Open data, the BBC, and ‘the virality and interconnectedness of the web’

Not surprisingly for an article titled ‘The BBC can be an open source for all of UK plc‘, there’s a particular focus on possible commercial applications or start-ups building services around BBC content or code, but it’s also a good overview of current discussions and of the possibilities that opening up cultural heritage content for re-use and re-mixing might provide.

The article acknowledges the ‘complex rights issues’ around the digitisation of some content, and I suspect this one of the main issues that’s preventing the museum sector opening up more of its data, but it’s not the only one.

How do we move forward? Can we develop a UK-specific licence that allows for concerns about the viability of commercial picture library services and for objects without clear copyright and reproduction rights statements? Should we develop and lobby for the use of new metrics that make off-site visits and engagement with content count? Do we still need to convince our organisations that it’s worth doing this, and worth putting resources behind?

How do we strike a balance between the need for caution that prevents the reputation or finances of an organisation being put at risk and the desire for action? Will the list of reasons why we’re not doing it grow before it shrinks?

On to the article, as the BBC’s work in this area may provide some answers:

The [BBC’s] director general Mark Thompson has directed the corporation to think beyond proprietary rights management to a new era of interoperability that offers consumers wider choice, control and benefits from “network effects” – the virality and interconnectedness of the web.

Steve Bowbrick, recently commissioned to initiate a public debate about openness at the corporation, thinks empowerment could be as important as the traditional Reithian mantra, “Educate, inform and entertain.”

“The broadcast era is finished,” he says. “The BBC needs to provide web tools and a new generation of methods and resources that will boost [its] capital, but that will also use the BBC as a platform for promoting the individuals, organisations and businesses that make up UK plc.”

This post is very much me ‘thinking out loud’ – I’d love to hear your comments, particularly on why we’re not yet and how we can start to expose museum collections and information to the ‘virality [vitality?] and interconnectedness of the web’.

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Cope: The API as curator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Synthetic performances” Joseph Beuys in Second Life…

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always space for collaboration.

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

Flickr Places – gazetteer browsing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* But good programmers are lazy, right?

Notes from ‘Object-Orientated Democracies: Contradictions, Challenges And Opportunities’ in ‘Theoretical Frameworks’ session, MW2008

These are my notes from the first paper, ‘Object-Orientated Democracies: Contradictions, Challenges And Opportunities’ in the Theoretical Frameworks session chaired by Darren Peacock at Museums and the Web 2008. I’ll post the others later because the ‘real world’ is calling me to a 30th now.

I didn’t blog these at the time because I wanted to read the papers properly before talking about them. I probably still need a bit longer to digest them, but the longer I leave it the more vague my memory will get and the less likely I am to revisit the papers, so please excuse (and contact me to correct!) any mistakes or misinterpretations. I’m not going to summarise the papers because you can go read them for yourself at the links below (one of the truly fantastic things about the Museums and the Web conferences, IMO), I’m just pulling out the bits that pinged in my brain for whatever reason. My comments on what was said are in [square brackets] below.

The papers were Object-centred democracies: contradictions, challenges and opportunities by Fiona Cameron, Who has the responsibility for saying what we see? mashing up Museum and Visitor voices, on-site and online by Peter Samis and The API as Curator by Aaron Straup Cope.

Darren introduced the session theme as ‘the interplay between theory and practice’.

Fiona Cameron, Object-orientated democracies.

Museums use currently collections to produce stable, ordered, certain meanings. Curators are the gateway to a qualified interpretation of the object. [Classification and ordering as a wish-fulfilment exercise in ‘objective’, scientific recording, regardless of social or cultural context?]

However, the ‘networked’ (online, digital?) object overturns hierarchical museum classifications and closed museum-specific interpretive paradigms.

Online objects taking ‘active role in social networks and political agendas’. [Objects re-appropriated in role as cultural signifiers by the communities they came from – cool!]

‘Heritage significance is where the museum meets pop culture.’

Collection information becomes fluid when released into network, flow, subject to interactions with other resources and ideas.

From the paper: “Clearly, the more technology facilitates a networked social structure and individual cultural expression, as seen most recently with Web 2.0, the more difficult it becomes for museums to produce universal or consensual meanings for their collections.”

[Why would museums want to (claim to) produce universal meanings anyway? One of the exciting possibilities of linking from each of our online objects to its instance in various museum projects is the potential to expose the multiplicity of interpretations and narrative contexts produced around any single object, even within the same museum. Also, projects like ‘Reassessing What We Collect’ are an acknowledgement that a ‘universal’ reading is in fact problematic.]

