Interviews Wikis

Implementing an internal wiki – Dan Collins on the Powerhouse’s rollout of Confluence

Wikis are the sort of knowledge management tool that you’d immediately think of as having great value to museums. However it seems that in the sector they are rarely found outside of IT departments – if at all.

We’ve been looking at them at the Powerhouse for quite a few years now. We tried simple installs of MediaWiki (the open source tool behind WIkipedia) and a couple of hosted ‘free’ solutions – Wikispaces and pbWiki – but none of these were really suitable as an organisation-wide solution.

Recently our IT team rolled out Confluence, an enterprise wiki solution, which is being progressively implemented across the organisation on a project by project basis. Confluence is a commercial application built by Australian software company Atlassian but it has a good user community and 50% discounts for non-profits.

I spoke to Dan Collins, our IT Manager (and web enthusiast) about Confluence and why he chose to go down this path.

What were the initial internal drivers for a wiki inside the Powerhouse?

Dan Collins: Initially my team needed something that would store large of amounts of IT documentation. I was frustrated that we continually kept creating new documentation within the department, and that our servers were always filled lots of outdated and bloated Microsoft Office documents. A wiki model worked well for IT as the information in the wiki represented ‘live’ information and slowly staff began to trust it as the central location for all our departmental information.

After a short while I began to see opportunities where a similar wiki model might work well in other areas of the Museum. Our intranet (built as a stop gap in 1999) was an obvious choice as it contained lots of static information – mainly forms, policies and procedures. As a result staff rarely go to the Intranet – whereas ideally I felt an intranet should be be a hub for all types of organisational happenings – not just static documents.

A wiki model would be able to assist in reducing the bottlenecks of creating content for the intranet by radically distributing the ability for staff to create there own content in the areas for which they were responsible. Hopefully this would also increase ‘ownership’ of the intranet.

How was the choice made to select Confluence? What are its benefits? What else did you look at?

We came to use Confluence after using a few other systems along the way. Initially in the IT department we were using forum software called Invision Board. Then a CMS, Drupal, to manage our documentation. For the purposes of managing documentation Drupal worked well, and I liked that there was a vibrant user community contributing to its overall development.

However, I found that Drupal required a large investment in time to understand how all the various components and plugins fitted together. Whilst Drupal is a very flexible tool and there was never just one particular way to achieve what you were after – which has its benefits -but also posed a number of difficulties.

The Web Unit had also trialled MediaWiki for use by the Powerhouse Media Labs staff, and we had looked at a few online based solutions. MediaWiki was too unfriendly in terms of user interface, and it became clear that a hosted solution would become problematic due to the sensitive ‘internal’ content we would want it to host.

Around the same time I was looking to replace our under-performing and expensive corporate helpdesk software. We came across a product called Jira from Australian firm Atlassian. Jira provided many of the features that we were after for a fraction of the cost of commercial helpdesk systems, and it so happened that the support pages for Jira were hosted on another Atlassian system called Confluence, which was impressive in its own right, and things happened from there.

Initially I was impressed with how quickly we could get both products underway. A fairly painless install with most of the common database servers supported.

Configuration time was reduced by being able to link into our existing groups and users via LDAP. And being web based, it meant no client was needed. WebDav functionality allows easy copy of existing content into the system.

During the initial trial period I installed as many plugins as possible to get a feel as to what could be done. I was impressed with the support, and the stability of the system and I was able to get the system to where I thought it should be without the need the need for extensive customisation.

I hadn’t personally spent a lot of time using the editing features of wikis prior to using Confluence, so a bit of time was spent in understanding how it all fitted together. During this time it became that clear that the wiki model addressed a number of the issues we were struggling with in IT across the Museum – overuse of email, duplication of data on our file servers and in email, and a complicated and onerous corporate document management system.

A key benefit is the ease of use of the system – people are writing and attaching documents with little or no training. Collaboration of this nature is something we’ve not had before – staff are now sending links to documents on Confluence rather than large emails to hundreds of people, and using Confluence as the forum for centralised discussion rather than extensive email trails.

Another key feature is the ability to work with existing Microsoft Office documents – either import from Word, or work in Word and then sync back to Confluence. This means that staff don’t need to learn any special wiki markup. Keeping informed of work in other departments is done via alerts and the internal search works well.

