Running notes, day 3 (Saturday) of MW2009

These are my running notes from day 3 of the Museums and the Web conference – as the perfect is the enemy of the good I’m getting these up ‘as is’. I did a demo [abstract] in the morning but haven’t written up my notes yet – shame on me!

The session ‘Building and using online collections‘ included three papers, I’ve got notes from all three but my laptop battery died halfway through the session so only some of them are already typed – I’ll update this entry when I can sneak some time.

Paul Rowe presented on NZMuseums: Showcasing the collections of all New Zealand museums (the linked abstract includes the full paper and slides).

National Services Te Paerangi (NSTP).

4 million NZers, 400 museums.  NZMuseums website – focal point for all NZ museums. NSTP administers the site, Vernon Systems is solution provider.

Each museum has a profile page including highlights of their collections. Web-based collection management system.

What needs to be in place for small museums to contribute? How can a portal be built with limited resources? What features of the website would encourage re-use of the data?

Some museums had good web presences, but what about the small museums? Facing same issues that small or local govt museums in the UK face.

Museums are treasures of the country, they show who we are. Website needs to reflect that.

Focus groups – volunteers are important – keep it simple; keep costs low; some places had limited internet connectivity; reservations about content being on the internet were common.

Promoting involvement to the sector – used existing national monthly newsletters to advertise workshops and content deadlines. Minimum of 20 items for placement on site to avoid ‘box ticking’ [some real commitment required]. Used online forum for FAQs.

Lack of skills – NSTP were trained so could then train staff and volunteers in museums. Digitising, photography for the web.

Had to explain benefits to small museums. It gave them an easy start to getting an online presence.

They overcame resistance by allowing watermarking and clear copyright statements; they showed existing museums sites that allowed tagging; promoted that would help them reach a diverse dispersed audience.

First tag on site – ‘shiny nose‘. First comment was someone admitting they’d touched the nose on a bronze sculpture.

eHive.

Could also import Excel spreadsheets as content management system didn’t exist at early stage of project. Also provided a workaround for people with lack of internet – the spreadsheet could be posted on CD.

API provides glue to connect eHive (Collections Management System) and NZMuseums site together.  

Tips for success
Use OS software where possible; use existing online forums and communication networks to save answering questions over again.

90% of these collection items not previously available on the internet. 99% of collection items have images.

[Kiwis are heroes!  Everyone was incredibly modest about their achievements, but I think they’re amazing.]

Next was Eero Hyvönen on CultureSampo – Finnish Culture on the Semantic Web 2.0: Thematic Perspectives for the End-user (the linked abstract includes the full paper and slides).

Helsinki semantic web thingies
Part of national ontology project, Finland
Vision – international semantic web of cultural heritage. Marriage between semweb and web 2.0

Challenges – content heterogeneity, complexity 

Other challenge relates to the way cultural content is produced – Freebase, Wikipedia, open street maps, etc, 

Semweb for data integration; web.2 0 approach for content production

Automatically enriched by each piece of knowledge.

In Finnish the sampo is a magic drum that makes everything possible.  

Portal intended for human users and machines. Trying to establish a national way of producing content so can be published automatically.  

Infrastructure – 37,000 class concepts in ontology. MAO, TAO – museum ontologies, collaboratively built ontologies, then mapped to national system. End user sees one unified ontology. [A little pause while I pick my jaw up from the ground.]  66 vocabularies, taxonomies and ontologies available online as services, can be used as AJAX widgets. Some vocabularies are proprietary so can’t be published online in the service.

28 content providers, 22 libraries and museums and some international associates like Getty places, Wikipedia.

16 different metadata schemas. [Including some for poetry!]

134,000 cultural collection items (artefacts, books, videos, etc)

285,000 other resources (places, people etc)

Annotation channel for content items – web 2.0 type interface.

Semantic web 2.0 portal

Portal users – for humans, Google-like but semantic search. Nine perspectives into cultural heritage. Three languages. Recently view items, recently commented items.  

Map view.

With one line of JavaScript on own website, can incorporate CultureSampo on own website.

[Sadly my laptop died here and the rest of my notes are handwritten.  You can probably get the gist from the published paper and the slide, but the coolness of their project was summed up by this tweet: Musebrarian: What can you do with a semantic knowledgebase? Search for “beard fashion in Finland” across time and place. #mw2009

It might not sound like much, but the breadth of content, and the number of interfaces onto it was awe-inspiring.]

Sadly my notes from Brian Dawson’s paper, Collection effects: examining the actual use of on-line archival images are also still on notepaper.  The paper was a really useful examination of analytical approaches to understanding the motivations of people using cultural heritage collections.

