Piloting a Participatory History Commons

I've been awarded a CENDARI Visiting Research Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin for a project called 'Bridging collections with a participatory Commons: a pilot with World War One archives'. I've posted my proposal at the link above, and when I start in September I'll post about my progress here. CENDARI have now published the list of all 2014 Fellows and a neat summary of the programme: 'The CENDARI Visiting Research Fellowships are intended to support and stimulate historical research in the two pilot areas of medieval European culture and the First World War, by facilitating access to key archives, specialist knowledge and collections in CENDARI host institutions'.

As I said in my post, 'it's an ambitious project which requires tackling community building, user experience design, historical materials and programming, and I'll be drawing on the expertise of many people'. I'll post as I go – but first, I'd best get back to finishing up my PhD thesis!

In the meantime, here's a small collection of things I've written as I think through what a participatory commons is and how it might work: my poster and talk notes for Herrenhausen conference and my keynote for Sharing is Caring, 'Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons platform: a provocation about collaborating with users'.

How can we connect museum technologists with their history?

A quick post triggered by an article on the role of domain knowledge (knowledge of a field) in critical thinking, Deep in thought:

Domain knowledge is so important because of the way our memories work. When we think, we use both working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is the space where we take in new information from our environment; everything we are consciously thinking about is held there. Long-term memory is the store of knowledge that we can call up into working memory when we need it. Working memory is limited, whereas long-term memory is vast. Sometimes we look as if we are using working memory to reason, when actually we are using long-term memory to recall. Even incredibly complex tasks that seem as if they must involve working memory can depend largely on long-term memory.

When we are using working memory to progress through a new problem, the knowledge stored in long-term memory will make that process far more efficient and successful. … The more parts of the problem that we can automate and store in long-term memory, the more space we will have available in working memory to deal with the new parts of the problem.

A few years ago I defined a 'museum technologist' as 'someone who can appropriately apply a range of digital solutions to help meet the goals of a particular museum project', and deep domain knowledge clearly has a role to play in this (also in the kinds of critical thinking that will save technologists from being unthinking cheerleaders for the newest buzzword or geek toy). 

There's a long history of hard-won wisdom, design patterns and knowledge (whether about ways not to tender for or specify software, reasons why proposed standards may or may not work, translating digital methods and timelines for departments raised on print, etc – I'm sure you all have examples) contained in the individual and collective memory of individual technologists and teams. Some of it is represented in museum technology mailing lists, blogs or conference proceedings, but the lessons learnt in the past aren't always easily discoverable by people encountering digital heritage issues for the first time. And then there's the issue of working out which knowledge relates to specific, outdated technologies and which still holds while not quashing the enthusiasm of new people with a curt 'we tried that before'…

Something in the juxtaposition of the 20th anniversary of BritPop and the annual wave of enthusiasm and discovery from the international Museums and the Web (#MW2014) conference prompted me to look at what the Museums Computer Group (MCG) and Museum Computer Network (MCN) lists were talking about in April five and ten years ago (i.e. in easily-accessible archives):

Five years ago in #musetech – open web, content distribution, virtualisation, wifi https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A1=ind0904&L=mcg&X=498A43516F310B2193 http://mcn.edu/pipermail/mcn-l/2009-April/date.html

Ten years ago in #musetech people were talking about knowledge organisation and video links with schools https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A1=ind04&L=mcg&F=&S=&X=498A43516F310B2193

Some of the conversations from that random sample are still highly relevant today, and more focused dives into various archives would probably find approaches and information that'd help people tackling current issues.

So how can we help people new to the sector find those previous conversations and get some of this long-term memory into their own working memory? Pointing people to search forms for the MCG and MCN lists is easy, some of the conference proceedings are a bit trickier (e.g. search within the museumsandtheweb.com) and there's no central list of museum technology blogs that I know of. Maybe people could nominate blog posts they think stand the test of time, mindful of the risk of it turning into a popularity/recency thing?

If you're new(ish) to digital heritage, how did you find your feet? Which sites or communities helped you, and how did you find them? Or if you have a new team member, how do you help them get up to speed with museum technology? Or looking further afield, which resources would you send to someone from academia or related heritage fields who wanted to learn about building heritage resources for or with specialists and the public?

Sharing is caring keynote 'Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons'

Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons platform: a provocation about collaborating with users

Mia Ridge, Open University Contact me: @mia_out or http://miaridge.com/

[I was invited to Copenhagen to talk about my research on crowdsourcing in cultural heritage at the 3rd international Sharing is Caring seminar on April 1. I'm sharing my notes in advance to make life easier for those awesome people following along in a second or third language, particularly since I'm delivering my talk via video.]

Today I'd like to present both a proposal for something called the 'Participatory Commons', and a provocation (or conversation starter): there's a paradox in our hopes for deeper audience engagement through crowdsourcing: projects that don't grow with their participants will lose them as they develop new skills and interests and move on. This talk presents some options for dealing with this paradox and suggests a Participatory Commons provides a way to take a sector-wide view of active engagement with heritage content and redefine our sense of what it means when everybody wins.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this – I'll be following the hashtag during the session and my contact details are above.

Before diving in, I wanted to reflect on some lessons from my work in museums on public engagement and participation.

My philosophy for crowdsourcing in cultural heritage (aka what I've learnt from making crowdsourcing games)

One thing I learnt over the past years: museums can be intimidating places. When we ask for help with things like tagging or describing our collections, people want to help but they worry about getting it wrong and looking stupid or about harming the museum.

The best technology in the world won't solve a single problem unless it's empathically designed and accompanied by social solutions. This isn't a talk about technology, it's a talk about people – what they want, what they're afraid of, how we can overcome all that to collaborate and work together.

Dora's Lost Data

So a few years ago I explored the potential of crowdsourcing games to make helping a museum less scary and more fun. In this game, 'Dora's Lost Data', players meet a junior curator who asks them to tag objects so they'll be findable in Google. Games aren't the answer to everything, but identifying barriers to participation is always important. You have to understand your audiences – their motivations for starting and continuing to participate; the fears, anxieties, uncertainties that prevent them participating. [My games were hacked together outside of work hours, more information is available at My MSc dissertation: crowdsourcing games for museums; if you'd like to see more polished metadata games check out Tiltfactor's http://www.metadatagames.org/#games]

Mutual wins – everybody's happy

My definition of crowdsourcing: cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects ask the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically, in an environment where the activities, goals (or both) provide inherent rewards for participation, and where their participation contributes to a shared, significant goal or research area.