Bruno La Tour: object-orientated democracies. “For too long, objects have been wrongly portrayed as matters of fact.”

Objects as mediators in assertion of associations, not just cultural symbols. How are competing readings inscribed in collections documentation context?

Collections wikis – how interactions between museum and public culture might inform new collection spaces.

Test cases for ‘Reconceptualising Heritage Collections’ – politically charged objects – coin and wedding dress. Wiki and real time discussion with curators, Palestinian Australians, Jewish readings of the same objects – many different readings.

Placing objects in open/public wiki was seen as problematic – assault on Palestinian culture. Role of museums in this… protection, ‘apolitical gatekeeper’, governance?

Collections as complex systems. [Complexity as problem to be smoothed out in recording.]

Objects derive meaning and significance from a large number of elements, multi/inter/disciplinary or from outside the museum walls. [Too much on that slide to read!]

Curators as expert groups within proposed systems; group boundaries are permeable. Static museum categories become more ambiguous as objects are interpreted in unexpected, interesting ways. Role in mapping social world around a collections item. Equilibrium vs chaos?

“Objects are able to perform at a higher level of complexity.”

Issues re: museum authority and expertise, tensions between hierarchical structures and flexible networks, sustainable documentation practice, manage complexity.

[I think one of the reasons I liked this so much on a personal level is that it has a lot of parallels to the thinking I had to do about recording structures for post-processual archaeology at Çatalhöyük Archaeological Project – relational archaeological databases as traditionally conceived don’t support the recording of ambiguity, uncertainty, plurality, multiplicity or of interpretative context.

I also like the sense of possibilities in a system that at first might seem to undermine curatorial or organisational authority – “Objects are able to perform at a higher level of complexity”. The role of museums, and the ways curators work, might change, but both museums and curators are still valued.]

Museums and Clayton’s audience participation

A comment Seb left on Nate’s blog post about “master” metadata got me thinking about cognitive dissonance and whether museums who say they’re open to public participation and content really act as if they are. Are we providing a Clayton’s call for audience participation?

If what you do – raise the barrier to participation so high that hardly anyone is going to bother commenting or tagging – speaks louder than what you say – ‘sure, we’d love to hear what you have to say’ – which one do you think wins?

To pick an example I’ve seen recently (and this is not meant to be a criticism of them or their team because I have no idea what the reasons were) the London Transport Museum have put ‘all Museum objects and stories on display in the new Museum’ on their collections website, which is fantastic. If you look at a collection item, the page says, “Share a story with us – comment on this image”, which sounds really open and inviting.

But, if you want to comment, they ask for a lot of information about you first – check this random example.

So, ok. There are lots of possible reasons for this. UK museums have to deal with the Data Protection Act, which might complicate things, and their interpretation of the DPA might mean they ask for more information rather than less and add that scary tick box.

Or maybe they think the requirement to give this information won’t deter their audience. I’d imagine that London Transport Museum’s specialist audiences won’t be put off by a registration form – some of their users are literally trainspotters and at risk of believing a stereotype, if they can bear the kind of weather that requires anoraks, they’re probably not put off by a form.

Or maybe they’re trying to control spam (though email addresses are no barrier to spam, and it’s easy to use Akismet or moderation to trap spam); or maybe it’s a halfway house between letting go and keeping control; or maybe they’re tweaking the form in response to usage and will lower the barriers if they’re not getting many comments.

Or maybe it’s because the user-generated content captured this way goes directly into their collection management system and they want to record some idea of the provenance of the data. From a post to the UK Museums Computer Group list:

We have just launched the London Transport Online Museum. Users can view
every object, gallery and label text on display in our new museum in Covent Garden.

Following on from the current discussion thread we have incorporated into this new site, the facility for users to leave us memories / stories on all objects on display. Rather than a Wiki submission these stories are made directly on the website and will be fed back into our collection management system. These submissions can be viewed by all users as soon as they have passed through moderation process.

We will closely monitor how many responses we get and feedback to the group.

Please have a look, and maybe even leave us a memory?

[My emphasis in bold]

Moving on from the example of the London Transport Museum…

Whether the gap between their stated intentions and the apparent barriers to accepting user-generated content is the result of internal ambivalence about or resistance to user-generated content, concern about spam or ‘bad data’, or a belief that their specialist audiences will persist despite the barriers doesn’t really make a difference; ultimately the intentionality matters less than the effect.

