Developing a digital museum idea should never start with the technology



Incredible #museumgif from


Last week I was part of a Digital Creative Media workshop for museums and heritage sites organised by the University of Portsmouth Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries Cultural Heritage Research Group held on 27th July.

The event explored opportunities for using creative and digital technologies to enhance museum and cultural heritage interpretation and management, my quick and dirty notes are below.

The guest speakers for the event were the equally brilliant Kevin Bacon from Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove and Pat Hadley from Cogapp.  Despite coming at it from different angles the overriding message from both talks focused on the fact that any digital experience should never start with the technology and should always be visitor focused and object centred.

The Use of Digital Media at Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums, Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager, Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove

Kevin started from the position that it is actually quite difficult to articulate the collections online, as it is such a diverse collection.   So it is important to think about the collections strategically rather than as a cohesive whole.

When it comes to talking about digital, the conversation tends to be framed to touch by the technology.  Should we always think about digital as products? If we were a tech company that would be fine. But we are a museum. Digital, therefore, should be about relationships. At Brighton Staff digital literacy is all about transparency and communication.  Digital is pervasive.  Only 2 actual members of Digital Staff who focus on helping other staff to develop digital ideas and skills.

Golden rule: developing a digital idea should never start with the technology

Start with two questions:

  • What assets do you have? – museums are about stuff, stories and staff
  • Who are you aiming for? Audiences

Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums Examples

  • Getting a young person to run the museum Instagram account.
  • Discovery – how can we help other people find and use our collections? Collections search – what is the point of the museum online catalogue? At Brighton, they are moving towards a Digital media bank – digital asset management system. Creating a sense of agency. Creative comments – system works much better for users
  • Blogging has been really successful for Brighton. 69x more views than a collection record.  People like narratives. It also opens up opportunities for new perspectives
  • Remix the Museum and excellent uses of museum gifs.  A very good reminder that being playful with collections is really important!
  • From 2D design… to 3D model: Coins and Medals. A great example of  Reflective transformation by working with the University of Brighton to do PTM-RTI (Polynomial Texture Mapping-Reflectance Transformation Imaging – in essence taking lots of photos with different lighting conditions and different angles and then stitching them all together)
  • Blogger in Residence. Bringing other voices into the collections.
  • Map the museum – stripping back to a very simple idea. Release raw Collections data to the public, and get people to locate objects on a map, correcting items that are in the wrong place. The data collected helps the museum to learn more about our collections, and the data is also released as open data.
  • Story drop mobile app – reminded me a lot of the TWAM’s Hidden Newcastle app.  A way of discovering the hidden histories and surprising stories geolocated across a city.

Final top tips from Kevin

  • Importance of narrative over objects
  • Build in scope for failure.
  • Be happy with a smaller audience.
  • Be more experimental
  • Use your prototype as a real thing.  – appreciate this is quite hard to do with public funding.

Thinking through digital: Top tips for designing projects and working with technologists, Pat Hadley, Developer, Cogapp Digital Media Projects

Pat’s slides are available here.



contemplating post-its

First off Pat got us thinking with a Post-it notes exercise about what types of digital technology we use, and what digital stuff we had heard of, but had no clue about.  It was an interesting exercise and a great way of seeing where knowledge gaps are.


Making museum collections and heritage sites engaging, accessible and useful for today’s audiences. This set of problems is one of the most exciting challenges areas to apply digital technology. Collaboration is key, with staff and visitors, and external partners. When thinking about digital projects you need to consider organisational culture, visitor centred approaches, and content.  Joining these up can sometimes be quite challenging sometimes. Ultimately, when thinking about digital projects, other museums are not your competition. The competition is Netflix and Candy Crush.  How do museums compete with that?

Pat touched on lots of excellent ideas and lots of projects, and then really hit home the following points:

  • How do people use technology?
    • Unless… you are the audience.
  • How to think through Digital? rather than stuff, stories about the stuff, technology and then people.  It should be People first, with a lit bit of stuff, a little bit of stories about the stuff and a little bit of technology.
  • It comes down to what do you want the visitors to leave feeling….?

How to write a brief… think about the audience. 

