'Share What You See' at hack4europe London

A quick report from hack4europe London, one of four hackathons organised by Europeana to 'showcase the potential of the API usage for data providers, partners and end-users'.

I have to confess that when I arrived I wasn't feeling terribly inspired – it's been a long month and I wasn't sure what I could get done at a one-day hack.  I was intrigued by the idea of 'stealth culture' – putting cultural content out there for people to find, whether or not they were intentionally looking for 'a cultural experience' – but I couldn't think of a hack about it I could finish in about six hours.  But I happened to walk past Owen Stephen's (@ostephens) screen and noticed that he was googling something about WordPress, and since I've done quite a lot of work in WordPress, I asked what his plans were.  After a chat we decided to work together on a WordPress plugin to help people blog about cool things they found on museum visits.  I'd met Owen at OpenCulture 2011 the day before (though we'd already been following each other on twitter) but without the hackday it's unlikely we would have ever worked together.

So what did we make?  'Share What You See' is a plugin designed to make a museum and gallery visit more personal, memorable and sociable.  There's always that one object that made you laugh, reminded you of friends or family, or was just really striking.  The plugin lets you search for the object in the Europeana collection (by title, and hopefully by venue or accession number), and instantly create a blog post about it (screenshot below) to share it with others.

Screenshot: post pre-populated with information about the object. 

Once you've found your object, the plugin automatically inserts an image of it, plus the title, description and venue name.

You can then add your own text and whatever other media you like.  The  plugin stores the originally retrieved information in custom fields so it's always there for reference if it's updated in the post.  Once an image or other media item is added, you can use all the usual WordPress tools to edit it.

If you're in a gallery with wifi, you could create a post and share an object then and there, because WordPress is optimised for mobile devices.  This help makes collection objects into 'social objects', embedding them in the lives of museum and gallery visitors.  The plugin could also be used by teachers or community groups to elicit personal memories or creative stories before or after museum visits.

The code is at https://github.com/mialondon/Share-what-you-see and there's a sample blog post at http://www.museumgames.org.uk/jug/.  There's still lots of tweaks we could have made, particularly around dealing with some of the data inconsistencies, and I'd love a search by city (in case you can't quite remember the name of the museum), etc, but it's not bad for a couple of hours work and it was a lot of fun.  Thanks to the British Library for hosting the day (and the drinks afterwards), the Collections Trust/Culture Grid for organising, and Europeana for setting it up, and of course to Owen for working with me.  Oh, and we won the prize for "developer's choice" so thank you to all the other developers!

Wellcome Library blog – a quick review

I originally wrote this a while ago, and a whole bunch of new content has been added by what seems like a range of authors, so it's worth checking out.

The Wellcome Library has a quite lovely blog. I like their 'item of the month', the way they're addressing common questions 'where do things come from', the list of latest aquisitions (though it's about as human readable as I feared it might be), a 'call for testing' when they've got newly digitised records up… it's a good example of transparency and the provision of access in practice. It feels a little as if you had a friend who worked there who sent on little tidbits they came across during the work. 

The site says it has (the uber-annoying) Snap Shots but it didn't seem to actually be interfering with my browsing experience when I checked it out today.

There's a Flickr stream too (though they haven't yet nabbed a name, so it's at the not-so-snappy http://www.flickr.com/photos/26127598@N04/) and it hasn't been updated since what looks like a big batch upload in May 2008. Some of the images are lovely, check out the human cancer cells, or neurons in the brain or historically important – such as the first DNA fingerprint.

They've just added Charles Babbage, I wonder if they have anything on Ada Lovelace they could highlight for Ada Lovelace Day.

Are blog awards missing the point?

And not only that, but why did I feel disconcerted when this blog was nominated for an award back in April? (I didn't win, but that wasn't surprising.) I kept meaning to post back with the results, but I hadn't yet managed to articulate how I felt about it.

Today Paul Walk blogged 'I think I might be allergic to lists and awards', which sums up a lot of my inchoate thoughts. In posting a comment I realised that I found being reminded that I have an audience a bit disconcerting. I also realised that the value of this blog for me is the chance to learn more, not only during the process of writing a post but also during the online and offline discussions that follow.

Anyway, go read Paul's post. Tony Hirst also makes an interesting point in his comment – awards may act as 'crossover' that introduces non-blog-readers to the value of blogs.

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.

UKOLN's one-stop shop 'Cultural Heritage' site

I've been a bad blogger lately (though I do have some good excuses*), so make up for it here's an interesting new resource from UKOLN – their Cultural Heritage site provides a single point of access to 'a variety of resources on a range of issues of particular relevance to the cultural heritage sector'.

Topics currently include 'collection description, digital preservation, metadata, social networking services, supporting the user experience and Web 2.0'. Usefully, the site includes IntroBytes – short briefing documents aimed at supporting use of networked technologies and services in the cultural heritage sector and an Events listing. Most sections seem to have RSS feeds, so you can subscribe and get updates when new content or events are added.

* Excuses include: (offline) holidays, Virgin broadband being idiots, changing jobs (I moved from the Museum of London to an entirely front-end role at the Science Museum) and I've also just started a part-time MSc in Human-Centred Systems at City University's School of Informatics.

If you are bored…

…you could go and read some of the blogs listed in the ComputerWeekly.com IT Blog Awards 08.

If you like this blog, you could vote for it in the Programming and technical blogs category, but given how good some of the other blogs are, I certainly don't expect you to!

On the other hand, if you've really got time to be bored, maybe you could figure out the best way for a one-programmer (i.e. me*) project to store and publish layers of user-generated content on top of data drawn from APIs. KTHXBAI!

* More about that project soon when I report on the mashed museum day – I'd love other programmers to join me.

Personal blogs in cultural heritage and museums on Flickr

I meant to mention this at the e-learning group's 'Wine, Web 2.0' event on Thursday when someone asked about official blogs written from personal (rather than marketing or institutional) viewpoint: the British Library's Breaking the Rules blog strikes me as very personal – maybe not compared to the blogosphere as a whole, but compared to other 'work' blogs within the cultural heritage sector.

Also, the East Lothian Museums have been using Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/eastlothian/ to display some of their 25,000 items. It's worth checking out if you're thinking about how you might use Web 2.0 sites or if you're curious about their content. FWIW, they're also blogging.