By raising the barrier to participation, aren’t they ensuring that the casual audience remains exactly that – interested, but not fully engaged?

And as Seb pointed out, “Remembering that even tagging on the PHM collection – 15million views in 2007, 5 thousand tags . . . – and that is without requiring ANY form of login.”

It also reminds me of what Peter Samis said at Museums and the Web in Montreal about engaging with museum visitors digitally: “We opened the door to let visitors in… then we left the room”.

(If you’re curious, the title is a reference to an Australian saying: Clayton’s was “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”, as as Wikipedia has it ‘a compromise which satisfies no-one’. ‘Ersatz’ might be another word for it.)

Explaining the semantic web: by analogy and by example

Explaining by analogy: Miko Coffey summarises the semantic web as:

  • Web 1.0 is like buying a can of Campbell’s Soup
  • Web 2.0 is like making homemade soup and inviting your soup-loving friends over
  • The semantic web is like having a dinner party, knowing that Tom is allergic to gluten, Sally is away til next Thursday and Bob is vegetarian.

And she’s got a great image in the same post to help explain it.

To extend the analogy, it’s also as if the semantic web could understand that when your American aunt’s soup recipe says ‘cilantro’, you’d look for ‘coriander’ in shops in Australia or the UK.

Explaining by doing: this review ‘Why I Migrated Over to Twine (And Other Social Services Bit the Dust)‘ of Twine gives lots of great examples of how semantic web stuff can help us:

So for example when Stanley Kubrick is mentioned in the bookmarklet fields, or in the document you upload, or in the email you send into Twine — the system will analyze and identify him as a person (not as a mere keyword). This is called entity extraction and is applied to all text on Twine.

Under the hood, a person is defined in a larger ontology in relation to other things. Here’s an example of a very small portion of my own graph within Twine:

Hrafn Th. Thorissons RDF graph in Twine

Some may not find the point of this clear. So to explain: Just as HTML enables computers to display data — this extra semantic information markup (RDF, OWL, etc.) enables computers to understand what the data is they’re displaying. And moreover, to understand what things are in relation to other things.

Example Search
For an example, when we search for “Stanley Kubrick” on regular search engines, the words “Stanley” and “Kubrick” are usually regarded as mere keywords: a series of letters that the search engine then tries to find pages with those series of letters. But in the world of semantic web, the engines know “Stanley Kubrick” is a person. This results in a lot less irrelevant items from the search’s results….

If you weren’t already aware, the systems I just described above are the basic semantic web concept: Encapsulating data in a new layer of machine processable information to help us search, find and organize the overwhelming and ever-growing sea of pictures, videos, text and whatever else we’re creating.

I think these are both useful when explaining the benefits of the semantic web to non-geeks and may help overcome some of the fear of the unknown (or fear of investment in the pointless buzzword) we might encounter. If we believe in the semantic web, it’s up to us to explain it properly to other people it’s going to effect.

I also discovered a good post by Mike on the ‘Innovation Manifesto‘.

More on cultural heritage and resistance to the participatory web

I’ve realised that in my post on ‘Resistance to the participatory web from within the cultural heritage sector?‘, I should have made it clear that I wasn’t thinking specifically of people within my current organisation. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a range of people from different institutions at various events or conferences, and when I get a chance I keep up with various cultural heritage email discussion lists and blogs. One way or another I’ve been quietly observing discussions about the participatory web from a wide range of perspectives within the cultural heritage and IT sectors for some time.

Ok, that said, the responses have been interesting.

Thomas at Medical Museion said:

This are interesting observations, and I wonder: Can this resistance perhaps be understood in terms of an opposition among curators against a perceived profanation of the sacred character of the museum? In the same way as Wikipedia and other user-generated content websites have been viewed with skepticism from the side of many academics — not just because they may contain errors (which encyclopedia doesn’t?), but also because it is a preceived profanation of Academia. (For earlier posts about profanation of the museum as a sacred institution, see here and here.). Any ideas?

I’m still thinking about this. I guess I don’t regard museums as sacred institutions, but then as I don’t produce interpretative or collection-based content that could be challenged from outside the institution, I haven’t had a vested interest in retaining or reinforcing authority.