It helps to think of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a form of volunteering. Participation has to be rewarding for everyone involved. That sounds simple, but focusing on the audiences' needs can be difficult when there are so many organisational needs competing for priority and limited resources for polishing the user experience. Further, as many projects discover, participant needs change over time…

What is a Participatory Commons and why would we want one?

First, I have to introduce you to some people. These are composite stories (personas) based on my research…

Two archival historians, Simone and Andre. Simone travels to archives in her semester breaks to stock up on research material, taking photos of most documents 'in case they're useful later', transcribing key text from others. Andre is often at the next table, also looking for material for his research. The documents he collected for his last research project would be useful for Simone's current book but they've never met and he has no way of sharing that part of his 'personal research collection' with her. Currently, each of these highly skilled researchers take their cumulative knowledge away with them at the end of the day, leaving no trace of their work in the archive itself. Next…

Two people from a nearby village, Martha and Bob. They joined their local history society when they retired and moved to the village. They're helping find out what happened to children from the village school's class of 1898 in the lead-up to and during World War I. They are using census returns and other online documents to add records to a database the society's secretary set up in Excel. Meanwhile…

A family historian, Daniel. He has a classic 'shoebox archive' – a box containing his grandmother Sarah's letters and diary, describing her travels and everyday life at the turn of the century. He's transcribing them and wants to put them online to share with his extended family. One day he wants to make a map for his kids that shows all the places their great-grandmother lived and visited. Finally, there's…

Crowdsourcer Nisha.She has two young kids and works for a local authority. She enjoys playing games like Candy Crush on her mobile, and after the kids have gone to bed she transcribes ship logs on the Old Weather website while watching TV with her husband. She finds it relaxing, feels good about contributing to science and enjoys the glimpses of life at sea. Sites like Old Weather use 'microtasks' – tiny, easily accomplished tasks – and crowdsourcing to digitise large amounts of text.

Helping each other?

None of our friends above know it, but they're all looking at material from roughly the same time and place. Andre and Simone could help each other by sharing the documents they've collected over the years. Sarah's diaries include the names of many children from her village that would help Martha and Bob's project, and Nisha could help everyone if she transcribed sections of Sarah's diary.

Connecting everyone's efforts for the greater good: Participatory Commons

This image shows the two main aspects of the Participatory Commons: the different sources for content, and the activities that people can do with that content.

The Participatory Commons (image: Mia Ridge)

The Participatory Commons is a platform where content from different sources can be aggregated. Access to shared resources underlies the idea of the 'Commons', particularly material that is not currently suitable for sites like Europeana, like 'shoebox archives' and historians' personal record collections. So if the 'Commons' part refers to shared resources, how is it participatory?

The Participatory Commons interface supports a range of activities, from the types of tasks historians typically do, like assessing and contextualising documents, activities that specialists or the public can do like identifying particular people, places, events or things in sources, or typical crowdsourcing tasks like fulltext transcription or structured tagging.

By combining the energy of crowdsourcing with the knowledge historians create on a platform that can store or link to primary sources from museums, libraries and archives with 'shoebox archives', the Commons could help make our shared heritage more accessible to all. As a platform that makes material about ordinary people available alongside official archives and as an interface for enjoyable, meaningful participation in heritage work, the Commons could be a basis for 'open source history', redressing some of the absences in official archives while improving the quality of all records.

As a work in progress, this idea of the Participatory Heritage Commons has two roles: an academic thought experiment to frame my research, and as a provocation for GLAMs (galleries, museums, libraries, archives) to think outside their individual walls. As a vision for 'open source history', it's inspired by community archives, public history, participant digitisation and history from below… This combination of a large underlying repository and more intimate interfaces could be quite powerful. Capturing some of the knowledge generated when scholars access collections would benefit both archives and other researchers.

'Niche projects' can be built on a Participatory Commons

As a platform for crowdsourcing, the Participatory Commons provides efficiencies of scale in the backend work for verifying and validating contributions, managing user accounts, forums, etc. But that doesn't mean that each user would experience the same front-end interface.

Niche projects build on the Participatory Commons
(quick and dirty image: Mia Ridge)

My research so far suggests that tightly-focused projects are better able to motivate participants and create a sense of community. These 'niche' projects may be related to a particular location, period or topic, or to a particular type of material. The success of the New York Public Library's What's on the Menu project, designed around a collection of historic menus, and the British Library's GeoReferencer project, designed around their historic map collection, both demonstrate the value of defining projects around niche topics.

The best crowdsourcing projects use carefully designed interactions tailored to the specific content, audience and data requirements of a given project. These interactions are usually For example, the Zooniverse body of projects use much of the same underlying software but projects are designed around specific tasks on specific types of material, whether classifying simple galaxy types, plankton or animals on the Serengeti, or transcribing ship logs or military diaries.

The Participatory Commons is not only a collection of content, it also allows 'niche' projects to be layered on top, presenting more focused sets of content, and specialist interfaces designed around the content, audience and purpose.

Barriers

But there are still many barriers to consider, including copyright and technical issues and important cultural issues around authority, reliability, trust, academic credit and authorship. [There's more background on this at my earlier post on historians and the Participatory Commons and Early PhD findings: Exploring historians' resistance to crowdsourced resources.]

Now I want to set the idea of the Participatory Commons aside for a moment, and return to crowdsourcing in cultural heritage. I've been looking for factors in the success or otherwise of crowdsourcing projects, from grassroots, community-lead projects to big glamorous institutionally-lead sites.

I mentioned that Nisha found transcribing text relaxing. Like many people who start transcribing text, she found herself getting interested in the events, people and places mentioned in the text. Forums or other methods for participants to discuss their questions seem to help keep participants motivated, and they also provide somewhere for a spark of curiosity to grow (as in this forum post). We know that some people on crowdsourcing projects like Old Weather get interested in history, and even start their own research projects.

Crowdsourcing as gateway to further activity

You can see that happening on other crowdsourcing projects too. For example, [email protected]aims to document historical herbarium collections within museums based on photographs of specimen cards. So far participants have documented over 130,000 historic specimens. In the process, some participants also found themselves being interested in the people whose specimens they were documenting.

