Communicating subtlety and complexity (AKA 'yet another reason why museums should blog')

Interesting thoughts on how blogs could work for politicians in Political information on the web (some quotes below). The same arguments could be made for museums sharing information with the public about acquisitions, curatorial and interpretative decisions, and perhaps even using internal blogs to communicate management decisions with staff.

I'm using 'blog' as a generic term but an intranet page or 'what we thought about when putting together this exhibition' section might work equally well for different contexts. The blog format is a good choice because the technology supports notifications and dissemination of new content, and because the context allows for an informal and discursive writing style.

Regardless of the technology, communication and transparency could be vital for the cultural heritage sector. Tough times lie ahead for UK museums as the effects of the Olympics and the global financial crisis on funding start to kick in. They also face on-going critique for being either too populist or too elitist, too willing to be sucked in by contemporary artists or berated for not buying artists while they were unknown and cheap, for not providing public access to their entire collections and for not commercialising enough content. Engaging with the public directly to explain how they balance these and other factors when making decisions may alleviate the effects of the tabloid culture that drives much popular debate and the cynicism generated by too much spin.

So, to the article:

The web also requires a very different style of engagement. If you are used to communicating through speeches, press releases and media interviews then you develop a certain style that may not work well on the web. Politicians are used to having to reduce (ad absurdium) their arguments on complex issues to five second sound bites. They are used to having their remarks taken out of context or twisted in a world built around readership at any price.

Blogging, by contrast, is conversational, personal, and can sustain a more complex debate. On a regional radio station or speaking to a local hack it may be suicidal to support the closure of a local hospital (for example), but on a blog it is possible to argue for things that superficially or intuitively may not make sense to local people – but that may make good sense when the full implications and subtleties of the situation are made clear. In my experience MPs live amongst very complex and confusing balances of interests, and many yearn to have a richer conversation with their voters about how they are navigating these waters. They'd like to justify the judgements they make but also to inform people and in turn receive informed views back. Most of them – not all, but most, and from across the political spectrum – became MPs to work hard for their constituents, and most do. In light of that, the web could be the answer to their dreams; it's not without risks, but it has the potential to raise the debate and to allow them to extend the conversations they have on the street, in care homes and schools, over a longer period and with a much wider audience.

The other aspect to this, and another important lesson from the recent US elections, is the way that technology can enable volunteer engagement and mobilisation.

So this means that not only can political parties engage with voters through good use of the web, they can turn supporters into activists, and coordinate their activity. IT-enablement could positively transform (and rejuvenate) political activity just as it has so many other walks of life.

However, of course I have to point out that there's no point trying to blog like that unless there's a commitment to communication and transparency from the highest level down, and an organisational structure that provides adequate resources for content creation and active audience engagement.

AccessFun – accessible games for kids

This made my day. Games might not sound very worthy, but fun (on a stick!) and the ability to relate to your game-playing peers sounds pretty ace to me.

AbilityNet, a UK 'national charity helping disabled adults and children use computers and the internet by adapting and adjusting their technology' have put an affordable set of accessible games for kids on a USB stick:

Many disabled children are unable to take part in computer gaming, an experience that is a part of the experience of the majority of their peers. To overcome this AbilityNet has created AccessFun, a USB memory stick containing games, music, utilities and storybooks for disabled young people. The device offers over 50 applications to entertain and amuse kids of any ability.

Amongst the collection are arcade games for single switch users, games for the blind, animated stories and single switch activated songs. The collection draws upon the very best of what is available on the web and makes it easily accessible through a menu system. Whilst not all resources will work on all computers or with all switch interfaces there really is something for everyone here. AccessFun costs £16.99 inc. VAT.

Source: BCS article, Software support for disabled user.

Abilitynet released AccessAT, a 'huge range of open source and freeware solutions to meet the needs of disabled people wanting to use a computer' at the same time. Find out more about both products at AbilityNet release low cost collections of support for disabled people wanting to use technology.

Social Media Statistics

One of those totally brilliant and obvious-in-hindsight ideas. I'd like to see stronger guidelines on citing sources as it grows and clear differentiation by region/nation, because it's easy for vague figures and rumour to become universal 'fact', but it's a great idea and will hopefully grow: Social Media Statistics is:

A big home for all facts and figures around social media – because I'm fed up of trawling around for them and I'm also sure that I'm not the only one who gets asked 'how many users does Facebook have?' every hour of every day. … I'm hoping that this wiki will not only include usage stats, but also behaviour and attitude stats. It's a bit of a skeleton at the moment, with v few of my stats having stated sources, but be patient – and help where you can!

Please add in any juicy stats as you come across them, and do cite your references and link to them where possible.

I'll put my money where my mouth is and add information I find. I find wikis a really useful tool for lightweight documentation – it's really easy to add some information while it's in your brain, and the software doesn't get in the way of your flow.

For a while now I've wanted a repository of museum and cultural heritage audience evaluation – this could be a good model. Speaking of which, I really must write up my notes from the MCG Autumn meeting.

[Edit to add: Social Media Statistics also links to Measurementcamp, which might be of interest to cultural heritage organisations wondering how they can 'measure their social media communications online and offline' (and how they can work with project sponsors and funders to define suitable metrics for an APId, social media world).]

UK Museums Computer Group – call for committee members (and annual meeting)

With all the potential for interesting collaborative projects in the sector at the moment, it's a great time to help the Museums Computer Group (MCG) work with those working in, funding, managing and generally interested in digital cultural heritage.

From Ross Parry's email to the MCG list:

Would you like to be part of taking the MCG forward and shaping its round of events and initiatives across the country – including its two annual meetings, its 'UK Museums on the Web' conference, its research, its website, and its publications?

