Collection databases Developer tools Metadata

OPAC2.0 – OpenCalais meets our museum collection / auto-tagging and semantic parsing of collection data

Today we went live with another one of the new experimental features of our collection database – auto-generation of tags based on semantic parsing.

Throughout the Museum’s collection database you will now find, in the right hand column of the more recently acquired objects (see a quick sample list), a new cluster of content titled “Auto-generated tags”.

We have been experimenting with Reuters’ OpenCalais web service since it launched in January. Now we have made a basic implementation of it applied to records in our collection database, initially as a way of generating extra structured metadata for our objects. We can extract proper names, places (by continent, country, region, state and city), company names, technologies and specialist terms, from object records all without requiring cataloguers to catalogue in this way. Having this data extracted makes it much easier for us to connect objects by manufacturers, people, and places within our own collection as well as to external resources.

Here’s a brief description of what OpenCalais is in a nutshell from their FAQ

From a user perspective it’s pretty simple: You hand the web service unstructured text (like news articles, blog postings, your term paper, etc) and it returns semantic metadata in RDF format. What’s happening in the background is a little more complicated.

Using natural language processing and machine learning techniques, the Calais web service looks inside your text and locates the entities (people, places, products, etc), facts (John Doe works for Acme Corp) and events (Jane Doe was appointed as a Board member of Acme Corp) in the text. Calais then processes the entities, facts and events extracted from the text and returns them to the caller in RDF format.

Whilst we store the RDF triples and unique hash, we are not making use of these beyond display right now. There is a fair bit of ‘cleaning up’ we have to do first, and we’d like to enlist your help so read on.

Obviously the type of content that we are asking OpenCalais to parse is complex. Whilst it is ideally suited to the more technical objects in our collection as well as our many examples of product design, it struggles with differentiating between content on some object records.

Here is a good example from a recent acquisition of amateur radio equipment used in the 1970s and 1980s.

The OpenCalais tags generated are as follows –

The bad:

The obvious errors which need deleting are the classification of “Ray Oscilloscope” as a person (although that might be a good name for my next avatar!); “Amateur Microprocessor Teleprinter Over Radio” as a company; the rather sinister “Terminal Unit” as an organisation; and the meaningless “metal” as an industry term.

We have included a simple ‘X’ to allow users to delete the ones that are obviously incorrect and will be tracking its use.

These errors and other like them reveal OpenCalais’ history as Clearforest in the business world. The rules it applies when parsing text as well as the entities that it is ‘aware’ of are rooted in the language of enterprise, finance and commerce.

The good:

On the otherhand, by making all this new ‘auto-generated’ tag data available, users can now traverse our collection in new ways, discovering connections between objects that previous remained hidden deep in blocks of text.

Currently clicking any tag will return a search result for that term in the rest of our collection. In a few hours of demonstrations to registrars and cataloguers today many new connections between objects were discovered, and people, who we didn’t expect to be mentioned in our collection documentation, revealed.

Help us:

Have a play with the auto-tags and see what you can find. Feel free to delete incorrect auto-tags.

We will be improving their operation over the coming weeks, but hope that this is a useful demonstration of some of the potential lying dormant in rich collection records and a real world demonstration of what the ‘semantic web’ might begin to mean for museums. It is important to remember that there is no way that this structured data could be generated manually – the volume of legacy data is too great and the burden on curatorial and cataloguing staff would be too great.

Developer tools Web metrics

Google Teleportation / Google’s ‘search within search’

Google’s ‘search within search’ or as they call it ‘teleporting‘ has hit the Powerhouse Museum.

I’m not sure whether this is a compliment or not, but as the New York Times reports, this is a very interesting development which raises many issues for content-rich sites with vested interests in their own internal search.

As you can see in the screenshot below, a search for ‘powerhouse museum‘ now not only shows the main home page link, and the ‘selected’ 8 results (automatically picked by Google – probably a mix of popular pages and ‘relevant’ pages by title), it also shows a secondary search box.

Searching in this second box returns a site-specific search result, but still on Google, and depending upon the search term, filled with term-sensitive search advertising. Here’s an example of the effect of entering a term like ‘travel‘ into the secondary search box.

Worse still, try this one – ‘venue hire’.

