a twitter conversation and organised by the wonderful Jacque Wernimont of Scripps College in Claremont, California for March 14-15. Two other THATCamp Feminisms were held simultaneously in the south and east. I was invited over to do a workshop, and thought ‘data visualisation as a gateway to programming‘ would be useful – I prepared two exercises, one of which involved thinking about how to match visualisation types to the structure of the selected content in ManyEyes, while the other was more about learning about how code works by playing with a pre-coded (and heavily, chattily commented) working visualisation that used SIMILE’s JavaScript libraries – ‘view source’ and save the file to your hard drive to get started. It was a good chance to talk about the issues that messy humanities data create for generic visualisation tools, the risks in the ‘truthiness’ of visualisations, the importance of thinking critically about algorithms and issues around primary sources and women’s history, etc, with people who’d thought deeply about some of these issues and could make their own contributions to the workshop.
The day started with the #tooFEW Wikipedia editathon (storify of results), which gave everyone a chance to learn and try out something new before the THATCamp had even officially started. It was a nice way to ease into things and achieve something together before working out the THATCamp programme as a group.
Over the day and a half I went to sessions including Feminist digital pedagogy and Feminist Collaboration. After a week of further travel across the US and another conference, the sessions are blurring into one, but overall they were a great chance to think about what a feminist digital humanities might be like (see for example Transformative Digital Humanities projects or read Toward an Open Digital Humanities from an earlier THATCamp for things to move towards or be careful of), to ask questions like ‘what would a feminist Digging into Data look like?’, to ask ‘does it matter if feminist projects are made with people who don’t share their politics’? (Probably not, though academic work might be attractive to people who value work/life balance.)  What’s the right mix of openness and shared authority, how collaborative can a class be, and how can we help students fail safely in the cause of experimenting (especially when using public technologies like YouTube or Twitter)? It’s important to remember that, as Alex Juhasz said, feminism is about process (or praxis), doing and making things, which in turn made me realise that one reason I value teaching coding is that it gives people DIY tools to make things that suit their own research needs and styles (see ‘Why learning to code isn’t as important as learning to build something‘ but please also read Code: Craft and Culture and the comments below it). I also loved Alex’s statement that she’s ‘less interested in feminism that starts from danger than feminism that starts from agency’ and being fearless about taking up space.

The value of meeting in person was an underlying theme of the event, and eventually a conversation about Building a DH Regional Hub, and the difficulties in collaborating between institutions and organising in-person meetings with the huge geographic coverage of the Los Angeles area lead to the invention of Mindr: ‘Grindr for travelling DHers – who’s nearby and what do they want to chat about?’, or as @laurenfklein described it, a ‘geo-aware interface to DH Answers‘, an app that lets you know when someone with similar scholarly interests is nearby and might be up for a chat.  I would *love* this to actually happen, and who knows, if someone is able to shepherd the enthusiasm for it, it might.

Beyond the value in the discussion, just being surrounded by people who were digitally savvy and were also aware of the effects of implicit biases and tech-as-a-meritocracy, the role of disciplinary gatekeepers, assumptions about gendered work, emotional labour and the pressure to be ‘nice’ as well as the peculiarities of academia was brilliant. It was also a bit intimidating at first as I don’t feel hugely qualified to comment on feminist issues (it’s a long time since I’ve been caught up on theory and ‘feminism’ online has probably made it sound scarier than it really is) unless conversation moved to ‘women in tech’ issues or I could contribute observations on my experience of academia and workplaces in the UK. Perhaps that’s one reason I was encouraged by discussion about possible models of feminist scholarship and mentoring (including asking male allies for help) – I don’t have to figure this out on my own. That said, as Anne Cong-Huyen said:

‘At an event like this one, where we come together to address or at least share about gender and sexual equality in dh and the academy it leaves us to ask: Where does the burden of addressing that inequity fall? […] And how about those of us who are junior faculty, adjuncts, or graduate students (like myself) who have even less power within the academy?’