Tom Goskar at Past Thinking provided an interesting example of the visibility and usefulness of user-generated content compared to official content and concluded:

People like to talk about ancient sites, they like to share their photos and experiences. These websites are all great examples of the vibrancy of feeling about our ancient past.

For me that’s one of the great joys of working in the cultural heritage sector – nearly everyone I meet (which may be a biased sample) has some sense of connection to museums and the history they represent.

The growth of internet forums on every topic conceivable shows that people enjoy and/or find value in sharing their observations, opinions or information on a range of subjects, including cultural heritage objects or sites. Does cultural heritage elicit a particular response that is motivated by a sense of ownership, not necessarily of the objects themselves, but rather of the experience of, or access to, the objects?

It seems clear that we should try and hook into established spaces and existing conversations about our objects or collections, and perhaps create appropriate spaces to host those conversations if they aren’t already happening. We could also consider participating in those conversations, whether as interested individuals or as representatives of our institutions.

However institutional involvement with and exposure to user-generated content could have quite different implications. It not only changes the context in which the content is assessed but it also lends a greater air of authority to the dialogues. This seems to be where some of the anxiety or resistance to the participatory web resides. Institutions or disciplines that have adapted to the idea of using new technologies like blogs or podcasts to disseminate information may baulk at the idea that they should actually read, let alone engage with any user-generated content created in response to their content or collections.

Alun wrote at Vidi:

Interesting thoughts on how Web 2.0 is or isn’t used. I think one issue is a question of marking authorship, which is why Flickr may be more acceptable than a Wiki.

I think that’s a good observation. Sites like Amazon also effectively differentiate between official content from publishers/authors and user reviews (in addition to ‘recommendation’-type content based on the viewing habits of other users).

Another difference between Flickr and a wiki is that the external user cannot edit the original content of the institutional author. User-generated content sites like the National Archives wiki can capture the valuable knowledge generated when external people access collections and archives, but when this user-generated content is intermingled with, and might edit or correct, ‘official’ content it may prove a difficult challenge for institutions.

The issue of whether (and how) museums respond to user-generated content, and how user-generated content could be evaluated and integrated with museum-generated content is still unresolved across the cultural heritage sector and may ultimately vary by institution or discipline.

Resistance to the participatory web from within the cultural heritage sector?

Various conversations I’ve been having over the past few weeks have given me the idea that resistance to the ‘participatory web’ (Web 2.0/social networking sites/user-generated content) could in part be based along disciplinary lines – I’d love to follow that up and find out if art historians are more resistant than social historians, for example.

Or does it depend on the context – whether the user-generated content occurs in or outside the official website, or whether the audience is an unknown mass of the general public or a community of specialists, educators or peers? Does it depend on the age of the individual? Is it about control? Or fear that we are making unknown content appear ‘trustworthy’ through its association with our institutions? Is it seen as unprofessional, or as pandering to the lowest common denominator?

I’m also interested in how this resistance is demonstrated – is it active (people within the institution refuse permission) or passive (people just don’t produce content)?

Is user-generated content more acceptable in some contexts than others? Does it matter whether visitors are commenting on existing content with clear lines between institutional- and user-generated content (perhaps on Flickr) or editing the curators opinion (perhaps on the National Archives’ Your Archive wiki)? Are reminiscences ok when other forms of user-generated content aren’t? Does the ability to relate content back to a user profile make a difference?

At this point all I have is a lot of questions. If you have any experiences of resistance to or cooperation with participator web projects of your own, or know of research in this area, I’d love to hear from you.

As an aside, I suspect it doesn’t help that lots of institutions block Facebook, YouTube, etc. I’ve always thought people should at least be able to view whatever ‘timewasting’ sites they like in their own lunchbreak, and it would mean that staff are more likely to be familiar with the environments in which their content might appear.

Semantic Web ThinkTank

I went to the Semantic Web Think Tank meeting on “Social Software and the User Experience of the Semantic Web” in Brighton on Thursday. I’m still thinking about the discussions a lot, but here are some of my thoughts. This isn’t an official report of the day, and they’re in entirely random order and mixed up with other issues I’ve been thinking about lately.

We were asked to introduce ourselves and briefly describe our interest in the Semantic Web at the start of the session. I explained that I have a long-standing interest in user experiences online, and in the presentation of collections online. I’ve been interested in discovering whether we’re actually using the most effective schema, formats, navigation and interfaces for our audiences for a long time, so sessions like this are a delight.

