Conferences and event reports User behaviour User experience

Unexpected lessons with technology in museums #1


A photo posted by Bim Ricketson (@bim_cd) on

Early in June I was back in Sydney presenting one of the keynotes [slides] at Remix, a cross-sector/cross-industry event I also spoke at last year when it passed through New York. The keynote was based on a very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April (a much shorter ‘clean 7″ radio edit’ is forthcoming in Curator too!).

There’s a couple of key bits that seem to have resonated particularly well and bear elaboration. So this is one of a series of posts that will do that elaboration.

#1 Have an opinion about the visitor behaviour that you want, then design explicitly for it

It sounds so benign and obvious – of course your museum has an opinion about how visitors should behave when they visit. Usually this is couched in “no this, no that” – or subtly in the social cues emanating from the architecture, the dress and attitudes of staff, and the behaviour of other visitors. There’s a whole slew of problems with ‘museum-going culture’ – and it is important to acknowledge the bountiful existing literature on who is already excluded or included in the ‘traditional museum’.

Writing about the ‘omg, those new museum visitors are doing what? photography! selfies!’ moral panic of 2013, Ed Rodley’s summary and discussion is worth re-reading;

“The solution seems to me to be to establish a new contract, and actually state it, instead of hoping that visitors will infer intent. I’d love to see museums generate explicit policies that state what the museum encourage, allows, forbids, and why.”

When we were thinking about Cooper Hewitt in the early days, the MONA experience was very much top of mind. The lack of object labels, the O – it all expressed a firm opinion about how owner, David Walsh, wanted you to experience his museum. As it turns out, even if you found this annoying, you admired the bravado – and it has and continues to be a huge, popular success.

Before the galleries were tackled, Cooper Hewitt’s online collection began to develop a very particular style – an opinion that carried through to the architecture of the website, and the linguistic choices on the front-end. That ended up influencing the entire ‘voice’ of the museum online – some of which you can see in the 2014 website redesign.

In the galleries and exhibitions we knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want people staring at their own devices – they made the choice to come to the museum, so we wanted them to be ‘present’ – after all, everything they saw they could easily get access to later on online, and museum going should be a full body experience, right?

Amy Liprot writes about a visit to legendary Berghain club in Berlin;

On the way in, the door staff put stickers over the camera on my phone. There is an open minded attitude here to nudity, drugs and sex, yet taking a photo will get you thrown out. It’s highly refreshing that everyone’s not filming stuff. It’s hard for internet kids, by which I mean it’s hard for me, to have an unphotographed experience but I am really here, more than ever. This is not a place for observers but for active participants.

Whilst we did want active participants, we wouldn’t go that far – but we did think, and this is important, about the impact of everybody engaging in whatever it was we came up with.

Everyone’s usage (or non-usage) would impact the overall atmosphere of the gallery. If it was a mobile App, then how would it feel to have everyone in the museum using it at once? If it wasn’t an App but something else, then what would that feel like for visitors as a collective mass.

We knew – from the experience of MONA and of audio/media guides at other museums – that it was likely a choice between 90% take-up or <10% take-up with a chasm of un-met user frustrations in-between. So thinking about maximal usage was an important design consideration once we aimed for ubiquity. As it turned out, The Pen has had some interesting impacts. Usage has been pretty much ubiquitous with over 90% of visitors using it, and using it a lot [details over at Cooper Hewitt Labs]. There’s several years’ worth of research topics for enterprising museum studies and audience researchers in the data too!

Because it is very visible to others – a large-ish un-pocketable size, but has no screen – visitors seem willing to help each other when they see people having difficulties or using it ‘wrongly’. People don’t tend to do this sort of ‘social helping’ with mobile Apps because there’s nothing to indicate that the other person is actually using the ‘official App’ or just texting their friends.

As for photography, yes, that’s very much welcomed at Cooper Hewitt but you don’t see cameras out anywhere near as much as in nearby museums.

And once a behaviour becomes normalised, it starts to change expectations elsewhere.

In the next instalment I’ll talk about some lessons around ‘internal literacy’.

Don’t forget, these are ‘riffs’ based on the very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April. If you’ve got a spare half hour then there is a lot of detail in that paper.