It is going to be interesting to watch the effect of this on user behaviour. For Google it allows them to keep users on their search site for a longer period of time (and tempts them with advertising), and, if I look at this with a positive spin, it also hopefully delivers users to exactly what they want on our site by the time they get to it,

Either way though, this is another nail in the coffin of traditional web metrics and measurement. Where previously visitors wanting to find your organisation by a brand name search would start their visit to your site at the home page (after being delivered to there by Google), now they are more likely to exhibit similar behaviour to content-seekers, and start their visit deep in your site. This has significant implications for site design and navigation if users do actually start using the ‘search within search’.

Have any other museums found their site is now affected this way? (I notice that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – ABC is another Australian site that is)

Interviews Museum blogging Powerhouse Museum websites

Sydney Observatory blog – lessons from the first 2 years, an interview with Nick Lomb

The Sydney Observatory blog will turn 2 in June. It has been an enormous success for the Observatory with its traffic now accounting for at least half of all traffic to the Observatory website each months. Since its launch there have been 291 posts to date and 1073 filtered comments.

The Sydney Observatory blog is one of the quiet success stories of museum blogging and ‘easy’ social media. The Observatory itself is an important heritage site in Sydney and is run by a small dedicated team of staff. Whilst the public can visit small exhibition spaces during the daytime the Observatory is best known as a historic building and a place for star gazing. Night visits are extremely limited in capacity because of the size of telescope dome, and the static Sydney Observatory website was established almost solely to promote through-the-door visitation.

The blog was started as a strategy to expand the Observatory’s online content and to expand its potential audience. We knew that there was a large online audience for astronomy and that the Observatory staff were extremely knowledgeable, well-connected and able to produce some fantastic astronomical content tailored for a southern hemisphere and Sydney audience – but they lacked a quick publication method to do this efficiently.

To celebrate the upcoming anniversary I spoke to Nick Lomb, Curator, Astronomy, who is one of the two bloggers who post to the Observatory blog. Nick has written 209 posts so far.

The blog has been an enormous success. How much time do you allocate to blogging each week? How has this impacted on your other work?

Nick: A post takes me between 20 minutes and one hour to put up. It all depends whether I am preparing it from scratch or it is material I already prepared for another person. It could also be material from someone else such as an amateur, but sometimes editing material from someone else takes longer than writing my own. This is especially the case when I have to work on images that have been embedded inside a Word file and need to be extracted or if four or more images have been put into one and I need to untangle them before posting.

The time spent on the blog does mean I need work extra hours to be able to complete my other work. However, I find that I get more satisfaction on having put up a well laid out and informative post than almost anything else I do.

How do you choose what to blog about? What impact, if any, has there been on content choices as a result of questions from the readers of the blog?

Nick: I am an astronomy educator so I my posts tend to contain worthwhile astronomical information. At the same time I do not want to repeat news items, but want to provide information that people generally would not come across elsewhere. For example, if there is an event in the sky such as an eclipse or a conjunction of a couple of planets I would write about that from a southern hemisphere perspective. It is important as our [local] news media often quote reports from the United States or Europe without noting that the view from our part of the world can be very different.

Other posts can be triggered by a question from a member of the public. If a question is of interest to one person then it could also be of interest to others. Recently, I had a long email discussion with someone about dark matter and, after obtaining approval from my correspondent, the discussion went on the blog. Still other posts are related to what I see on the rare occasions I have the opportunity to travel. And, of course, it always helps if I have a suitable image in my own collection to illustrate a post and I enjoy being able to reuse my own photos in this way.

How have you engaged amateur groups in the blog? WHat has been the response from the amateur groups and particular individuals like Monty?

Nick: There is an amateur group long associated with the Observatory called the Sydney City Skywatchers. A few members of the group not only make excellent and useful observations, but are happy to tell people about what they do. Occasionally, others have sent me their work from other groups such as the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group and even from the Irish Astronomical Society. I encourage these amateurs to send me their reports to put on the blog as it not only provides a useful outlet for their work, but it shows others what useful and fascinating work can be done as an amateur astronomer.

You have added a ‘Report your sightings’ section. What is this for? Why did you do it? Have you found that conversations emerge between readers/contributors?

Nick: Sydney Observatory often gets reports of meteors or other strange lights in the sky. In the past these were often written down on scraps of paper and lost. I did prepare report sheets placed in a folder so that my colleagues could keep all reports in the one place. That worked well though sometimes the folder went AWOL and then for a while the reports went unrecorded. The idea was for us to keep the reports so that if there were many reports for a particular bright fireball then they would be sent to an interested astronomer who could use them to work out the path of the object and the possible location a remnant may have fallen.

