‘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.

‘An (even briefer) history of open cultural data’ at GLAM-Wiki 2013

These are some of my notes for my invited plenary talk at GLAM-Wiki 2013 (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums & Wikimedia, #GLAMWiki), held at the British Library on April 12-13, 2013. I don’t think I stuck that closely to them on the day, and in the interests of brevity I’ve left out the ‘timeline’ bits (but you can read about some of them in a related MuseumID article, ‘Where next for open cultural data in museums?‘) to focus on the lessons to be learnt from changes so far. There were lots of great talks and discussion at the event, you can view some of the presentations on Wikimedia UK’s YouTube channel.

A (now very) brief history of open cultural data

Firstly, thank you for the invitation to speak… This morning I want to highlight some key moments of change in the history of open cultural data – a history not only of licenses and data, but also of conversations, standards, and collaborations, of moments where things changed… I’ve included key moments from funders, legislative influences and the commercial sector too, as they create the context in which change happens and often have an effect on what’s considered possible. I’ll close by considering some of the lessons learnt.

[Please help improve this talk]

A caveat – there may well be a bias towards the English-speaking world (and to museums, because of my background). If you know of an open GLAM (gallery, library, archive, museum) data source I’ve missed, you can add it to the open cultural data/GLAM API wiki… or Lotte’s Belice‘s list of open culture milestones  timeline.

Definitions

‘open cultural data’ is data from cultural institutions that is made available for use in a machine-readable format under an open licence. But each word in open, cultural, data is slightly more complicated so I’ll unpack them a little…

Open

Office clerks, FNV. Voorlichting.

While the degree of openness required to be ‘open’ data can be contentious, at its simplest, ‘open’ refers to content that is available for use outside the institution that created it, whether for school homework projects, academic monographs or mobile phone apps. ‘Open’ may refer to licences that clarify the permissions and restrictions placed on data, or to the use of non-proprietary digital technologies, or ideally, to a combination of both open licences and technologies.

Ideally, open data is freely available for use and redistribution by anyone for any purpose, but in reality there are often restrictions. GLAMs may limit commercial use by licensing content for ‘non-commercial use only’, but as there is no clear definition of ‘non-commercial use’ in Creative Commons licences, some developers may choose not to risk using a dataset with an unclear licence. GLAMs may also release data for commercial use but still require attribution, either to help retain the provenance of the content, to help people find their way to related content or just because they’d like some credit for their work. GLAMs might also release data under custom licences that deal with their specific circumstances, but they are then difficult to integrate with content from other openly-licensed datasets.

Hybrid licensing models are a pragmatic solution for the current environment. They at least allow some use and may contribute to greater use of open cultural data while other issues are being worked out. For example, some institutions in the UK are making lower resolutions images available for re-use under an open licence while reserving high resolution versions for commercial sales and licensing. Or they may differentiate between scholarly and commercial use, or use more restrictive licences for commercially valuable images and release everything else openly.

I think this type of access is better than nothing, particularly if organisations can learn from the experience and release more data next time. Because these hybrid models are often experimental, their reception is important, and it’s helpful for GLAMs to be able to show they’ve had a positive impact and hopefully helped create relationships with groups like Wikipedia.

Cultural

Cultural data is data about objects, publications (such as books, pamphlets, posters or musical scores), archival material, etc, created and distributed by museums, libraries, archives and other organisations.

Data

It’s a useful distinction to discuss early with other cultural heritage staff as it’s easy to be talking at cross-purposes: data can refer to different types of content, from metadata or tombstone records (the basic titles, names, dates, places, materials, etc of a catalogue record), to entire collection records (including data such as researched and interpretive descriptions of objects, bibliographic data, related themes and narratives) to full digital surrogates of an object, document or book as images or transcribed text. Some organisations release open metadata, others release all their data including their images. If you can’t do open data (full content or ‘digital surrogates’ like photographs or texts) then at least open up the metadata (data about the content) as e.g. CC0 and the rest with another licence. Releasing data may involve licensing images, offering downloads from catalogue sites; ‘content donations’, APIs and machine-facing interfaces; term lists, etc. Much of the data that isn’t images isn’t immediately interesting, and may be designed for inter-collections interoperability or mashups rather than media commons.