Or in Amanda Phillips’ words:

In this way, THATCamp Feminisms felt a bit different than other THATCamps I’ve attended. The infectious enthusiasm of DH was tempered here by the political, professional, and market realities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

I think it’s important that those realities are widely understood and shared, or some of the promise of the digital humanities will have failed to blossom. Creating space for those hard questions perhaps highlights how positive, supportive and constructive the environment at THATCamp Feminisms West was.  I don’t have a witty or concise conclusion, except to say that I met a bunch of amazing women and came away encouraged and inspired, and you should definitely go to a THATCamp Feminisms if you ever get a chance. Or run one yourself and see what happens. To quote Alex Juhasz again:

To me it is was less the DH, or even the digital, that made this conversation matter, but the feminist: because we shared values, the will and capacity to be critical as well as intellectual while being supportive and trying to distribute authority and voice around the room all the while working, quick.

Other posts:

(For the clarity, my personal definition of feminism is something like ‘working to create a world in which the choices available in your life aren’t determined by your gender’ – of course, ideally the same would be true for ethnicity, nationality or class, and they’re all inter-related, and they all work to create a better life for all genders. I shouldn’t have to offer a definition of feminism as ‘equality of opportunity’ but somehow the term has been twisted to mean all sorts of other things, so there you go.)

From Claremont I made my way back to LA, then over to DC, then Philly, catching up with or meeting various ace people before heading to Bryn Mawr for Women’s History in the Digital World, but I’ve run out of time and space so I’ll have to post about that later.

Notes from ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’

I’ve just spent two days in Leicester for the ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’ conference at the school of Museum Studies, part of the AHRC-funded iSay project focusing on Visitor-Generated Content (VGC) in heritage institutions. There will be lots of posts on the conference blog, so these are just some things that struck me or I’ve found useful concepts for thinking about my own museum practice.

I tweeted about the event as I headed to Leicester, and that started a conversation about the suitability of the term ‘visitor-generated content’ that continued through the event itself. I think it was Giasemi who said that one problem with ‘visitor-generated content’ is that the term puts the emphasis on content and that’s not what it’s about. Jeremy Ottevanger suggested ‘inbound communications’ as a possible replacement for VGC.

The first keynote was Angelina Russo, who reminded us of the importance of curiosity and of finding ways to make museum collections central to visitor engagement work. She questioned the value of some comments left on museum collections other than the engagement in the process of leaving the comment. Having spent too much time reviewing visitor comments, I have to agree that not all comments (particularly repetitive ones) have inherently valuable content or help enhance another visitor’s experience – a subject that was debated during the conference. A conversation over twitter during the conference with Claire Ross helped me realise that designing interfaces that respect and value the experience of both the commenter and reading is one of the interesting challenges in digital participation.

She then used Bourdieu’s ideas around ‘restricted cultural production’ to characterise the work of curators as producers who create cultural goods for other producers, governed by specific norms and sanctions, within relatively self-contained communities where their self-esteem depends on peers. However, this creates a tension between what curators think their role is and what museums need it to be in an age when museums are sites of large-scale cultural production for ‘the public at large’, driven by a quest for market share and profits. Visitor-generated content and the related issues of trust, authority, or digitisation highlight the tensions between these models of restricted or large-scale cultural production – we need to find ‘a pathway through the sand’. Angelina suggested that a version of Bourdieu’s ‘gift economies’, where products are created and given away in return for recognition might provide a solution, then asked what’s required to make that shift within the museum. How can we link the drive for participation with the core work of museums and curatorial scholarship? She presented a model (which I haven’t gone into here) for thinking about ‘cultural communication’, or communication which is collection-led; curiosity-driven; is scholarly; experiential; and offers multi-platform opportunities for active cultural participation, engagement and co-creation.

Carl Hogsden from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and University of Cambridge talked about the Reciprocal Research Network and moving beyond digital feedback to digital reciprocation. This project has been doing innovative work for a long time, so it was good to see it presented again.

Jenny Kidd from Cardiff University posed some useful questions in ‘VGC and ethics – what we might learn from the media and journalism’ – it’s questionable how much VGC (or user-generated content, UGC) has actually changed journalism, despite the promise of increased civic engagement, diversity, more relevant news and a re-framing of the audience as active citizens rather than consumers. One interesting point was the impact of the ‘Arab Spring’ on UGC – content that couldn’t be verified couldn’t be shown by traditional media so protesters started including establishing shots and improving the quality of their recordings. This was also the first of several papers that referenced ‘Whose cake is it anyway‘, a key text for conversations about visitor participation and museums and Jenny suggested that sometimes being seen to engage in participatory activity is currently possibly end goal in itself for a museum. She presented questions for further research and debate including: is the museum interested in quality of process or product of VGC and do creators feel the same? How does VGC fit in workflow models of museums?

