Tools User experience

That popup survey tool for Fresh & New feedback

One of the nice finds of the past few months has been Kiss Insights. You’ve probably noticed a little pop up survey on this blog – and maybe you’ve even answered it – well, that’s Kiss Insights doing its magic.

Easily deployed to a website, Kiss Insights is a bit of Javascript code that calls a remote survey form which has a maximum of two questions.

There are quite a few of these mini-survey tools around at the moment – all based on the solid user experience notion that surveys work best on the web when they are very very short, and minimally intrusive. Deploying multiple, regular short surveys, the logic goes, will always give you better data and a higher number of respondents than single, lengthy ones – the sort that are traditionally popular in museums and ported from the paper-based world.

There are variables to make the short survey form pop up for only new visitors, or those who spend a certain time on site or look at more than a certain number of pages. You can even tailor it to pop up only when visitors come in from a particular keyword search, and of course you can tailor the parts of your site on which it appears.

Results can be exported as CSV or browsed through online in various ways.

The only missing feature that I’d find really valuable would be the ability to display the survey only to visitors from a particular geographic location. (As it is, you need to do a reverse geo-IP lookup on the results to gather city/country data).

We managed to quickly gather nearly 1000 responses from visitors to our children’s website and on this blog repeat visitors have been answering with a pretty good 10% response rate.

In case you were curious, I’ve discovered that of my repeat visitors –

22.1% have been reading the blog for over 3 years
27.9% between 1 and 3 years
and the rest under 1 year.

I’ve also got some lovely feedback and good suggestions for future posts – including one that asked about the tool I was using that prompted this very post!

Geotagging & mapping Interactive Media Mobile

China Heart goes live – a mobile storytelling experience

China Heart launches tonight, Thursday January 27, at the Powerhouse and the ‘general public’ (more likely, niche publics) can start playing it with all the special real-world additions between January 30 and February 13.

Of course, you can play it outside this period – and you can even play it without being in Sydney.

If you have an iPhone then download the free iPhone App

Or if you don’t then you can try the web version, which also nicely reformats for mobile web browsers.

Read the backstory to China Heart in my earlier post.

China Heart is presented by d/Lux/MediaArts in association with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, the Powerhouse Museum and the Project Factory.

China Heart is supported by Screen NSW, Screen Australia, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and City of Sydney.

Collection databases Developer tools

Behind the Powerhouse collection WordPress plugin

Yesterday we went live with the first version of the Powerhouse Museum collection WordPress plugin. Rather than clutter that launch blogpost up with the backstory and some its implications, here’s the why and how, and, what next.

The germination of the WordPress plugin was the aftermath of the Amped Hack Day run by Web Directions at the Powerhouse where we launched the Museum’s collection API.

Whilst the API launch had been a success, Luke (Web Manager/Developer) and Carlos (Developer) and I were a little disappointed that although we’d launched a REST API, we had actually made it more difficult for the ‘average interested person’ to do simple programmatic things with our collection data.

Of course, we’d built primarily the API to make our own lives easier in developing in-museum applications, and the next wave of online and mobile collection projects you will be hearing about over the coming 12 months. But we’d also aimed to have the API broaden the external use of our collection data and solve some of the ‘problems’ with our existing ‘download the database‘ approach.

In fact, ‘download the database’ had worked well for us. Apart from the data being used in several projects – notably Digital NZ and one of the highly commended entries in 2009’s Mashup Australia contest – we’d found that the database as a whole item was being used to teach data visualisation and computer science in various universities both in Australia and overseas. We’d also found that people in the digital humanities were interested in seeing the ‘whole view’ that that data dump provided.

None of these groups were well catered for by the API and one of our team, Ingrid Mason, ended up convincing us to retain the ‘download the database’ option alongside the API, rather than forcing everyone through the API. Her argument revolved around the greater, and hitherto underestimated value of being able to ‘see the whole thing’.

At the same time, WordPress had become a defacto quick and dirty CMS for most of the Museum’s web projects. We’ve run annual festival websites (Sydney Design), whole venue websites (Sydney Observatory), exhibition microsites (The 80s are back), and experimental pilots (Suburb Labs) on WordPress over the past few years building up both internal skills and also external relationships to the point where the graphic designers we work with supply designs conscious of the limitations of WordPress. In each of these sites we’ve had a need to integrate collection objects and this has usually meant ugly PHP code in text widgets.

