Slides and talk from 'Cosmic Collections' paper

This is a lazy post, a straight copy and paste of my presentation notes (my excuse is that I'm eight days behind on everything at work and uni after being grounded in the US by volcanic ash). Anyway, I hope you enjoy it or that it's useful in some way.

Cosmic Collections: creating a big bang?

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Slide 1 (solar rays – Cosmic Collections):

The Cosmic Collections project was based on a simple idea – what if we gave people the ability to make their own collection website? The Science Museum was planning an exhibition on astronomy and culture, to be called ‘Cosmos & Culture’. We had limited time and resources to produce a site to support the exhibition and we risked creating ‘just another exhibition microsite’. So what if we provided access to the machine-readable exhibition content that was already being gathered internally, and threw it open to the public to make websites with it?  And what if we motivated them to enter by offering competition prizes?  Competition participants could win a prize and kudos, and museum audiences might get a much more interesting, innovative site.
The idea was a good match for museum mission, exhibition content, technical context, hopefully audience – but was that enough?
Slide 2 (satellite dish):
Questions…
If we built an API, would anyone use it?
Can you really crowdsource the creation of collections interfaces?
The project gave me a chance to investigate some specific questions.  At the time, there were lots of calls from some quarters for museums to produce APIs for each project, but would anyone actually use a museum API?  The competition might help us understand whether or how we should invest in APIs and machine-readable data.
We can never build interfaces to meet the needs of every type of audience.  One of the promises of machine-readable data is that anyone can make something with your data, allowing people with particular needs to create something that supports their own requirements or combines their data with ours – but would anyone actually do it?
Slide 3 (map mashup):
Mashups combine data from one or more sources and/or data and visualisation tools such as maps or timelines.
I'm going to get the geek stuff out of the way and quickly define mashups and APIs…
Mashups are computer applications that take existing information from known sources and present it to the viewer in a new way. Here’s a mashup of content edits from Wikipedia with a map showing the location of the edit.
Slide 4 (APIs)
APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are a way for one machine to talk to another: ‘Hi Bob, I’d like a list of objects from you, and hey, Alice, could you draw me a timeline to put the objects on?’
APIs tell a computer, 'if you go here, you will get that information, presented like this, and you can do that with it'.
A way of providing re-usable content to the public, other museums and other departments within our museum – we created a shared backend for web and gallery interactives.
I think of APIs as user interfaces for developers and wanted to design a good experience for developers with the same care you would for end users*.  I hoped that feedback from the competition could be used to improve the beta API
* we didn’t succeed in the first go but it’s something to aim for post-beta
Slide 5: (what if nobody came?)
AKA 'the fears and how to deal with them'
Acknowledge those fears
Plan for the worst case scenario
Take a deep breath and do it anyway
And on the next slides, the results.  If I was replicating the real experience, you’d have several nerve-biting months while you waited for the museum to lumber into gear, planned the launch event, publicised the project in the participant communities… Then waited for results to come in. But let’s skip that bit…
Slide 6: (Ryan Ludwig's http://www.serostar.com/cosmic/)
The results – our judges declared a winner and a runner-up, these are screenshots – this is the second prize winning entry.
People came to the party. Yay! I'd like to thank all the participants, whether they submitted a final entry or not. It wouldn't have worked without them.
Slide 7: (Natalie and Simon's http://cosmos.natimon.com/)
This is a screenshot from the winning site – it made the best use of the API and was designed to lure the visitor in and keep drawing them through the site.
(We didn’t get subject specialists scratching their own itch – maybe they don’t need to share their work, maybe we didn’t reach them. Would like to reach researchers, let them know we have resources to be used, also that they can help us/our audiences by sharing their work)
Slide 8: (astrolabe – what did we learn?)
People need (more) help to participate in a geektastic project like this
The dynamics of a competition are tricky
Mashups are shaped by the data provided – you get out what you put in
Can we help people bring their own content to a future mashup?
Slide 9: (evaluation)
I did a small survey to evaluate the project… Turns out the project was excellent outreach into the developer community. People were really excited about being invited to play with our data.  My favourite quote: "The very idea of the competition was awesome"
Slide 10: (paper sheet)
Also positive coverage in technical press. So in conclusion?
Slide 11: (Tim Berners-Lee):
“The thing people are amazed about with the web is that, when you put something online, you don’t know who is going to use it—but it does get used.”
There are a lot of opportunities and excitement around putting machine-readable data online…
Slide 12: Tim Berners-Lee 2:
But:  It doesn’t happen automatically; It’s not a magic bullet
But people won't find and use your APIs without some encouragement. You need to support your API users. People outside the museum bring new ideas but there's still a big role for people who really understand the data and audiences to help make it a quality experience…
Slide 13 (space):
What next?
Using the feedback to focus and improve collection-wide API
Adding other forms of machine-readable data
Connecting with data from your collections?
I've been thinking about how to improve APIs – offer subject authorities with links to collections, embed markup in the collections pages to help search engines understand our data…
I want more! The more of us with machine-readable data available for re-use, the better the cross-collections searches, the region or specialism-wide mashups… I'd love to be able to put together a mashup showing all the cultural heritage content about my suburb; all the Boucher self-portraits; all the inventions that helped make the Space Shuttle work…
Slide 14: (thank you)
If you're interested in possibilities of machine-readable data and access to your collections, join in the conversation on the museum API wiki or follow along on twitter or on blogs.  Join in at http://museum-api.pbworks.com/
More at https://openobjects.org.uk/ or @mia_out