As a result, the project has expanded to include biographies of the original specimen collectors. It was able to accommodate this new interest through a project wiki, which has a combination of free text and structured data linking records between the transcribed specimen cards and individual biographies.

'Levels of Engagement' in citizen science

There's a consistent enough pattern in science crowdsourcing projects that there's a model from 'citizen science' that outlines different stages participants can move through, from undertaking simple tasks, joining in community discussion, through to 'working independently on self-identified research projects'.[1]

Is this 'mission accomplished'?

This is Nick Poole's word cloud based on 40 museum missionstatements. With words like 'enjoyment', 'access', 'learning' appearing in museum missions, doesn't this mean that turning transcribers into citizen historians while digitising and enhancing collections is a success? Well, yes, but…

Paths diverge; paradox ahead?

There's a tension between GLAM's desire to invite people to 'go deeper', to find their own research interests, to begin to become citizen historians; and the desire to ask people to help us with tasks set by GLAMs to help their work. Heritage organisations can try to channel that impulse to start research into questions about their own collections, but sometimes it feels like we're asking people to do our homework for us. The scaffolds put in place to help make tasks easier may start to feel like a constraint.

Who has agency?

If people move beyond simple tasks into more complex tasks that require a greater investment of time and learning, then issues of agency – participants' ability to make choices about what they're working on and why – start to become more important. Would Wikipedia have succeeded if it dictated what contributors had to write about? We shouldn't mistake volunteers for a workforce just because they can be impressively dedicated contributors.

Participatory project models

Turning again to citizen science – this time public participation in science research, we have a model for participatory projects according to the amount of control participants have over the design of the project itself – or to look at it another way, how much authority the organisation has ceded to the crowd. This model contains three categories: 'contributory', where the public contributes data to a project designed by the organisation; 'collaborative', where the public can help refine project design and analyse data in a project lead by the organisation; and 'co-creative', where the public can take part in all or nearly all processes, and all parties design the project together.[2]

As you can imagine, truly co-creative projects are rare. It seems cultural organisations find it hard to truly collaborate with members of the public; for many understandable reasons. The level of transparency required, and the investment of time for negotiating mutual interests, goals and capabilities increase as collaboration deepens. Institutional constraints and lack of time to engage in deep dialogue with participants make it difficult to find shared goals that work for all parties. It seems GLAMs sometimes try to take shortcuts and end up making decisions for the group, which means their 'co-creative' project is actually more just 'collaborative'.

New challenges

When participants start to out-grow the tasks that originally got them hooked, projects face a choice. Some projects are experimenting with setting challenges for participants. Here you see 'mysteries' set by the UK's Museum of Design in Plastics, and by San FranciscoPublic Library on History Pin. Finding the right match between the challenge set and the object can be difficult without some existing knowledge of the collection, and it can require a lot of on-going time to encourage participants. Putting the mystery under the nose of the person who has the knowledge or skills to solve it is another challenge that projects like this will have to tackle.

Working with existing communities of interest is a good start, but it also takes work to figure out where they hang out online (or in-person) and understand how they prefer to work. GLAMs sometimes fall into the trap of choosing the technology first, or trying something because it's trendy; it's better to start with the intersection between your content and the preferences of potential audiences.

But is it wishful thinking to hope that others will be interested in answering the questions GLAMs are asking?

A tension?

Should projects accept that some people will move on as they develop new interests, and concentrate on recruiting new participants to replace them? Do they try to find more interesting tasks or new responsibilities for participants, such as helping moderate discussions, or checking and validating other people's work? Or should they find ways for the project grow as participants' skill and knowledge increase? It's important to make these decisions mindfully as the default is otherwise to accept a level of turnover as participants move on.

To return to lessons from citizen science, possible areas for deeper involvement include choosing or defining questions for study, analysing or interpreting data and drawing conclusions, discussing results and asking new questions.[3]However, heritage organisations might have to accept that the questions people want to ask might not involve their collections, and that these citizen historians' new interests might not leave time for their previous crowdsourcing tasks.

Why is a critical mass of content in a Participatory Commons useful?

And now we return to the Participatory Commons and the question of why a critical mass of content would be useful.

Increasingly, the old divisions between museum, library and archive collections don't make sense. For most people, content is content, and they don't understand why a pamphlet about a village fete in 1898 would be described and accessed differently depending on whether it had ended up in a museum, library or archive catalogue.

Basing niche projects on a wider range of content creates opportunities for different types of tasks and levels of responsibility. Projects that provide a variety of tasks and roles can support a range of different levels and types of participant skills, availability, knowledge and experience.

A critical mass of material is also important for the discoverability of heritage content. Even the most sophisticated researcher turns to Google sometimes, and if your content doesn't come up in the first few results, many researchers will never know it exists. It's easy to say but less easy to make a reality: the easier it is to find your collections, the more likely it is that researchers will use them.

Commons as party?

More importantly, a critical mass of content in a Commons allows us to re-define 'winning'. If participation is narrowly defined as belonging to individual GLAMs, when a citizen historian moves onto a project that doesn't involve your collection then it can seem like you've lost a collaborator. But the people who developed a new research interest through a project at one museum might find they end up using records from the archive down the road, and transcribing or enhancing their records during their investigation. If all the institutions in the region shared their records on the Commons or let researchers take and share photos while using their collections, the researcher has a critical mass of content for their research and hopefully as a side-effect, their activities will improve links between collections. If the Commons allows GLAMs to take a sector-wide view then someone moving on to a different collection becomes a moment to celebrate, a form of graduation. In our wildest imagination, the Commons could be like a fabulous party where you never know what fabulous interesting people and things you'll discover…

To conclude – by designing platforms that allow people to collect and improve records as they work, we're helping everybody win.

Thank you! I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


[1]M. Jordan Raddick et al., 'Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade', in astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, vol. 2010, 2009, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

[2]Rick Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report (Washington D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), July 2009), http://caise.insci.org/uploads/docs/PPSR%20report%20FINAL.pdf.

[3]Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report.


Image credits in order of appearance: Glider, Library of Congress, Great hall, Library of CongressCurzona Allport from Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Hålanda Church, Västergötland, Sweden, Swedish National Heritage Board, Smithsonian Institution, Postmaster, General James A. Farley During National Air Mail Week, 1938Powerhouse Museum, Canterbury Bankstown Rugby League Football Club's third annual Ball.