The more people work in Confluence, the more file duplication is reduced and we can dedicate our disk space more important functions.

How is it being rolled out? Why are you using this approach?

We have been working with users across the Museum who have shown a willingness to try a new approach. Working closely with these staff have given us insights into the pros and cons of the tools.

We have been very cautious not to change things for the sake of it, and to take it slowly – a group or a project at a time. The approach has been to keep the existing systems running in parallel, but show how things could be done to greater benefit in the new. This way staff always have a fallback position if something doesn’t work as expected and need to meet a deadline.

We have found that after a few days of cautious experimentation, most staff are off and running, looking for new projects to bring into Confluence fold.

Positive word of mouth from staff who have come to across to the system makes it that much easier in gaining greater levels of adoption in areas that aren’t particularly tech savvy.

What strategies are being employed to boost its uptake and use by staff?


As much as the tool is easy to use, it does require a different approach to the normal document creation process for many staff, and this takes time. Providing detail on what can be done when using a wiki is important to convey. I’ve found that Wikipatterns has been helpful in that regards.

Lately I’ve been using a tool called Wink to capture screen shots and make videos of different functions and ways that it can be used. I’ve found these to be quite popular as people can view them when they have a few free moments.

In addition to training, supporting those users who are quick to adopt the new system has been very important. Making sure that they are across all the features and benefits will (hopefully) reduce the chances of staff reverting back to the old ways.

Support from senior management has also been key in getting people to participate. I’ve found they are very supportive as they are generally the most ‘time poor’ and can see the organisational benefit of simplified collaboration, reducing the need for meetings etc.

Do you think the wiki will accelerate or drive organisational change?

I believe it has already.

For too long we been haven’t been pursuing the best strategy for managing our day to day work. Everyone has had the standard set of tools, Word, Excel etc. However, little thought has gone into whether this is actually the best way we can be working with each other.

In a short space of time, I’ve seen people across the Museum collaborating and discussing projects that just wouldn’t of been possible using the standard Office suite.

I believe that evidence is there to suggest that it doesn’t take people long to get comfortable with the system and become active contributors. When the bottlenecks to creating content are removed – various ideas, concerns or suggestions bubble to the surface where previously they wouldn’t.

I’m excited that there is now a way that I can better understand what my colleagues across the Museum are working on, and that they can also engage more with the work of the IT team.

As an organisation we’ve been very focussed on using the web and various social media tools to engage with the public, and I see that now we can use some of these technologies to better engage with our work colleagues.

Collection databases Powerhouse Museum websites

Australian Dress Register

One of the side projects the team launched recently was the Australian Dress Register.

The Australian Dress Register will document significant and well provenanced men’s, women’s and children’s dress in New South Wales dating up to 1945. It aims to assist museums and private collectors to recognise and research their dress collections and support better care and management. It will engender an improved understanding of dress in its wider historical context and help to ensure information about its origins is recorded while still available and within living memory.

This is a collaborative database project which will have a series of public facing views being made available mid 2009. During the interim period volunteers in the community and in regional museums are using the backend to catalogue and upload significant examples of Australian dress from their collections (private and publicly held).

When the database starts to fill up the contents will be made avalable on the Powerhouse site as well as providing XML feeds to Collections Australia Network, D’Hub and other federated collection services.

Like most community projects the technology is the easy part. The difficult part lies in getting the community to form around them and use them. Fortunately the Australian Dress Register will utilise the regional reach of both the Museum’s own Regional Services Unit and also Collections Australia Network.

open content

Farewell George Oates

Everyone here at the Powerhouse Museum was shocked today to hear that George Oates, the architect of the Commons on Flickr (and former designer behind Flickr), was laid off by Yahoo. Only last week was she presenting to our staff.

George was the conceptual mind behind the Commons – her ideas, passion and drive to expose and connect collections has created a large body of evidence that has been sorely required by the libraries, archives and museums sector. There now exists, thanks to George, solid evidence that obscure photographic collections are of interest to a wider public and worthy of digitisation and preservation; solid evidence that admitting that there are things that those in our sector don’t know about doesn’t damage institutional reputations; and that rather than diminish revenue form image sales, wider free access may actually increase them.

George was able to bring collections (and people) together in the past 12 months that we, within the sector, have found difficult to achieve in the past decade. She was and remains a cultural connector.