  • What do you want the Visitor to feel?
  • At the start of any project, you know the least about the end point. Don’t demand a race car and then realise you need a horse.
  • Find experts – collaborations with external partners, your audiences, your nephew.
  • Get perspective. What can we uniquely do? What problems can be escaped?
  • What is your unique capability to offer audiences?
  • Think big, start small, move fast.
  • Adjust goals accordingly.

Lots to think about.

What Can We Learn from Digital Artists’ Projects in Museums?

Innovation and experimentation in museums has been a growing topic of conversation of late, and an increasing number of organisations have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that push the boundaries.  As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in new ways that go far beyond simply placing their works on the walls.  New collaborative projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective are becoming more common. More museums are inviting artists to bring their creative artistic practice to focus on museum collections and on creating new participatory and immersive experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum.

While you do hear stories about these types of projects meeting some resistance from within the museum for seeming to be trivial, ‘arty-farty’ or without intellectual content, in my opinion more often than not these collaborative creative projects largely succeed in transforming museums into spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity.

This post looks at the process of working on Decoded 1914-18 as part of the umbrella Wor Life project at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Between October 2014 and February 2015 Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice came together to explore some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental digital art projects in museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with digital artists.  The final project – Decoded 1914-18 produced a programme of AV installations and events that explored the First World War and its effect on those living in Tyne & Wear. Seven artists took inspiration from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) collections to create artworks and performances which examined and interpreted Tyne and Wear in the First World War in innovative ways. It was a fantastic process and I learnt a lot, and I have well and truly been bitten by the power of AV for visitor engagement.

In an excellent blog post entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?”, Annelisa Stephan states:

“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”

This is very much something I would agree with after working on the Decoded 1914-18 project.

So here is what I learnt about working with digital artists in museum spaces during Decoded 1914-18:


Before I started at Durham University I held the position of the Assistant Digital Officer at TWAM, my role was to work with the Digital Coordinator (the excellent John Coburn) to deliver a programme of digital projects that would innovate digital access to TWAM’s collections and increase public engagement.   Decoded1914-18 was one such project.


1. Museums Need to Embrace Risk

Working with digital artists to create visitor engaging projects inside the museum is fundamentally different from, and more challenging than, simply commissioning works of art. It means working collaboratively and bringing artists and creative practitioners into the organisation, and equally involves bringing museums in to the risk-taking of the creative process.

The aim of Decoded 1914-18 was to invite a fresh perspective to discover and reimagine stories and material from museum collections.  The project focused on creative arts practice where museum collections, artists and innovative digital practice merge to create a new kind of digital audiovisual experience.  This collaborative innovative creative practice fundamentally disrupts the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, visitors.   This was no mean feat. Not only did we have an aspirational project to deliver but we were also trying to do it with a difficult and challenging subject matter (the impact of the First World War on the North East), across a range of TWAM venues. It was a risk – and to TWAM’s credit, one it was willing to take. Rob Stein in 2012 suggested that creating a culture in museums that embraces risk is a prerequisite to allow significant innovation to take hold.  A certain amount of risk is always associated with digital projects because they are ‘new,’ ‘innovative’ and ‘cool,’ but there are uncertainties about how much risk is too much risk. How far can the boundaries be pushed with one project and how much tolerance does the museum have? These are questions that all museums are now facing and questions which Decoded1914  tried to tackle in a relatively short amount of time and budget.


2. Artists Disrupt the Institutional Voice

One of the most dramatic effect of digital artists’ interventions in museum spaces is to disrupt the institution’s voice, content and collections so they can be seen, reimagined and presented from a new perspective. This can transform the museum from a place of information and authority to one of experience, engagement and curiosity.

For example, one of the Decoded artworks took place in the basement museum store of the Discovery Museum, completely changing the space from a working museum collection store not normally open to the public to an immersive art experience.  This was challenging and involved a lot of risk management but the final artwork was well worth the oodles of risk assessments.  Including artists in the exhibition process means taking risks and letting go of authority, and challenging staff working practices. All good things in my book.


