MW2008 Semantic Web

The museum APIs are coming – some thoughts on interoperability

At MW08 there was the beginnings of a push amongst the technically oriented for the development of APIs for museum data, especially collections. Driven in part by discussions and early demonstrations of semantic web applications in museums, the conceptual work of Ross Parry, and the presence of Eric Miller and Brian Sletten of Zepheria; Aaron Straup Cope and George Oates of Flickr, MW08 might well be a historic turning point for the sector in terms of data interoperability and experimentation.

Since April there has been a lot of movement, especially in the UK.

The ‘UK alpha tech team’ of Mike Ellis, Frankie Roberto, Fiona Romeo, Jeremy Ottevanger, Mia Ridge are leading the charge all working on various ways of connecting, extracting and visualising data from the Science Museum, Museum of London and the National Maritime Museum in new ways. Together with them and a few other UK commercial sector folk, I’ve been contributing to a strategy wiki around making a case for APIs in museums.

Whilst the tech end of things is (comparatively) straight forward, the strategic case for an API is far more complex to make. As we fiddle, though, others make significant progress.

Already a community project, dbPedia, has taken the content of Wikipedia and made it available as an open database. What this means is that it is now possible to make reasonably complex semantic queries of Wikipedia – something I’m yet to see done on a museum collection. There are a whole range of examples and mini-web applications already built to demonstrate queries like “people born in Paris” or “people influenced by Nietzsche“. More than this, though, are the exciting opportunities to use Wikipedia’s data and combine it with other datasets.

What should be very obvious is that if Wikipedia’s dataset is made openly available for combining with other datasets then, much as Wikipedia already draws audiences away from museum sites, then their dataset made usable in other ways, will draw even more away. You might well ask why similar complex queries are so hard to make in our own collection databases? “Show me all the artwork influenced by Jackson Pollock?”

On June 19 the MCG’s Museums on the Web UK takes place at the University of Leicester with the theme of “Integrate, federate, aggregate“. There’s going to be some lovely presentations there – I expect Fiona Romeo will be demoing some lovely work they’ve been doing and Frankie Roberto will be reprising his high entertaining MW08 presentation too.

The day before, like the MCGUK07 conference, there will be a mashup day beforehand. Last year’s mashup day produced a remarkable number of quick working prototypes drawing on data sources provided by the 24 Hour Museum (now Culture24). This year the data looks like it will be coming from the collection databases of some of the UK nationals.

Already Box UK and Mike Ellis have whipped up a really nice demonstration of data combining – done by scraping the websites of the major museums with a little bit of PHP code. Even better, the site provides XML feeds and I expect that it will be a major source of mashups at MCG UK.

I like the FAQ that goes along with the site. Especially this –

Q: Doesn’t this take traffic away from the individual sites?

We don’t think so, but not many studies have been done into how “off-site” browsing affects the “in-site” metrics. Already, users will be searching for, consuming, and embedding your images (and other content) via aggregators such as Google Images. This is nothing new.

Also, ask yourself how much of your current traffic derives from users coming to explicitly browse your online collections?

The aim is that by syndicating your content out in a re-usable manner, whilst still retaining information about its source, an increasing number of third-party applications can be built on this data, each addressing specific user needs. As these applications become widely used, they drive traffic to your site that you otherwise wouldn’t have received: “Not everyone who should be looking at collections data knows that they should be looking at collections data”.

I’ve spoken and written about this issue of metrics previously, and these and the control issues need to be sorted out if there is going to be any real traction in the sector.

Unlike the New York Times (who apparently announced an API recently), and the notable commercial examples like Flickr, the museum sector doesn’t have a working (business) model for their collections other than a) exhibitions, b) image sales and possibly c) research services.

Now back to that semantic query, wouldn’t it be useful if we could do this – “Play me all the music videos of singles that appear on albums whose record cover art was influenced by Jackson Pollock?”. This could, of course be done by combining the datasets of, say the Tate, Last.FM, Amazon and YouTube – the missing link being the Tate.