‘The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web’

Below is a quote from Wired’s Chris Anderson on museum, curatorial authority and the long tail, from a Washington Post report, ‘Smithsonian Click-n-Drags Itself Forward‘ on Smithsonian 2.0 (‘A Gathering to Re-Imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age’).

The quote really covers two issues – making failures and mistakes in public and leaving them there, and training external volunteers and experts to curate parts of collections, because no one curator can be authoritative on everything in their remit: “in exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things”.

I suspect this is a false dichotomy – there’s a place for both internal and external expertise. The Science Museum object wiki doesn’t mean the rest of the collection catalogue and interpretation has no value or relevance. The challenge lies in presenting organisation and user-contributed content in the same interface – can those boundaries be removed? Is it wise to try? And what about taking external content back into the catalogue?

This isn’t a new conversation for museum technologists, but it’s a conversation I’d love to have with curators. I’ve never been sure how the technologists who get really excited by the possibilities of sharing content online in various ways can go about working with curators to find the best way of managing it so that the public, the collections and the curators benefit.

Anyway, onto Chris Anderson:

The discovery of the “long tail” principle has implications for museums because it means there is vast room at the bottom for everything. Which means, Anderson said, that curators need to get over themselves. Their influence will never be the same.

“The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich,” he said. “The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, ‘We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We’re not perfect, but we get better over time.’ “

If you think that notion gives indigestion to an organization like the Smithsonian — full of people who have devoted much of their lifetimes to bringing near-perfect luster to some tiny pearl of truth — you would be correct.

The problem is, “the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them,” Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. “Not only that, but you can’t find them. They can find you, but you can’t find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert.”

Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian’s got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, “If you know something about this, tell us.” Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. “I’ll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job” in authenticating it and explaining it. “It would be the best free labor that you can imagine.”

It didn’t go down easily among the thought leaders, who have staked their lives’ work on authoritativeness, on avoiding strikethroughs. What about the quality and strength of the knowledge we offer? asked one Smithsonian attendee.

You don’t get it, Anderson suggested. “There aren’t enough of you. Your skills cannot be invested in enough areas to give that quality.”

It’s like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, Anderson said. Some Wikipedia entries certainly are not as perfectly polished as the Britannica. But “most of the things I’m interested in are not in the Britannica. In exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things. Something is better than nothing.” And right now at the Smithsonian, what you get, he said, is “great” or “nothing.”

“Is it our job to be smart and be the best? Or is it our job to share knowledge?” Anderson asked.

BBC experimenting with inline links in articles

I noticed the following link when reading a BBC article today:

BBC: We are trialling a new way to allow you to explore background material without leaving the page.
If you turn on inline links, they appear as subtly blue text against the usual grey. Some have icons indicating which site the link relates to (YouTube, Wikipedia), others don’t. Links with an icon open the content directly over the article; links without icons open the link in the same window, taking you from the BBC story. Screenshot below:


The ‘Read more’ links to a page, Story links trial, that says:

For a limited period the BBC News Website is experimenting with clickable links within the body of news stories.

If you click on one of these links, a window will appear containing background material relevant to that word that is highlighted. The links have been carefully chosen by our journalists.

We are doing this trial because we want to see if you enjoy exploring background material presented in this way. It’s part of our continuing efforts to provide the best possible experience.

In addition to background material from the BBC News website, we are also displaying content from other sites, including Wikipedia, You Tube and Flickr.

I’d be really interested to know what the results of the trial are, and I hope the BBC share them. I’ve been thinking about inline links and faceted browsing for collections sites recently, and while the response would presumably vary if the links were only to related content on the same site, it would be useful to know how the two types of links are received.

The story I noticed the link on is also interesting because it shows how content created in a ‘social software’ way can be (probably wilfully, in this case) misinterpreted:

“Downing Street has been accused of wasting taxpayers’ money after making a jokey video in response to a petition for Jeremy Clarkson to be made PM.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “While the British public is having to tighten its belts, the government is spending taxpayers’ money on a completely frivolous project.””

How to build a web application in four days

There’s been a bit of buzz around ‘How To Build A Web App in Four Days For $10,000‘. Not everything is applicable to the kinds of projects I’d be involved in, but I really liked these points:
  • The best boost you can give you or your team is to provide the time to be creative.
  • You’ll come back to your current projects with a new perspective and renewed energy.
  • It will push your team to learn new skills.
  • Simplify the site and app as much as possible. Try launching with just ‘Home’, ‘Help’ and ‘About’.
  • Make sure to build on a great framework
  • Be technologically agnostic. If your developers are saying it should be built in a certain language and framework and they have solid reasons, trust them and move on.
  • Coordinate how your designers and developers are going to work together.
  • Get your ‘Creation Environment’ setup correctly. [See the original post for details]

“The coolest thing to be done with your data will be thought of by someone else”

I discovered this ace quote, “the coolest thing to be done with your data will be thought of by someone else”, on JISC’s Common Repository Interfaces Group (CRIG) site, via the The Repository Challenge. The CRIG was created to “help identify problem spaces in the repository landscape and suggest innovative solutions. The CRIG consists of a core group of technical, policy and development staff with repository interface expertise. It encourages anyone to join who is dedicated and passionate about surfacing scholarly content on the web.”