User-generated content
A lot of the conversation was about user-generated content rather than the users’ experience of the semantic web, possibly because museums are thinking hard about user-generated content at the moment.

We talked about models for the presentation of user-generated content that would suggest users are comfortable distinguishing between content generated within an institution and that written by other users, such as Amazon reviews.

I didn’t raise this at the time but while the overall quality of Amazon reviews and Wikipedia entries are encouraging, the Yahoo! Answers service makes me despair for humanity. Maybe it doesn’t have the snob value of other social software sites like Amazon or Wikipedia, but the answers tend to be pretty low quality and sometimes possibly even maliciously wrong. Importantly, stupid or bad answers don’t tend to be rated down the way a less insightful Amazon review would be.

However, overall it does show that there are existing models of user-generated content that we can follow – we don’t have to invent them to start publishing user-generated content on our museum websites.

As an aside, hopefully our users don’t discount ‘official’ museum content the way users tend to disregard the publisher blurbs on Amazon – we’re told that users regard museums as trustworthy and ‘objective’ and I would hope regarded with some affection.

I’d never really thought about using folksonomies as a form of feedback that would inform the process of creating ontologies but once Areti raised it I started thinking about it. I guess I’ve always seen them as serving slightly different purposes, and as I don’t think they don’t compete in any sense, I hadn’t seen the need to change how ontologies are constructed. I guess it depends – while internal ontologies don’t need to be user-friendly, museums have a tendency to re-use them as navigation and information architecture on a website, where they do need to suit the audiences.

There was some discussion about the barriers to participation for museums and the possibility of resistance from curators and other museum staff. I’ve been lucky that so far I haven’t encountered any resistance but I think generally we can use internal goodwill to engage new, non-traditional or disengaged audiences as a motivator. Our barriers to participation are those old favourites, time and money.

I think I must have been hungry because I started thinking about collections online as RSS as ‘home delivery’ from a range of menus and traditional online collections as going to a restaurant – the restaurant chooses the range of items you can order and in what format they’ll be delivered.

Not all users are equal!
User-generated content isn’t written by random voices from undifferentiated mass of users. Reputation and trust are important, whether ‘Real Name’ reviewers on Amazon, established authors on Wikipedia, or eBay sellers with good feedback. What impact might that have on museum content that’s ‘leaked out’ and lost its original context?

Knowing what our users want matters, and simultaneously doesn’t
Towards the end of the morning session I decided that we can’t predict how semantic web users will use unfettered access, so maybe we should just build it and see what happens, instead of trying to second guess them. In a way, the Semantic Web is post-User Centred Design because we’re not designing the applications but providing repositories of data that can be used in what could be called User Created Applications. It’s not that users don’t matter, it’s that now isn’t the time to make assumptions about what they want – our dialogue with them should be very open-ended.

As for what ‘it’ is – maybe a repository of objects published in a sector-wide digital object model or schema? There was some discussion of whether objects could be published in microformats, but I think they’re too big for that. Otoh, if we have a repository where each object has a permanent URI, we could put selected data into microformats that can refer back to the URI.

We can better predict how user-generated content might relate to our existing infrastructure so we should try to cater to known models and requirements.

Funding
The semantic web can cause problems for museums funded according to the number of visitors through their door or to their website. We need to redefine the measures of success to incorporate content that’s used outside the infrastructure of the originating museum; or we can refer users onto commercial services such as picture libraries. In terms of development, we can aim to created re-usable and sustainable infrastructures in any new applications developed so they can be used to deliver content both to the target audience/application and beyond.

Other random thoughts
I’ve also realised that maybe we need to take a step back and ask “do we actually know who our users are?” before we can assess the effectiveness of online collections. There generally accepted groupings of users we talk about, but do they reflect reality? It may well be that we’re on the right track but it would be good to confirm this. Interestingly, since I started writing this post, I’ve noticed that my old workmates Jonny Brownbill and Darren Peacock are presenting a session titled Audiences, Visitors and Users: Reconceptualising users of museum online content and services at MW2007 so hopefully research in this area is moving forward.

I can relate this to the discussions on Thursday but actually it came out of a conversation I had with my workmate Jeremy beforehand: does Australia’s history with models of distance education like the “School of the Air” mean that Australian museums have a different understanding of how to present collections online? Australian museums have had extensive collections online for years, possibly a lot earlier than museums in Europe or North America.

Update: the workshop report is now online.