Conferences and event reports

“Not publishing” and bio-responsive futures at IfBookThen 2015

Last week I was in Milan as a guest of If Book Then 2015, ostensibly a conference about the future of publishing, but as it turned out, not that at all. In fact, If Book Then was focussed entirely on developing a better sense of ‘situational awareness’ amongst those in the publishing industry. ‘Situational awareness’ is a really useful term in strategic planning that importantly contextualises each strategic play – and British writer/consultant, Simon Wardley, sees it as a critical methodology in these rapid changing times. Thus IBT featured no presenters talking about the ‘state of publishing’ and no presenters even talking about ‘writing books’ or ‘publishing’. Instead every session explored emerging contexts in which media is being created and consumed, and the coming rush of even more radical changes in consumer technologies and experiences.

In the days before IBT I got a taste for the situation in the cultural heritage sector in Northern Italy. On arrival I gave an informal workshop for senior staff at a number of Italian institutions, and then the following day, a lecture at the Academy Brera, to the next generation of students who may end up in these institutions. I was struck by the sense of ‘that couldn’t happen here’ and ‘we’re so far behind’ – and I had to remind both groups that these feelings are universal and not some national trait.

But on to IBT.

A one day event, IBT opened with Peter Brantley from NYPL who spoke about the opportunities of working with reader data – not just around purchasing/borrowing preferences or subject/content classifications – but also of generative storytelling emerging from these preferences. Peter took this further raising the coming tide of sensorial data that is being gathered from our bodies by wearables. Could this sensorial data also be used by a library to align a recommendation with your mood? Or could an author write more effective narratives by understanding the peaks and troughs of emotion throughout a story? And, critically, who will own this data? Given that the concentration of ebook reader data is already held in the hands of a proprietorial few – Amazon, Apple, Google rather than by publishers, authors or readers – how can we ensure that this doesn’t happen with biometrics?

Following after Peter, I spoke about the Pen at Cooper Hewitt, positioning it as a ‘writing’ device inside the museum. Museum visitors, with the Pen, are in control of the narratives they wish to write about their visit. A ‘writable museum?’, as one audience member asked, “but how will they sell exhibition catalogues then?”. Of course the Pen and the new Cooper Hewitt is about a return to a ‘useful collection’ and the museum visit a means to bring that usefulness to the fore in ways other than (but complimentary with) an experience with the collection at home or elsewhere though a screen.

Shifting quickly to commerce, speakers from Lancome, Maxxus and Facebook’s internal agency – the ‘Creative Shop’, presented around storytelling in advertising and the changing patterns of both media production and consumption. Striking in Nico Abruzzese’s (Maxxus) presentation was the appropriation of social justice campaigns by brands (deterring sexual assault in darkened commuter areas of India by deploying branded lighting installations but then evaluating their success purely in terms of brand awareness instead of actual public safety), and Lancome’s investment in making its own media with its customers/fans to reshape and reflect concept of luxury and an imagined Paris (and the burning question of ‘is it product placement if its in your own media?’). Facebook Creative Shop’s efforts to make video that sucks your attention in a ‘stream’ is already a reality for those of you who still use Facebook frequently, but more important was the assertion that where once photograph replaced words, video is fast replacing photograph – despite the relative immaturity of ‘mobile video’ aesthetics.

After lunch, Rosalind Picard from MIT’s Affective Computing Group began by demonstrating computer-based emotion detection with facial detection and analysis using a web application and webcam [go try it!] – highlighting the near-future reality of Brantley’s vision of books that “know how we feel as we read them” (or mueseum exhibitions that track surprise, delight, and concentration levels). In the live demo, appropriately, it was TV advertising that was being “reacted to”. Picard then moved into the story of a wrist-band tracker ( that is able to detect stress and emotional response even more effectively than facial imaging. Fascinating in this story was the way in which the ability to detect and warn of seizures became the key feature after early testing revealed its value for epileptics.

Andrea Onetti from ST MicroElectronics followed. Onetti’s company makes sensors and unsurprisingly his presentation portrayed a future where sensors are omnipresent. None of this is new, but if anyone in the audience was thinking that Brantley, Picard or even my presentations were describing outlier environments, Onetti made it clear that we weren’t. As Danny Bradbury in The Guardian today quotes Usman Haque, “people should be able to set policies governing which devices can talk to the devices that they own, and what information is shared about them”. We as a society need to have some clear discussions about what ubiquitous, omnipresent sensors actually mean for us.

Before Porter Anderson gave a conference wrap, David Passig from Bar-Ilan University was up next presenting somewhat controversial research examining improvements in learning generated through using immersive virtual reality environments and other technologies. Passig’s work was especially interesting when he spoke about tools to allow people to simulate the experiences of toddlers and those with dyslexia – as a means to design better environments, systems, and inclusive learning tools.

