Conferences and event reports

Report from THATCamp Canberra

Ingrid Mason who is working on the Museum Exchange project for the Powerhouse went to THATCamp in Canberra on the weekend to talk about the project (more on that in a post shortly!), and to absorb some new thinking from Australian ‘digital humanists’ (the opposite of ‘analogue fundamentalists‘?).

I asked Ingrid a couple of questions about this gathering in wintery Canberra.

F&N: What is THATcamp?

THATCamp is The Humanities And Technology Camp. Take a look here for the idea: There are camps happening all over the world – next one is in Cologne – where people are interested in how humanities study and technology is working, can work and is transforming as a result of increasing use of computing technologies. The THATCamp in Canberra for example had people from academia, from the galleries, libraries, archives, museums, PhD students, technical developers and representatives from national technology initiatives and eresearch bodies such as the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) and Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (Versi).

There is no – pitching – of – tents or bonfires but there is great exchange of information and at times debate – plenty of bonhomie. The by-product of this is catalysing of and gathering up interest to build some momentum in the digital humanities and stimulate innovation and collaboration. The THATCamp was called an “unconference” in that no-one prepared papers but people came with ideas they wanted to offer and questions to ask. If this is what an unconference is, it is great, and a lot like the “birds of a feather” sessions you get a major conferences – except more dynamic.

F&N: Can you explain what, exactly, is/are digital humanities?

Digital humanities is “in process” you could say.

Over dinner with Dr Craig Bellamy and Conal Tuohy from Versi in Melbourne I learned that the humanities has been computing since the 1940s. That came as a surprise, but then on further questioning it emerged that this early start in digital humanities was the development of concordances. We also talked about the field of linguistics which is strong in the use of computing technologies. I guess with using words as units for data mining and analysis this seems obvious and straight forward. What I see as digital humanities is much bigger and broader in its manipulation of data. However this text processing work is fundamental and foundational to other areas of the humanities (and not just the humanities btw) that also deal in text, in sound, in colour.

I’m sure there is more that I can articulate but by example if we study games as cultural artefacts, then we are going to have to figure out how to enable annotation in multi member and player gaming spaces and enable the publication of the researcher’s observations and “data” and “publication” to be in a multimedia form. Without knowing what curricula are available internationally in the “digital culture” and “digital humanities” I can’t say where digital humanities is. The comment I will make though is eventually I assume that we’ll lose the “digital” in digital humanities and the technology will be so embedded we won’t notice it, or, it will get its own specific title, e.g. nanotechnology. How about – annotechnology – the technologies used to draw together and analyse and create meaning drawing from annotations?

F&N: What were the best things you saw/heard at TC?

Formal conference presentations are good to go to and the time to sit back and reflect and explore ideas. THATCamp was alive and wildly mentally stimulating because it is group and knowledge exchange all happening at once. I’m pretty focused 80% of the time on learning quickly, exchanging ideas and getting stuck into doing something – so I was in my element surrounded by thinkers and doers and active communicators. In that heady brew of ideas and challenges to immerse myself in several bubbles of inspiration and ponderence caught my attention and snagged my thoughts and interlinked as I drove back to Sydney from Canberra.

1. The concept of “network literacy” – that a really good understanding of how the ‘net works is critical to digital humanities study. There was plenty of discussion about “how much” and I raised the question of whether it was knowing as in “familiar with” or “how to” encapsulated by the French words connaitre and savoir. Strikes me this is where digital humanities research is going and new discourses will be emerging if they aren’t already! See the software studies/cultural analytics work being done at Calit2.

There is also a general level of understanding the web and its connections that all humanists can benefit from, at the most simple, in citing complex web content in bibliographies. I think network literacy has an obvious relationship with information literacy, traditionally taught by librarians to new university students to help them with their information seeking.

2. The need for a tools and a platform to be developed to support complex use of web material, capture, citation and archiving. This can be done by those that know how to use the tools and how to archive but this process of using web material in the course of research isn’t supported within a platform with tools plugged in for ease. I’m sure the Bamboo project in the US has picked plenty of this up already.

Essentially the humanities scholar’s desk and room needs to be recreated and enabled to support sourcing, coordinating, referencing, and archiving of digital material including the data and publications that are generated.

3. The necessity for scholarly environments to change to support these changing needs of scholars undertaking eresearch. For humanities scholars, well, their relationships with collecting organisations and use of their collection material, have been long and strong. Notably there was a strong representation from both domains at the THATCamp: collectors and scholars. This is a key issue to address in the tertiary sector and that message came through clearly.