(Don’t be concerned – for larger and complex projects we have been migrating to Django)

[phm-grid cols=4 rows=1 v_space=1 h_space=1 thumb_width=120 thumb_height=120 random=true parameters=”title:computer”]

So in the weeks after Amped, Carlos spent time developing up a WordPress plugin based entirely on the API. This, it was seen, would serve two purposes – firstly, allow us to embed the collection quickly into our own WordPress websites; and secondly, to give interested non-programmers a simple way to start using our API in their own sites.

Late last year we sent the alpha version out to some museum web people we knew around the world for feedback and the Carlos tweaked the plugin in between working on other projects, before its first public outing in the WordPress plugin repository.

So where now?

The WordPress plugin is definitely a work-in-progress.

We’re keeping a keen eye out for people implementing it on their blogs and WordPress sites. (If you’ve implemented it in something you’ve done then tell us!)

Carlos has several features and fixes already on his radar that have come out of our own uses of the plugin – some of these are tied to limitations in the data currently available through the API.

If you’ve got feature requests then we’d love to hear them – and we’re secretly hoping that those of you who are deeply into Drupal or Expression Engine might port the plugin to those platforms too.

Send your feedback to api [at]

(Luke is also presenting a paper on the API exprience at Museums and the Web in Philadelphia this year)

API Collection databases Developer tools Museum blogging Tools

Powerhouse Museum collection WordPress plugin goes live!

Today the first public beta of our WordPress collection plugin was released into the wild.

With it and a free API key anyone can now embed customised collection objects in grids in their WordPress blog. Object grids can be placed in posts and pages, or even as a sidebar widget – and each grid can have different display parameters and contents. It even has a nice friendly backend for customising, and because we’re hosting it through WordPress, when new features are added it will be able to be auto-upgraded through your blog’s control panel!

Here it is in action.

So, if you have a WordPress blog and feel like embedding some objects, download it, read the online documentation, and go for it.

(Update 22/1/11: I’ve added a new post explaining the backstory and rationale for those who are interested)

Collection databases

Quick Wikipedia citation code added to collection

Another of the many incremental changes slowly being added to the Museum’s collection database went live today – Wikipedia citation code.

You can now find this at the bottom of each object record (for example this Lawrence Hargrave Photographic Print) and if you happen to be editing an article in Wikipedia and need to reference one of the Powerhouse objects you can now just grab the code and paste it directly into Wikipedia’s editing interface.

Nothing too exciting but having seen the National Library of Australia do this a few months ago in their Australian Newspapers project we felt it was worthwhile doing too.

Digital storytelling Interviews Mobile

China Heart – mobile locative storytelling: interview with Tara Morelos, Annette Shun-Wah & Jennifer Wilson

On January 30 the Powerhouse Museum becomes the start point for a locative mobile story/game called China Heart. This exciting free project runs all through Chinese New Year celebrations until February 13.

China Heart is being produced by dLux Media Arts, developed by The Project Factory, and the narrative has been written by Annette Shun-Wah who Australian readers will know from her diverse media work, especially TV.

Four Powerhouse objects star in the game and form key elements in the storyline. Min-Jung Kim, our Asian Decorative Arts & Design curator worked with Annette to explore opportunities with the Museum’s collection.

Many staff in the Digital teams at the Powerhouse have tried the two predecessors to China Heart from dLux (Ghost Gardens 2008 & Razorhurst 2009) and we’ve been really fortunate to be involved this time around. There are some interesting differences in this third title in terms of BYO technology, a reasonably platform agnostic approach, and a more scaffolded start point (by using the Museum). I’m very interested in how general visitors to the Museum as well as those coming especially for China Heart will respond. Everyone involved will be intrigued to see how many players/readers complete the full China Heart journey and get engaged by the story and presentation.

I asked Tara Morelos (Director of dLux Media Arts), Annette Shun-Wah (author), and Jennifer Wilson (Director of The Project Factory) a series of questions about the project and how it has unfolded.