Image credits include:
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap100415.html
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap100414.html
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap100409.html
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap100209.html
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap100315.html
http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/Centenary/Home/Icons/Pilot_ACE_Computer.aspx

Mash the state

Join in the conversation about Wikimedia @ MW2010

[email protected] is a workshop to be held in Denver in April, just before the Museums and the Web 2010 conference.  The goal is to develop 'policies that will enable museums to better contribute to and use Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons, and for the Wikimedia community to benefit from the expertise in museums'.

If you've got stuff you want to say, you can dive right into the conversation – there's a whole bunch of conversations at http://conference.archimuse.com/forums/wikimediamw2010, including 'Legal and Business Model Barriers to Collaboration, 'Notability Criteria' and 'Metrics for Museums on Wikipedia'.

I'm going to be at the workshop and will do my best to represent any issues raised at the meeting.  I think it's particularly important that we avoid 'Feeling glum after GLAM-WIKI' if we possibly can, so I'd like to go there with a really good understanding of the possible points of resistance, clashes in organisational culture or world view, incompatible requirements or wishlists so that they can be raised and hopefully dealt with during the in-person workshop.  I'd love to hear from you if there are messages you want to pass on.

I'm also thinking about an informal meetup in London to help cultural heritage people articulate some of the issues that might help or hinder collaboration so they can be represented at the workshop – if you're a museum, gallery, archive, library or general cultural heritage bod, would that be useful for you?

Why do museums prefer Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons?

A conversation has sprung up on twitter about why museums prefer Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons after Liam Wyatt, Vice President of Wikimedia Australia posted "Flickr Commons is FULL for 2010. GLAMs, Fancy sharing with #Wikimedia commons instead?" and I responded with "has anyone done audience research into why museums prefer Flickr to Wikimedia commons?".  I've asked before because I think it's one of those issues where the points of resistance can be immensely informative.

I was struck by the speed and thoughtfulness of responses from kajsahartig, pekingspring, NickPoole1, richardmccoy and janetedavis, which suggested that the question hit a nerve.

Some of the responses included:

Kasja: Photos from collections have ended up at wikipedia without permission, that never happened with Flickr, could be one reason [and] Or museums are more benevolent when it happens at Flickr, it's seen more as individuals' actions rather than an organisations'?