'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.

2013 in review: crowdsourcing, digital history, visualisation, and lots and lots of words

A quick and incomplete summary of my 2013 for those days when I wonder where the year went… My PhD was my main priority throughout the year, but the slow increase in word count across my thesis is probably only of interest to me and my supervisors (except where I've turned down invitations to concentrate on my PhD). Various other projects have spanned the years: my edited volume on 'Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage', working as a consultant on the 'Let's Get Real' project with Culture24, and I've continued to work with the Open University Digital Humanities Steering Group, ACH and to chair the Museums Computer Group.

In January (and April/June) I taught all-day workshops on 'Data Visualisation for Analysis in Scholarly Research' and 'Crowdsourcing in Libraries, Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions' for the British Library's Digital Scholarship Training Programme.

In February I was invited to give a keynote on 'Crowd-sourcing as participation' at iSay: Visitor-Generated Content in Heritage Institutions in Leicester (my event notes). This was an opportunity to think through the impact of the 'close reading' people do while transcribing text or describing images, crowdsourcing as a form of deeper engagement with cultural heritage, and the potential for 'citizen history' this creates (also finally bringing together my museum work and my PhD research). This later became an article for Curator journal, From Tagging to Theorizing: Deepening Engagement with Cultural Heritage through Crowdsourcing (proof copy available at http://oro.open.ac.uk/39117). I also ran a workshop on 'Data visualisation for humanities researchers' with Dr. Elton Barker (one of my PhD supervisors) for the CHASE 'Going Digital' doctoral training programme.

In March I was in the US for THATCamp Feminisms in Claremont, California (my notes), to do a workshop on Data visualisation as a gateway to programming and I gave a paper on 'New Challenges in Digital History: Sharing Women's History on Wikipedia' at the Women's History in the Digital World' conference at Bryn Mawr, Philadelphia (posted as 'New challenges in digital history: sharing women's history on Wikipedia – my draft talk notes'). I also wrote an article for Museum Identity magazine, Where next for open cultural data in museums?.

In April I gave a paper, 'A thousand readers are wanted, and confidently asked for': public participation as engagement in the arts and humanities, on my PhD research at Digital Impacts: Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities (see also my notes from the event), and a keynote on 'A Brief History of Open Cultural Data' at GLAM-WIKI 2013.

In May I gave an online seminar on crowdsourcing (with a focus on how it might be used in teaching undergraduates wider skills) for the NITLE Shared Academics series. I gave a short paper on 'Digital participation and public engagement' at the London Museums Group's 'Museums and Social Media' at Tate Britain on May 24, and was in Belfast for the Museums Computer Group's Spring meeting, 'Engaging Visitors Through Play' then whipped across to Venice for a quick keynote on 'Participatory Practices: Inclusion, Dialogue and Trust' (with Helen Weinstein) for the We Curate kick-off seminar at the start of June.

In June the Collections Trust and MCG organised a Museum Informatics event in York and we organised a 'Failure Swapshop' the evening before. I also went to Zooniverse's ZooCon (my notes on the citizen science talks) and to Canterbury Cathedral Archives for a CHASE event on 'Opening up the archives: Digitization and user communities'.

In July I chaired a session on Digital Transformations at the Open Culture 2013 conference in London on July 2, gave an invited lightning talk at the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School 2013, ran a half-day workshop on 'Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects' at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference in Nebraska, and had an amazing time making what turned out to be Serendip-o-matic at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University's One Week, One Tool in Fairfax, Virginia (my posts on the process), with a museumy road trip via Amtrak and Greyhound to Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburg inbetween the two events.

In August I tidied up some talk notes for publication as 'Tips for digital participation, engagement and crowdsourcing in museums' on the London Museums Group blog.

October saw the publication of my Curator article and Creating Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives through Design with Don Lafreniere and Scott Nesbit for the International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, based on our work at the Summer 2012 NEH Advanced Institute on Spatial Narrative and Deep Maps: Explorations in the Spatial Humanities. (I also saw my family in Australia and finally went to MONA).

In November I presented on 'Messy understandings in code' at Speaking in Code at UVA's Scholars' Lab, Charlottesville, Virginia, gave a half-day workshop on 'Data Visualizations as an Introduction to Computational Thinking' at the University of Manchester and spoke at the Digital Humanities at Manchester conference the next day. Then it was down to London for the MCG's annual conference, Museums on the Web 2013 at Tate Modern. Later than month I gave a talk on 'Sustaining Collaboration from Afar' at Sustainable History: Ensuring today's digital history survives.

In December I went to Hannover, Germany for the Herrenhausen Conference: "(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age" where I presented on 'Creating a Digital History Commons through crowdsourcing and participant digitisation' (my lightning talk notes and poster are probably the best representation of how my PhD research on public engagement through crowdsourcing and historians' contributions to scholarly resources through participant digitisation are coming together). In final days of 2013, I went back to my old museum metadata games, and updated them to include images from the British Library and took a first pass at making them responsive for mobile and tablet devices.

Has Christmas changed how your audience sees your site?

Hands up if someone you know gave or received a mobile phone or tablet over the holidays? And how long was it before they snuck away to quietly checked their favourite social networks or the sales with their new device? Some people will end up on a cultural heritage site. Sometimes it's because they now have a device to hand to look up random questions that arise while they're watching Downton Abbey or they're looking for entertainment for future commutes; others might try booking tickets for a show from their kitchen or keeping the kids quiet with a few games.

What will they see when they hit your site? Will the games and interactives have disappeared for Apple devices without Flash, will they struggle to fill in forms on your non-responsive site – or will they be welcomed to a site optimised for their device?

Of course the short answer is, yes, Christmas (and the past few years) have changed how audiences see your website. This post is a guide to using Google Analytics to put numbers against that statement and working out where you need to improve the experience for visitors on mobiles and tablets, but if you don't have access to Google Analytics then just assume lots of visitors are on mobile and make sure your site will work for them. There's no substitute for trying to perform typical visitor tasks with real devices, but emulators for iPadstablets, TVs, mobilesresponsive design, etc can help you get started. And if you're promoting content on social media and don't have a mobile/tablet ready site, then you're effectively inviting people over then slamming the door in their face, so just fix your site already.