Tell us about the predecessors to China Heart and the role dLux has been playing in creating opportunities for artists to work with location-based games and storytelling.

TARA MORELOS (TM): From as early as 2004 we began working to incorporate mobile technologies into contemporary art practice. We commissioned works by leading Australian artists and filmmakers for mobile phones and delivered a blended program of exhibitions, forums and workshops to build a framework for the ongoing development of a creative mobile screen culture.

With the proliferation of handheld media devices such as smart phones and GPS systems an entirely new spectrum of creative opportunities has opened up for artists.

In 2008 we worked with artists Anita Fontaine and Mike Pelletier to present Ghost Garden for Sydney Festival 2008, a romantic animated fantasy delivered by location in short video episodes throughout the Botanical Gardens. This was wildly successful from a visitor point of view and most definitely a first step that delivered great learning.

In 2009 we were approached by Richard Fox after his experiences with Ghost Garden. He had produced a prototype for a GPS based game called Razorhurst.

Players were taken on a mission to collect and deliver sly grog while dodging location based attacks by notorious 1920s & 30s Razorgangs. We assisted Richard in developing the game/story elements with the addition of video re enactments and narrative voice overs during lulls in gameplay to create a more deliberate blend of fact and fiction enhancing the immersive experience while educating.

We ran Razorhurst for a month long intensive season and another week as part of the History Council‘s official NSW History Week 2009.

Both Ghost Garden and Razorhurst were delivered on pre-loaded HP TravelMates lent to players for the duration of the game.

What differences does China Heart have to the two previous dLux productions?

TM: From our previous experiences we had learnt that while the game element is a key, it’s the combination of a compelling fictional story situated in historical fact which really captured the audiences. Ghost Garden was simply a story and we found participants also wanted to know real information about history of the gardens and plants.

We learnt that multiple entry points were desirable allowing participants to enjoy the experience according to their level of interest. Serious gamers are after specific game elements such as hidden clues, blind alleys, true discoveries, limitations and challenges (eg time based). Gentle explorers want the discovery and excitement of following the game route, without necessarily the competitive or challenging elements. Razorhurst was closer to a serious game and a large part of its appeal, however we definitely encountered players who wanted an interactive walking tour with gangsters!

China Heart attempts to incorporated this knowledge with the right blend of fact and fiction.

With Razorhurst in particular we were being let down by old devices and their limited GPS capabilities within a built up area. Increasingly as smartphones have come on the market supplied with better GPS capability, location services have become popular and easier to deliver. The mobile network itself adds to the accuracy of GPS in built up areas through ‘triangulating’ the handset location based on signal strength from cell towers (A-GPS).

We have taken the next logical step and partnered with The Project Factory, an award winning cross platform production company to build the China Heart mobile app, website and mobile site.

Quite significantly, in developing the content dlux has begun from scratch assembling the creative team: writer, director, designer, cast and crew and commissioned Annette Shun Wah to write the story which underpins the content development.

Working with the Project Factory we have begun development on a platform which will allow organisations to tell a story set around a location navigable by walking with the mobile phone – in other words, mobile locative stories. China Heart is essentially a prototype to demonstrate how these stories work and what they can offer.

Where do you think this sort of location-based storytelling has the most potential?

TM: Most definitely within the cultural sector.

Mobile locative stories can create new audiences for institutions and make available their digitally-archived collections to the wider public. This platform allows the public access a diverse range of material from objects within a museum or gallery collection to social history within the urban or natural environment. Combining GPS navigation with a historic map interface, archival photos and web links, video reenactments, ambient sound and voiceovers triggered by player’s location creates an extraordinary mobile learning environment for all ages.

And, you can combine a forest’s worth of printed material into the palm of many hands for unlimited use. This is definitely a mode of information delivery that will represent significant cost savings for the sector longer term and fits in well with the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision.

We began China Heart in partnership with The Powerhouse Museum to explore this potential for ’excavating the archive’.

What is the premise of China Heart?