Giasemi Vavoula‘s paper on ‘The role of VGC in digital transformations in Museum Learning’ (slides) was fascinating, particularly as it presented frameworks for audience engagement taken from learning theory that closely matched those I’d found from studies of citizen science and engagement in heritage and sport (e.g. cognitive engagement model – highest is theorising, then applying, relating, explaining, describing, note-taking, memorising… Good visitor experiences get most visitors to use the higher engagement level processes that the more focused visitors use spontaneously). I love learning from Learning people – in museum learning/visitor studies, social interaction facilitates learning; visitors negotiate the meanings of exhibits through conversation with their companions. Giasemi called for museums to weave VGC into the fabric of visitors social contexts; to scaffold and embed it into visiting experience; and to align with visitors and organisations’ social agendas.

In ‘A Tale of Two WorkhousesPeter Rogers and Juliet Sprake spoke of ‘filling in the gaps rather than being recipients of one-way information flow’, which tied in nicely with discussion around the role of curiosity in audience participation.

In the afternoon there was a Q&A session with Nina Simon (via skype). A number of the questions were about sustainability, designing for mixed contexts, and the final question was ‘where next from here?’. Nina advised designing participatory experiences so that people can observe the activity and decide to take part when they’re comfortable with it – this also works for designing things that work as spectator experiences for people who don’t want to join in. Nina’s response to a question about ‘designing better questions’ – ‘find questions where you have genuine interest in what the visitor has to say about it’ – resonated with wider discussion about meaningful visitor participation. Nina talked about the cumulative effect of participatory work on the museum itself, changing not only how the museum sees itself but how others see it – I wonder how many museums in the UK are engaging with visitor participation to the extent that it changes the museum itself? Nina also made the point that you tend to have either highly participatory process to make conventional product, or conventional process to make highly participatory product, and that not everything has to be wholly participatory from start to finish, which is useful for thinking how co-creative projects.

On Friday morning I gave a keynote on ‘crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage’. My slides for ‘Crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage‘ are now online. I partly wanted to problematise the power relationships in participatory projects – whose voice can affect change? – and to tease out different ways of thinking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as productive both in terms of the process (engaging in cultural heritage) and the product (the sheer number of items transcribed, corrected, etc). I’ve been going back to research on motivations for volunteering in cultural heritage, working on open source projects and reviewing discussions with participants in crowdsourcing projects, and I hope it’ll help people design projects that meet those altruistic, extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Thinking about my paper in the context of the other presentations also got me thinking about the role of curiosity in audience engagement and encouraging people to start researching a subject (whether a ship’s history, an individual or a general topic) more deeply. On a personal note, this paper was a good chance to reflect on the different types of audience engagement with museum collections or historic sources and on the inherent value of participation in cultural heritage projects that underpin my MSc and PhD research and my work in museums generally.

Areti Galani presented research she’d done with Rachel Clarke (Newcastle University), and asked ‘how can accessible technology lead to inaccessible participation paradigms?’. I was really interested in the difference between quality of the visitor contributions in-gallery vs online (though of course ‘quality’ is a highly subjective term), a question that surfaced through the day. Areti’s research might suggest that building in some delay in the process of contributing in-gallery could lead to better quality (i.e. more considered) contributions. The novelty of the technology used might also have an effect – ‘pen-happy visitors’ who used the technology for the sake of interacting with it but didn’t know what to do after picked up the pen.

The paper from Jeremy Ottevanger (Imperial War Museums) on “Social Interpretation” as a catalyst for organisational change generated more discussion on possible reasons why online comments on museum sites tend to be more thoughtful than in-gallery comments, with one possible reason being that online commenters have deliberately sought out the content, so already have a deeper engagement with those specific items, rather than just coming across them while moving through the physical gallery. Jeremy talked about the need for the museum to find an internal workflow that was appropriately responsive to online comments – in my experience, this is one of the most difficult issues in planning for digital projects. Jeremy presented a useful categorisation of online contributions as personal (emotional, opinion, personal information, anecdotes, family history), requests and queries (object info, valuation, family history, digitisation and licencing, offering material, access, history, general/website), and informational (new information, corrections) and looked at which types of contribution were responded to by different departments. He finished with a vision of the IWM harnessing the enthusiasm and knowledge of their audiences to help serve the need of other audiences, of connecting people with expertise with people who have questions.