The ‘Report your sightings’ page does the same as the folder and the report sheets. Except, of course, it does not go missing and the media and other astronomers can look at the page to check the sightings of any event.

Many of the events relate to sightings that are clearly not astronomical. A common one is the sighting of small backlit clouds or aeroplane vapour trails in the west at sunset. People are often disappointed and hard to convince when I explain that that their sighting is not of something unique. A recent amusing one was the case of someone who observed two bright lights in the sky very close together and claimed that they were moving all over the sky. I commented that two planets were in fact very close together in the sky that morning and were slowly rising in the east, but otherwise they were still. The original correspondent was unconvinced.

There are sometimes comments and support for particular sightings from other readers. Generally, however, people expected an authoritative reply and explanation [which the Observatory is more than happy to give].

Do you read all the comments? How do you choose what to respond to? Roughly what proportion have you had to remove because they have innapropriate (except for spam of course!)?

Nick: I do read all comments and respond where I can say something useful. For instance, I respond to comments on the ‘Report your sightings’ page if I can explain what people saw – it could have been a planet, a backlit cloud (as mentioned above) the International Space Station (if I determine that it made a pass at the right time), an Iridium flash or a genuine fireball. However, if the description is not clear enough to determine what the sighting was then I do not answer.

How has the astronomy community, especially fellow academics, responded to the blog? Do they admire it or find it rather frivolous? Do you feel that it has reinforced the Observatory’s reputation/brand or undermined it in any way?

Nick: I presented a paper on the blog at a professional astronomical conference at Macquarie University last July and I had very good feedback from the professionals. Soon after the conference I was highly gratified when accidentally coming across the webpage of a high-profile Australian research astronomer and noticing a link to the blog with the comment “a really cool blog”. So I think the blog has helped the Observatory’s profile both with the public and with the research community.

The monthly podcasts are a fascinating addition to the blog. What audience needs are you trying to serve with them? Has it had any positive or negative impact on visitation?

Nick: The best way to learn about the night sky is for people to go outside on a dark night together with an astronomer to point out interesting sights and tell them about what they are looking at. The podcasts provide the next best thing that people can download to their iPods or MP3 players and listen to outside. The blog also provides monthly star maps that they can use while listening to the podcasts to help them become familiar with the night sky. And, of course, the more people know the more they want to find out. A good way to do that for people in Sydney is to visit Sydney Observatory.

Thanks to Nick for the interview. Visit the Sydney Observatory blog .

Conferences and event reports Web 2.0

Free talk – ‘New web technologies and museums’ – Wednesday 26 March at the Powerhouse Museum

If you’ve missed any of my recent presentations then I am doing a bit of a ‘remix’ of them this Wednesday, March 26 (edited!) at the Powerhouse Museum from 1230pm to 130pm. Entry is free after normal museum admission.

As a part of the ‘Talks After Noon‘ series I will be talking about the future of museums online looking at the different ways museums are engaging with social media, mobile technologies, collections and more. If you’ve seen and heard me speak in the last few months then you will be familiar with most of the themes but I am also going to include a couple of ‘sneak peeks’ at some slides and ideas from my forthcoming papers at Museums and the Web in Montreal as well. Of course, if there are any particular themes or issues you’d like me to cover then drop me a line and I will see what I can do. There should be some time for a Q&A at the end too.

I hope you can make it.

Interactive Media Interviews Young people & museums

Behind the scenes of Launchball – an interview with Daniel Evans, Frankie Roberto, and Mike Ellis

There is a lot to learn from the Science Museum’s (London) recent success with their Launchball online game.

The project has been enormously successful and recently won ‘best of show’ at SxSW. I conducted an interview with Daniel Evans, Frankie Roberto, and Mike Ellis to explore some of the ideas and processes behind the project.

Launchball was built to support and extend the Launchpad gallery experience. Launchpad is a highly interactive physics exploration space specifically aimed at 8-14 year olds.

How did it start?

Frankie Roberto:

“The key idea came from a realisation that the mission of the gallery was to allow kids to explore and play with real physical phenomena. As it’s nigh-on-impossible to experience real physics through a computer screen, we decided to drop this element and use simulation instead, and to focus instead on the exploration, playing, open-ended nature of the gallery . . . it follows the ethos of the gallery completely, and covers much of the same topic areas too (electricity, light, energy transfer, etc).”