Read ‘repository or federated search’ for ‘repository’ (or think of a federated search as a pseudo-repository) and ‘scholarly’ for ‘cultural heritage’ content, and it sounds like an awful lot of fun.

It’s also the sentiment behind the UK Government’s Show Us a Better Way, the Mashed Museum days and a whole bunch of similar projects.

Nice information design/visualisation pattern browser

infodesignpatterns.com is a Flash-based site that presents over 50 design patterns ‘that describe the functional aspects of graphic components for the display, behaviour and user interaction of complex infographics’.

The development of a design pattern taxonomy for data visualisation and information design is a work in progress, but the site already has a useful pattern search, based on order principle, user goal, graphic class and number of dimensions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community of enquiry… people from lots of different places.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling geeks in the UK with an interest in cultural heritage content/audiences

You might be interested in BathCamp – a bar camp in Bath on a Saturday (with overnight stay) in late August. This is an initial open call so head along to the website (BathCamp) and check it out. Ideally you would have an interest in cultural heritage content, audiences or applications, but we love the idea of getting fresh perspectives from a wide range of people so we don’t expect that you would have worked with the cultural heritage sector (museums, galleries, libraries, archives, archaeology) before.

Electronic exhibit templates?

Ideum and the Association of Science-Technology Centers are looking for feedback on “a project that will allow us to develop, test, and disseminate three open source software templates that will allow museum professionals’ to assemble electronic exhibits for the museum floor.”

They’ve put together a survey “to gain insight into the state of electronic exhibits at a variety of museums, to gauge interest in the Open Exhibits software templates, and to better understand museums’ technical expertise and constraints”. You can read more at their original blog post or go straight to their survey.

They don’t really define an ‘electronic exhibit’ but perhaps that’s part of the exercise. They also say they’ll share the results with everyone who took part, which is nice.

Move your FAQ to Wikipedia?

Mal Booth from the Australian War Memorial (AWM) makes the fascinating suggestion: they should move their entire Encyclopaedia to Wikipedia. Their encyclopaedia seems to function as a fully researched and referenced FAQ with content creation driven by public enquiries, and would probably sit well in Wikipedia.

In Wikipedia and “produsers”, Mal says:

“Putting the content up on Wikipedia.org gives it MUCH wider exposure than our website ever can and it therefore has the potential to bring new users to our website that may not even know we exist (via links in to our own web content). With a wikipedia.org user account, we can maintain an appropriate amount of control over the content (more than we have at present over wikipedia content that started as ours, already put up there by others).

Another point is that putting it up on Wikipedia allows us to engage the assistance of various volunteers who’d like to help us, but don’t live locally.”

He also presents some good suggestions from their web developer, Adam: they should understand and participate in the Wikipedia community, and identify themselves as AWM professionals before importing content. I think they’ve taken the first step by assessing the suitability of their content for Wikipedia.

It’s also an interesting example of an organisation that is willing to ‘let go’ of their content and allow it to be used and edited outside their institution. Mal’s blog is a real find (and I’m not just saying that because it has ‘Melbin’ (Melbourne) in the title), and I’ll be following the progress of their project with interest.

I wonder how issues of trust and authority will play out on their entries: by linking to the relevant Wikipedia entries, the AWM is giving those entries a level of authority they might not otherwise have. They’re also placing a great deal of trust in Wikipedia authors.

Mal links to a post by Alex Bruns, Beyond Public Service Broadcasting: Produsage at the ABC and summarises the four preconditions for good user-generated content:

  • the replacement of a hierarchy with a more open participatory structure;
  • recognising the power of the COMMUNITY to distinguish between constructive and destructive contributions;
  • allowing for random (granular, simple) acts of participation (like ratings); and
  • the development of shared rather than owned content that is able to be re-used, re-mixed or mashed up.

Adam’s post lists key principles that anyone “looking to develop successful and sustainable participatory media environments” should take into account. These points are defined and expanded on in the original post, which is well worth reading:

  1. Open Participation, Communal Evaluation
  2. Fluid Heterarchy, Ad Hoc Meritocracy
  3. Unfinished Artefacts, Continuing Process
  4. Common Property, Individual Rewards