ANNETTE SHUN-WAH (AS-W): China Heart is a fictional love story and a mystery that reveals some of factual stories of Chinese Australia – particularly in relation to marriage and family. In the story, a young Chinese-Australian woman named Lian receives a mysterious gift at her engagement party. The gift unsettles her, and ignites tension between her and her mother, over a troubled relationship that Lian had with her late father. In trying to understand the significance of the objects in her gift, Lian travels around Chinatown, and discovers other people’s stories about marriage and family. These help her understand and resolve her own difficulties with being an “astronaut’s daughter”. What is an “astronaut’s daughter”? In this case – probably not what you think.

How did the research and writing of China Heart differ from your work in other mediums?

AS-W: The appeal of this project is that I had previously completed quite a bit of research into Chinese-Australian history for my various published books and short stories. This gave me a very good foundation for developing the China Heart project.

The writing, however, required some very different approaches. The project includes drama, information modules, oral histories and game playing. So it required writing in many different forms. The common thread, however, is that I wanted to keep the visitor interested, involved, and entertained long enough to discover some of the many secrets and little-told stories of Sydney’s Chinatown.

How did you find incorporating museum objects into the story? was this a natural fit or was it trickier than expected?

AS-W: The objects from the Powerhouse Museum inspired the story. I could have chosen to tell a murder mystery, and underworld tale, or a ghost story, for example, but these are commonly used forms for digital storytelling and game playing.

The objects from the Powerhouse inspired a very different narrative path – one that allowed me to tell more personal, emotional stories.

Much documented Chinese-Australian history focuses on the experiences of men, because many of the early Chinese arrivals were men. But I think it’s time women’s experiences shared some of the limelight – the stories of wives, daughters and debutantes! They expose a very different side of the migration story, and provide insights into family and culture.

Did you consider interactivity into the storyline as you were writing it?

AS-W: Game playing and interactivity are very new approaches for me. I’m used to telling the story – revealing it, as in a drama script or a documentary narration – rather than sharing it, or encouraging the audience to engage actively. So this has been quite a learning experience for me.

Certainly I imagined the visitor to come along on the physical journey with our characters, and to discover site-specific information. I wanted the audience to experience Chinatown in a different and memorable way, even though they may already be familiar with the area.

I wanted to replicate an experience I had many years ago in Perth, in a live installation piece called The Angel Project, that used sites all around the CBD to suggest the presence of angels. I will never see Perth the same way again! [Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project debuted at the Perth Festival in 2000 and has subsequently been performed in cities all over the world. Here is coverage of its run in New York in 2003 from The Gothamist.]

China Heart is designed so that the visitor will have this strange but very enjoyable feeling as he or she undertakes the journey. The visitor feels like they’re on a secret mission, to help solve a mystery, and will engage differently with a city they may indeed know very well. Adding some real world installation and performance gives another dimension to the experience.

And for those who like game playing or problem solving, we threw in some cryptic clues for fun. These reveal additional information, as well as enabling free entry to the final location, where the story reaches its emotional climax.

How did you address the location-centric story elements in the narrative? Did you have to visit each location and consider how the reader/player might ‘feel’ and ‘see’ in each location? How did you deal with the story ‘pacing’ between locations? How important are the locations and the journeys between them to the story itself?

AS-W: I spent quite a bit of time wandering aimlessly around, backtracking, trying different routes, and photographing minute details that may, or may not, at some stage be useful to the story. Anyone watching me would have thought me slightly mad! The difficulty I had is that some of the important historical landmarks – such as the Belmore Markets and the Trocadero Dance Palace – no longer exist. But then with the assistance of video and archival photos, we could summon up the ghosts of those venues in or near the right locations. These specific locations – the factual elements of the journey – are very important indeed.

Other sections of the story don’t relate to a specific location. For example – I wanted to recall the era when many “astronauts’ wives” – women whose husbands commuted to Asia to work – gathered regularly at yum cha. So any number of Chinese restaurants would have been suitable as the GPS hotspot. We chose one that was along the route – in line with the narrative sequence. We also discovered a fun photo booth arcade along the way, and added this as a counterpoint to the historical locations. The story, after all, is very much set in the present day.