Daniel Evans:

“As Frankie says Launchball is quite closely tied in to the gallery in many ways: the same set of themes are explored through similar types of activity. This isn’t a groovy game vs. a worthy gallery – Launchpad is a riotously popular place itself. We were very lucky that the exhibition team had an extremely thorough understanding of their brand and its meaning and were able to strip it of its gallery-specific contingencies and give us a brief at quite an abstract level. We were therefore able to work with a useful set of ideas (“Launchpad is about learning by doing what you fancy and seeing what happens”) rather than a more facile and literal interpretation that would have left us doomed (“Launchpad has a machine for blowing bubbles therefore its presence on the web must too”).

… we had series of brainstorms over a year or so exploring what Launchpad was and what it could look like online, with the web and gallery teams (including, importantly, the people who manned the old gallery on a day-to-day basis and really knew the audience) and a few gurus from outside the museum (Ben Gammon, Joe Cutting). This was interspersed with some research into audience needs and expectations and resulted in an ideas harvest, followed by an ideas elimination and finessing process.”

How did you keep the focus on making the game engaging, fun and addictive versus a more straightforward approach to making it overtly ‘educational’?

Mike Ellis:

“I had a really interesting meeting with the Head of Content at the Science Museum very early on in the project. I specifically asked her whether she thought the concept that we had just presented was “too fun and not educational enough”. She absolutely backed up our approach, pointing out that people in the “real” Launchpad space were having a great time and that the learning followed on from that rather than the other way round.”

Frankie Roberto:

“I felt strongly that the game should avoid the trap of having a traditional arcade-style gameplay, with a light level of theming and text-based interstitial screens that carry the educational method. 90% of museum games fall into this category. Instead I felt strongly that the playing and experimenting with the game should be an educational learning experience in its own right, and a fun one and enjoyable one.. For me, this idea follows the constructivist theory and follows in the footsteps of things like Lego and the Logo programming environment (which I also played with at school).

That said, when producing any simulation game, from a football manager to a theme park game, there have to be some simplifications from reality in order to make the game playable, and just to be able to physically make the game. In Launchball, for example, there’s no real friction, light can’t be diffracted, batteries never run out, and so on. Adding these in might have added additional learning outcomes, but it’d have made the gameplay more complicated, and not to mention would have made the game more complex to produce.

One of the key decisions we made, which I really insisted on, was a ‘sandbox’ mode where people could just play with all the blocks, with no limits, no set task, no specific learning objective. This I think is critical, as it really allows people to truly play, in an open-ended fashion, and to learn through doing all the way. Additionally, the sandbox allows people to create their own levels, truly opening up the game.”

Daniel Evans:

“It’s an interestingly loaded word, “educational”. In a sense your question is based on the very model that we were determined to avoid – the idea of using a game as a sort of diversionary tactic to buy some goodwill while you cram some facts down the audience’s throats, with the challenge for the developers being getting the right balance between sugar and pill. It’s amazing how persistent this fundamentally rather pessimistic idea is – the number of commentators for example who have seen the factoids at the end of a launchball level and thought “ah, that’ll be the educational bit”, when in fact the educational bit is the bit they’ve just finished.

It was absolutely crucial that the game was the education and the education was the game: the activity and the ideas it was communicating were indivisible. The key assumption behind the whole of Launchpad is that there is no tension between an activity being fun and it being physics-based. Online this is amply evidenced by the fact that almost all commercial games, including those with no educational remit whatsoever, are built around … physics engines. In a sense Launchball is just a giant exercise in drawing attention to this fact.”

What was the role of the external developers?

Daniel Evans:

“. . . it is impossible to overstate the role Preloaded had in the success of Launchball, both in terms of the craft skills of game design (hats off to Henry Cooke, Jon Mallinson and Phil Stuart in particular – three exceptionally talented individuals) and in terms of their endless willingness to rise to each new challenge (and we threw them quite a few) to deliver something truly excellent rather than just acceptably good.

User testing was the other major factor – there was a huge amount of testing by our in-house team on real members of the target audience at all stages of development. If you’re clear about your objectives, work with talented and creative sources of good ideas and then subject those ideas to really searching evidence-based quality control (and the developers engage positively with the findings, which Preloaded to their credit always did), then you stand a pretty good chance of getting a decent product.”