4. The opportunity for collecting organisations and scholars to collaborate and undertake joint research is ripe. The Dictionary of Sydney is a good example of this. It is a great opportunity to skill share and provide the different needs and outcomes as components of a research project together.


The first iPad exhibition catalogues and a strategy framework

Today was an iPad filled day for a few of the team.

First, I wake up to find that the Venice Architecture Biennale has launched a ‘free’ iPad catalogue.

Clocking in at over 400MB it isn’t a small download and the user interface is more ‘artful’ than ‘functional’. Still there’s a lot to like about it. There’s far more than just a map and, in fact, the ‘free’ App is actually just a taster as you can buy the ‘full catalogue’ for AU$5.99 as downloadable content from inside the App.

I’d be really interested to hear how much the App is actually used within the Biennale and then how many of the initial downloaders go on to buy the ‘full version’. Certainly there’s the attraction of not having to lug around an enormous catalogue around Venice, but the downside is not having a coffee table book to advertise your architectural social capital when you get back home!

Later in the day several of us attended an iPad Strategy Workshop which was being run by The Insight Exchange as part of the PANPA (Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association) conference.

Obviously in the newspaper space the iPad is both a source of hope and terror. When the Flipboard App was shown there was a palpable sense of ‘but they aren’t seeing the advertisements’ around the room. On the other hand there was some fascinating data from the New Zealand Herald and The Australian around the take-up rates, growing in-app subscribers, and in-app advertising engagement that all point to new opportunities for news media. Whether these opportunities can and are seized relies on significant structural and organisational change.

In the workshop and panel discussion there was a common theme that the iPad (and other tablets and mobiles) are the beginning of an inevitable structural coming together of the print and digital divisions of newspaper publishers which have been allowed to operate separately for the past 15 years. I couldn’t help thinking that for museums there is a similar point coming – except that mobile for museums necessitates a coming together of the digital/web teams and the exhibition teams. As Abigail Thomas, Head of Strategic Development at ABC Innovation, emphasised, the real gains of the ABC around mobile have come from the work done to reduce internal ‘channel conflict’.

Ross Dawson, who organised the workshop, distributed the following early beta of an iPad Media Strategy Framework. Take a look as from our perspective in museums, the strategic challenges aren’t all that different.

Interviews Social media Web 2.0

Ask a Curator Day – behind what the Powerhouse is doing

The InternationalAsk A Curator Day happens on September 1st this year and the Powerhouse is excited to be taking part even though we’ll be taking questions through our Facebook page rather than Twitter.

We’re hoping that by using Facebook we’ll be able to answer more detailed questions and potentially reach a wider audience.

Unlike our friends in natural history museums the Powerhouse doesn’t have publicly accessible Q&A facilities like Museum Victoria’s Discovery Centre, even though we do have a Research Library that does take private bookings. Also, unlike the Art Gallery of NSW, we don’t have public ‘appraisal’ days. Despite this, you wouldn’t believe the volume of emails we get that start with “I’ve been cleaning out the attic and found . . . can you tell me more about it?”.

This is the chance to freely ask those questions and all those ‘behind the scenes’ things you always wanted to know.

Senior online producer Renae Mason and curator Erika Dicker (who also edits the Museum’s Object of the Week blog) are behind this year’s effort and I spoke to Renae about the event –

F&N: How have you prepared curators for the day?

I’m hoping our fans already find the museum to be a special place that is audience-focused and accessible. There are a range of things that we do within the physical confines of the museum, such as curator-led ‘behind the scenes’ tours of our collection and talks with Q&A sessions, that align us with these goals. ‘Ask A Curator Day’ is, in my mind, a natural extension of these activities, it’s just taking place online instead.

So when Erika approached me with the idea to participate in ‘Ask A Curator Day’ we had a quick brainstorm about which online channel would be best to use and how we could prepare our curators for the day.

I chose Facebook, because it’s our most active ‘fan’ space to date and I know how addicted Australians are to Facebook, which was another good reason to further invest in the platform.

We then invited our 28 curators to an interactive session on social media in the museum, finishing up with the option to stick around and receive practical help with getting started on Facebook – for those who didn’t already have work-related accounts.

The response was encouraging.

Approximately half of our curators were able to make it along to the session and most of them went through the sign up process on Facebook and learned a lot more about those critical ‘privacy settings’. Those who couldn’t make it on the day requested we repeat the workshop again and we happily obliged.

After those two sessions, we now have 12 of those 28 curators signed up to Facebook with dedicated work accounts that clearly flag their roles and areas of expertise in their bios (in keeping with the Museum’s social media policy). They are now ready to volunteer their time to ‘Ask A Curator Day’ and I reckon that number may even increase a little more by next Wednesday.