Jack Ashby talked about finding the right questions for the QRator project at the Grant Museum of Zoology – a turtle is a turtle, and there’s not a lot of value in finding out what visitors might want to call it, but asking wider questions could be more useful. Like the wider Social Interpretation project, QRator always raises questions for me about whether museums should actively ‘garden’ visitor interactives, pruning out less relevant questions to create a better experience for other visitors.

Rolf Steier and Palmyre Pierroux discussed their findings on the role of the affordances of social media and visitor contributions in museums. Rosie Cardiff talked about the Tate’s motivations for participatory projects with audiences, and audience motivations for participating in Tate’s projects. She presented some considerations for organisations considering participatory projects: who is the audience? What motivations for visitor and for organisation? What platform will you use? How will the content be moderated? (Who will do it?) Where will it sit in relation to organisational space online or in-gallery? How long will it run for? What plans for archiving and maintaining content beyond lifetime of project? How will you measure success? How will you manage audience expectations about what’s going to happen to their work? This last point was also picked up in discussions about audience expectations about how long museums will keep their contributions.

The final presentation was Ross Parry‘s keynote on ‘The end of the beginning: Normativity in the postdigital museum. Based on new research into how six UK national (i.e. centrally funded, big, prestigious museums) have started to naturalise ‘digital’ into their overall museum vision, this paper gave me hope for the future. There’s still a long way to go, but Ross articulated a vision of how some museums are integrating digital in the immediate future, and how it will integrated once the necessary stage of highlighting ‘digital’ in strategies, organisational structures and projects has given way to a more cohesive incorporation of ‘digital’ into the fabric of museums. It also makes sense in the context of discussions about digital strategies in museums over the past year (e.g. at the Museums Assocation and UK Museums on the Web (themes, my report) conferences).

I had to leave before the final session, so my report ends here, but I expect there’ll be more reports on the project blog and I’ve saved an archive of isayevent_tweets_2013_02_01 (CSV).

I think the organisers, Giasemi Vavoula and Jenny Kidd, did a great job on the conference programme. The papers and audience were a well-balanced combination of academics and practioners – the academic papers gave me interesting frameworks to think with, and the case studies provided material to think about.

Some personal highlights from UKMW12: Strategically Digital

#ukmw12 trended over 'Christmas'
#UKMW12 trended above Christmas!

There are a few reports about UKMW12, the Museums Computer Group’s Museums on the Web 2012 conference out there already and I’ve already written about the themes for UKMW12, but as I wanted to note some things I wanted to remember or follow up on later, I might as well share them. But be warned, these notes are very sketchy because I was keeping an eye on lots of other things on the day (and preparing for my first ever AGM as Chair). It’s amazing how quickly one day can go by when you’ve spent so long preparing for it.

The keynotes
Andy Dobson talked about the incredible new energy that ‘creative technology’ is bringing to digital work. He remember going to a show on London’s South Bank and seeing Mosaic, Myst on a mac and Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, all for the first time. My first experiences with the potential of the web were different, but I remember that sense of exciting things being in the very near future, and of the web being something you could do as well as something you used.

I loved that he turned the proliferation of web technologies and the number of acronyms in the standard developer’s toolkit into a positive – ‘it’s exciting, it’s like the early days again’. His broader description of ‘hackers’ as people who apply technology to the creative process was inspiring, and perhaps particularly apt for museums. They’re people who circumvent standard practices, and while hack days can be technology-led they can also be about hacking internal processes.