And that was that – it was all over in one day with no parallel sessions. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Conferences and event reports

Optimism & dystopia – Future Everything & Museums and the Web 2014

I’m not so sure it was such a good idea to go to the Future Everything (Manchester) just before Museums and the Web (Baltimore). The speculative futurism of Future Everything really brought into sharp relief a narrowing of concern at MW.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, Future Everything – an annual citywide festival of forward-looking art, music and design in a wealth of different venues.

Here I was, back in Manchester, a city I only briefly visited way back in 1998 (then for mainly musical reasons, before I was involved with museums). A lot had changed. Most startlingly I was far more aware of the near universal presence of public smoking. And big elaborate donut bun hair.


At Future Everything, the City Fictions art program took over the NOMA district for the weekend creating a ‘speculative city’ exploring some of the ways that life might change in the near future. The inclusion of a fictional newspaper (PDF) from 2018 included in the Manchester Evening News likely diversified the audience mix bringing in inquisitive families and onlookers alongside media artists and other more usual types at this sort of event.

There was Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance/anti-computer vision ‘makeovers’, Hello Lamp Post’s infrastructural conversations, Adrian Hon’s (excellent) book History of the Future in 100 Objects turned into a mini-exhibition, ‘critical 3D printing’ with Golan Levin, a BBC’s R&D hackathon, a bio-tech kitchen and stacks more.


Over at the National Football Museum there was an exhibition curated by John O’Shea in conjunction with Near Future Laboratory and the CCCB, time warped back from 2018, too, giving bemused football fans a series of speculative looks into a future of their beloved game where current broadcast, coaching, and biometric technologies had been extended just a little bit further. The sports newspaper (PDF) produced for the exhibition was a great provocation.


John and Scott Smith let me play in their future of football workshop – a design fiction sprint that challenged teams to come up with different ways in which technology would change sport from the perspectives of fans, players, coaches, broadcasters, and others.

There’s a nice piece on BBC World Service that spoke to a lot of the people at City Fictions.

By the time the formal conference kicked off, I’d been thoroughly exhausted by all the great conversations! I spoke about ‘museums and collecting the present’ on a sessions with Alex Fleetwood (ex-Hide & Seek) who spoke about his proposition for a new type of institution able to support, commission, distribute, and collect/archive UK games; and Ben Vickers who spoke about UnMonastery, a live-in ‘born digital’ (but physical) institution in Italy. Our three perspectives neatly explored the different affordances of institutional types and the different battles each faces. Alex’s proposal for videogames riffed off the Channel4 model and seems eminently sensible and made us all consider what a ‘public service Steam’ might be like and how it might invest in and develop games that fall in the cracks between the indie scene and AAA market-driven titles.

Keep an eye out for the videos once they go live – Anab Jain‘s keynote was particularly fantastic, although I missed most of the second day travelling.

Then I jumped on a plane back to the US and on to Museums and the Web.

Museums and the Web is still one of the best museum technology conferences because of its wide draw from around the globe and varying levels of seniority of attendees. There have been plenty of other reports on the event (Ed Rodley’s are a good read 1 | 2) but this year it felt different. Gone were the discussions of previous years of the potential of the web in bringing museums together, instead replaced by a slightly inward-looking retreat from scale. Most of what I heard was about singular institutions dealing with their own issues, rather than discussing and confronting sector-wide challenges (of which there are still many). Perhaps this is a result of deepening funding cuts and more uncertain times, or the ongoing Balkanisation of the web in general. Whatever it was, it felt like the big ideas had been re-calibrated to institutional scale.

Aaron Cope and I presented talked around our joint paper “Collecting the present: digital code and collections“. Rather than stick to our paper, the slides we ended up using were an extended remix of the ones I’d presented a few days earlier at Future Everything. Despite that we were up early in the conference, following an interesting opening keynote from one of the folks from Disney’s R&D labs, so we decided to take it further ‘off road’.

In the paper we talk about collecting the iOS app, Planetary, for the Cooper Hewitt collection as an example of interaction design and use the affordances of being a ‘design museum’ rather than an ‘art museum’ to focus on ‘the idea and process’ not the ‘instance and object’. Aaron expanded the discussion of equivalents in videogames to talk about Glitch and the boiled-down ‘de-make’/resurrection of it by building an HTML version of its environments and chat functionality ignoring the missions and trading elements. Much like the way in which Cooper Hewitt collected and released the ‘versioned’ codebase of Planetary, the developers behind the popular Threes – motivated by the cloning of their game – released publicly three years of email discussions between the development team in a vain attempt to ‘prove’ their game was conceptually superior to the clones.