Digg played an early role in the viral promotion of the site, generating an enormous rush of visits to the site, putting strain on the servers.

Mike Ellis:

“I had actually left the museum at the point when I punted it to Digg :-) I got some fairly sharp words from the IT dept telling me I should have told them but to be honest what would they have done, gone and bought a server farm if I had let them know?”

Frankie Roberto:

“To be honest though, if it wasn’t Mike that had submitted it to Digg, someone else would have, and I think it would have had the same effect. Ultimately, it was the users of Digg who decided that the game was good enough for it to have made the Digg front page. Digg hasn’t actually been the biggest referrer to the game, that accolade falls to, followed by 2 Norwegian sites, then, then Digg. However Digg was certainly the most sudden.”

Daniel Evans:

“It wasn’t so much the traffic, it was when it hit: we hadn’t tested it under heavy load at that point. A few weeks later, bottlenecks identified and fixed, the game was coping comfortably with several times the traffic that Digg drove. In our final stress testing we simulated 100 times the load that brought the site down and although the servers were obviously straining they didn’t collapse. We were a bit naive and were caught slightly unawares by the instant attention. Although we were confident the game was pretty good, we underestimated the full extent and immediacy of its viral strength. Still, a nice problem to have, on balance.

… [now] we’ve had over 1.5 million visitors and about 100,000 people saving levels. 25% of Launchball visitors (most of whom are new and there for the game) go on to visit other parts of the Science Museum website … the figures for duration are a bit unreliable as it’s all on one page and a lot of people never go to any other page, but it’s obviously a lot longer than the website average.”

Frankie Roberto:

“It’s now the most popular page on our website!”

How much involvement has the museum had in engaging with the communities that have sprung up around the game? How is the education sector responding to it?

Daniel Evans:

“We’ve had ‘design a level’ competitions, there’s a facebook group and we’re continually getting feedback. There are over 25,000 pages on the web discussing Launchball though – so we can’t keep track of them all. Launchball discussions spring up in lots of surprising places too – there was a fansite for one of the other games at SXSW that had a thread complaining that Launchball won, that swiftly turned into a discussion about how you complete ‘The Volcano’. We’ve had lots of positive feedback from teachers too, including some unexpected stuff – for example some teachers are finding it very useful for teaching English as a Foreign Language.”

What are the lessons you have learnt from the experience?

Daniel Evans:

1. The quality of the brief is key: being clear what’s an end and not up for negotiation and what’s a means, with creative interpretation and challenge welcome, is vital in terms of both briefing and being briefed.
2. Argue your point strongly, and work with people who argue back just as strongly.
3. There are few challenges that can’t be overcome with a really first-rate Project Manager.
4. It’s fun. Enjoy it.
5. On the web you have no say in whether you’re doing things quietly or not.

Frankie Roberto:

1. Better to have one big, high-quality, immersive game than lots of smaller ones.
2. Trust in constructivism.
3. Shoot high.
4. Work with the best.
5. Build a multi-disciplinary team, and work together.

Mike Ellis:

1. Trusting the web team is absolutely vital in making a success of web products. The ‘traditional’ model of curator/content type coming up with web idea isn’t usually as well focussed.
2. Give freedom and time to ideas and let them flourish.
3. Use storyboards and wireframes at every stage of the process to help explain what exactly it is that you’re on about.
4. Be prepared for the Digg Effect (not even now entirely sure how?)
5. Go to creative agencies with a good idea of what you want to acheive. Brief it well and have lots of user testing research on board too.
6. Fight hard for realistic budgets.

Thank you to Mike Ellis, Frankie Roberto and Daniel Evans at the Science Museum for their time and openness in sharing more about the experience with Fresh & New.

Mike has blogged about the initial stages of the project with some early wireframes.

Interactive Media Interviews Web metrics

Museum transparency and the IMA Dashboard – an interview with Rob Stein

Last year the Indianapolis Museum of Art launched their Dashboard – a visual display of various data about the museum and its activities. Updated regularly the Dashboard gives open public access to much data that would usually be buried deep in an annual report.

The ‘transparency’ that the Dashboard offers is remarkable – it not only makes that information available on an ‘almost live’ basis, most importantly it makes it ‘accessible’. Everything from the number of new artworks on view and website visitors to new plantings in the gardens and budget performance, many statistics are available, and many more can be drilled down and explored in greater depth.