Why is open cultural data important?

Before I go on, why do we care? Open cultural data is the foundation on which many projects can be built. It helps achieve organisational goals, mission; can help increase engagement with content; can create ‘network effect’ with related institutions; can be re-used by people who share your goals around access to knowledge and information – people like Wikipedians.

Some key moments in open cultural data

Events I discussed included the founding of Wikimedia, Europeana and Flickr Commons, previous GLAM-Wiki conferences, changes in licences for art images, library catalogue records and museum content, GLAM APIs and linked data services and the launch of the Digital Public Library of America next week.

Lessons learnt

Many of the changes are the results of years of conversation and collaboration – change is slow but it does happen. GLAMs work through slow iterations – try something, and if no-one dies, they’ll try something else. We are all ambassadors, and we are all translators, helping each domain understand the other.

Contradictory things GLAMs are told they must do

  • Give content away for the benefit of all
  • Monetise assets; protect against loss of potential income; protect against mis-use of collections; conserve collections in perpetuity; protect the IP of artists; demonstrate ROI on digitisation

It’s not easy for GLAMs to release all their data under an entirely open licence, but they don’t do it just to be annoying – it’s important to understand some of the pressures they’re under.  For example, GLAMs usually need to be able to track uses of their data and content to show the impact of digitising and publishing content, so they prefer attribution licences.

The issue of potential lost income – imaginary money that could be made one day if circumstances change, or profit that someone else makes off their opened data – is particularly difficult as hard to deal with [and here I ad-libbed, saying that it was like worrying about failing to meet the love of your life because you got on a different tube carriage – you can’t live your life chasing ghosts]. Ideally, open data needs to be understood as an input to the creative economy rather than an item on the balance sheet of an individual GLAM.

GLAMs worry about reputational damage, whether appearing on the front page of a tabloid newspaper for the ‘wrong’ reasons, questions being asked in Parliament, or critique from Wikipedians.  Over time, their mindset is changing from keeping ‘our data’ to being holders, custodians of our shared heritage.

Conversations, communities, collaborations

Conversations matter… we’re all working towards the same goal, but we have different types of anxieties and different problems we have to address.

GLAMs are about collections, knowledge, and audiences. Unlike most online work, they are used to seeing the excitement people experience walking through their door – help GLAMs understand what Wikipedians can do for different audiences by making those audience real to them. GLAMs are also used to being wined and dined before you lay the hard word on them. Just because you don’t need to ask for permission to use content doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start a conversation with an organisation. There are lots of people with similar goals inside organisations, so try to find them and work with them. Trust is a currency, don’t blow it!

Being truly collaborative sometimes means compromising (or picking your battles) and it definitely means practising empathy. Open data people could stop talking about open data as something you *do* to GLAMs, and GLAMs could stop thinking open data people just want to make your life difficult.

The role of higher powers

Government attitudes to open data make a big difference and they can also change the risks associated with publishing orphan works.  Governments can also help GLAMs open up their content by indemnifying them against the chance that someone else will monetise their data – consider it not a failure of the GLAM but a contribution to the creative and digital economy.

Things that are better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick

  1. Kittens (and puppies)
  2. Cultural data that’s available online but isn’t (yet) openly licensed
  3. Cultural data online that is licensed for non-commercial use

Yes, the last two aren’t ideal, but they are great deal better than nothing.

Into the future…

GLAMs and Wikipedians may move at different paces, and may have different priorities and different ways of viewing the world, but we’re all working towards the same goals. Not everything is as open, but a lot more is open than it used to be. I sensed yesterday [the first day of the conference] that there are still some tensions between Wikimedians and GLAMers, moments when we need to take a deep breath and put empathy before a pithy put down, but I loved that Kat Walsh’s welcome yesterday described how Wikipedia used to focus on how different from others but now focuses on reaching out to others and figuring out how we’re the same.

GLAMs and Wikipedians have already used open cultural data to make the world a better place. Let’s celebrate the progress we’ve made and keep working on that…

GLAM-WIKI 2013 Friday attendees photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

Congratulations to everyone who helped make it a great event, but particularly to Daria Cybulska and Andrew Gray (@generalising) for making everything work so smoothly, and Liam Wyatt (@wittylama) for the original invitation to speak.