If you do have access to Google Analytics, here are some tips for assessing the impact of all that gift-giving and working out the velocity of change in mobile and tablet visits on your site to understand what you're facing in the coming year (and getting to grips with Analytics while you're at it). Understanding how quickly your audience is changing and what people are doing on your site will a) help you decide which key tasks and sections to test with actual devices, PageSpeed Insights etc, and b) prioritise technical changes in the immediate future.

This assumes you know the basics of using Google Analytics – if you need a refresher, try the guides to Google Analytics Healthcheck and Google Analytics Segments I wrote for the Audience Agency's Audience Finder (though some of the screens have changed since then).

View mobile and tablet visits with built-in Google Analytics Segments and custom date ranges

The simplest way to assess how much of your website traffic is from mobile or tablet devices is to navigate to the Audiences/Mobile/Overview report, then click on the dates on the top right-hand corner and set the left-hand date to a year or two in the past and the right-hand date to now. You'll probably see a gradual increase in total visits over time, and some information underneath that about the total numbers of visits from 'desktop', 'mobile' and 'tablet' devices.

For a more useful breakdown of the number of desktop, mobile and tablet devices over time on other reports – whether Content reports like popular, Landing and Exit pages, location ('geo') or how people got to your site (aka 'acquisition') – you need to apply some Segments. To open the Segments option box, click the small down arrow next to 'All visits', as in the screenshot.

This will open a screen (below) showing a range of built-in segments. For now, click 'Mobile Traffic' and 'Tablet Traffic' to add them to the selected Segments list. Click 'Apply' and view the breakdown of visits by device over time. Hover over the lines for more detail. You can change reports and the segments will stay selected until you unselect them. (For later: explore other built-in segments, and learn how to make your own to answer questions that matter to your organisation.)

Tips: viewing stats by week rather than by day can help any patterns stand out more clearly. If you get a lot of traffic overall, you'll be able to see the difference in mobile/tablet visits more clearly if you take out the 'All Visits' segment.

Using the built-in date range fields to compare change over time

One of the key pieces of work I did for the Culture24 Let's Get Real project involved calculating the 'velocity' of change in mobile visits for a range of museums and arts organisations (see Section 8, 'Understanding mobile behaviours' in the project report). If you want to get a sense of how quickly your audience is changing (e.g. to make a case for resources), you can compare two date ranges. 
First, click the date range on the top right-hand corner to open the custom date options. Enter a date range that covers a period before and after the holidays, then tick 'Compare to: Previous Period' and add the same dates for an earlier year there.  Tip: copying and pasting then changing the dates is quicker than navigating to them via the left-hand side calendar.
The screenshot below shows the results on the Behaviour Overview report, including key indicators like the increase in time-on-site on tablets and the overall increase in visits from mobiles and tablets. As you can see, both mobile and tablet traffic is higher in the past week. This may even out as people head back to work, but the only way you'll know is by looking at your own stats.

Tips: if there are odd spikes or gaps in your stats, you might want to pick your dates around them (or add an explanatory annotation).  If you have the data, try comparing the same time of year over e.g. 2011/12 to see the difference a couple of years have made. If you want to dive into the numbers to understand the devices more, the 'Browser & OS' report is useful, or explore the 'Primary Dimensions' on the 'Devices' report.

Learn Analytics by answering questions specific to your site

Working with participants in the Let's Get Real project reminded me that having a specific question to answer is a good way to find your way through the mass of options in Google Analytics, so for bonus points, pick one or two of these to answer:

  • What traffic was there to your website on Christmas Day? 
  • How did they get there and what were they looking at? 
  • What kinds of transactions or interactions have people attempted on your site in the last six weeks? 
  • Where do you lose people? Does it vary by device or is another factor more important?
  • On which pages or site sections do tablet visitors spend the most time? What about mobile visitors? 
  • Was the increase in device usage larger this holiday or in previous years?
  • And following a comment from the Guardian's Tom Grinsted, how do visit demographics differ on weekends/weekdays? What about morning/daytime/evening visits?
Some museums have been blogging about their own investigations into mobile and tablet visits to their sites: for example, Graham Davies, National Museum Wales, wrote The steady march of the mobile device; the V&A's Andrew Lewis wrote Making visitor information easier for mobile phone users.

Why we need to save the material experience of software objects

Conversations at last month's Sustainable History: Ensuring today's digital history survives event [my slides] (and at the pub afterwards) touched on saving the data underlying websites as a potential solution for archiving them. This is definitely better than nothing, but as a human-computer interaction researcher and advocate for material culture in historical research, I don't think it's enough.

Just as people rue the loss of the information and experiential data conveyed by the material form of objects when they're converted to digital representations – size, paper and print/production quality, marks from wear through use and manufacture, access to its affordances, to name a few – future researchers will rue the information lost if we don't regard digital interfaces and user experiences as vital information about the material form of digital content and record them alongside the data they present.

Can you accurately describe the difference between using MySpace and Facebook in their various incarnations? There's no perfect way to record the experience of using Facebook in December 2013 so it could be compared with the experience of using MySpace in 2005, but usability techniques like screen-recording software linked to eyetracking or think-aloud tests would help preserve some of the tacit knowledge and context users bring to sites alongside the look-and-feel, algorithms and treatments of data the sites present to us. It's not a perfect solution, but a recording of the interactions and designs from both sites for common tasks like finding and adding a friend would tell future researchers infinitely more about changes to social media sites over eight years than simple screenshots or static webpages. But in this case we're still missing the notifications on other people's screens, the emails and algorithmic categorisations that fan out from simple interactions like these…

Even if you don't care about history, anyone studying software – whether websites, mobile apps, digital archives, instrument panels or procedural instructions embedded in hardware – still needs solid methods for capturing the dynamic and subjective experience of using digital technologies. As Lev Manovich says in The Algorithms of Our Lives, when we use software we're "engaging with the dynamic outputs of computation; studying software culture requires us to "record and analyze interactive experiences, following individual users as they navigate a website or play a video game … to watch visitors of an interactive installation as they explore the possibilities defined by the designer—possibilities that become actual events only when the visitors act on them".

