BBC to put 200,000 paintings from the Public Catalogue Foundation online

This could be fantastic – I hope the BBC will work with the museum sector to complement the work they're already doing or planning to get their collections online.  From the Guardian, BBC to put nation's oil paintings online:

A partnership with the Public Catalogue Foundation charity will see all the UK's publicly owned oil paintings – 80% of which are not on public display – placed on the internet by 2012.

The BBC said it wanted to establish a new section of its website, called Your Paintings, where users could view and find information on the UK's national collection.

The Public Catalogue Foundation, launched in 2003, is 30% of the way through cataloguing the UK's collection of oil paintings.

In addition the BBC said it was talking to the Arts Council about giving the public free online access to its archive for the first time, including its wide-ranging film collection dating back to the 1950s. 

[Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, said:] "Today we are not only reaffirming our commitment to arts, but we're announcing a series of measures that will put this relationship on an even stronger footing. Through innovative new partnerships, I believe the BBC can deliver big, bold arts programming that is accessible, distinctive and enjoyable."

I do wonder what Time Out's Tony Elliott would make of it.

'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.

Crowd-sourcing the translation of museum content into sign language?

We've been thinking about crowd-sourcing some British Sign Language (BSL) content for the Science Museum for a while now, particularly as we're running events with BSL interpreters and a new site ('Brought to Life') with some BSL content is due to launch in March. This post is both an attempt to think through some of the issues, and a question open to all – what do you think?

The idea
There are two related options – asking the public to share their translations of English text on the Science Museum websites or galleries into BSL with us, or asking people to contribute new content in BSL. Translations could include content like object captions (to view online or download to portable devices to take into the museum), exhibition information and interpretation, instructions for games like Launchpad – any existing content online or in the galleries.

Why it could be useful
Linda Ellis gave a presentation at the UK Museums Computer Group (MCG) meeting on 'Unheard Stories – Improving access for Deaf visitors' where she pointed out the distinctions between 'deaf' and 'Deaf', including that Deaf people use sign language as their first language and might not know English while deaf people probably become deaf later in life and English is their first language. Linda also said that Deaf people are one of the most excluded groups in our society. Deaf visitors surveyed for the Wolverhampton Arts and Museums Service said they wanted: concise written information; information in BSL; to explore exhibits independently; stories about local people and museum objects; events just for Deaf people (and dressing up, apparently).

(More notes on Linda's presentation and a link to her slides are in this earlier post).

I saw a great example of BSL content in museums at the 2009 Jodi Awards. The British Museum worked with the Frank Barnes School and media company Remark on a project where young deaf people produced signed curriculum resources for young deaf people. You can find out more and watch the videos at British Sign Language videos about the Museum.

Video goes mainstream?
One uncertainty is whether possible contributors would be comfortable creating and uploading video. The popularity of products like 'You Tube ready' digital compact cameras and the Flip would suggest that consumers are comfortable with the idea of creating and sharing video online.

The 2008 Horizon Report suggested 'grassroots video' will be adopted in one year or less:

Video is everywhere—and almost any device that can access the Internet can play (and probably capture) it. From user-created clips and machinima to creative mashups to excerpts from news or television shows, video has become a popular medium for personal communication. Editing and distribution can be done easily with affordable tools, lowering the barriers for production. Ubiquitous video capture capabilities have literally put the ability to record events in the hands of almost everyone. Once the exclusive province of highly trained professionals, video content production has gone grassroots.

In terms of understanding the context and perhaps expecting video online, a report The Valley looks towards 2009 in the BBC quotes Jim Patterson, product manager at YouTube, saying:

"This generation of users utilize the web differently and consume video differently. They grew up in an environment where digital, interactive media was ubiquitous. It has shaped how they use the web."

And Mr Patterson said this new video generation has also shaped the very nature of how YouTube is being used.

"Comscore is estimating that YouTube is the second largest search engine," he said.

"To this cohort, YouTube is their search engine. YouTube 'is' the web. Seeking the answer to any question, they prefer that the result be expressed as a video, so they go to YouTube."

That last point – "YouTube is their search engine. YouTube 'is' the web" – is pretty damn important, regardless of any other issues around museum content.

My questions

  • Am I imagining a need that isn't there? Are there enough people with British Sign Language as a first language who are interested in content at the Science Museum to make the project worthwhile? Is BSL content about particular objects or exhibitions something d/Deaf visitors would find useful?
  • Would anyone out there be interested in creating this content?
  • Is there enough acceptance of internet video? Is it easy enough for the public to produce and upload their own videos?

What do you think?

What makes a good API? JISC want to know

Tony Hirst blogged about a JISC survey on good APIs, so if you're an API producer or consumer with a few minutes to spare then have your say on good APIs:

The aim of this survey is to identify best practice which should be adopted when making use of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). The feedback will inform a report for JISC on best practices related to the development of and use of APIs in JISC's development activities and will be made freely available.

You might not be directly affected by JISC's funding decisions, but I think the entire cultural heritage sector could benefit from better information on the best practices for API creation and use. Early last year I heard a speaker say 'APIs are UIs for programmers' and the nicer the UI we get to work with, the easier our jobs are. Apart from anything else, the more good examples out there, the more creating an API for any digitisation project will become the norm.

Finding Ada – creating new female role models

I should be studying for exams but I wanted to quickly post about Ada Lovelace Day. The organiser asks for pledges to "publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire". You can find out more about why at the link above, but the point about why role models are important is worth repeating:

Undoubtedly it’s a complex issue, but recent research may shed some light: Psychologist Penelope Lockwood discovered that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones.

Well, that’s a relatively simple problem to begin to address. If women need female role models, let’s come together to highlight the women in technology that we look up to. Let’s create new role models and make sure that whenever the question “Who are the leading women in tech?” is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues.

Thus was born Ada Lovelace Day, and this pledge:

“I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.”

Who would you blog about? I've signed the pledge so I'd better start thinking.

[Edited to add: if you're interested in researching and making information about inspiring female role models accessible, you might be interested in 'modern bluestocking'. Contributions and suggestions are very welcome, especially from a technical perspective. And I will be shamelessly checking out suggestions for Ada Lovelace Day to add to the nascent modernbluestocking topic on Freebase.]

Innovation crunch?

Slightly old (mid-December) news, but I've had deadlines/been on holidays: Google Shutters Its Science Data Service:

Google will shutter its highly-anticipated scientific data service in January without even officially launching the product, the company said in an e-mail to its beta testers.

Once nicknamed Palimpsests, but more recently going by the staid name, Google Research Datasets, the service was going to offer scientists a way to store the massive amounts of data generated in an increasing number of fields. About 30 datasets — mostly tests — had already been uploaded to the site.

The dream appears to have fallen prey to belt-tightening at Silicon Valley's most innovative company.

What do stories like this mean for innovation in 2009, as we lurch on in a state of financial panic/crisis? And as with layoffs at Flickr, there's possibly a salutary lesson for cultural heritage organisations investing resources with even the biggest companies – always make sure you've got backups and an exit strategy.