He emphasised that digital is inherently multi-disciplinary work, encompassing technology, user experience design, sociology, etc and that it doesn’t work if any one discipline hogs the process. If I were to pull out one thread from the day, it might be the idea that ‘digital’ is too big to stay in technology departments while also being too important to deliver without taking seriously the expertise of technologists and related disciplines. As Tate’s John Stack put it, ‘digital doesn’t respect organisational boundaries’, a theme that was echoed by the V&A’s Rich Barrett-Small who called on developers to ‘flex within the scope of the museum’ and not just be ‘grumpy developers in the basement’ while pointing out they also need to be ‘a strong and credible voice’ within the museum. Perhaps as Andrew said, ‘organisational hacking’ is the answer, though ‘change management’ and new forms of collaboration might be a less scary description to use within a museum.
Speaking of ‘makers’, Andrew gave some great examples of artworks and the migration of the web ethos into the physical world. The thought that a Maker Faire can draw in 100,000 people is mind-blowing. I loved his description of the ‘creative gene pool’, partly because museums can play that role in others lives, but sometimes we need a reminder to go and hang out and be inspired by our collections. And to close, a tweet from @Sarah_Fellows that brought Andy’s points right into the sector: ‘#ukmw12 Access, community, sharing, collaboration, learning; interesting that the words which describe digital creatives = heritage ideals’. There was a great question from the audience about ‘how do you get inspiration when recommendation systems are geared at giving you things you already like?’, which doubles as a great challenge for online collections sites.

Metrics, Channels, Engagement, Re-use, Transparency, ContentPaul Rowe introduced us to the ‘online collection hamburger‘ in which metrics and content surround channels, engagement, re-use and transparency. He pointed out that ‘Collection content is internet gold – it’s unique, interesting, has an emotional connection with people, places and times’ but also that a museum website is ‘no longer the final destination for publishing online content’. I loved his solution to the fact that a single museum can’t always answer a user’s query: ‘show related content from other museums if you don’t have an object for a search term’. His statement that ‘We shouldn’t be leading people into a dead end just for the sake of keeping them on our website’ should be made into t-shirts and sold outside digital project planning meetings, and his advocacy for ‘wonder’ and surfacing interesting things from your collections made me wish I was working on a museum website again. Paul provided examples from museums across the world, and was a brilliant advocate for both collections and audiences.

Mobile
One of the surprising highlights of the day was the general realisation of the importance of mobile traffic to museum websites. As Andrew Lewis said of the V&A’s digital strategy: ”If it doesn’t work on mobile it’s probably not going to happen’. I suppose I’ve been immersed in research on mobile devices and behaviours (not least for the Culture24-led action research project ‘Let’s Get Real’) so I forget that not everyone is aware of how many of their visitors are on mobile devices. One figure quoted on the day on an ‘increase of 170% in mobile access in last 12 months’ came from some analysis I did for the Let’s Get Real project, so I thought I’d share some more information about that. I was reviewing analytics from the partner websites to see how many had reached the ‘tipping point’ of 20% or more visits on mobiles, and thought I’d compare that to the same period for the previous year (Jan-Aug 2011 and Jan-Aug 2012) to see how fast mobile visits were increasing. It turns out that in general there was a 170% increase in mobile visits to cultural websites. So even if you’re getting less than 20% mobile visits now, it won’t be long before mobile is important for you too. But a caveat – there’s a lot of variation across different organisations (and regions) so as ever, your milage may vary.  The project report will contain lots more detail, but at least now there’s some context for that stat.

Put visitors at the heart of what you do
Whether it’s through data analytics or digital R&D, this was a theme of Tom Grinsted’s talk on making data-based decisions, and lay behind Nick Poole asking how and why museums are sharing their content online (and asking for help in building on his research into different options for sharing collections online) and Katy Beale asking us to prioritise people over products. Claire Ross and Jane Audas talked about the impact of stakeholder management on agile, iterative projects but looked beyond organisational issues to focus on their key positive finding about trusting audiences when moderating social media.

The lesson of the day may be that the whole point of a digital strategy is to help balance the internal needs of a large, often conservative organisation like a museum with the changing needs of our audiences.  It’s clear that the best strategies are a framework for decision-making rather than a static document, but perhaps they’re also a reminder of why we’re doing it in the first place: to connect audiences with knowledge and collections.