Of course a locative game will always suffer the constraints of geography. Some additional elements of story and history were eliminated because they would have been too far to walk to. Some useful locations were in a cluster, others were quite a distance away. To smooth this out would have required the addition of locations and associated stories that may have detracted from the narrative, and I made the decision to allow the story to rule. The cluster of locations happens quite early in the journey, so my hope is that by then, the visitor will be hooked on the experience and won’t mind walking a little further between the next locations. And the journey gets more interesting further along with the addition of installations and performance so it’s worth it!

Personally I think that this sort of storytelling is going to be a big part of what e-books become, rather than being the way that ‘games’ head. How aligned do you feel China Heart is to traditionally storytelling versus, say, ‘mobile gaming’?

AS-W: The beauty of China Heart is that it is so multi-layered, it will appeal to those simply looking for a good story as well as those looking for clues to solve. And if you like both, then it will be a doubly rich experience.

I think if you set out to make a terrific mobile game, then the story would follow the requirements of the game. It’s absolutely possible with a fictional narrative, but I think it would be a less satisfying experience.

Traditional storytelling is certainly the basis for China Heart, using a fictional narrative based on factual experiences. This gives the whole exercise some authentic emotion and context. I attempted to reveal some truths about family, relationships and the migrant experience. The gaming element adds a little fun and is challenging, and makes it more social if the journey is being undertaken by more than one person.

You’ve worked a lot with TV and film. How do you think these older mediums will gain from cross-media integration with location-based storytelling?

AS-W: Look, I don’t profess to be any kind of expert in this field – I simply had a story that I wanted to tell, and by telling it in this way, a whole range of possibilities opened up. I haven’t even begun to exploit many of them, so I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. But I do think that China Heart delivers an experience that is tactile, revelatory, intimate and affecting, through the use of a personal mobile device and by physically requiring the visitor to make the journey. Being interactive – requiring the visitor to make the effort and to truly engage with everything around them – makes the experience more memorable.

Good TV and film will work no matter where or how you watch it. But let’s face it, much of what is produced is hardly compelling. Integrating these forms with other media on a mobile platform will certainly inject a new lease of life. I believe the important principle is that the content must suit the form, and vice versa. Simply shoehorning an old-form idea into a new platform will not do it justice. The best location based projects will be the ones that could not be executed any other way.

What challenges are there from a development perspective in creating these sorts of location-based games?

JENNIFER WILSON (JW): The challenges are a mixture between allowing the story to play out in a linear way if the user travels on the proposed path, but also allowing people to experience it in a non-linear way. Location based games need to allow for both these paths. Additionally, not all participants will have the App or be at the location, so we need allow for an experience that can take place at a different location altogether; at their desk and on different devices. All of this adds to the complexity.

China Heart is being billed as a cross-platform application with mobile web and also an AppStore version. What was the reasoning behind this choice?

JW: We needed to allow for non-iPhone users to access the app locally – meaning we needed to provide a mobile web option for non-iPhone users. We also felt that there was such rich content, that we needed to allow this to be explored on a larger screen. That meant a web site. And in these situations where there is no ability to use location data, we needed to develop a different way of people exploring the locations via a map.

Tara has talked about the Project Factory developing a ‘platform’ for these sorts of location-based games to be more easily made. How do you see this evolving? Is this akin to what HP’s mScape was trying to do?

JW: we really like the idea of a ‘platform’ that would allow locative stories to be created by people simply, easily and quickly. This would allow someone to select an area of a map (the boundaries), select the target locations for the story elements (locations), then add in the content they want for each location (the content). If we can also allow them to create some design wrappers and a name, as well as maybe even allow this to be compiled as an application – then we really do have a platform. We haven’t been able to completely build that for this, but we’ve used China Heart to show how locative games might work like this in the near future.

[Seb – I’ve really enjoyed Hidden Park with my children which takes the same story and interactive sequences but allows you to customise the locations of these events within your own park]

What has The Project Factory learned from other projects about introducing new users and audiences to these sorts of new forms of entertainment and storytelling? I’m interested in how these emergent forms become more mainstream and normalised.