The Internet Archive does a great job, but in researching the last twenty years of internet history I'm constantly hitting the limits of their ability to capture dynamic content, let alone the nuance of interfaces. The paradox is that as more of our experiences are mediated through online spaces and the software contained within small boxy devices, we risk leaving fewer traces of our experiences than past generations.

Impressions from Mona, Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art

I went to Mona – David Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art – in Hobart with my parents this week, and I'm quickly posting my impressions now, as my best intentions of posting a proper review later will probably be squished by the demands of my PhD and travel. I've also posted photos from my visit, though you may not be able to see my longer notes without clicking through to each photo.

Quick context: I'm a museum technologist and experience designer/analyst (though I'm currently a full-time PhD candidate researching digital history and crowdsourcing), we went from Melbourne to Tasmania specifically to see Mona, my parents are beyond retirement age but keep up with technology and are generally pretty active (physically and culturally). I had read various bits and pieces from other museum professionals about their visits, but didn't discuss them with my parents beforehand because I wanted to observe their reactions. (Being observed while engaging with technology or museum experiences is an occupational hazard for my friends and family and I thank them for their patience with me!) I'd deliberately gone with very few expectations about the building and artworks, not least because one of the works I'd most wanted to see had already been removed from display and I didn't want to be disappointed if I missed others.

The onboarding experience

Mona from the boat

Forgive the UX jargon-laden pun, but your experience of Mona begins with your journey there. Both transport options that leave from the matt black ferry terminal are called 'Mona Roma' (geddit? 'Roamer', though it probably only works with an Australian accent). The boat is painted camouflage greys and the mini bus has hot pink flames down its sides. The boat trip up the Derwent River was a nice bit of bonus sightseeing for a tourist like me, and the captain provided a brief commentary as we travelled. The passengers mostly seemed to be tourists, from backpackers to retirees, from Australia and across the world. Some people near us talked about their visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, others seemed to be there because Mona is on the list of things to do in Hobart. I'd love to know how many were going for the whole 'controversial' experience, how many to tick off one of Hobart's sites and how many were going for the art.
When you arrive on site, you head up stairs from the landing, then a courtyard draws some visitors on to explore the grounds before entering the museum (and presumably helping avoid queues when a ferry arrives). I loved Wim Delvoye's concrete truck (not that I knew what it was at the time, because Mona doesn't have captions – one of the reasons it's been 'controversial') and the views across the suburbs and river.

You're given a printed Visitor Guide with your ticket (including a map, though printed in elegant thin grey type on black so almost impossible for my parents to read). The rules at the top of the stairs were clear – no food or drink, 'no flash' (so presumably other photography is ok – though I've just seen that the Visitor Guide says you can't put photos on 'personal websites' without permission – does that include social media? The guide blithely says 'Buy a postcard', assuming you found one of the artwork you liked in the shop, but the O page encourages you to 'share artworks with friends via facebook and twitter' so I'm a bit confused about what's ok and I take back it about the rules being clear!).

Then it's down the spiral staircase into the depths of the earth. You get glimpses of other galleries on the way down to the third level, interspersed with sandstone and concrete walls that still bear construction marks.

The O

Would this prompt you to save the tour?

At the bottom of the stairs, you're given your 'O', or interactive guide (basically an iPod Touch in a solid case). The 'O' is one reason museum technologists and exhibition designers have been so curious about MONA. As the guide says:

'We don't have labels on the walls. We have the O. Use it to read about the art on display and to listen to interviews with the artists. It's free.'

There are seats near the Void Bar that are also handily placed for sitting down and sorting yourself out before you start, so I took a few photos as I got started with my O. Getting started is pretty simple (and as expected, my parents had no trouble with it). It explains that you should 'tap the O update button' when moving between galleries to get a list of artworks nearby, then 'tap an artwork in the list to delve further'. When you tap into an artwork, you see a thumbnail image, artwork title, date, artist name, then a brief artist bio and list of materials used in the artwork. There are options in the top right-hand corner to 'love' or 'hate' the artwork. There's no room for neutrality, though I wonder if a shrug is possibly the worse possible response to a modern artwork and worth recording on some level? (Though they could presumably easily get a list of the works that elicited the fewest love or hate responses.)

The additional information icons for the first work I looked at were tied to the 'Red Queen' exhibition theme – Ruminations, Tweedledum, Jabberwocky (additional media, often audio). Others were 'gonzo' (David Walsh's voice), 'art wank' (art historical information), 'ideas' (often quotes from literature, sometimes questions, but only once a clunky museum education-style question). There seemed to be a 'Red Queen exhibition' view that shows only nearby artworks with special interpretation (Mum discovered it accidentally but as the icon change was very subtle she didn't realise why it wasn't showing anything around her; with a bit more signposting it'd be a useful function for repeat visitors who want to catch up on new stuff). Rather than a traditional exhibition with 'key messages' and learning outcomes, the Red Queen seemed to be a group of works collected together to think about particular themes (and in a sense is probably a microcosm of Walsh's overall collecting strategy). Intellectual concerns emerged in some of the interpretation, but there wasn't an overall narrative, and I didn't miss that one little bit. Mona probably showed me that I love stories at an individual level but can feel a bit lectured-at by the whole-gallery narratives I've encountered in other museums. I discovered some audio content while still near the entrance so went back to ask for headphones, but they weren't handed out by default when we visited.

Saving 'your tour'

I was curious about when and how I'd be prompted to 'save my tour' for viewing later. The prompt appeared to be triggered after I'd tapped through to a few artworks, but when it appeared, it didn't really convince me to sign up – I'd love to know what their response rate is and whether they've tested different versions of the text. 'All the works on display at Mona will be available to you on our website' isn't as informative as the text on the O page which you'll probably only see if you'd saved your tour while onsite: 'Saving your tour while at Mona enables you to see your entire path through the museum including a list of viewed, loved and hated works. You can read all available interpretive material, share artworks with friends via facebook and twitter, change ratings and more…' Dad saved his tour, Mum didn't. I did because I had a sense of what the website would offer me, but I don't know if I would have otherwise.

What's around you?