F&N: What do you hope to gain from it?

Ask A Curator Day has really come along at a perfect time for us. By targeting participation directly at curators, the event has helped me to demonstrate the relevance of social media tools in their daily working lives.

People who work in the digital areas of museums are always going to be early adopters of technology and experiment with new tools as they become available. But as platforms like Facebook and Twitter have matured, attracting a wider range of audiences and uses, our internal challenge is around how to ‘mainstream’ social media activity across the entire organisation.

A sustainable, healthy social media presence should represent the diversity of people who work here and their contribution to the museum – and not just through the ‘official’ channels of the Museum’s blogs and website.

Through the workshops, we’ve already increased understanding of social media, encouraged more productive cross-departmental work and introduced a good number of curators to Facebook, including the Principal Curators. All fine ‘wins’.

Now to make it ‘epic’!

Think up some great questions and then, come September 1 . . . ask them!

Find out about all the other Australian institutions participating.

Collection databases open content

Crossing the ditch – integrating our New Zealand objects with Digital NZ

If you use to regularly read this blog then it probably seems like it has been quiet here but in fact we’re still in one of the busiest periods ever. Today, though, some light through the clouds.

Our friends at Digital NZ (run by the National Library of New Zealand) switched on New Zealand-related Powerhouse objects in their federated meta-search. Now our wool samples and a stack of other objects can be found through any of the many institutions that have embedded the Digital NZ search in their own sites, as well as in mashups built on Digital NZ.

Here’s our wool samples appearing in the sidebar of Te Papa’s collection search, or in one of the nice mashups using the Digital NZ search called NZ Picture Show.

The integration with Digital NZ offers far greater (and more sensible) exposure to our New Zealand objects than expecting New Zealanders to find them initially through our own site. After all it is probably New Zealanders who will be best able to help us document them better. See Rule 1 – findable (was ‘discoverable’) content.

There’s a couple of things I’d like to point out about this.

Firstly, we (still) haven’t made a public API to feed our collection to Digital NZ. Instead they took our updating collection zips and parsed them and ingested the relevant records, pruning them as needed. Whilst it probably would have been nice if we had had an API for them I get the feeling that being able to suck the whole data file down and play with it first made the process for the ingestion easier – even if it comes at the expense of immediate update-ability. Of course this will be addressed once our API goes live.

Second, I love how feeding this data to Digital NZ has immediately had a public benefit in that it is available through all the existing Digital NZ partners and mashups. The work that Digital NZ has done since launch is really remarkable and everyone who now contributes content to them builds upon all their work to date. Contrast this with the innumerable projects with whom data is shared and then sits idle waiting for others to build things with it.

Third, there’s so much additional possibility now with our NZ-related data. Digital NZ users – you even – can go and suggest geo-locations for photos of our like this one with a nice UI. And then we can, in the future, harvest that data back “across the ditch“. Effectively this data hasn’t just gone to an aggregation and presentation service, it has gone to an ‘enhancement’ service.

Fourth, you’ll probably notice that we’re using Google Analytics’ campaign tracking capabilities to have some rudimentary URL-based tracking of federated usage. This gives us the ability to segment out traffic to our collection records that comes via those records that are now visible through Digital NZ. Such use data is critical to building the ongoing business case to federate and release our collection metadata.

Huge thanks to Fiona Rigby, Andy Neale, Elliott Young and the rest of the team at Digital NZ for making this happen, and to Virginia Gow (now at Auckland Museum) and Courtney Johnson (now gone commercial) who kicked this idea off with us way back in September 2009. They more than deserve their Chocolate Fish now.

(Declaration of interest – I and several others of the digital teams at the Powerhouse are Kiwis!)

Collection databases Imaging

Full screen zooms and image tweaks in our collection

If you are a regular user of our collection database you might have noticed some very minor tweaks recently. One of the most obvious is a change to how we show object images.

For objects with small and low-quality images we’ve turned off zooming (example). Instead these images now explain why they are not available at higher resolution (because they haven’t been moved and rephotographed in recent times).

For those that do zoom, we’ve popped them up in a larger overlay allowing for bigger views, partially in response to the ever increasing trend we are noticing in our analytics for bigger screen sizes.

We’ve also moved away from using Zoomify. As a result we now can support full screen zooms – just click the full screen icon once you’re in the zoomer. (Shortly we will have 3D objects views too!). The full screen is a lovely effect and is going to, eventually, force us to up the resolution of a lot of the images in the collection!

(full screen zoom of H4052, Ship model, HMS Sirius)

We’re working with some new options, too, for bigger images on the mobile web version of our collection too – which may even zoom on touch interface devices . . . stay tuned.