JW: The mobile has become the prime device for connection and increasingly for consuming content. One of the things that mobile offers is that magic ability to have location add a new layer to the information and linking narrative to location is one of the things that it is perfect for. We know that allowing users to discover stories in new ways is important. We also know that community is one of the strongest ways of discovering content and that using community is key to expanding awareness of these services.

For new projects such as China Heart, we also need to make sure that the application captures the attention of the user quickly, and explains the outline of the plot. We do this through having videos start to provide the backstory. The second thing is, we need to make the navigation and use of the app straightforward and not requiring any form of explicit instructions. If there is any obstruction to play, such as confusing rules, difficult to understand user interfaces or long explanations needed to know what to do – then this interrupts the game play and service. We need to make the services simple, easy but also enjoyable.

China Heart is available for free for the public to play, with the location-based story beginning in the Powerhouse Museum foyer, from January 30 to February 13.

And if you’d like to help and volunteer to be a mobile concierge during the run of China Heart then dLux has a call out for volunteers.

If you happen to be overseas or outside of Sydney, you’ll still be able to experience the media and storyline of China Heart through the App or online version.

Stay tuned for the go live.

Conferences and event reports

Upcoming talks & workshops for Qtr 1 2011

I’ve got a bunch of talks and workshops coming up in the coming months on a range of topics. I hope you can join me for some of them.

February 1-4 ALIA 2011 Information Online
Sydney Convention Centre, Darling Harbour

This year I’m really excited to be doing one of the keynotes at the bi-annual ALIA conference – Information Online 2011. Run by the Australia Library and Information Association this is the biggest library online-related conference in Australia. I’m looking forward to hearing about all the changes going on in the library world and some of the transformations that are occurring through better service design, ebooks, and metadata analysis.

At ALIA I’m also running my Web Metrics for Collecting Institutions workshop for the first time in Sydney (actually the first time in Australia), having evolved it for several years overseas.

March 15-16 IQPC Mobile Applications 2011
Dockside, Sydney

One of the rapidly growing ‘mobile conferences’ happening around the traps, I’m speaking at this one along with Jonny Brownbill from Museum Victoria. We’re the only two ‘non-profit’ speakers but I’m looking forward to seeing where the travel, retail, and finance sectors, especially, are thinking about in the mobile space. I’m going to be speaking about medium and long-term value creation and service transformation as the most exciting opportunities of mobile versus short term campaign and event-driven marketing and sales efforts. No doubt the speakers from Fairfax and the BBC will be talking about these sorts of issues too.

April 5-9 Museums and the Web 2011
Philadelphia, USA

MW is the big annual North American conference that most of us look forward to in the museum sector. This year it is conveniently located in Philadelphia (meaning only a short train ride to New York and Washington) after last year in Denver and the previous year in Indianapolis. Apart from the high quality of the presentations and content, MW is a fantastic networking event for everyone who works with technology in the museum space – without ever being dominated by vendors and salespeople. Each year I come back inspired and challenged.

There’s quite a few people from the Powerhouse going this year. Our web manager, Luke Dearnley, is delivering a paper on APIs called Reprogramming the Museum, whilst our children’s website producer, Kate Lamerton is demoing new children’s web initiatives (the old ones were subjected to the Crit Room last year), and Dan Collins, our IT manager and also now project manager for the Museum Metadata Exchange is demoing the Exchange.

I’m running 2 web metrics workshops (beginner / advanced) as well as joining a panel evaluating the last three years of Flickr Commons and co-presenting a paper with Culture24’s Jane Finnis and Rachel Clements that discusses a large scale metrics project that I’ve been working on with them and the staff of 20 UK institutions.

This year’s MW has lots, as expected, on mobile with lots of papers including a breakout on augmented reality and also, this year, a mobile app/site crit room. There’s also a considerable number of papers, mini-workshops and professional forums that look at how to make museum online projects sustainable through better evaluation and consideration of collaborative models.

April 14-15 Museum3 presents Transformations in Cultural Communication 2011
RMIT, Melbourne

Museum3 who you may know from Ning has its third conference in Melbourne this year. A host of specialists from the various arms of the Smithsonian are speaking and giving workshops including Nancy Proctor on mobile, Caroline Payson & Mei Mah from the Cooper Hewitt, and John Haworth from the National Museum of the American Indian. I’m speaking on mobile with Nancy Proctor and also running a masterclass.