I’ve been very interested in the project and how it might have impacted organisational change at the IMA. I conducted an interview with Rob Stein, Chief Information Officer at the IMA, about the project.

Rob Stein explains the genesis of the project;

“Our CEO, Maxwell Anderson, has been interested in the role of transparency in museums for quite a long time. He has also spent a lot of time thinking about what kinds of metrics museums can use to measure their performance against mission based statistics (see his paper ‘Metrics for success in Art Museums‘). So, the decision to investigate what it might look like to create an institutional dashboard that could inform both the staff and the public was certainly initiated by Max, and reflects the museum’s commitment to operating as transparently and openly as possible.

Our goal was to create a site that could be accessed and understood easily and that would be of general interest at one level, but that could also eventually support a depth of investigation into how this museum measures up to our mission and strategic priorities. We don’t see that there’s any reason to keep these things secret, and in fact believe that making it easy for the public to see how we’re performing will offer a great incentive to the staff to understand why this is important.

The visual design of the Dashboard has been instrumental in making ‘sense’ of the data and opening up access.

Since statistics can sometimes been seen as boring and not interesting to the general public, we tried to keep the site as visually engaging as possible. We took quite a bit of inspiration from the dashboard screen of the Google Analytics tool as well as from Apple’s general design aesthetic. Google’s Analytics tool is great in that it offers bits of relevant information in one screen (the dashboard) that are easily digested, but also provides the ability for users to dig deeper into statistics that interest them. I think we were able to accomplish this effectively by incorporating “teaser” modes for each statistics on the Dashboard.

We also make pretty liberal use of an underlying set of taxonomies to help in organizing the information. Each statistic can be tagged, or categorized against a pretty simple taxonomic structure. This allows us to group statistics by department, or topic, or to say which statistics need to be grouped together for some reason (i.e. 2007 end of year reporting) The navigational tabs at the top of the screen are generated on the fly from these underlying taxonomies, so that whenever we add a new statistic, or topic to the dashboard they are immediately available.

Each node of the dashboard currently [also] provides its own RSS feed that users can subscribe to, In addition, users can also subscribe to any topic or departmental page as well. So, for instance if our finanace committee wants to always pull in new statistics related to IMA’s finances they could subscribe to the RSS for the Finance Topic.

Likewise there have been some sensible choices in the data made available to the public. Rob explains the focus on ‘interestingness’ in the choice of what to present;

We polled the staff and asked them to solicit information or statistics that they felt would be interesting, and particularly focused on those statistics that mirrored an activity or priority that supported the museum’s mission. We intentionally chose a small set of these statistics to start with, and probably placed a bit more emphasis on those statistics than changed relatively frequently. Now we’re in the process of going back and expanded on those sets of statistics and opening up the Dashboard to items that maybe don’t change very often, but are of general interest (i.e. the square footage of gallery space, the acreage of the museum’s grounds, etc…)

Dashboards rely on timeliness and there are many challenges in integrating back-end systems to deliver cross-organisational data. I asked Rob how important ‘live data’ was to the objectives of the project, and some of the implications that this has had internally to the museum.

This question illustrates a pretty important philosophical nuance that we’ve been talking about internally at the IMA. Currently, most of the statistics shown on the Dashboard are updated by staff members from many different departments at the museum. Our thinking in this is that the staff member responsible for tracking any particular statistic should, as part of their normal workflow be required to report that statistic to the dashboard. The reasoning here, is that we feel that when reports are automated, it is easy for staff members to become disconnected to the tracking of the information. We want the dashboard to be useful and interesting to the public, but also a tool for the museum to use in tracking its own progress across time. By asking staff members to take on the responsibility for reporting this information, we’re sure that they are aware of the trends in performance.

The flip side of this coin is that this does open the door to having statistics that could be fudged to make them look better than they really are. Also, if the responsible staff member is away from the office on vacation or a trip, the statistics they are responsible for may lag in their updates.

Our implementation of the Dashboard is definitely a work in progress. Since we created the software and web design in house, we’ve planned all along that we would feel our way through some of these difficult issues, and make changes to the sytem as we got feedback from our audience and the community on how dashboards should be operated. For example, in the next few weeks, we will be launching a set of new Dashboard nodes that will completely automate the reporting of attendance. We have systems in place in the museum that make this possible, and now understand and feel comfortable that these systems are reporting their numbers accurately. We’ll be moving from updating these numbers by hand on a weekly basis to live data being reported to the web every 5 min.