And just in case that’s not enough UKMW12 for you, I’ve made a storify of the day:

‘War, Plague and Fire’ and ‘Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums’ at ‘Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture’

I’ve finally had a moment to catch up and post the first part of my notes from Museum/iD‘s conference, Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. Overall it was a great conference that left me with a lot of things to think about for how museums can adapt and thrive in the current international context, and reminded me why museums should survive: they matter. I’ve posted my thoughts from the later sessions at Why museums matter: ‘Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture’ with a short summary of the whole event at the start.

Sharon Ament’s keynote at Museum of London Docklands

The day was chaired by Ben Gammon who began by pointing out that innovation is no longer a luxury, it’s now critical for survival.

The keynote speaker was the new Director of the Museum of London, Sharon Ament, who spoke on War, Plague and Fire: museums and libraries in the era of participatory culture. Previously Ament was director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum, and she drew on that background in her talk while also relating it to the collections of the Museum of London and the docklands location of the conference. She called for museums to look at what participatory culture means to the people they serve, especially when the individual has the capacity to be heard more loudly than ever before. The international context in which we’re living – with civil unrest, economic crises and global warming – is a time of change and fear means that adaptation to the external environment is an important concept for museums today. Her talk, and some of the discussion afterwards, focused on the role of museums and libraries as venues for independent discovery; accessible to many because entry was free. She suggested that creative responses – small things that can happen spontaneously, like the ‘pop-up’ concept – might be useful for reaching people.

One final quote to close, from the Salzburg Global Seminar and the Institute of Museum and Library Services report on ‘Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture’: ‘technology is a tool, not an objective, and that the creation of increased public value is the end goal. Identifying stakeholders’ needs means addressing human relationships, a sense of organization, and an intellectual construct to shape information and access’.

The next session was a ‘fireside chat’ with Rob Stein (Dallas Museum of Art) and Seb Chan (Cooper-Hewitt Museum) reflecting on ‘Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums‘ and their experiences in changing museums. They discussed collaboration (Stein noted that everything he’s built that’s had a modicum of success has been a collaboration with lots of people), the pace of change in different museums (including the need to build a risk-tolerant culture), and the risk of assuming that technology is an inherent part of innovation (Stein observed that the change that needs to happen at DAM is cultural, about shifting ambition). How do you create a culture of innovation? Chan mentioned Elaine Heumann Gurian‘s Wanting to be the Third on your Block and said that the first thing he did when he started at the Cooper-Hewitt was create a space that gave people permission to change. He set up ‘labs’ as a space for people to talk about stuff, which also gave his immediate team a public voice for the first time. He pushed fast to get quick results on some straightforward things to start to set an expectation of speed and accelerate culture: ‘right now, doing things fast matters more than doing things well’. He talked about cultivating rogues and tricksters in the museum to accelerate change and get a paradigm shift and suggested tackling root problems rather than symptoms for issues like copyright. They also discussed how to play up the fun of museum jobs to make them more attractive in a competitive tech jobs market, and the importance of putting some money into innovation where possible. Stein suggested that it’s possible to support innovation without a budget, e.g. museums can hold ‘research forums’ where people share what they’re working on.

Chan also said museums have turned themselves into ‘exhibition farms’, letting them suck huge amounts of resource; together with the obsession with ‘finish’ this slows innovation that could come from re-thinking how exhibitions and public programmes work together. Stein observed ‘museums seem to like gargantuan problems, things that take five years to get out the door [like] exhibitions, publications, buildings.’

They discussed the mismatch between museum exhibition launch models and software models: ‘people want to feel that something’s finished when it launches, they want the party and the holiday’. But in software development, no-one takes a holiday straight after launch because they’re watching what people do with the new software. [I was really interested in this section as it’s something I’ve thought about a lot (e.g. does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?) – I suspect museum technologists have two clashing mental models about how to work: one is the web agency model, based around cycles of ‘launch, observe, iterate, update’; the other is the ‘long slog to an unmovable launch date then onto the next project’ of museums. When the rest of the world moves on the agile, iterative model, it’s frustrating being tied to the museum model, particularly when it seems to have more flaws than benefits for modern audiences.] In closing they talked about the effectiveness of various models of innovation, whether attempts at top-down innovation, departments of innovation or more integrated models of innovation.

This post is already quite long, so I might hit publish now and come back to the other talks later.

Disclosure: my ticket was provided by Museum/iD.