3. Friction is a Good Thing

Differing perspectives create tension and friction, sometimes unpredictably so.  But tension can be incredibly good for the collaborative and creative process.  If everyone worked in the same way, it would make for a very boring world. For Decoded we worked with a range of artists and creative practitioners.  I was surprised how much friction there was on some projects, whereas others went smoothly without incident. Now I don’t mean friction in terms of disagreements, misunderstandings or negativity.  It is more of a friction in terms of approach and expectations.  There was a disconnect between museum timescales and artistic timescales.  It was really refreshing to work with varying perspectives on timescales and project management and throughout the process we learnt a lot about expectations around museum collections availability, documentation and retrieval.  Despite some difficulties the friction between artists and museums is really interesting.Our ideas were challenged, tested, and in turn better projects were produced. This is the kind of useful friction that leads to new ways of working.   It highlights the challenges of working in a museum, and particularly highlights the need for museums to evolve their understanding around public expectations of collections access in projects.  Friction pushes all staff and can innovate all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the creative process.


4. Adapting and Compromise

Flexibility, adaptability and accepting change became key components of the Decoded project.  The nature of creative practice means that things can change quite quickly and often, for example in terms of what is possible. As a result of such changes, there can be impacts upon such things as collections material availability, installation, and evaluation. There is therefore a need to be able to react quickly to changes to the project, by both the artist and the museum, but also to find the space to accommodate these. It is important to constantly refer back to the aims and objectives of the project, and to reflect. Both artists and museum staff need to become very good at adapting to change and adjusting the process accordingly to match that change.


5. Encouraging Dialogue, Provocation and Confusion

By working with digital artists to reimagine museum collections, it encourages dialogue, provocation, and confusion for staff and for visitors. Confusion is a profound tool, because it prompts museum staff and the visitors to ask questions.  Seeing museum collections through an artist perspective has really challenged my perceptions of what is possible when it comes to digital interpretation.  It has made me think beyond text and image and to look at the abstract, the immersive and the noisy.


6. Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

Decoded resulted in a two week temporary installation, it was ephemeral by its very nature. It’s not unusual for artists’ projects in museums to be ephemeral, which makes documenting them essential. They are full of lessons that can guide future projects inside and outside the museum, so despite the short nature of the installation, it is important to document the process and the outcomes.   For Decoded we decided to use video to document the process of the project as well as to act as a legacy for each of the Decoded artworks.  This rich video documentation serves as a archive of ideas that can be used as inspiration for future digital projects.


A big thank you to all the artists,TWAM and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice, and Dominic Smith.  It was a great project!

I’d love to know what you think. What else can we learn from digital artists’ projects in museums? What have I missed? Are the learnings different with an artist in residence project compared to a collaboration for a specific theme? 


What is Digital Change in Museums anyway?

Or to put another way: Do we need to understand Digital Change in Museums?

I’ve been thinking about digital change a lot lately. Change is very difficult to do, let alone manage, and what happens when you throw digital into the mix?  We continuously wonder and marvel at the possibilities digital presents, yet we seem to be constantly separating ‘digital’ out as an individual entity and therefore struggle to make sense of its impact on our lives. And if individuals find it difficult to understand, adapt and accept these digital transformations, how do cultural organisations deal with digital change?

But the more I think about digital change, the more I begin to wonder what on earth is it?  Is the term ‘digital change’ a bit of a misnomer? Is it still true are we really struggling to understand digital? Personally I feel like we are at a tipping point, where digital isn’t something separate anymore but is something which is embraced and no-one runs screaming from the building when the term is mentioned.

Today digital touches everyone and everything. It is part of everyday life – communications, retail, entertainment, education, medicine etc. So why when it comes to museums and change is it seen as something separate, and actually quite daunting?

Over the past few weeks there has been the Arts Council and Culture 24 Digital Change: seizing the opportunity online’ event at BALTIC – Centre for Contemporary Art and the Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2015 by Baroness Martha Lane Fox – both discussing the need for change when it comes to understanding technology and the internet.

But what does Digital Change actually mean to cultural organisations?  How is it defined? How is it understood?  And what is the appropriate response?