MW2008 Web 2.0 Young people & museums

Social technologies and museums – the ‘groundswell’ and museums

The folks at McGraw Hill/Harvard Business Press recently sent me an advance copy of Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s Groundswell: winning in a world transformed by social technologies for review. The book builds on Li and Bernoff’s Forrester research blog and in particular their social technographics work.

Aimed at managers, executives and marketing staff, the book (usefully) steers well clear of specific technologies and technical solutions and instead provides numerous case studies of how social technologies are being deployed by savvy companies to improve and transform their businesses. More so than the social technographics profiles, these case studies are the book’s strength. The case studies featured cover different audiences and social technographic profiles, widely different industries, and also very different strategies and are all interesting reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how museums might apply their methodologies – in particular their POST (people, objectives, strategies, technologies) method – to exhibitions and online content.

The POST method is simple but forces you to look first at the people you are trying to promote/engage/sell to and the objectives you are trying to achieve. Then choose a strategy and last, the appropriate technology. The Groundswell book covers, in detail, this methodology applied to examples such as the sale of tampons to young women . In this case study Procter and Gamble built a discussion forum, Being Girl, which is a platform for the marketing of a particular brand of tampons. It became a bigger and ongoing platform with which to engage the target audience. What the Being Girl case study shows is that by looking at the behaviour of the target audience first and their online behaviour it was possible to create a better aligned and more successful campaign that not only met the objectives of the tampon company (and created new opportunities as well) but importantly met the needs of the audience (to have a safe place to discuss adolescence – beyond just tampons). The company involved is also able to now undertake ongoing audience/market research through the forum to inform future campaigns.

Of course, engaging with audiences in these and other ways radically changes the communication flows from the traditional one-to-many shout methods of traditional marketing to multi-directional communication. These inevitably begin to transform the organisations involved as well as the customers/audience too. Groundswell outlines some of the challenges, especially around corporate transparency, that this throws up such as whether or not to acknowledge the existence of competitors in one’s own discussions with customers. (What if ‘other brands of tampons’ are discussed?)

Put simply, if you do engage, you organisation will change. If you engage strategically then this change can be managed and paced appropriately. For some organisations it might be most appropriate to deploy a range of ‘listening’ techniques and technologies before leaping into an poorly planned social media project. Even here at the Powerhouse we’ve had social media projects fail because we have over-estimated our intended audiences and their predicted behaviour.

Museums tend to focus on audience evaluation rather than market research – focussing on those who have made the choice to come to our sites already, rather than those who haven’t yet. Thus for museums there is a real need for us to understand the technographic profiles of our multiple audiences – and then take the most sensible approach for each audience niche. Unlike companies who tend to target a product line at a group of consumers and then develop that relationship across the lifespan of the product line, too often museums take a more schizophrenic approach to exhibitions (as products) – serving one niche with an exhibit then moving on to serve a totally different niche audience with the next. The audience cultivated through the first exhibition may not be served with a follow up ‘product’ for several years – or in some case, ever again. This is a grave strategy error.

Of course museums are more than just exhibitions, they are a collection of experiences. So, if we consider museums as experience venues with a visit containing multiple ‘samplings’ of a diverse product line – the average museum visitor stopping by several exhibitions in one visit – then we also need to be considering the impact of different technographic profiles for different audience needs and intentions as well.

In Lynda Kelly and Angelina Russo’s recent research presented at MW2008 they applied the social technographics methodology of Forrester to visitors to Australian museums. What is interesting in their work is that they found that the use rates of many social media tools was, in fact, higher than national averages. At the same time their qualitative research showed that amongst teenagers whilst usage of social networks is high, that there was an impression that these were for ‘private’ and ‘personal’ use – and that the intrusion of museums into these spaces were not necessarily desirable. Similar findings are being made by others across many industries. Likewise, Dana Mitroff and Katrina Alcorn’s exploration of the SFMOMA audience informing a web redesign sounded an early warning that any museum’s pursuit of Web 2.0 participative methods needs to be strategic. Social technologies aren’t yet appropriate for all audiences, nor are they necessarily desirable without strategic alignment.