She will be sorely missed by all of us at the Museum and we hope that her work in establishing the Commons does not go to waste, and is not forgotten.

On a personal note, I am especially shocked and saddened by this news because just a few hours before George found out, she and I were presenting a joint workshop to delegates at the Culturemondo Roundtable. Here in Taipei, she has inspired people from Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world, to do more with and think more of their collections.

At Culturemondo we were not unaware of the political economy of the Internet. Geert Lovink had, only yesterday, reminded us all of the problems inherent in the way that many Internet companies have been founded and funded. A little later we were discussing the need for data portability in cloud computing. That this news would come on the same day was cruel indeed.

I’m sure that the company or organisation that George works for or establishes next will be as equally impactful as Flickr, but right now I’d like to send the most positive vibes possible to George in this difficult time.

Conferences and event reports

Michael Highland – As Real As Your Life / games and experience

Amongst many interesting things over the past few days, I’ve just been listening to Gino Yu, Director of Digital Entertainment and Game Development of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, talking about experience and brain development. In his talk at the Culturemondo Roundtable here in Taipei he showed an excerpt of one of his former students, Michael Highland‘s films – As Real As Your Life. I felt it was worth sharing.

The original cut has now been transformed into a re-edited, longer form version but here’s the original from Michael’s Vimeo set.

As Real as Your Life (Original Cut) from Michael Highland.

Digitisation open content Web metrics

Library of Congress report on their participation in the Commons on Flickr

Michelle Springer, Beth Dulabahn, Phil Michel, Barbara Natanson, David Reser, David Woodward, and Helena Zinkham over at the Library of Congress have (publicly) released a very in-depth report on their experiences in the Commons on Flickr over a 10 month period.

Titled “For the Common Good: The Library of Congress Flickr Pilot Project” it explores the impacts of the project on access and awareness, traffic back to the LoC’s own website, and, importantly, what they have learned about how collections might operate in the broader social web. Given that their pilot was born of a need to explore the opportunities and challenges of the social web, their findings are important reading for every institution that is dipping their toes in the water.

The Flickr project increases awareness of the Library and its collections; sparks creative interaction with collections; provides LC staff with experience with social tagging and Web 2.0 community input; and provides leadership to cultural heritage and government communities.

I am impressed by the depth of the report and the recommendations. Critically they have identified the resourcing issues around ‘getting the most out of it’ and broken these down as a series of options (see page 34).

Even to maintain their current involvement in the project, they have identified a need to increase resourcing. They also identify that ‘just as is’ is no longer enough.

(2) Continue “as is” – add 50 photos/week and moderate account.

Pro: Modest expense to expand to 1.5 FTE from current 1 FTE (shared by OSI
and LS among 20 staff). Additional .5 FTE needed to keep up with the
amount of user-generated content on a growing account—both in
moderation and in changes to the catalog records (both in Flickr and PPOC).

Con: Loss of opportunity to engage even more people with Library’s visual
collections. Risk of losing attention from a Web 2.0 community that expects new and different content and interaction as often as possible.

Download and read the full report (PDF).

MW2009 Web metrics

Better web metrics for museums – a MW09 workshop, April 2009

The Museums and the Web 2009 programme is now out and registration has started. This year the action takes place in Indianapolis and many of us faraway people are looking forward to checking out the IMA.

If you attended MW last year or the recent National Digital Forum in NZ, or maybe your organisation has had one of my private workshop sessions, you might have heard my rant about the dire problems with how museums ‘measure’ the success or otherwise of their websites and online projects.

My paper on the subject from last year’s MW still stands but now I’ve fleshed the content out to a half day workshop.

This year’s workshop in Indianapolis is now taking bookings and is limited in capacity (unlike last year) and we’re going to be doing a lot more digging into participants’ own sites and I’m hoping everyone who attends will share a month’s worth of data for comparison and analysis purposes.

I’m going to be building this into a solid foundational workshop for basic web analytics as well as a specialised look at the sort of metrics museums, libraries, archives and government web projects need to be engaging with.

If this sounds like it is of interest to you and you happen to be coming to MW09, then register and book a place.

Collection databases Metadata Semantic Web

OPAC – Connecting collections to WorldCat Identities

If you were at the National Library of Australia’s annual meeting a while back then you might have spotted Thom Hickey from OCLC mentioning that the Powerhouse Museum has started to use the WorldCat Identities to connect people in the collection to their identity records and library holdings in WorldCat.