It may very well mean one thing to large national cultural institutions – “Digital as a Dimension of everything” from the Tate springs to mind and large ongoing digital transformations at the nationals are prime examples, leading Ross Parry to believe that the cultural sector is at the beginnings of being ‘Post Digital’.  But what about the smaller organisations? The museums in the regions? Are they ‘Post Digital’? Do they understand digital change?

One thing the Digital Change conference at the Baltic discussed was the fact that doing digital well is difficult. “It takes skills that cultural organisations often don’t have in-house, it costs money they don’t have and it’s hard to measure if anything is really having an impact.”  This doesn’t sound like something that has been accepted and embraced now does it?

But really should we be talking about digital change or just change?

Instead of thinking digital change perhaps we should be thinking about organisational change and how it is managed within museums. Ultimately how we think about and understand change affects our ability to anticipate, shape and direct it using digital technologies.

Within museums there is a sense of fluid, fast-moving change arising from the proliferation of digital technologies. Signs and talk of change are everywhere.  But, there’s no avoiding that museums are generally conservative, and change and innovation are often lost in translation in between the realms of bureaucracy, financial streamlining and supposed time and resource efficiency savings. This friction is clearly a frustration for those angling for change.

Perhaps we should reconsider the overemphasis on digital and of digital strategies and planning in our discussions and management of change processes within museums.  Instead, we should focus our attention and effort on the dynamic, interactive and conversational basis of organisational change.  One of the best books I’ve read about museums and change is Robert Janes’ Museums and the Paradox of Change.  It suggests understanding change is more about encouraging responsiveness and learning, not necessarily strategic planning.  If you haven’t read this book, I do recommend it.  It’s a really honest and open account of organisational change within a museum.

Once we understand organisational change processes then we can start to think about our ability to predict, shape and direct it using digital technologies.


Bulb Banter: Museums bring out your bulbs!

Large Ediswan bulb UCL Museums

Large Ediswan bulb UCL Museums

Over the past 6 months I have been curating an exhibition in UCL Museums newest exhibition space, the Octagon.  The exhibition is all about digital technology and illustrates the power of emerging applications and poses questions about technology and culture in the past and in the present. Its been a brilliant experience and I have learnt so much.  During the process I have become a bit obsessed with Light Bulbs.

Light bulbs seem so mundane now, but have you actually stopped to think about how they work, the history behind them and had a close look?  They are really quite pretty and have a fascinating history! I might be a bit bias.

Bulb history the basics:

The invention of the light bulb is often credited to two men; Thomas Edison, from Ohio, USA and Joseph Swan, from the North East of England. In 1883 Edison and Swan went into partnership to form the Edison and Swan United Electric Company also known as Ediswan. The newly formed Ediswan started to sell incandescent light bulbs which became the industry standard.

Last night I shared my obsession with Light Bulbs at Museums Showoff and now loads of #bulbbanter is popping up.  I can’t really express how excited this is making me! Loads of Bulbs!!! Brilliant.

Here are some of the highlights from today:

Lightbulb lamp – Horniman Museum

Electric filament lamps made by Swan (left) and Edison (right), 1878-1879 – Science Museum 

Blackout Light Bulb – IWM 

Light Bulb – Museum of London

If you know of some interesting light bulbs in any museum collections or  happen across any brilliant bulbs, please let me know!

Can a Museum collect tweets? And should it?

Last week I was invited to a workshop at the Museum of London focusing on Collecting Social Media as a Museum Object .   It was a really interesting workshop with plenty of discussion and questions raised. It’s a discussion that I think would be well worth continuing with more institutions to see what practices are already undertaken when it comes to dealing with social media and museums.

The workshop follows on from a really great project between The Museum of London and the University of Westminster; citizen curators.  MoL are really interested in how social media can be collected as an object in its own right, if at all.

Hopefully there will be more discussion about this in the future; so these are just some of my quick notes that struck me during the workshop.

The main Interesting question of the day: What do you accession into the museum collection when collecting social media?