We could have gone on for much longer.

Micah Walter from my team presented a paper at the end of the event on downgrading the Cooper Hewitt website from Drupal to WordPress ( – something that is ongoing. It is a useful reminder that the content creators on your website are a very important user group, without whom you either have a lot of work to do yourself as a webmaster, or you don’t have a website – so it is worth spending the effort on making editing interfaces easier and simpler.

Hopefully next year in Chicago there is a return of some of the bigger ideas of previous years.

Conferences and event reports Web metrics

The value of museum content, attention, and time

It is that time of year again.

In a few weeks time I’ll be running the nth iteration of my annual ‘web metrics for museums’ workshop at Museums and the Web. This year I’m joined by the Smithsonian’s analytics guru Brian Alpert. As usual we will be working through the realities of a museum’s web presence and the new ways to measure how it is performing and how to communicate that to the rest of the organisation.

Every year it gets harder.

There’s now more people than ever before with access to the web, and with that brings the unrealistic expectation from management that those new web users are going to flock to a museum’s content, even though it was likely never created or designed with them in mind.

Let me digress.

I spent most of my spare time in my twenties and early thirties involved in music. My friends and I put on a huge number of gigs, we toured international artists, put out some CDs, ran a weekly club night for a decade, put on festivals, ran a music magazine, and did a weekly radio show on public radio (equivalent of US college radio) for nearly two decades.

We were doing this just as the web became mainstream and the way that music was distributed, consumed, and the cultures that grew around it was in rapid transformation. The music scene that we were involved in was niche but not small – some of the larger parties drew as many as 4000 – and there was only one or two international tours that we lost money on. In a city the size of Sydney that wasn’t too bad. The value of what we did in those years was best measured in its long term impact – not on an event-by-event basis.

We knew how to make it work financially but over the years we also realised that there was a difference between ‘growing a scene’ and ‘sustaining a community’.

The former reaches a point at which the bubble bursts and the scene rapidly contracts, whilst the latter keeps supporting the social needs of the people involved as they get older, their tastes change, and in some cases, pair off into domesticity.

What the web brought to music was two-fold. Firstly it opened the gates for ‘publishing’ – anyone could upload their music, release it, and cut out (or downgrade) the middleman. Second, it opened the gates for ‘fans’ – anyone could, in theory, get access to all this music, talk about it, and build communities around it by themselves

Music discovery metastasized. Personal networks exploded globally, record stores began to be eaten by chains and then die, music media was no longer constrained by ‘issues’ and freight, and then Napster/SoulSeek/torrents took over at the turn of the millennium. Online music media, YouTube and Spotify and similar services have replaced much of what there used to be in terms of music magazines (especially NME/Melody Maker in the 1980s), record stores and music discovery through radio.

So what we have is easier publication, easier access, and, transformed discovery. (Arguably music has gained more than it has lost, although that doesn’t mean musicians have gained)

What didn’t change was people’s time to listen to music, or their urge to listen to music. Listeners just don’t have more hours in their days.

It is worse for museums.

We make short videos. We record long epic lectures. We write essays and ebooks. We publish these online. We ‘effectively utilise social media’ (whatever that means these days). And then we foolishly expect that the world is all going to rush to watch/listen/read them.

But we misunderstand the value of what we’ve made. Unlike the transactional parts of our websites, these are all things that will only reveal their value over the long term.

We barely create time and momentum for people to interrupt their busy lives to consider visiting a museum with their precious spare time – how can we expect it to be an different with our online content?

If you have doubts, the Culture24 Lets Get Real project reports are essential reading.

Its not just museums, everyone is struggling with this.

More at Museums and the Web in Baltimore.

Conceptual Conferences and event reports

Back to reality. Returning from the Horizon Retreat.

Last week I was at the Horizon New Media Consortium 10 Year Retreat – The Future of Education. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of bright-eyed educators and a few museum people who want the future of education to be something far better than it is now. If that sounds a little utopian, it should.

The Horizon Reports have always made for good reading. I contributed to some of the Horizon.Au reports in and have had a fair number of my projects included over the years as ‘examples’. These reports have more-or-less predicted most of the technology trends over the last decade, even if their timeframes are too optimistic. Their methodology – a wiki-made document compiled by hand selected specialists works especially well and avoids a lot of the traps of most futurist predictions. What is especially useful is that these wikis remain available after the reports are published – so it is possible to read the internal discussions that informed the creation of the report.