If an app is the answer…

…what was the question?*  And seriously, what questions should museums ask before investing in a mobile or tablet app?

First, some background. In We’re not ‘appy. Not ‘appy at all., Tom Loosemore of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives examples of the increases in mobile traffic to UK government sites, including up to 60% mobile visits to site with complex transactions like booking driving tests.

For a cultural heritage perspective: as part of the Culture24 Let’s Get Real project, I looked at the percentage of mobile visits (and visitors) to 22 cultural websites for Jan 1, 2012 – September 2, 2012 (an extended time to try and reduce the effect of the Olympics) and found that on average, museums and arts organisations were already seeing an average of 20% mobile visits.  I also reported the percentage change from the same period last year so that people could get a sense of the velocity of change: on average there was a 170% increase in mobile visits to cultural websites compared to the same period in 2011.

We’ll re-run the stats when writing the final report in July, but in the meantime, there’s a recent significant increase in web traffic from tablet devices to take into account.  In BBC iPlayer: tablet viewing requests nearly double in two months the Guardian reported BBC figures:

“Tablets’ share of total iPlayer requests grew from just 6% (TV only: 7%) in January 2012 to 10% (12%) in November and 15% (18%) last month. Smartphone requests have seen similar growth from 6% (TV only: 6%) of the total a year ago to 16% (18%) in January. [… ]A spokesman said it is thought the rise of the “phablet” – smartphones that are almost as big as a tablet, such as the Samsung Note – that have driven the surge.”

Some museums are reporting seeing 40-50% increases in tablet traffic in the past few months. So, given all that, are apps the answer?  Over to Loosemore:

“Our position is that native apps are rarely justified. […] Apps may be transforming gaming and social media, but for utility public services, the ‘making your website adapt really effectively to a range of devices’ approach is currently the better strategy. It allows you to iterate your services much more quickly, minimises any market impact and is far cheaper to support.”

Obviously there are exceptions for apps that meet particular needs or genres, but this stance is part of their Government Digital Strategy:

“Stand-alone mobile apps will only be considered once the core web service works well on mobile devices, and if specifically agreed with the Cabinet Office.” 

So if your cultural organisation is considering an app, perhaps you should consider the questions the GDS poses before asking for an exemption to the requirement to just build a responsive website:

  1. Is our web service already designed to be responsive to different screen sizes? If not, why not?
  2. What is the user need that only a native/hybrid app can meet?
  3. Are there existing native/hybrid apps which already meet this user need?
  4. Is our service available to 3rd parties via an API or open data? If not, why not?
  5. Does meeting this need justify the lifetime cost of a native or hybrid app?
What questions should we add for cultural heritage, arts and educational organisations?  (My pet hate: are you creating amazing content that’s only accessible to people with the right device?) And since I know I’m being deliberately provocative – what exceptions should be allowed? What apps have you seen that could only work as an app with current technology?

* I can’t claim credit for the challenge ‘if an app is the answer, what was the question’, it’s been floating around for a while now and possibly originated at a Let’s Get Real workshop or conference.

Museums and the audience comments paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference: Sukumaran, Abhay, Stephanie Vezich, Melanie McHugh, and Clifford Nass. “Normative Influences on Thoughtful Online Participation.” In Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 3401–10. Vancouver, BC, Canada: ACM, 2011. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1979450.

Museum technologists redux: it’s not about us

Recently there’s been a burst of re-energised conversations on Twitter, blogs and inevitably at MW2012 (Museums on the Web 2012) about museum technologists, about breaking out of the bubble, about digital strategies vs plain old strategies for museums.  This is a quick post (because I only ever post when I should be writing a different paper) to make sure my position is clear.

If you’re reading this you probably know that these are important issues to discuss, and it’s exciting thinking about the organisational change issues museums will rise to in order to stay relevant, but it’s also important to step back and remind ourselves that ultimately, it’s not about us.  It’s not about our role as museum technologists, or museums as organisations.

Museum technologists should be advocates for the digital audience, and guide museums in creating integrated, meaningful experiences, but we should also make sure that other museum staff know we still share their values and respect their expertise, and dispel myths about being zealots of openness at the expense of other requirements or wanting to devalue the physical experience.