Peter Ride, University of Westminster – Citizen Curators

  • #citizencurators – a social networking project for London2012
  • What do you accession into the collection?
  • Experimental project
  • Can communities collect and curate without museum curatorial authorship?
  • Aimed to investigate how social media can provide alternative approach that supplement contemporary collections
  • Designed to result in knowledge about how you can collection born digital media.
  • Public call for citizen curator and Several blog posts about the process. See
  • #citizencurator project found that images are an integral part of the tweet experience. But accessioning social media images is difficult.  Museum of London collected textual tweets but not images. Due mostly to copyright issues. MuseumofLondon decided it wasn’t a viable option. They followed the Library of congress precedent: aka text is ok images are not.
  • But this raises issues relating to the place of images within visual culture. Particularly as images are an integral part of the tweet experience.
  • The outcome – over 7,000 tweets were logged by the Museum using the #citizencurators hashtag
  • But by far the most important issue was about working with Twitter – what could they do with the project.  It’s a scary thing for a museum to let go of content control. By its nature being an open project in a public forum the project had no walls, there was no control in management or in terms of the content. And for curators this raises complex issues. Authority, Trust, Control, Authenticity etc.
  • The Citizen Curator In what form can this media be best collected?
  • Is it best kept for future investigation?
  • Can it be made accessible?
  • Steve raised a point during the discussion that Twitter’s T&Cs have changed meaning there are now quite strict conditions on sharing raw data.  Which will make projects like this tricky in the future.


Catherine Flood, V&A – Flickr and the Olympics

  • V_and_A‘s Collect London 2012 Flickr project …
  • Aiming to create an archive of images of the Olympics
  • Collect the graphic environment at London 2012
  • Create an archive of images that will preserve a snapshot
  • How do you approach social media as a design object?


Helen Hockx-Yo, British Library – Archiving social media

  • Two strands as part of web resources archived in the uk web archive
  • British library collects Facebook data. Can only collect public pages, only as part of a special collections,  due to technical problems – pages dynamically generated via asynchronous JavaScript calls.  How do you archive dynamically generated pages?
  • British Library collects and analyse tweets with Twittervane which can determine which sites are shared most frequently … in order to build a web archive collection
  • Prototype/Investigatory project by the British Library to use Twitter to build a web archive collection
  • Current selection process is largely manual by a small number of experts
  • Explore automatic selection
  • Exploit the wisdom of the crowd

Common issues with archiving social media:

  • Copyright: who owns the content?
  • Technical existing technologies not adequate
  • No generic, scalable solutions
  • Will be more difficult as technology advances
  • Curatorial: how do we select social media content? Focus in events, themes or as much as possible?
  • Ethics: privacy and ethical implications
  • Access and usage: how will the archived content be used?
  • What search/discovery/analytics tools should be offered
  • Twitter offering personal archiving services.  Should you archive your followers? Is it not that that provides the context?


Ruth Page, University of Leicester – Twitter datasets: a linguists perspective

  • Twitter as a source for data
  • Relatively easy to harvest (see suggestions from the AoIR on scraping tools)
  • Small and large scale corpora
  • What does that [visitor comment] tell us about how they fit into the museum environment?
  • Computer mediated discourse analysis
  • LSE museum and social media
  • Challenges for research
  • Ethics
  • Archiving and usability
  • Longevity (is it just a fad?)
  • What is it for?


Workshop discussion and some Twitter chat

  • Why are we collecting?
  • Lack of the visual social media data in collection discussions
  • Twitter and photographers and the network and context. How do you evaluate and analyse that?
  • Visual aspect of social media. Authorship, network, context. Cat meme as an example.
  • There must be a way to solve ethical issues perhaps its a case of a Reserach projects in collaboration with Twitter itself?
  • Higher Education has vast ethical conditions in order to get clearance, can they apply to museums social media projects?
  • What ethical documentation/policies/guidelines do museums adhere to with regards social media?
  •  ‏@ernestopriego tweeted a useful  database of 196 social media policies …
  • question about ethical responsibility &displaying social media. Is it the application, the museum or the visitors ethical responsibility?
  • Do any museums include a clause in their social media policies about archiving and curating their own tweets?
  • Do we discuss social media in museums in silos? Should we be looking at the wider context, it’s interdisciplinary nature?
  • Bit of a meta debate about the difference between ownership and access of social media data.