Summing up the predictions of the Horizon reports over the past decade was this great chart from Ruben Puentedura. You’ll notice recurring themes and the emergence of the social web, then mobile, then open content in the reports over the last decade.

The retreat, set outside of a stormy Austin, Texas, locked 100 people from several continents in a room with huge sheets of butcher’s paper and some great facilitation. Over two days meta-trends were identified and ideas shared. Thousands of tweets were tweeted on the #NMCHz hashtag, and many productive discussions were had.

Ed Rodley sums up the event nicely – day one and day two – over on his blog. Ed and I spent a fair bit of time throwing around ideas around the role of science museums in the modern world (from his experience at Boston and mine at Powerhouse) which should become the topic of a future blogpost.

But gnawing away at me during the Horizon Retreat was this article from the New York Times on Apple and its supply chains, and a broader follow up opinion piece in The Economist.

For all the talk of digital literacy, educating for megatrends, and the role that museums can play in fostering creativity – all this talk of open content and collaborative learning – these words continue to concern me.

The most valuable aspects of an iPhone, for instance, are its initial design and engineering, which are done in America. Now, one problem with this dynamic is that as one scales up production of Apple products, there are vastly different employment needs across the supply chain. So, it doesn’t take lots more designers and programmers to sell 50m iPhones than it does to sell 10m. You have roughly the same number of brains involved, and much more profit per brain. On the manufacturing side, by contrast, employment soars as scale grows. So as the iPhone becomes more popular, you get huge returns to the ideas produced in Cupertino, and small returns but hundreds of thousands of jobs in China.

Maybe it is just pessimism brought about by having two consecutive winters creeping in.

You can grab the summary ‘communique’ from the Retreat from the Horizon site.


Call for submissions: Epic Fail at Museums & the Web 2012, San Diego

Jane Finnis (Culture24) and I are hosting the closing plenary at Museums & the Web in San Diego this year. We’ve called it Epic Fail and we’re going to be shining a light on the failures that we individually and we collectively have had as project teams, institutions, and maybe even the sector as a whole.

Inspired by the valuable lessons we’ve learned personally from over-sharing our own failures on our blogs, and the growing trend in the non-profit and social enterprise sectors to share analyse, and learn from failures – we think the time has come for Museums and the Web to recognise the important role that documenting failures plays in making our community stronger.


Well, taking a cue from FailFaire, there are many common reasons for failure in the non-profit sector –

1. The project wasn’t right for the organisation (or the organisation wasn’t right for the project)
2. Tech is search of a problem
3. Must-be-invented-here syndrome
4. Know thy end-users
5. Trying to please donors rather than beneficiaries (and chasing small pots of money)
6. Forgetting people
7. Feature creep
8. Lack of a backup plan
9. Not connecting with local needs
10. Not knowing when to say goodbye

Sound familiar? I thought so.

So . . .

We’re doing a call out for ‘failures’ to be featured in our closed door session (that means no tweeting, no live blogging).

Each Fail will present a short 7-10 minute slot followed by 10 minutes panel and open-mic discussion. Each Fail needs to be presented by someone who worked on the project – this isn’t a crit-room – and we want you to feel comfortable enough to be honest and open. We want you to explore the reasons why you thought the project was a failure, diagnose where it went wrong, what would you do differently, and then collectively discuss the key lessons for future projects of a similar nature or targeting similar people.

Maybe, like me, you did an early project with QR codes that didn’t take into account the lighting situation in your exhibition, not to mention the lack of wifi? Or maybe a mobile App that you forgot to negotiate signage for the exhibition space? Or an amazing content management system that failed to address the internal culture and workflow for content production and ended up not being used?

In fact in my career, I can’t think of any project that hasn’t had its own share of failure. But in most cases I’ve been able to address the problem and iterate, or, if necessary, as they say in the startup game, ‘pivot‘.

The more significant the failure, the better is its potential to be an agent of change.

So, if you are coming to Museums and the Web in San Diego in April this year, get in touch to nominate your project for a spot! We promise to create a safe environment for sharing these important lessons and end this year’s conference on a high.

Get in touch with the Fail Team – epicfail [at] freshandnew [dot] org

Conferences and event reports

Culture + heritage + digital at Web Directions South 2011

Sebastian Chan and Luke Dearnley

Luke Dearnley and I were last minute additions to the Web Directions South lineup last week. Coaxed by Maxine Sherrin to do a ‘fireside chat’ we sat comfortably by a digital fire and talked broadly around some of the exciting projects that are happening in the digital heritage space right now.