We’ve also been toying around with the idea of producing some kind of integration between the Dashboard software that we’ve built and Crystal Reports and the Flash integration that they support. We feel like this might give us a way to better integrate the Dashboard framework that we’ve built with a typical way that business systems support automated reporting. In doing this however, we’d still want to address the staff’s connection with the data and it’s reporting, and we haven’t quite figured that one out yet.

Might Dashboards ever ‘replace’ annual reports in terms of general public access?

I’m not sure that Dashboards should ever replace annual reports. I think annual reports are sometimes criticized in that they are hard to digest and tedious to produce, and of ultimately limited value in some settings. This may actually have more to do with poor execution than a critique of the annual report as a medium for communicating about the state of an organization. Dashboards, by their nature are designed to be good at communicating small bits of information in a somewhat random order. Navigation can facilitate themes or grouping of statistics, but Dashboards will have a hard time supporting much of a narrative regarding the performance of an institution. Annual reports or other long format texts can do a much better job of this, but will probably always struggle to interrelate large sets of seemingly disparate statistics. Given those two thoughts, it seems that dashboards and annual reports are probably pretty good compliments to each other, and we should probably leverage that relationship better than we do today!

With all this data now being publicly available there would be some exciting possibilities for cross-institutional data sharing and analysis. Rob explains some tentative future plans for the project;

We’d love to open source this product at some point in the future and hope that it would encourage other institutions to take the transparency of their operations to the next level. In order to make that really successful we’re in need of some good partner institutions that could look at the existing system with a critical eye and provide insight and resource in determining how the Dashboard could be more broadly applicable for many different kinds of institutions.

We take software quality pretty seriously here, and feel like there are some projects that treat open sourcing their software as almost a dumping ground for stuff they’re done with. We think that casts open source software in a bad light, and is not helpful in communicating that there are a lot of open source projects that are of extremely high quality and value. We’re not underselling what it would take to package the Dashboard in a way that’s easy to use and install, and to providing at least some amount of support to a future community of users.

Thanks to Rob for taking the time to answer my questions and being so open in his responses.

Try out the Dashboard.

Interactive Media

Doing online interactives properly – Science Museum’s Launchball at SxSW

The Science Museum’s Launchball has just taken out ‘best of show‘ at South by Southwest.

That a museum website interactive could possibly take out that award is truly remarkable and a testament to the Science Museum’s web team. I can’t think on another example where a cultural organisation has had the nouse to make a game that was firstly, great fun to play, secondly, was addictive, and thirdly, had this appeal even if you had no interest in the exhibition space (Launchpad) that it was made for. Likewise, whilst it is ‘educational’, it is first and foremost fun. And that really matters.

Not only is it great fun and challenging to play, it is a great example of how user communities spontaneously can spring up around ‘great content’. It is a timely reminder that really great content counts far more than anything else – still.

Soon after launch it was posted to Digg which ensured that it quickly was seen and played by global tech audience – a very savvy viral marketing plan that didn’t come from any marketing department.

Mike Ellis, formerly of the Science Museum, who was invovled in the project has blogged quite extensively about the process behind its development.

I hope to have an interview with Mike and others involved in the project posted up here in the next few weeks to explore this in greater detail.

For now, huge congratulations to the Science Museum and their web team.

Museum blogging Social networking Web 2.0 Web metrics

Applying a new social media framework from Forrester to the cultural sector

Josh Bernoff at Forrester has put together another good chart of how corporations might use social media to support five key functions – research, marketing, sales, support and development. He neatly ties together function, objective, the appropriate choice of social media application, and then a success metric for each.

Whilst the cultural sector may not have the same ‘sales’ and ‘support’ needs, there are clear parallels if we begin to look at the objectives column.

(source: Groundswell at Forrester)

Let’s break it down.


Audience evaluation practices in light of visitor generated social media are clearly undergoing change and there are enormous new opportunities for insights. As Josh indicates, good metrics of success for ‘listening’ are the value and depth of insights, and the comparable cost of focus groups and surveys. In light of Lynda Kelly’s work in this area I’d say that social media offers many exciting new ways to not only undertake audience research but also to present it. Her work with ‘visitor stories’ is particularly exciting.