It’s about valuing the digital experiences our audiences have in our galleries, online and on the devices they carry in their pockets.  It’s about understanding that online visitors are real visitors too.  It’s about helping people make the most of their physical experiences by extending and enhancing their understandings of our collections and the world that shaped them.  It’s about showing the difference digital makes by showing the impact it can have for a museum seeking to fulfil its mission for audiences it can’t see as well as those right under its nose.

I’m a museum technologist, but maybe in my excitement about its potential I haven’t been clear enough: I’m not in love with technology, I’m in love with what it enables – better museums, and better museum experiences.

Define your purpose or others will define you (and you may not like the results)

[A re-post, as the blogger outage seems to have eaten the first version. I’m incredibly grateful to Ben W. Brumfield @benwbrum for sending me a copy of the post from his RSS reader. I’ve set blogger up to email me a copy of posts in future so I won’t have to go diving into my Safari cache to try and retrieve a post again!]

There’s a lot of this going around as the arts and cultural heritage face on-going cuts: define yourself, or be defined, a search for a new business model that doesn’t injure the unbusinesslike values at the core of public cultural institutions. Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian, Global art: nice canapes, shame about the show:

Many of our UK institutions operate under a strange contradiction: most of the signals we give out suggest that we offer the international glamour, the pampering loveliness, the partnerships with banks and brands… But at the same time, we agonise about access: we want everyone to be let into the business lounge.

In a modern world that buys and sells information and luxury, the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored.

What we need now, more than ever, is a clear message about what we do and why we do it. The government has opted for swift deficit reduction and a good hack at the arts: it’s up to us to set the long-term agenda for the role of the arts in public life over the next decade and beyond if we’re not going to be cut, cut and cut again. Boom and bust are here to stay: capitalism will always be in a permanent state of crisis.

Nick Poole has also written on A New Way Forward for Museums, saying:

It is entirely possible to be commercially savvy, operate sharply and make sophisticated uses of licensing as an artefact of control all in the name of serving a public cultural purpose. Equally, it is possible to throw open the doors and make content universally accessible in the name of driving commercial value to the bottom-line. The cultural and commercial imperatives are not in opposition, but coexist along a spectrum of activity which runs from non-commercial, through non-transactional (things like brand equity and audience engagement) to strictly financially transactional.

If the financial future of museums lies in becoming commercially acute, then a key part of true sustainability will lie in recognising our place in the supply-chain of culture to consumers, and in truly understanding and embracing our core competence and their value.

…we need to recognise that focussing on our core competencies and using them to create cultural assets and experiences which we can monetise (and therefore sustain) in partnership with the private sector is a story of success and advantage, not failure or loss.

His post has some interesting suggestions, so do go read it (and comment).

Nick also describes a vision “of a world in which museums have renegotiated the social contract with the public so that people everywhere understand that museums are places where culture is made and celebrated, rather than preserved and hidden from view” – it’s easy, in my happy little bubble, to forget that many people don’t see the point of museums. Some I’ve talked to might make an allowance for the big national institutions, but won’t have any time for smaller or local museums. Working out how to deal with this might mean changing the public offer of these museums – or is it too late? There’s a silent cull of museums happening in the UK right now, and yet I don’t hear about big campaigns to save them. What do you think?

Thinking aloud: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

I’m blogging several conversations on twitter around the subject of innovation and experimentation that I thought were worth saving, not least because I’m still thinking about their implications.

To start with, Lynda Kelly (@lyndakelly61) quoted @sebchan at the Hot Science conference on climate change and museums:

‘Museums want everything to be slick and polished for mass audience, we lose capacity to be experimental and rapid’

 which lead me to tweet:

‘does big museum obsession with polish hinder innovation? (‘innovation’ = keeping up with digital world outside)’.

which lead to a really interesting series of conversations.  Erin Blasco responded (over several tweets):

We can’t pilot if it’s not perfect. … Need to pilot 15 quick/dirty QR codes but we can’t put ANY up unless there are 50 & perfectly, expensively designed & impressive. … So basically not allowed to fail and learn = not allowed to pilot = we spend a bunch of $ and fail anyway? … To clarify: it’s a cross-dept project. One dept ok with post-it notes & golf pencils. Two others are not. Kinda deadlock.