We tried to cover a lot of ground and tease out some of the issues in the sector as libraries and museums around the world finally begin to build significant momentum around digital content. Taking these discussions to the web developer community is important because all this is happening at a time when the government is calling for discussion of the National Cultural Policy where there is talk about ’emerging technologies’ and the NBN in the ‘arts’. (See the Ideascale on the digital culture response to the NCP.)

Here’s a brief rundown of what we covered in our free-wheeling talk done without notes (and, sadly, much sleep).

I started out looking at where we were at the Powerhouse in 2001. Back then we were talking about the ‘virtual museum’ and exploring 3D tours and building monolithic encyclopaedic resources using our ‘authority’. Whilst there was some amazing stuff built back then, that won awards (and we still get enquiries about), the web has changed.

And now where we are in our thinking in 2011.

Now it is all about being a data provider, getting the our knowledge and collections out into the community where they can be debated and gather feedback and attract interest. The social web and now the mobile web has made this possible at the kind of scale that wasn’t possible in 2001. At the same we now have ‘contextual authority’ rather than what we previously imagined was ‘overall authority’. Remember that in 2001 Wikipedia was only just starting and had only 6,000 articles.

At the same time the user is firmly in control not only of how they navigate ever growing competing information sources, they also are using interfaces that fundamentally change how they perceive their computing devices. Touch and now voice interfaces, radically personalise, even anthropomorphise our devices. They are carried closer to us than ever before, creating a sense of intimacy and helping us form (unhealthy?) relationships with our mobile technologies. (“Excuse me while I just check my iPhone one more time – I haven’t touched it in the last five minutes.”)

In the background of this slide you can see an early heat map that is produced by tracking the dwell time of visitors carrying wifi devices in one of our exhibitions (they don’t even need to be connected to our wifi to be picked up). I’ll be blogging about that shortly in a new post but for now it should serve as a reminder that this sense of personal connectivity comes at a high price of personal trackability. It isn’t simply bundled up under ‘privacy’ and there’s a long way to go in the public discussions and debate about the trade off between utility and privacy.

The other big change is that of scale.

A collection like that of the Powerhouse used to feel ‘large’ but in actual fact it is tiny. It’s value in the digital space now is no longer as an island but only in what it can contribute to national and international collections – a collection of collections. That’s a tough challenge for a State-funded museum whose majority of ‘visitors’ walking in the door live in Sydney.

But at scale new possibilities emerge.

At this point we started to look at some of the initiatives that are exciting us around the world at the moment. Initiatives where the ‘value’ wasn’t necessarily obvious at the beginning but emerged only after time.

We showed and talked about ->

Tim Sheratt’s work with the digitised newspaper collections in Trove and the emergent stories he is starting to knit together by analysing the changes in language in newspaper articles over time, or by facial recognition in archival collections. These stories are only possible at scale – and even now they are terribly incomplete with uneven digitisation of each State’s newspapers in Trove – but they are getting better over time. Everyone (even you, dear reader) needs to go an read the transcript of Tim’s recent keynote at ANZSI. We are at the very very beginning of this but Tim’s work hints at some of the possibilities.

– New York Public Library’s historical menus project and how marking these menus up in the way they have lets us observe the changes in diet and ingredients, as well as food prices over time. And how, of course, dining at the Possum Club in 1900 would have been quite an experience.

– The other thing about the NYPL menus project is the way that, prior to releasing an API, they’ve done what we did at Powerhouse. They’ve released the whole data set as a ZIP. As we found with our own collection, a downloadable full dataset allows people to do mass scale analysis more quickly and easily (and with less drain on your server) than using an API.

– Looking at scale we briefly showed the free ImagePlot toolkit from the Software Studies Institute at UC San Diego, and how it by allowing you to do image analysis of enormous corpora of image files new patterns and relationships can be discovered.

– Luke talked about linked data and how connecting everything up is slowly becoming possible as more things and thesauri go online. We showed a couple of nice front-end examples of some of the possibilities when collections get connected up. Our very own infant site – the Australian Dress Register – which is slowly growing and bringing on new contributors; and the newly re-designed and re-configured Design and Art Australia Online (formerly Dictionary of Australian Artists Online). Here’s a biographical entry for one of the designers with lots of objects in the Powerhouse collection. Here it becomes possible to traverse her ‘associates’ as well as all the exhibitions etc she has been involved in all over the world.