Nick: Flickr lets you choose CC non-commercial licenses, whereas Wikimedia Commons needs to permit potential commercial use?

Janet: Apart fr better & clear CC licence info, like Flickr Galleries that can be made by all! [and] What I implied but didn't say before: Flickr provides online space for dialogue about and with images.

Richard: Flickr is so much easier to view and search than WM. Commons, and of course easier to upload.

Twitter can be a bit of an echo chamber at times, so I wanted to ask you all the question in a more accessible place.   So, is it true that museums prefer Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons, and if so, why?

[Update: Liam's new blog post addresses some of the concerns raised – this responsiveness to the issues is cheering.  (You can get more background at Wikipedia:Advice for the cultural sector and Wikipedia:Conflict of interest.)

Also, for those interested in wikimedia/wikipedia* and museums, there's going to be a workshop 'for exploring and developing policies that will enable museums to better contribute to and use Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons, and for the Wikimedia community to benefit from the expertise in museums', [email protected], at Museums at the Web 2010. There's already a thread, 'Wikimedia Foundation projects and the museum community' with some comments.  I'd love to see the 'Incompatible recommendations' section of the GLAM-Wiki page discussed and expanded.

* I'm always tempted to write 'wiki*edia' where * could be 'm' or 'p', but then it sounds like South Park's plane-rium in my head.]

[I should really stop updating, but I found Seb Chan's post on the Powerhouse Museum blog, Why Flickr Commons? (and why Wikimedia Commons is very different) useful, and carlstr summed up a lot of the issues neatly: "One of the reasons is that Flickr is a package (view, comment search aso). WC is a archive of photos for others to use. … I think Wikipedia/Wikimedia have potential for the museum sector, but is much more complex which can be deterrent.".]

Cosmic Collections – the results are in. And can you help us ask the right questions?

For various reasons, the announcement of the winners of our mashup competition has been a bit low key – but we're working on a site that combines the best bits of the winners, and we'll make a bit more of a song and dance about it when that's ready.

I'd like to take the opportunity to personally thank the winners – Simon Willison and Natalie Down in first place, and Ryan Ludwig as runner-up – and equally importantly, those who took part but didn't win; those who had a play and gave us some feedback; those who helped spread the word, and those who cheered along the way.

I have a cheeky final request for your time.  I would normally do a few interviews to get an idea of useful questions for a survey, but it's not been possible lately. I particularly want to get a sense of the right questions to ask in an evaluation because it's been such a tricky project to explain and 'market', and I'm far too close to it to have any perspective.  So if you'd like to help us understand what questions to ask in evaluation, please take our short survey http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/5ZNSCQ6 – or leave a comment here or on the Cosmic Collections wiki.  I'm writing a paper on it at the moment, so hopefully other museums (and also the Science Museum itself) will get to learn from our experiences.

And again – my thanks to those who've already taken the survey – it's been immensely useful, and I really appreciate your honesty and time.

Links of interest – November 2009

I've fallen into the now-familiar trap of posting interesting links on twitter and neglecting my blog, but twitter is currently so transitory I figure it's worth collecting the links for perusal at your leisure. Sometimes I'll take advantage of the luxury of having more than 140 characters and add comments [in brackets].

And stuff I really must find time to read properly:
Finally, a tweet about an interview with me about the Cosmic Collections competition.
I really should group those tweets and replace all the shortened links with the full URLs but it's already taken a surprisingly long time to put this post together.

Nine days to go! And entering Cosmic Collections just got easier

Quoting myself over on the museum developers blog, Cosmic Collections – do one thing and do it well:

I’ve realised that there may be some mismatch between the way mashups tend to work, and the scope we’ve suggested for entries to our competition. The types of interfaces someone might produce with the API may lend themselves more to exploring one particular idea in depth than produce something suitable for the broadest range of our audiences.