Tweets, Geospatial analysis, giraffes and a little bit of museums for good measure: What I got from the Casa Seminar: Harvesting the Crowd

Yesterday I went to my first CASA seminar, and it was great!  Well the second half was, the first half involved a lot of equations about Thermodynamics and I didn’t have a clue what was going on, and I chose an unfortunate seat near the front, I was slightly terrified that he might ask the group to solve said equations. I have trouble adding up numbers let alone Greek letters.  I’m sure it was brilliant, but unless you have a firm basis in maths or thermodynamics I don’t think you would have stood a chance.  Then came the good stuff, the stuff I understand, and the stuff that makes me happy: Social Media, visualisations, maps (I am a closet geospatial nerd who has no geospatial abilities- I’m like superman on kryptonite) animal logos and to my happy surprise a bit about museums.

Steve Gray and Fabian Neuhaus provided an overview of the tools in CASA’s crowd sourcing toolkit; SurveyMapper, Tweet-o-Meter and the Twitter Collection tools.  There has been a massive explosion of handheld mobile devices with GPS as well as a move to crowdsourcing info this has produced a heck of a lot of online geospatial data.  Add newly released public sector data and you get yourself an exciting situation where people can take that data and turn it into something more interesting.  CASA work on integrating tools for unlocking, exploiting, understanding and sharing new data sets and to also enable users have a go at mapping and spatial analysis.

Firstly Steve talked about Survey Mapper –  a real time geographic survey tool.  What I like about survey mapper is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It knows it’s doing clever stuff behind the scenes, but presents a friendly giraffe – you can’t not love a giraffe – with an easy to use interface.  One of the survey’s Steve discussed was the BBC’s Look East Broadband speed survey which produced a lot of responses over 6500 in a day I think (I might be wrong on that one).

Tweet-o-meter – This is genius and really beautiful too.

Tweet-o-Meter is powered by CASA, as part of the NeISS project. Created by Steven Gray

Tweet-o-meter harvests geospatial data from Twitter with the aim of creating a series of new city maps based on Twitter data.  Data is collected from tweets sent via a mobile device that includes the location at the time of sending the tweet. Via a radius of 30km around different cities, for example the number of Tweets have been collated to create New City Landscape Maps of London, New York and Paris.

Created by Urban Tick

I think this is a beautiful analogy for twitter activity where contours correspond to the density of tweets, mountains rise in active twitter locations and cliffs drop down in to valleys of tweet deserts.

UrbanTick has the full set of the different new city landscapes, all available in  Google Maps viewer (I think)- head over to take a look at the gorgeousness.

Steve and Fabian discussed that there are now 60 cities around the world that have their tweets monitored over the period of one week.  Amsterdam is a top tweeter with over 50% geolocated tweets. Whereas London which is still a really active city send on average send about 10%  geolocated tweets. Visualisations clearly showed that different cities seem to be more active in the morning and others in the evening, producing some lovely looking kidney shapes.  The data also shows that different days of the week are more conducive to tweeting, for example  Monday and Tuesday are generally less active than the rest of the week.

Data was also collected during the early days of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo.  It was really interesting to see how the protests and internet blackout affected twitter activity.  For example when the big internet switch was flicked back on the data shows an immediate rise in geolocated tweets.

And then came something that I got really excited about and something that I could really use in my PhD… Andy, Steve, Fabian … if you’re reading this, can you show me how to do it? Pretty please!? I will buy you cake. Lots of it.

Tweeting art –  Most museums are now using Twitter and CASA have taken that information and turned it into really awesome spider like explosions of communication network visualisations.  Showing how different museums (the examples given included Tate and MoMA) link in to the wider twitter network and also how they link to each other  so in essence how the institutions interact with other users and how this connects them into an entangled social network.  For example Tate and MoMa tweet to roughly the same followers but don’t really tweet to each other.   I think this is fascinating, particularly if it can show if museums are only using Twitter as a broadcast medium – pushing marketing out, or whether they are creating a engaging discussions and digital experiences with their followers.