This is now public in an early alpha form.

Here’s an example from a collection record.

Tucked away in the automatically generated metadata (using Open Calais) are some links from people to their World Cat Identities record over at World Cat – if such a record exists. At the moment there isn’t a lot of disambiguation between people of the same name going on, so there are quite a few false positives.

In this example, Geoffrey C Ingleton now links to his record on World Cat Identities.

In the alpha stage all this means is that visitors can now connect from a collection record to the name authority file and thence, on World Cat, to library holdings (mostly books) by or about the people mentioned in that collection record. Later you’ll be able to a whole lot more . . . we’re using the World Cat API and we’ve got a jam-packed development schedule over the next few summer months (it is cooler in the office than out of it!).

Not only does this allow visitors to find more, it also allows the Powerhouse to start to add levels of ranking to the person data identified by Open Calais – an important step in putting that auto-generated metadata to better use. Equally importantly, it opens the door to a whole new range of metadata that can associated with an object record in our collection. Consider the possibilities for auto-generated bibliographies, or even library-generated additional classification metadata.

For those excited by the possibilities offered by combining the collective strengths of each partner in the LAM (libraries, archives, museums) nexus then this should be a good example of a first step towards mutual metadata enhancement.

We’re also very excited about the possibilities that the National Library of Australia’s People Australia project holds in this regard too.

Digital storytelling Interactive Media open content

Exploring Sydney streets – a composite video experiment with the Commons

As we’ve been getting a lot of feedback on these here’s another of Jean-Francois Lanzarone’s video montages composed from detail in our glass plate negatives uploaded to the Commons on Flickr. This is the first one he has finished made up of multiple source images.

Again, this is a simple digital storytelling with consumer-grade video software (iPhoto and iMovie), and Creative Commons-sourced music. These don’t take a long time to make either.

More will go up on our Photo of the Day blog in the new ‘videos‘ section. I will only highlight them when new techniques are used rather than re-post each one from now on.

[Oh, and yes Jean-Francois will be choosing some backing other than piano music for the next ones!]

User experience Web 2.0

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination opens and is immediately on the web

Tonight we had the official public opening of Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination.

Already images and videos of the exhibition and the launch, taken by members of the public (“the people formerly known as the audience”) are starting to appear online across the social web.

Here’s photos on Flickr and no doubt tomorrow there will be videos on YouTube uploaded by visitors. And over on the fan forums there’s already much chatter. The Facebook page should get a bunch of uploads shortly, and tweets and status updates across the social networks will begin to happen (of course in far lower volume than in the US).

Of course in times past these images and discussions would have been private but now they are public and discoverable. We’ll be keeping an eye on activity over the coming weeks, listening and learning. We’ll also be posting ‘official’ photos soon.

If you swing by the exhibition yourself then make sure you post and tag your photos and comments.

Conceptual Conferences and event reports

Filippo Minelli ‘Contradictions’ and the Culturemondo 4th Roundtable

I’m about to head off to another Culturemondo Roundtable and the Wooster Collective posts a timely set of street art from Italian artist Filippo Minelli.

“Facebook”, spray paint on scrap-yard, Bamako – Mali, 2008

Minelli’s Contradictions series, as a short interview on Wooster explains, illuminates the techno-social environment where –

“users are pushed to live in an intense way the abstraction from reality, living technologies only as an idea and sometimes without even knowing their real functions. And this aspect works for the social-networks too. The idealization connected with these experiences provokes a small-but-important detach of the perception of reality and what i want to do by writing the names of anything connected with the 2.0 life we are living in the slums of the third world is to point out the gap between the reality we still live in and the ephemeral world of technologies.”

The last Culturemondo meeting was held in Cuba and focussed on the Americas. It was a timely reminder of the very uneven distribution of digital content and culture, and the ‘alternative modernities‘ under globalisation.

This one takes place in Taipei. The focus, much like Cuba, is on skill and strategy-sharing between those involved with large scale cultural portals (in the broadest sense), web strategists and digital culture policy makers. This time, though, the Culturemondo roundtable focusses on the Asia-Pacific and the stellar set of projects emerging from this region, as well as new initiatives in Africa and India.

I will be blogging the event as it happens here on Fresh & New so stay tuned next week for reports as the action, ideas, and conversations unfold.