And although it isn’t an ‘open event’ I’ll also be at KiwiFoo in February and I’m very excited to be spending time with some fantastic thinkers and makers in NZ – including quite a few of the Kiwi readers of this blog. I’m hoping to live blog KiwiFoo!

Interviews Social media User behaviour

Interview with Mia Ridge on museum metadata games

museum games logo

Mia Ridge is the lead developer at the Science Museum in London. She approached us in 2010 to use our collection database in her Masters research project which looks at the impact of different interfaces in museum collection-related ‘games’. Her research project is up and running at where you can partake in a variety of different collection description activities.

We’ve had tagging on our collection database since 2006 and the results have, after an initial phase of interest, been quite mixed. During 2011 we’re rebuilding the entire collection database from the ground up and we’ve been rethinking the whole idea of tagging and its value in both metadata enhancement and community building.

I am particularly excited by Mia’s research because it looks explicitly ways of enhancing the opportunities for metadata enhancement of the ‘least interesting’ objects in online museum collections – the ones that have minimal documentation, never get put out on public display, have unknown provenance. These objects make up the vast bulk of the collections of museums like the Science Museum and the Powerhouse, and whilst sometimes they connect online with family historians or specialist communities, they do require a certain amount of basic documentation in order to do so. Similarly, being at the far end of the long tail they don’t generate enough views and engagement to be able to effectively ‘validate’ crowdsourced contributions.

I’m hoping we can use Mia’s findings to help us design better minigames in our new collection database, and I’m also hoping others, especially those outside of the museum community, will use her findings to build better games with our collection API as well as those of other museums.

Mia answered some questions about her project whilst snowed in in London.

Q – What was the inspiration/s behind Museum Metadata Games (MMG)?

The inspiration for the museum metadata games I’ve made was my curiosity about whether it was was possible to design games to help improve the quality of museum catalogue records by getting people to create or improve content while having fun with collections.

I’m also exploring ways to encourage public engagement with the less glamorous bulk of museum collections – I wondered if games could tap into everyone’s inner nerd to create casual yet compelling experiences that would have a positive impact on a practical level, helping improve the mass of poorly catalogued or scantily digitised records that make up the majority of most museum collections.

People ask for access to the full records held by museums, but they rarely realise how little information there is to release once you’ve shared those for objects that have been on display or fully documented at some point. Museum metadata games are a way of improving the information as well as providing an insight into the challenges museum documentation and curatorial teams face.

The motivation to actually build them was my dissertation project for my MSc in Human-Centred Systems. I’ll keep working on the games on MMG after my project is finished, partly because I want to release the software as a WordPress plugin, and partly because now that the infrastructure is there it’s quite easy to tweak and build new games from the existing code.

Q – What do you think are the main challenges for crowdsourcing metadata in the cultural sector?

Quite a few projects have now demonstrated that the public is willing to tag content if given the chance, but the next step is properly integrating user-created content into existing documentation and dissemination work so that public work is actually used, and seen to be used. The people I’ve interviewed for this project are so much more motivated when they know the museum will actually use their content. Museums need to start showing how that content is enriching our websites and catalogue systems. In some interviews I’ve shown people the tags from Flickr on objects on the Powerhouse collection site, and that’s immediately reduced their scepticism.

My research suggests that results are improved when there’s some prep work put into selecting the objects; and while museums can build games to validate data created by the public, I think a small time investment in manually reviewing the content and highlighting good examples or significant levels of achievement helps motivate players as well as encouraging by example. However it’s often difficult for museums to commit time to on-going projects, especially when there’s no real way of knowing in advance how much time will be required.

Museums also need an integrated approach to marketing crowdsourcing projects to general and specialist audiences.

And it might seem like a small thing, but most museum crowdsourcing sites require registration before you can play, or even check out how
the crowdsourced task works, and that’s an immediate barrier to play, especially casual play.