Most museum marketing teams, sometimes assisted by the web team, are now ‘talking’ to audiences in new ways and starting conversations. Officially sanctioned museum blogs are now far more common and many museums both small and large are talking to audiences on Flickr and YouTube as well as Facebook and MySpace. Where the cultural sector lags is in having well developed measures of ‘buzz’ and awareness – and few are tracking through the door visits that are a result of these activities. Offering downloadable tracked discount passes through these media are an easy way of starting to track ‘conversions’ and ‘sales’.


Museum membership departments are starting to look at social media as a way of creating and strengthening the member community but these are still early days. The real ‘energising’ in the sector lies in the deep engagement in social media of niche communities of visitors – Flickr pools, YouTube groups, MySpace friends. Probably the best examples of ‘energising’ in the cultural sector lie around the well developed MySpace presence of MOCA and the Flickr pools and groups run by the Brooklyn Museum. Here there are some very ‘engaged’ visitors who act as brand ambassadors for the organisation.


This is perhaps the most difficult objective for museums to engage with. It relies on building a strong community around your content – most probably your collection – and then letting go. In workshops and presentations the inevitable question comes up here around ‘authority’ and ‘reputation’. What if the community knows ‘more’ about part of your collection than your museum does? In the corporate/commercial world some of the most significant successes from social media have been in reducing customer support – and having the customers answer each other. Look at any support forum for any product and you will see, if it is working well, that most of the responses and suggestions are from other users. Now, could a museum provide a platform for community members to answer the questions of others about objects in the collection?

Here at the Powerhouse we are struggling with the increased volume of public enquiries since we launched our social media-infused collection database. Requests for information have tripled and now the sort of questions we are asked are more detailed and require significantly more curatorial research time than previously. At the same time we are receiving valuable new information and corrections to our collection documentation at a rate of nearly 2 a day.

Would it be possible to provide a platform for, say, the numismatics experts to answer the questions of other collectors directly, through our site, and reduce the ‘support calls’ needing to be answered by curatorial research staff?


Already many are starting to harness the insights they are gaining from their visitors. At the Brooklyn they are going as far as having a ‘crowd-curated’ exhibition soon called Click!. and back here at the Powerhouse we have been using a lot of the insights of the users of the collection database to inform our classification and documentation practices. I also know that over at the Australia Museum Lynda Kelly’s innovative collaborative evaluation work with visitors, especially teens, is transforming the content of future exhibitions.

Conceptual Social networking Web 2.0

‘Intention’ – museums as information sources or ‘platforms’

I’ve been talking a lot about ‘intention’ recently and it needs a bit of explanation.

In the commercial world of the web realisations are being made that not every ‘page view’ is equal and that advertising on social networks is not the cash cow that it was assumed it would be.

Social networking Web 2.0

Listening, engaging, acknowledging museums fans

Even if your museum isn’t engaged in making forays into social media itself then your audiences certainly are. In the workshops that I’ve been running with Angelina Russo and Jerry Watkins I am yet to find a museum that isn’t being actively discussed, critiqued, blogged, photographed, and videoed online.

The real question for museums is whether they listen, engage with, and acknowledge these museum ‘fans’. Not only will you learn a lot about your organisation and how it perceived by audiences (not just the audiences who have agreed to fill out a post-visit survey or participate in an evaluation exercise), it is great opportunity to strengthen your audience relationships.

Strengthening the relationship between visitors and museums opens up the opportunity for visitors to transform into participants and co-creators. Doing this authentically is critical.

Here’s a recent example at the Powerhouse.

(taken from Powerline Magazine, Autumn 2008)

We became aware of Lee and his son Jarvis via their ‘house dad’ blog. It popped up in an RSS feed that we’ve set up to keep an ear out for any mentions of ‘powerhouse museum’ in blog posts – much like a media monitoring service. Lee started blogging his son’s visits to the Museum about a year ago and over this period they built up a strong relationship with the staff in the Museum’s Members Lounge. Not only has the Museum benefitted greatly from the passionate fandom of Lee and Jarvis – their word-of-mouth recommendations to their friends will have brought many more through our door; we’ve also learnt a lot about what Jarvis likes and dislikes at the Museum. In an act of acknowledgement the Members Department decided to feature Lee and Jarvis in their Members Profile section in our quarterly Powerline Members magazine this quarter.

Another example exists over in Flickr where a photographer (and cupcake maker) whose photograph of a cup cake was used by our Marketing team in an advertisement.