The O's location awareness seemed to work pretty well (an achievement in itself), but I'd love a smarter version that knew the difference between physical proximity and physical accessibility. It's all very well to know an artwork is two metres from me, but if there's a gallery wall between me and the work, it's just another thing to scroll past in search of the artworks that are actually in the same space as me. The biggest usability issue with the O (for me) was the length of the list – if it more accurately reflected the artworks visible in the space (as opposed to physically nearby) then it'd be much easier to find the work you were looking for. Perhaps it doesn't need location at all – broadcasting a short list of the artworks in the room would be just as effective (though the list would still be quite long in some of the galleries), or electronic wall labels that can be read in low light could replace printed captions. The list view was pretty handy for working out whether you'd seen everything in a particular area, as it added 'viewed' to artworks you'd tapped into.

But if you couldn't match the artwork in front of you to a picture in the list, you were out of luck. No caption, nothing. I was reminded of Mary Beard's recent statement about "letting the objects speak for themselves" — which usually means "letting the objects speak to those who know about them already"'.

Overall, the O…

…kinda worked. I preferred reading about the works to listening to an audio guide (I hate having to listen to slow talkers when I could be skim-reading). Given the amount of material there was to read or listen to while you're around the artworks, more seats would have been ace (but at least there were some around, particularly in the higher levels). And the content was great – it took me two hours to go through the lowest floor because I wanted to read or listen to everything while I could relate it to the artwork in front of me. As the O screens glow when you need to read text, the galleries themselves could be dark and as a result some of the objects were *beautifully* lit.

There are some kinks to work out – I accidentally 'loved' or 'hated' one or two works when the O bumped about and tapped from a list to a work and hit a button, and couldn't undo it. It was also tricky when viewing artworks set into slits in the wall – it made the art feel both more monumental and intimate, but it meant scrabbling around on the O to find the right artwork while being aware that you were blocking the view for others in the meantime. That said, I've been wondering where friction has been deliberately left in and where it's a bug. Does it matter that it only registers an artwork as 'seen' if you've tapped through from the list to the caption? And if labels don't matter, why do you have to tap through to one for a work to count as 'seen'? Does it matter that you're poking at a device instead of doing an emu dart in-and-back to read a caption on a wall?

But overall, I would have preferred basic captions on the walls, leaving the O for works I wanted to explore beyond a simple what/who/when caption. Being able to find out more with the O added to my experience and I loved the different voices and approaches it enabled, but I spent an awful lot of time scrolling around trying to find the entry for the artwork I was standing in front of (and I helped other people find artworks when they got stuck). The technology doesn't exactly distract from the art, but it does get in the way a bit.

[Update: I realised a while later that they can get away with a lot with the O's text because a) the whole set-up is iconoclastic and b) we don't look to Walsh and his curator mates for authority. It doesn't matter if you think they're wrong or that they haven't been representative and even-handed – it's not their job. Public museums don't have that freedom, though they could still learn something from the amount of personality the O manages to convey.]

The O website

If you give your email address to save your tour, you get an email later that day with a link to retrieve it from the website. I can't see how to change my ratings, share artworks on twitter or facebook, and I only seem to be filter by 'Works you viewed' and 'Works you missed' not those I've loved or hated – which would be fine if all that wasn't promised on the front page. The timeline/map of what you saw is pretty but didn't give me direct access to works I remember seeing at different points in my visit. Artworks don't have permanent (indeed, any) URLs, so I can't easily save or share the artworks I'm still thinking about.

Since it only counts an artwork as 'viewed' if you tapped through from the list view, it's not really an accurate list of what you viewed or missed. I also have a feeling the O will beep if you take it out of the building, which makes 'viewing' some works outside the building tricky. I'd also love to be able to see pieces that aren't on display any more, and personally I think I'd have gotten more out of my visit if I'd been able to get a sense of some of the artworks on the website before I went – I'm definitely a 'listen to the album before going to the concert' kinda person. That said, being able to check the name of an artist or work easily is great – I wish all museum websites made it so easy to find the objects you've seen.

Art wank?

The O's 'art wank' label and icon

I don't think I would have thought anything of this, except that an American friend (hi @erodley!) was a bit taken aback by it. I didn't have to ask Mum (who is quite proper) what she thought of it as she came up to me and said she liked 'the art thing'. She wasn't bothered when she put on her glasses and realised the label said 'art wank' – she's heard it used in Parliament – though when she realised what it was I don't think she was too keen on the icon itself. I asked Dad later, and he thought it matched Walsh's 'knockabout character', deflating people who are a bit 'up themselves'.

Finally, the art…

I loved a few pieces, I didn't hate any pieces though one was mildly irritating, some I would have loved to label 'meh'. Mum made me jump on a trampoline so she could hear the bells, I lined up to experience Death with my parents, and I realised that there's something about 'traces of pigment' on old statues that gets me every time. By the time I left, I felt a bit like I'd spent the day at a playground for art – partly because all my senses had been involved at some point, and partly because of the eclectic range of works I'd encountered (and maybe even because of the 'mild peril' hinted at in the lead up to the Death gallery experience).

Many of the artworks I liked best had a story attached, though it might have come from the original context of its creation, from Walsh's gonzo pieces or related to something in my own life. Others were just plain beautiful or charming or made me think, which is probably a good line on which to finish.


Update: I've snuck away from the PhD write-up for a minute to collate a list of other museum nerds' reviews of Mona and the O:

Let me know of any others in the comments…

Also in poking around I've also found a link to a tiny snippet of Mona's art (mostly) not on display, including some of the content you probably would have seen on the O at the time.

[If I ever re-write this, I'm going to add a clickbait headline '3 things you'll love about MONA and 1 you'll hate'. Or 'This one weird trick that really works for art history'.]

Lighting beacons: research software engineers event and related topics

I've realised that it could be useful to share my reading at the intersection of research software engineers/cultural heritage technologist/digital humanities, so at the end I've posted some links to current discussions or useful reference points and work to provide pointers to interesting work.

But first;  notes from last week's workshop for research software engineers, an event for people who 'not only develop the software, they also understand the research that it makes possible'. The organisers did a great job with the structure (and provided clear instructions on running a breakout session) – each unconference-style session had to appoint a scribe and report back to a plenary session as well as posting their notes to the group's discussion list so there's an instant archive of the event.

Discussions included:

  • How do you manage quality and standards in training – how do you make sure people are doing their work properly, and what are the core competencies and practices of an RSE?
  • How should the research community recognise the work of RSEs?
  • Sharing Research Software
  • Routes into research software development – why did you choose to be an RSE?
  • Do we need a RSE community?
  • and the closing report from the Steering Committee and group discussion on what an RSE community might be or do.