It was fascinating to be part of the seminar not only where people were talking about Twitter in a active exciting research context and sensible manner, and where questions from the audience were serious, and probing and engaged in the topic.  Rather than asking ridiculous questions from anti social Media people where Twitter is a waste of time, full of pointless babble which makes yooths mediocre there was brilliant questions about how do you model for uncertainty, what proportion of users geotweet? Does this skew the data?what about frequency and text mining to find out more about context.  It was brilliant.  I was engaged. And it reminded me that I am not out of my depth in this whole digital humanities thang, I do know what I am talking about, and this is a growing research field doing so much cool stuff, I am an alt academic and proud.

Notes from the Cultural Heritage and the Semantic Web day

I promised a few people that I would take copious notes at the British Museum Semantic Web event last week. To be honest, I don’t really understand the semantic web.  Shocking for a museums web geek! I know that Linked data is a good thing, but I couldn’t really tell you why, or how on earth you go about doing it.  So I went along with the hope that I would become well informed and least to be able to do more than nod and smile when someone mentions semantic webness. The whole point of the event was to focus on projects that are already using semantic web technology. I’m quoting from the programme here “By presenting a more practical insight into the use of the semantic web in the sector it is hoped that the current gap between the technologists and others who stand to benefit from the technology can be bridged.”

I don’t quite know if they managed that.  It did seem like it was semantic web people talking to other semantic web people. But perhaps that is how it has to happen at first for people in the know to discuss and ponder before it can filter down successfully to the rest of us.

First up was Wendy Hall.  Wendy showed us lots of pictures of conferences she attended in the 80s and 90s…

But then said some interesting things like “Scruffy Works”.  Suggesting that you need to let links fails to make it scale.  You shouldn’t aim for your linked data to be perfect first time round, there has to be room for experiment and exploration. The network is everything, and open and free standards are hugely important was also one of her key points.  Wendy also talked about 5star data; W3 has a handy mug to explain the 5 start system of good linked data.

Two keys questions came out of Wendy’s talk: who successful have Cultural Heritage practitioners been in working to develop and use semantic web tech? And where are the starting points?

Kenneth Hamma taught me the wonderful word bumbulum. And discussed zen and the art of the internet following up with talking about The wrong containers.  The notion of ‘my collection’ silos of information, gatekeepers and information containers.    These don’t really work in the physical world why have we as museums extended this reasoning and practice to the Web? That the semantic web breaks this tradition.  There has to be this action of ‘letting go’.  And encouraged us to Imagine what people will do with museum data if you let it go, and allow all museum information to be joined up.  This of course isn’t without its challenges and starting being open and free with data is difficult when you have to take the jump and ‘let go’.

John Sheridan from The National Archives spoke brilliantly about and    I like the fact that the TNA is beginning to be classed as a sort of semantic knowledge base, which operated the UK government website archive.  Which is the 2nd most used web archive in the world. John spoke about developing standards for responsible publishing of key types of data, showing commitment to publishing in open standards, and the National Archives have taken this opportunity to publish data in Linked Data form and make it available via the website.  This in turns makes it easy for people to consume date in a programmatic way; developing Linked Data APIs with the facility to deliver data in multiple formats, as well as native linked data.

John also spoke about having appropriate standards for different levels, one thing I really liked was the idea concept of ‘re-use where we can, create where we must’.  John also demonstrated data cleansing with  Google Refine particularly because non coders types like myself can publish RDF data by clicking a few buttons without having to use any complicated </>’s.

Hugh Glaser from Seme4 started with the idea of time and location being very important.  But what is more important is Knitting everything together in order for it it make sense.  Firslt mentioning the BBC’s dynamice semantic publishinhg of the World Cup coverage using RDF.  Hugh then went on to talk about the classic data fusion problem, existing at  many museums and other organisations where many separate silos exist within the organisation.  The British Museum Collection Online (COL) is a prime example.  The cataloguing data is in one database, the conservation data will be in another, the acquisition data somewhere else, and the science data in yet another.  Using some very clever ontology all of that data is now tabbed at the bottom of catalogue entries.  Now I found this fascinating, why? Well I’ve done some work on the Info seeking behaviour of users of the BM’s COL and not one of them mentioned the linked data.  Nor did I notice any mention of this on the COL itself.  My worry is that not enough people understand how linked data works, myself included, and that nifty things like all the data from lots of different databases about the Rosetta Stone being linked together in one place, is being overlooked, and possibly more importantly not being shouted about.