Identifying gaps in existing collections that can realistically be filled by members of the public or targeted specialist groups and then tailoring gameplay and interactions around that takes time, and the ideal levels of prototyping and play testing might require a flexible agency or in-house developers. This became apparent when I found that the types of game play that were possible changed as more data was added – for example, I could use previously added content to validate new content, but if I wasn’t writing the code myself I might not have been able to work with those emergent possibilities.

Q – Can you give some examples of what you see as ‘best practice’ in metadata crowdsourcing both from the cultural sector and also from elsewhere?

The work of Luis von Ahn and others for the ‘games with a purpose’ project at Carnegie Mellon University has inspired many of the projects in the cultural heritage sector.

Also I think Brooklyn Museum have done a great job with their tagging game – it’s full of neat touches and it feels like they’ve really paid attention to the detail of the playing experience.

I also like the experience the National Library of Australia have designed around digitising newspapers. The Dutch project Waisda? was designed to encourage people to tag multimedia, and seemed to produce some really useful analysis.

Q – What is MMG specifically trying to determine/ascertain with Dora, Donald and the Tag challenges?

My original research question was “which elements of game mechanics are effective when applied to interfaces to crowdsource museum collections enhancement?”.

Over the life of the project, my question changed to ‘can you design data crowdsourcing games that work on ‘difficult’ types of museum content? e.g. technical, randomly chosen or poor-quality records?’ and ‘can you design to encourage enhancements beyond tags (but without requiring more advance data cleaning, selection or manual game content validation)?’.

The designs were based around user personas I’d created after research into casual games, and the tagging game, Dora seems to work particularly well for people close to the design persona, which is encouraging.

I think I’d revisit the personas and create a new one for the fact-finding game (Donald) if I was continuing the research project, and I’d re-examine the underlying game mechanics to deal with the different motivations that would emerge during that process. I’d also like to tweak the ‘success’ state for Donald – how does a player know when they’ve done really well? How does the game know which content is great and which is just ok, if it can’t rely on manual review by the game producers?

The ‘tagging activity’ was created as a control, to test the difference game mechanics made over the simple satisfaction of tagging objects.

Q – What happens to the data after your dissertation?

I’ll pass it onto the museums involved (PHM and SciM) and hopefully they’ll use it. I’ve noticed that people have tagged objects in games
that aren’t tagged on PHM site, so I think the content already supplements existing tags.

Q – What do you think of the debates around ‘gamification’, motivation and rewards?

I think Margaret Robertson’s post, ‘Can’t play, won’t play’ summed it up really well and Use Game Mechanics to Power Your Business also covers some of the dangers of cheap badgeification.

Gamification isn’t a magic elixir. There’s a risk that it all sounds really easy, and that museums will be tempted to skip the hard work of thinking about what a successful experience looks and feels like for their project, audiences and content, choosing their core goals and designing a game around them. If you don’t understand what engagement, fun and learning mean for your content, you can’t build a game around it.

Q – What mistakes do you see museums making with gamification?

I think I covered most of the burning issues in ‘challenges’ above… Requiring the visitor to sign-up to start playing is a huge barrier to participation, and in most cases it’s trying to prevent something that wouldn’t happen anyway – like spam. I haven’t been running my games for long but they’ve been posted widely on Facebook and twitter and I’ve not had any malicious content added yet, and there’s only been two spam attempts in over 500 turns on the two games.

In the evaluation I’ve done, people have said they’re more motivated when they think a museum will actually use their data. If you can show how it’s used, people are much more likely to believe you than if you just tell them.

Q – How much granularity are you tracking with MMG? (By this I mean are you segmenting behaviour by gender, age, location etc?)

I’m using two evaluation methods – in-depth interviews alongside play tests, and releasing the games to the public and seeing what kinds of
data is generated.

For the second, I haven’t tried to collect demographic data as I was more concerned with analysing the types of content generated and looking for factors such as:

Image quality e.g. black and white vs colour images
Technical vs social history objects
Photos vs objects
Extent of existing content – title, dates, places, description
‘Nice’ vs reference images

I’m also looking at factors like number of tags or facts per session, bounce rate, number of repeat sessions, sign-up rates vs play rates, time on site; and analysing the data to see if the types of content created can be usefully categorised.

Now go and have a play with Mia’s games!