I ended up in the 'How should the research community recognise the work of RSES?' session. I like the definition we came up with: 'research software engineers span the role of researchers and software engineers. They have the domain knowledge of researchers and the development skills to be able to represent this knowledge in code'. On the other hand, if you only work as directed, you're not an RSE. This isn't about whether you make stuff, it's about how much you're shaping what you're making. The discussion also teased out different definitions of 'recognition' and how they related to people's goals and personal interests; the impact of 'short-termism' and project funding on stable careers, software quality, training and knowledge sharing. Should people cite the software they use in their research in the methods section of any publications? How do you work out and acknowledge someone's contribution to on-going or collaborative projects – and how do you account for double-domain expertise when recognising contributions made in code?

I'd written about the event before I went (in Beyond code monkeys: recognising technologists' intellectual contributions, which relates it to digital humanities and cultural heritage work) but until I was there I hadn't realised the extra challenges RSEs in science face – unlike museum technologists, science RSEs are deeply embedded in a huge variety of disciplines and can't easily swap between them.

The event was a great chance to meet people facing similar issues in their work and careers, and showed how incredibly useful the right label can be for building a community. If you work with science+software in the UK and want to help work out what a research software engineer community might be, join in the RSE discussion.

If you're reading this post, you might also be interested in:

In ye olden days, beacon fires were lit on hills to send signals between distant locations. These days we have blogs.

Beyond code monkeys: recognising technologists' intellectual contributions

Two upcoming events suggest that academia is starting to recognise that specialist technologists – AKA 'research software engineers' or 'digital humanities software developers' – make intellectual contributions to research software, and further, that it is starting to realise the cost of not recognising them. In the UK, there's a 'workshop for research software engineers' on September 11; in the US there's Speaking in Code in November (which offers travel bursaries and is with ace people, so do consider applying).

But first, who are these specialist technologists, and why does it matter? The UK Software Sustainability Institute's 'workshop for research software engineers' says 'research software engineers … not only develop the software, they also understand the research that it makes possible'. In an earlier post, The Craftsperson and the Scholar, UCL's James Hetherington says a 'good scientific coder combines two characters: the scholar and the craftsperson'. Research software needs people who are both scholar – 'the archetypical researcher who is driven by a desire to understand things to their fullest capability' and craftsperson who 'desires to create and leave behind an artefact which reifies their efforts in a field': 'if you get your kicks from understanding the complex and then making a robust, clear and efficient tool, you should consider becoming a research software engineer'. A supporting piece in the Times Higher Education, 'Save your work – give software engineers a career track' points out that good developers can leave for more rewarding industries, and raises one of the key issues for engineers: not everyone wants to publish academic papers on their development work, but if they don't publish, academia doesn't know how to judge the quality of their work.

Over in the US, and with a focus on the humanities rather than science, the Scholar's Lab is running the 'Speaking in Code' symposium to highlight 'what is almost always tacitly expressed in our work: expert knowledge about the intellectual and interpretive dimensions of DH code-craft, and unspoken understandings about the relation of that work to ethics, scholarly method, and humanities theory'. In a related article, Devising New Roles for Scholars Who Can Code, Bethany Nowviskie of the Scholar's Lab discussed some of the difficulties in helping developers have their work recognised as scholarship rather than 'service work' or just 'building the plumbing':

"I have spent so much of my career working with software developers who are attached to humanities projects," she says. "Most have higher degrees in their disciplines." Unlike their professorial peers, though, they aren't trained to "unpack" their thinking in seminars and scholarly papers. "I've spent enough time working with them to understand that a lot of the intellectual codework goes unspoken," she says.

Women at work on C-47 Douglas cargo transport.
LOC image via Serendip-o-matic

Digital humanists spend a lot of time thinking about the role of 'making things' in the digital humanities but, to cross over to my other domain of interest, I think the international Museums and the Web conference's requirement for full written papers for all presentations has helped more museum technologists translate some of their tacit knowledge into written form. Everyone who wants to present their work has to find a way to write up their work, even if it's painful at the time – but once it's done, they're published as open access papers well before the conference. Museum technologists also tend to blog and discuss their work on mailing lists, which provides more opportunities to tease out tacit knowledge while creating a visible community of practice.

I wasn't at Museums and the Web 2013 but one of the sessions I was most interested in was Rich Cherry and Rob Stein's 'What’s a Museum Technologist today?' as they were going to report on the results of a survey they ran earlier this year to come up with 'a more current and useful description of our profession'. (If you're interested in the topic, my earlier posts on museum technologists include On 'cultural heritage technologists'Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change?Museum technologists redux: it's not about usSurvey results: issues facing museum technologists.) Rob's posted their slides at What is a Museum Technologist Anyway? and I'd definitely recommend you go check them out.  Looking through the responses, the term 'museum technologist' seems to have broadened as more museum jobs involve creating content for or publishing on digital channels (whether web sites, mobile apps, ebooks or social media), but to me, a museum technologist isn't just someone who uses technology or social media – rather, there's a level of expertise or 'domain knowledge' across both museums and technology – and the articles above have reinforced my view that there's something unique in working so deeply across two or more disciplines. (Just to be clear: this isn't a diss for people who use social media rather than build things – there's also a world of expertise in creating content for the web and social media). Or to paraphrase James Hetherington, "if you get your kicks from understanding the complex and then making a robust, clear and efficient tool, you should consider becoming a museum technologist'.

To further complicate things, not everyone needs their work to reflect all their interests – some programmers and tech staff are happy to leave their other interests outside the office door, and leave engineering behind at the end of the day – and my recent experiences at One Week | One Tool reminded me that promiscuous interdisciplinarity can be tricky. Even when you revel in it, it's hard to remember that people wear multiple hats and can swap from production-mode to critically reflecting on the product through their other disciplinary lenses, so I have some sympathy for academics who wonder why their engineer expects their views on the relevant research topic to be heard. That said, hopefully events like these will help the research community work out appropriate ways of recognising and rewarding the contributions of researcher developers.

[Update, September 2013: I've posted brief notes and links to session reports from the research software engineers event at Lighting signals: research software engineers event and related topics.]