I think this perfectly illustrates the point and it neatly defines the kind of ‘polish’ that slows things down – the quality of the user experience with the QR codes would rest with the explanatory text, call to action and the content the user finds at the other end, not the weight and texture of the paper or vinyl they’re printed on.  Suddenly you’ve got extra rounds of emails and meetings for those extra layers of sign-off, a work request or contract for design time, plus all the stakeholder engagement that you already, but does that extra investment of time and resources result in a better experiment in audience research?

But kudos to Erin for gettings things this far!  (An interesting discussion followed with Erin and @artlust about possible solutions, including holding stakeholder evaluations of the prototypes so they could see how the process worked, and ‘making the pilot-ness of it a selling point in the design, letting audiences feel they’re part of something special’, which made me realise that turning challenges into positives is one of my core design techniques.)

For Linda Spurdle, the barriers are more basic:

Innovation costs, even my plans to try things cheap/free get scuppered by lack of time. For me less about risk more about resources

Which also rings perfectly true – many potential museum innovators were in this position before the museum funding cuts took hold, so innovating your way out of funding-related crises must be even more difficult now.

On the topic of innovation, Lindsey Green said the ‘definite reluctance to pilot and fail impacts innovation’. Rachel Coldicutt had just blogged about ‘digital innovation in the arts’ in Making Things New, pointing out that the question ‘privileges the means of delivery over the thing that’s being delivered’, and tweeting that ‘innovating a system and innovating art aren’t the same thing and perhaps there’s more impact from innovating the system’.

If the quest is to, as Rachel problematises in her post, ‘use digital technologies to remake the Arts Establishment’, then (IMO) it’s doomed to failure. You can’t introduce new technologies and expect that the people and processes within a cultural organisation will magically upgrade themselves to match. More realistically, people will work around any technology that doesn’t suit them (for entirely understandable reasons), and even the best user experience design will fail if it doesn’t take account of its context of use. If you want to change the behaviour of people in an organisation, change the metrics they work to. Or, as Rachel says, ‘[r]ather than change for change’s sake, perhaps we should be identifying required outcomes’.  Handily, Bridget McKenzie pointed out that ‘The Museums for the Future toolkit includes new eval framework (GEOs = Generic Environmental Outcomes)’, so there’s hope on the horizon.

The caveats: it’s not that I’m against polish, and I think high production values really help our audiences value museum content. But – I think investing in a high level of polish is a waste of resources during prototyping or pilot stages, and a focus on high production values is incompatible with rapid prototyping – ‘fail faster’ becomes impossible. Usability researchers would also say polished prototypes get less useful feedback because people think the design is set (see also debates around the appearance of wireframes).

It’s also worth pointing out my ‘scare quotes’ around the term ‘innovation’ above – sadly, things that are regarded as amazing innovations in the museum world are often delayed enough that they’re regarded as pretty normal, even expected, by our more digitally-savvy audiences. But that’s a whole other conversation…

So, what do you think: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

Update, January 2013: Rob Stein has written ‘Museum Innovation: Risk, Experimentation and New Ideas‘, which resonated strongly:

A common pitfall for museums is an unhealthy addiction to monumental undertakings. When massive projects loom with ties to outside support and countless staff hours invested in a single deliverable, it becomes very difficult to admit the possibility of failure. As a result, we shy away from risk, mitigate the probability of embarrassment, and crush innovation in the process.

Founding visions (and learning from the past for the future of museums)

I’ve got a few presentations coming up that explore a re-imagining of museums, so I’ve been thinking about the original founding visions of specific museums (based on e.g. What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum?), and whether there’s dissonance between mission statements based in institutional history and those you might write if we were inventing museums today.

For an example of where my thoughts are wondering, check this out (from the excellent ‘Museums should not fear the art snobs‘):

…it was only with the emergence of aestheticism and competition from universities in the late 19th century that curators started making exhibitions for each other and for people of their class. Most earlier Victorian museums were educational institutions (not just institutions with education departments). In Britain, both the Liberal Henry Cole (founding Director of the V&A) and the Tory John Ruskin created museums that aimed to achieve the widest possible audience in the name of public education. The Met was founded “for the purpose…of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life…and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction.” In 1920, the Met’s president Robert de Forest wrote that it was “a public gallery for the use of all people, high and low, and even more for the low than for the high, for the high can find artistic inspiration in their own homes”.