With its 'MCG@25' consultation process coming to a close this is an exciting time to join the committee and help define its role and activity for the years ahead.

This autumn the MCG will be electing several new members of its committee, including a new chair, meetings organiser and two new 'ordinary members'. If you would like to find out more about this professional development opportunity and how to stand for election to the committee then please contact either the MCG Secretary, John Williams ( or acting Chair, Ross Parry (

Full disclosure: I joined the MCG Committee last year and am co-webmaster with the excellent Mike Ellis. I was nervous – who knew if they'd think I'd fit? but I'm very glad I braved it as it's a rewarding and interesting role. I think it also fits with something that's close to a personal motto – Mahatma Gandhi (apparently) said: "Be the change you want to see in the world".

WCAG 2.0 is coming!

That'd be the 'Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0' – a 'wide range of recommendations for making Web content more accessible' with success criteria 'written as testable statements that are not technology-specific' (i.e. possibly including JavaScript or Flash as well as HTML and CSS, but the criteria are still sorted into A, AA and AAA).

Putting that in context, a blog post on, 'WCAG 2 and mobileOK Basic Tests specs are proposed recommendations', says:

It's possible that WCAG 2 could be the new accessibility standard by Christmas. What does that mean for you? The answer: it depends. If your approach to accessibility has been one of guidelines and ticking against checkpoints, you'll need some reworking your test plans as the priorities, checkpoints and surrounding structures have changed from WCAG 1. But if your site was developed with an eye to real accessibility for real people rather than as a compliance issue, you should find that there is little difference.

How to Meet WCAG 2.0 (currently a draft) provides a 'customizable quick reference to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 requirements (success criteria) and techniques', and there are useful guidelines on Accessible Forms using WCAG 2.0, with practical advice on e.g., associating labels with form inputs. More resources are listed at WCAG 2.0 resources.

I'm impressed with the range and quality of documentation – they are working hard to make it easy to produce accessible sites.

Global, not institutional, repositories FTW

In Some (more) thoughts on repositories, Andy Powell writes about academic repositories of research publications, but I think it's applicable to the cultural heritage sector too. Particularly when he writes on 'fit with the web':

Global discipline-based repositories are more successful at attracting content than institutional repositories. … This is no surprise. It's exactly what I'd expect to see. Successful services on the Web tend to be globally concentrated (as that term is defined by Lorcan Dempsey) because social networks tend not to follow regional or organisational boundaries any more.

Web architecture
Take three guiding documents – the Web Architecture itself, REST, and the principles of linked data. Apply liberally to the content you have at hand – repository content in our case. Sit back and relax.

Resource discovery
On the Web, the discovery of textual material is based on full-text indexing and link analysis. In repositories, it is based on metadata and pre-Web forms of citation. One approach works, the other doesn't. (Hint: I no longer believe in metadata as it is currently used in repositories).

The museum sector has already created cross-institutional repositories (broadly defined, I don't care if it's a federated search or a big central pot of content), but are they understood and championed well enough? Are they maintained and integrated into on-going content creation and editing processes? Are their audiences encouraged to personalise and re-use the content?

Sadly also still relevant:

Across the board we are seeing a growing emphasis on the individual, on user-centricity and on personalisation (in its widest sense). … Yet in the repository space we still tend to focus most on institutional wants and needs. I've characterised this in the past in terms of us needing to acknowledge and play to the real-world social networks adopted by researchers. As long as our emphasis remains on the institution we are unlikely to bring much change to individual research practice.

Lots of people working in digital cultural heritage get it – but they're not necessarily the ones at the decision-making levels, and they're not necessarily in on projects from the start to help make the project design user-centred and the content (technically and semantically) interoperable.

FTW, by the way, stands for 'For The Win', defined by Wikipedia as 'Of something which completes a process in a successful manner'.

Urban spam, coming soon to a space near you

In the post 'design engaged the second', Russell Davies discusses 'urban spam' (my emphasis in bold):

The dataspace of the well-tempered environment will soon be invaded by logos, credits, banners and offers. The financial temptations will, I suspect, be too hard to resist.

…in recent years the declining efficacy of regular 'broadcast advertising' has created the largely horrible ambient and guerilla media industries – a huge marketing arms race aiming to squeeze every drop of attention from unwilling eyeballs.

I think we object to this so much for a number of reasons:

a. Because it doesn't feel like a societally negotiated deal. We're basically OK with the notion of ads in newspapers on in the middle of Coronation Street. That's a deal we've done. We'll swap that much attention for that much subsidised media. But every new bit of spam forces us to examine that deal again; is it worth doing? Are we willing to swap this bit of attention for that bit of fun or utility or free stuff?

b. The deal isn't that clear. What do I get out of Coffee Republic selling space on their tables? Is their coffee noticeably cheaper or better? Are the staff better paid and more cheerful? What do I get out of the way you've brokered my attention?

Particularly b. What do I, the customer, get in return for the slice of my soul you're stealing?

And further:

4. We need to stop describing ad-supported things as 'free'. There might be no exchange of cash but there's an exchange of attention and cognition. The marketing business justifies a lot of crap on the basis that it's giving things away for free. If we paused and recognised that they're not actually free then we might think harder about whether it's the right thing to do. We might do smarter, better things if we recognise the cost we're imposing on people without their permission.

Go read the whole thing, the pictures are also very useful and it summarises lots of the things that have been bothering me about the ads that are popping up in any spare space.

So why am I posting this here? Partly because the commercialisation of previously ad-free space annoys me, but partly I think it's a discussion worth having while the field is relatively new and norms are being erm, normalised.