– We looked at some other exciting community transcription projects that are overcoming difficult issues of both relevance and specialised content. We showed the fantastic Old Weather project with the Citizen Science Alliance using old ship logs from the National Maritime Museum to gather geolocated climate data form the past. It is one of our personal favourites and Fiona Romeo at the NMM published a great paper on it at Museums and the Web earlier in 2011 which you should read. What we find really lovely about this project is that it finds deep value in the kind of collection that museums find very difficult to ‘exhibit’. Actual ships – easy and attractive to put in an exhibition but the ship logs – much harder.

– We also showed the interface for another Citizen Science Alliance project called Ancient Lives. This project is getting citizens to help transcribe papyrus scrolls from the Oxyrhynchus collection whose story of acquisition and discovery is enough to encourage you to give it a go.

In wrapping up we started to ask a number of questions that remain unanswered/unanswerable:

– what the barriers to a Europeana-like project are in Australia, let alone a Digital NZ? Are they more cultural reasons than anything else? What is of ‘national significance’ that we can all agree upon? Is such agreement even possible in a fragmented nation?

– does the ‘open’ in linked open data matter more than just linked data in the short term?

– are libraries able to knuckle down and focus on digitisation better than museums because they aren’t expected to ‘also do exhibitions’? This looped back to an early slide where we talked about the ‘post-web accord’ that emerged in the mid 00s. Is this accord coming under pressure as a result of changing economic circumstances? Or is this just one of the many museum challenges that are under discussion in the sector.

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!

Picnic 10

Sketchy notes from Picnic 10 (part 2 of 2)

More minimally edited notes from Picnic 10.

Adam Greenfield prepared a top selection of panelists for his workshop on ‘networked Amsterdam’. As we sat in one of the Picnic yurts (!!) we heard a series of short presentations on Amsterdam as seen through different technological lens.

First up was Usman Haque (Pachube) who spoke broadly about the sensor-Amsterdam. He reminded us that sensors never provide pure information, instead there are always decisions being made – what to count, what not to. Speaking about EEML (extended environments markup language): data has context, descriptive, numerical, changes over time vs raw. EEML describes context and state. Measuring needs to be discrete continuous and incremental.

Tom Coates (ex-FireEagle) was up next looking at Amsterdam through the lens of data. Showing us the many easily publicly accessible data layers already out the on the web – open street map view of Amsterdam, people and transport movements through RFID tracking in the public transport system of Ovi Chipkart, power consumption, social checkins from Foursquare etc, geotagged Flickr photographs generating Flickr shape files as a people centric view of the world/map – concluding with Aaron Straup-Cope’s/Stamen’s Amsterdam PrettyMaps.

Despite this array of different views the map and terrain are still very distinct. The experienced Amsterdam is not the map so what is necessary to get closer to having the map and the territory merge? Does this begin with unique ids for each building is required to link that map and the territory. Can this apply to the world of objects?

Anab Jain (Superflux) was up next looking at Amsterdam through the lived lens of services. Do we have an ‘App-ocalypse’? Where experiencing the city is through the clumsy lens described by Coates – and thus many of the nuances of the city are obscured and invisible?

Jain contrasted with her experience of India. Here she showed how addresses change and thus how the map is never the territory. The importance of the rickshaw wallah both as guide and multi-service provider – the human version of Google Maps and social recommendation services? And of course seeing these urban actors as key urban services introduces the opportunity for ‘deviant services’. So could mobile services connect people to each other rather than people to machines? The idea of the “open generative city” vs (just) information services – post-efficient services? The criticality of serendipity and diversity of experiences.

Matt Cottam spoke about ‘objects’. Here in Amsterdam the remarkable integrated and holistic design for the Ovi Chipkart RFID transport ticketing system was made possible because of the different cultural system here in Amsterdam. A lack of paranoia about centralisation, and an acceptance of the trade off between utility and privacy. (See also the cultural norm to leave curtains open on domestic houses).

So what becomes possible? Could parking meters also be used to sell event tickets or even report problems with the city streets? They already contain the necessary technology – printer, payment acceptance, Internet connection and screen. Cottam then showed a wonderful sculpture garden of old public utility furniture. These were beautifully ‘designed’ objects, not the functional equivalents that now line the streets. They also seemed far more robust.

Is there an emerging trend towards refillable objects – with well designed innards? The Leica digital upgrade programme as an example?

Cottam concluded by showing the BluDot Real Good experiment which was part of a marketing campaign for BluDot. It focusses on how the city already recycles objects and how well designed objects live many lives.