Forrester provides an online social technographics profile tool in the promotional site for the book. This is a simple tool to start a conversation with managers about the general online behaviours of your audience and I’d strongly recommend exploring it with the backing of existing audience research around your ‘product range’ (exhibitions, interactives, online projects) rather than just applying it generally to your entire museum.

So where from here?

What Groundswell does is provide your web or digital team with a range of examples to present management, and it also provides management with a strategic framework with which to begin to evaluate proposals from digital teams irrespective of the technologies involved.

I’ve got two copies of Groundswell in the office now which are being read by everyone in my team and the key people around the Museum that we work with.

Collection databases Geotagging & mapping MW2008 Search Semantic Web

MW2008 – Data shanty towns, cross-search and combinatory approaches

One of the popular sessions at MW2008 in Montreal was a double header featuring Frankie Roberto and myself talking about different approaches to data combining across multiple institutions.

Data combining was a bit of a theme this year with Mike Ellis, Brian Kelly and others talking mashups; Ross Parry, Eric Miller and Brian Sletten all talking ‘semantic web’; and Terry Makewell and Carolyn Royston demonstrating the early prototype of the NMOLP cross search.

Museum blogging MW2008 Policy Social networking Web 2.0

Updating your social media and staff blog policies

At Musuems and the Web 2008 in the Planning Social Media workshop I briefly talked about the need for organisations to engage with, rather than ignore, the reality that their staff are using social media – even if not in their professional lives, and that this can cause occasional issues.

One year ago we launched our blogging policy at the Museum. This was to cover the behaviour of staff on the offical Museum blogs as well as outline the approval processes for other blog activities. Already we are finding that it is in need of an update. As they say, one year is a long time on ‘teh internets’.

Not surprisingly we are not alone in this. There have been plenty of corporate blogging policies made available publicly however the best fit, in my opinion, are the recently updated policies of the BBC which now extend into covering social network participation and more.

The BBC’s new policy for its staff on using social networking services like Facebook, writing and commenting on blogs, contributing to wikis including Wikipedia, are all covered in detail. The over-riding principle in the BBC policy is one of ‘awareness’ rather than censorship. The BBC realises that their journalists and staff are enriched by participating in robust community debate (more and more of which now occurs online), and also, that to attract younger generation staff (who are growing up with the expectation of participation in online communities), they need to be proactive.

So the BBC encourages awareness amongst staff that their private comments and opinions need to be kept in check and balanced if they are identifying or associating themselves in any of these public forums as BBC staffers or journalists.

The Internet provides a number of benefits in which BBC staff may wish to participate. From rediscovering old school friends on Facebook or Friends Reunited or helping to maintain open access online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.

However, when someone clearly identifies their association with the BBC and/or discusses their work, they are expected to behave appropriately when on the Internet, and in ways that are consistent with the BBC’s editorial values and policies.


The intention of this note is not to stop BBC staff from conducting legitimate activities on the Internet, but serves to flag-up those areas in which conflicts can arise.

For those agencies considering introducing policies I would also recommend the fantastic work of Jason Ryan from the NZ Network of Public Sector Communicators. Jason has been at the forefront of developing and implementing sensible and realistic strategies for social media within government.

Conferences and event reports Web 2.0

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

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

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

I hope you can make it.

Conferences and event reports Social networking Web 2.0

Resourcing for social media / Social Media & Cultural Communication 2008 conference

Regular readers will have noticed that my post-rate has been down significantly over the past two months. This has largely been because of some new and exciting projects and the extra load that preparation for presentations has brought with it.