Hugh went on to demonstrated the Resist Knowledge Base (RKB) and RKB explorer, which is a knowledge enabled infrastructure which displays semantic relationships of individuals.

Hugh then stated that linked data was bringing ‘added value’ because of the more sophisticated services, in an open system means you don’t have to do everything yourself.  Added value to whom? How for example do semantic relationships deal with provenance data, object biographies, mapping of historical data?

Atanas Kirakov had a brilliant analogy for the Semantic web… it is like teenage sex.  Lots of people talk about it, not that many actually do it, and for those that does it is a less than satisfactory experience.

Linked Data is hard for people to comprehend, and its sheer diversity is problematic. Linked Data Web is unreliable, most of the servers are slow because dealing with distributed data on the web is slow, leading to high down times.

I liked Altanas’ talk, it was straight to the point.  Linked data is a good idea.  He does believe that linked data adds value to proprietary data through better description whilst being able to make data more open..  But in practice it isn’t well used because there are no well established opinions about what exactly linked data can ‘buy’ businesses.  There is a need to facilitate better data integration, and provide additional public information which can help alignment and linking info up.

Jonathan Whitson Cloud started his talk ‘it would be a shame to come to the BM and not talk about objects’ and then used a couple of lovely looking cuneiform tablets as examples.  Explaining it all started with structured data…

Jonathan went on to discuss the conservation and scientific research documentation project.  Stating that adding taxonomy afterwards is quite tricky. Showing that there are lots of concerns around sharing data, but at least there has been a lot of talking about it. Different types of people have different types of issues about sharing data and then linking it up:

The British Museum has its reputation to uphold, and likes being the first to do things.   The conservators are concerned about data quality, data protection, academic process and ownership, personal as well as institutional reputation.  The scientists are concerned about academic process and ownership, data content, previous failed systems, effort vs reward, data quality, personal and institutional reputation.   Documentation and IS are concerned about data quality, hierarchies and thesauri used. The list could go on.  A lot to think about when producing a business case for sharing data.  However the process of moving towards sharing data acts as a catalyst for data cleaning and structuring.  BM collections data is being structured and stored semantically by the end of Feb 2011. I did notice that with all this talk of people, not once was the ‘end user’ mentioned.  It’s all well and good restructuring data for internal sharing and a more cohesive organisation, with nice linked data.  But what does that mean for the web user who wants to find out about a specific object and its location in the museum?  I have a big scribble in my note pad (laptop battery fail) simply saying WHAT ABOUT THE USERS?

Leif Isaksen gave an interesting talk about the past, present and future of semantic web in cultural heritage. Technology for data integration is not tech which is changing society, not the volume of data but a positive feedback loop of information exchange is what is important.  Where culture is the textural and material artefacts we chose to exchange information about. However society has an overwhelming interest in popular culture which is sidelining cultural heritage.  Leif then went on to describe a semantic ecosystem:

  • Entity services ( British Museum, London)
  • Ontology services (building, city, is located in)
  • Data services ( British Museums, is located in London)

Dominic Oldman spoke about The Research Space, which aims to support scholarly research online, VRE anyone?

Research space is an environment which aims to generate new knowledge by collaboration.  By creating a research collaboration and digital publication environment, bringing together data collaboration and research tools into one space.  Blogging tools, forums, and wikis alongside the RDF imported data.

So by the end of it all, I was quite confused and I still don’t know my SPARQL from my CIDOC, sounds like a Saturday night involving sequins and hiccups to me. But I am glad I went, particularly as I am not alone in my lack of understanding this whole Semantic web thing.  But if more people like John Sheridan and Atanas Kiryakov can hold more sessions explaining this pesky much talked about but not much done linked dataitus it would go a long way to solving some of the ‘Buy In’ issues and make people feel less dumbfounded by it all.