I started Day Three catching Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing). I admire Doctorow’s persistence as an author whose traditional business models have been radically challenged, to experiment and make his own path in the resulting mess. It is a very American persistence. Thus I wanted to like Doctorow but his style carried such a sense of anger and resentment that it greatly diminished his message. Perhaps it was his jet lag or maybe, like me, he had some travel problems. Either way, being hectored about how iTunes is locking down authors rights on ebooks (preventing them from rejecting DRM) is a tough way to start a morning. Nevertheless I did like his emphasis on authors making the most of price discrimination for ebooks – where different ‘levels’ of ‘experience’ are priced differently. I couldn’t help think of how social finance schemes like Kickstarter are really accelerating the normalisation and visibility of price discrimination.

Steven Emmett followed with a fascinating talk about a programming language for genetic manipulation. in simple terms it looked like this language allows the programming of gene splicing and the ‘printing of genetic sequences’ for splicing. I loved the idea that Emmett presented that it was Bell Labs in the late 1940s with the invention of the transistor that made possible the ICT explosion and that we are in the equivalent of the 1940s now for genetic engineering. Exciting, if unimaginable futures?

Next it was over to the third of the sessions that I was involved in organising – ‘new business models of digital culture and heritage’. Charlie Leadbeater started off outlining the key ideas in his recent missive, Cloud Culture (available as a free download). For cultural producers these are difficult times – they are reaching more people but making less money, and in the developed world we are living longer but receiving less in pensions.

Leadbeater outlined four types of organisational response to these changes. Strategy one – same goals, different methods; two – different goals, same means; three – same goals, different mix of means; and four – transformational, different goals, different means. The fourth is the most radical but also potentially the most fruitful. Unfortunately, he pointed out, ‘improving’ can be the enemy of transformation – ‘making things better’ brings down the opportunity to make transformational change. Transformation requires reframing the challenges and opportunities and resources. And in the cultural sector this is likely to be mix of new and old.

Harry Verwayen from Europeana outlined Europeana’s strategies going forward. Not organically birthed, Europeana, Verwayen explained was birthed from a highly political European reaction to Google’s mass book scanning efforts. They have changed tack and are clearly searching for productive ways forward now that ’12 million objects’ are online.

Soenke Zehle explored the ways in which cultural actors, and especially institutions could provide a far more ‘critical’ role in addressing the issues highlighted by Leadbeater, as well as the (global) political economy of digital culture. As he stressed, there are going to be winners and losers here – there is no win-win situation. This happens at every layer – the hardware layer where geopolitical tensions and instability around oil are already shifting to countries with rare metals required for the ‘digital economy’; all the way through to the service layer where content producers are feeling the pinch.

Conferences and event reports

A couple of interesting free events for cultural sector people – Mike Edson Oct 15 & Amped Oct 16

We’ve got two really exciting free events coming up at the Powerhouse for everyone who is interested in the ways in which the cultural sector is and can do exciting and impactful things with digital. What’s more they are back to back on October 15 and October 16.

Despite being free both need pre-registration.

On the evening of Friday, October 15 the Powerhouse Museum hosts Mike Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. Mike will be giving a free talk about the idea of the Smithsonian Commons and how that vast institution is tackling the opportunities and challenges of digital. This will be an opportunity to consider what Australian institutions and communities might do as a response, and how we measure up with what we are already doing. The talk starts at 645pm and you will need to pre-register online.

Mike is in our neck of the woods courtesy of the NZ National Digital Forum, and we’re very happy that they have made his single stop visit to Australia a reality.

The very next day, everyone has a chance to push the boundaries of what we are all already doing at Amped. Organised by the Web Directions crew, Amped happens is on Saturday October 16. Unlike other ‘hack days’ this one isn’t just for developers and hardcore nerds. Amped is aimed at broadening the scope of what happens at a ‘hack day’ – especially as many of the best ideas come from the less technical and need pairing up with the more technical for proper execution.

There’s going to be rapid fire challenges around certain datasets, platforms, design issues – as well as mini-workshops running all day. And, as it is being run by Web Directions, you can rest assured they’ve roped in as many of their great lineup of speakers as possible to join the fray. (And if you are going to this year’s Web Directions South, you’ll notice our very own Paula Bray is on the lineup!)

The Powerhouse Digital Crew will be out in force at Amped, and we might just have a few brand new, shiny, tantalising things for you to play with . . .

Again, pre-register for Amped online. It is free to attend!