Blogging, like any form of social media content creation, takes time and effort. Without regular and sustained effort, the community that grows and engages with this content, quickly withers and disappears.

Conferences and event reports Web 2.0

NLA Social Media & Cultural Communication conference – Sydney, Feb 28/29, 2008

Registrations have opened for the Social Media and Cultural Communication conference to be held in Sydney in February 2008. This conference is one of the outcomes of the Australian Research Council research project New Literacy, New Audiences which concludes shortly.

The conference brings together a range of great museum industry speakers from around Australia as well as Kevin von Appen from the Ontario Science Centre, Carolyn Royston from the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Mei Mah and Caroline Payson from the Copper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

It promises to be a provocative day and is aimed at the needs of those institutions small and large who are yet to start fully exploring the opportunities.

The conference is a single day event on February 29 and is preceded by a day of two masterclasses on the February 28.

Registrations range from $134-$149 and the masterclasses are $9 per person. Book through Museums & Galleries NSW.

Conferences and event reports Powerhouse Museum websites

Upcoming talks and presentations (November/December)

If you missed any of the recent conference presentations in Australia, the Powerhouse’s web technologies, strategy and expertise will be discussed/dissected/analysed at the following (public) events.

On Saturday December 1 at Focus Fest 2007 Agent Provocateurs I will be presenting under the theme ‘Provoking a shift in the dialogue:
Art audiences, galleries and the web’ which will look at the new ways in which art museums are engaging audiences online, as well as how new audiences are making new demands of cultural institutions on the web.

On Wednesday December 5 at Online Social Networking and Business Collaboration World 2007, I will be presenting under the theme of ‘Web 2.0 for Government and Non-profits’ examining how Web 2.0 opens up considerable new opportunities for service delivery, marketing and citizen engagement, but brings with it significant challenges.

If you are attending either of these feel free to get in touch.

Collection databases Conferences and event reports Folksonomies Web 2.0 Web metrics

Web Directions South 2007 – presentation and some thoughts

Web Directions South 07 was lots of fun and there were some great presentations over the two days. Unfortunately conferences are always full of choices and I missed several presentations I’d been looking forward to catching. That said, overall the quality was high and there were only a handful of dull moments. Most of the presentations I saw were not on the tech-side (JS, Ajax, CSS etc) of things – Luke was there to go to those.

Here’s some notes from my highlights.

Cameron Adams managed to pack out one of the smaller rooms and by the time his ‘Future of web based interfaces’ was in full flow there were about 50 people standing at the back. Adams’ presentation went through the possibilities of flexible interfaces that are both customisable by the user (much like Netvibes or iGoogle is) and automatically reformats as you use it (like the BBC News pages subtly do).

After my own presentation (see below) it was on to Scott Gledhill’s ‘Is SEO evil?‘ to which the answer is, of course, no. SEO and a web standards approach should be complimentary. Scott had some lovely images – the menacing gummi bears in particular – and a fascinating case study from News Digital Media around the Steve Irwin death. In this instance, News went out with a web headline that was far more immediate and keyword loaded (“steve irwin dead”) than their major competitor, Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax who were more obscure (“crocodile man reported dead”). They tracked the story traffic and referrers by the hour and more than doubled the Fairfax traffic – even after Fairfax adjusted their headline. Scott also told how journalists are now much more SEO content-savvy in their writing and that his team gives the journalists the necessary web reporting tools to be able to track their own stories. This, combined with the highly competitive environment, encourages journalists to further refine and re-edit their stories for performance even after initial publication.

The second day began with an edit of Scott Berkun’s famous Myths of Innovation presentation. Scott’s main message is that you can’t force ‘innovation’ and that it needs time and space to happen organically. In fact, one of the best triggers of innovation are failures and mistakes. He suggests that perhaps we should start including a ‘failures’ budget line in our organisational budgets – accept that they will happen and that we are all the better for it.