So I’m curious, and if you’re up for it, I have a little task for you (yes, you, over there) – what was the founding statement for your museum, and what is your current mission statement? And if you’re feeling creative, what would you like your favourite museum’s mission statement to be?

Notes from Culture Hack Day (#chd11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CR: don’t spend the rest of the afternoon reinforcing silos, shouldn’t be a dichotomy between cultural heritage people and technologists. [Quick plug for http://museum30.ning.com/, http://groups.google.com/group/antiquist, http://museum-api.pbwiki.com/ and http://museumscomputergroup.org.uk/email-list/ as places where people interested in intersection between cultural heritage and technology can mingle – please let me know of any others!] Mutual respect is required.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen?

Re-visiting the results of the survey I ran about issues facing museum technologists has inspired me to gather together some great pieces I’ve read on museum projects moving away from detailed up-front briefs and specifications toward iterative and/or agile development.

In ‘WaterWorx – our first in-gallery iPad interactive at the Powerhouse Museum‘, Seb Chan writes:

“the process by which this game was developed was in itself very different for us. … Rather than an explicit and ‘completed’ brief be given to Digital Eskimo, the game developed using an iterative and agile methodology, begun by a process that they call ‘considered design‘. This brought together stakeholders and potential users all the way through the development process with ‘real working prototypes’ being delivered along the way – something which is pretty common for how websites and web applications are made, but is still unfortunately not common practice for exhibition development.”

I’d also recommend the presentation ‘Play at Work: Applying Agile Methods to Museum Website Development‘ given at the 2010 Museum Computer Network Conference by Dana Mitroff Silvers and Alon Salant for examples of how user stories were used to identify requirements and prioritise development, and for an insight into how games can be used to get everyone working in an agile way.  If their presentation inspires you, you can find games you can play with people to help everyone understand various agile, scrum and other project management techniques and approaches at tastycupcakes.com.

I’m really excited by these examples, as I’m probably not alone in worrying about the mis-match between industry-standard technology project management methods and museum processes. In a ‘lunchtime manifesto‘ written in early 2009, I hoped the sector would be able to ‘figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into’ – maybe we’re finally at that point.

And from outside the museum sector, a view on why up-front briefs don’t work for projects that where user experience design is important.  Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path writes:

“1. The nature of the user experience problems are typically too complex and nuanced to be articulated explicitly in a brief. Because of that, good user experience work requires ongoing collaboration with the client. Ideally, client and agency basically work as one big team.

2. Unlike the marketing communications that ad agencies develop, user experience solutions will need to live on, and evolve, within the clients’ business. If you haven’t deeply involved the client throughout your process, there is a high likelihood that the client will be unable to maintain whatever you produce.”

Finally, a challenge to the perfectionism of museums.  Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress fame), writes in ‘1.0 Is the Loneliest Number‘: ‘if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long’.  Ok, so that might be a bit difficult for museums to cope with, but what if it was ok to release your beta websites to the public?  Mullenweg makes a strong case for iterating in public:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.

You think your business is different, that you’re only going to have one shot at press and everything needs to be perfect for when Techcrunch brings the world to your door. But if you only have one shot at getting an audience, you’re doing it wrong.”

* The Merholz article above is great because you can play a fun game with the paragraph below – in your museum, what job titles would you put in place of ‘art director’ and ‘copywriter’?  Answers in a comment, if you dare!  I think it feels particularly relevant because of the number of survey responses that suggested museums still aren’t very good at applying the expertise of their museum technologists.

“One thing I haven’t yet touched on is the legacy ad agency practice where the art director and copywriter are the voices that matter, and the rest of the team exists to serve their bidding. This might be fine in communications work, but in user experience, where utility is king, this means that the people who best understand user engagement are often the least empowered to do anything about it, while those who have little true understanding of the medium are put in charge. In user experience, design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere, and are not just the purview of a creative director.”


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto) (10 March 2009).