So I’m proposing to change the scope for entries to the competition, to make it more realistic and a better experience for entrants: I’d like to ask you to build a section of a site, rather than a whole site. The scope for entrants would then be: “create something that does one thing, and does it well”. Our criteria – use of collections data, creativity, accessibility, user experience and ease of deployment and maintenance – are still important but we’ll consider them alongside the type of mashup you submit.

I've updated the Cosmic Collections competition page to reflect this change. This page also features a new 'how to take part' section, including a direct link to the API and to a discussion group.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this change – there's an email address lurking on the competition page, and I'm on twitter @mia_out and @coscultcom.

In other news, programmableweb published a blog post about the competition today: Science Museum Opens API and Challenges Developers to Mashup the Cosmos. Woo!

And I don't know if it's any kind of consolation if you're entering, but I'll be working right alongside you up until Friday 28th, on an assignment for my MSc.

'Cosmic Collections' launches at the Science Museum this weekend

I think I've already said pretty much everything I can about the museum website mashup competition we're launching around the 'Cosmos and Culture' exhibition, but it'd be a bit silly of me not to mention it here since the existence and design of the project reflects a lot of the issues I've written about here.

If you make it along to the launch at the Science Museum on Saturday, make sure you say hello – I should be easy to find cos I'm giving a quick talk at some point.
Right now the laziest thing I could do is to give you a list of places where you can find out more:
Finally, you can talk to us @coscultcom on twitter, or tag content with #coscultcom.
Btw – if you want an idea of how slowly museums move, I think I first came up with the idea in January (certainly before dev8D because it was one of the reasons I wanted to go) and first blogged about it (I think) on the museum developers blog in March. The timing was affected by other issues, but still – it's a different pace of life!

Let's push things forward – V&A and British Library beta collections search

The V&A and the British Library have both recently released beta sites for their collections searches.  I'd mentioned the V&A's beta collections search in passing elsewhere, but basically it's great to see such a nicely designed interface – it's already a delight to use and has a simplicity that usually only comes from lots of hard work – and I love that the team were able to publish it as a beta.  Congratulations to all involved!

(I'm thinking about faceted browsing for the Science Museum collections, and it's interesting to see which fields the V&A have included in the 'Explore related objects' panel (example).  I'd be interested to see any usability research on whether users prefer 'inline' links to explore related objects (e.g. in the 'tombstone data' bit to the right of the image) or for the links to appear in a distinct area, as on this site. )

I'm not sure how long it's been live, but the British Library beta catalogue search features a useful 'Refine My Results' panel on the right-hand side of the search results page.  

There's also a 'workspace', where items and queries can be saved and managed.  I think there's a unique purpose for users of the BL search that most sites with 'save your items' functions don't have – you can request items directly from your workspace in advance for delivery when next in the library.  My friendly local British Library regular says the ability to save searches between sessions is immensely useful.  You can also export to delicious, Connotea, RefWorks or EndNote, so your data is transportable, though unfortunately when I tested my notes on an item weren't also exported.  I don't have a BL login so I haven't been able to play with their tagging system.

They've included a link to a survey, which is a useful way to get feedback from their users.

Both beta sites are already useful, and I look forward to seeing how they develop.

What's the point of museum collections online?

Earlier this week I posted on our developer blog to ask 'what’s your number one question about presenting museum collections online?'.

Merel van der Vaart (@MerelVaart on twitter), who has just finished an internship with the Science Museum's climate change content team, posed an interesting question in response:

"I'm still struggling to decide what the value of online access is. Not  that I think it's bad, but how exactly is it good?"

I tend to think that everyone knows the benefits of online collections – providing access to museum objects and the knowledge around them, to start with – so it's actually a really good question: why are we putting collections online?  Who does it benefit?  Are the benefits clear to others in the museum, and to our audiences?

I can think lots of answers, but the exercise of stopping and examining my automatic response was really useful.  I'm still thinking about the presentation on selling your ideas because  it's made me realise the importance of having answers to questions we'd forgotten might be questions.