George Oates from Flickr spoke about how Flickr manages and facilitates user communities. She started out tracing Flickr back to its origins at Ludicorp as a sort-of MMORPG called Game Neverending. After GNE folded the community that had grown around it was imported directly into Flickr and they brought their experiences from the game world into the construction and design of Flickr. I found her focus on users and the real need for human-to-human communication and relationship management that Flickr does a timely reminder that in the museum world we cannot expect communities to ‘just happen’ around our content and that when the seeds of community appear they need careful nurturing. The necessary nurturing is impossible if you move immediately on to the next project.

Adrian Holovaty, the mind behind Chicago Crime and several other datamining and visualisation projects gave a fascinating presentation about the hidden potential of structured data. Now over in the museum world we are experts at structured data but we rarely make the most of it. Throughout Holovaty’s talk he kept coming back to the ideas of serendipity and free browsing that I’ve been working on with our OPAC. His position was to make everything hyperlinked and let the users build their own paths through the data. To that end he built the Django Databrowse application which takes a database and basically build a simple website that allows users to link from anything to anything else. Following Chicago Crime which took flat datasets from the Chicago Police Department and made them navigable in ways that the Chicago PD had never intended (view crimes by area, visualise hotspots, map your jogging route against reported crimes etc), Holovaty went on to do some great visualisation work at the Washington Post. Here he asked journalists to enter their notes into a simple database as well as turning their notes into stories. This allowed him to build the Faces of the Fallen which tracks and maps every US soldier killed in Iraq. Faces not only reveals some uncomfortable patterns in the data (deaths by age of soldier, by state etc), it also has allowed linkages to family tributes and newspaper articles about the circumstances of their death. The project returns great value back to reporters and the paper who can now report ‘milestones’ and trends, but also to the community who can now make ‘more sense’ out of what would otherwise be simply seen as a list of names. It ‘humanises’ the data, giving it far greater impact. Holovaty is now working on a community news project Every Block which intends to harvest and aggregate content by ‘block’ from various news sources – automatically creating journalistic stories from raw data. (Reuters already does this with some financial reporting).

There are a growing selection of presentation slides over at Slideshare.

Here’s an edited version of my own presentation slides which use the Powerhouse Museum’s collection search and tagging implementation as a case study of a government implementation of Web 2.0 techniques. Those who have seen my presentations over the recent months will recognise some re-use and re-puposing. For various reasons I have had to remove about 20-30 slides but most of it is there. There is a podcast coming apparently.

Conferences and event reports Web 2.0

Upcoming presentations and workshops – Melbourne, Gold Coast, Sydney

During September I will be doing several conference presentations and a workshop that may be of interest to Fresh + New readers around Australia.

The Melbourne and Gold Coast presentations are aimed squarely at the museum and cultural sector, whilst my Sydney presentation is at Web Directions South, an excellent web event that draws much of this hemisphere’s web people.

If you are coming to one of these events then feel free to get in touch.

Friday September 7
Sites of Communication 3, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Keynote address – ‘New technologies, new audiences and new opportunities for galleries and museums’. I will be covering a range of topics including social tagging, virtual environments, and new opportunities for direct audience engagement.

Saturday September 14
Museums and Galleries Services Queensland State Conference, Legends Hotel, Gold Coast

Half day workshop – ‘Planning social media’ with Angelina Russo and Jerry Watkins, Queensland University of Technology. This is a considerably updated version of the workshop presented previously at Museums and the Web 2007 in San Francisco.

Sunday September 15Museums and Galleries Services Queensland State Conference, Legends Hotel, Gold Coast

Opening plenary – ‘Highlights of digital media in museum and gallery communication’.

September Thursday 27, Friday 28Web Directions South, Darling Harbour, Sydney

Presentation – ‘Social media and government 2.0’. This presentation will use the recent work at the Powerhouse Museum and other projects as an example of some of the new ways that government datasets can generate additional value both to government and the community when opened to citizen participation and collaboration.