Geotagging & mapping Interactive Media Semantic Web

Introducing About NSW – maps, census visualisations, cross search

Well here’s an alpha release of something that we’ve been working on forever (well, almost 2 years). It is called About NSW and is a bit of a Frankenstein creation of different data sets mashed together by a sophisticated backend. The project began with an open-ended brief to be a cross-sectorial experiment in producing new interfaces for existing content online. In short, we were given permission to play in the sandbox and with that terrain comes a process of trial and error, learning and revision.

We’ve had an overwhelming amount of feature requests and unfortunately have not been able to accommodate them all but this does give us an indication of the need to work on solutions to common problems such as –

  • “can we handle electoral boundaries and view particular datasets by suburb postcodes?”
  • “can we aggregate upcoming cultural events?”
  • “can we resolve historical place names on a contemporary Google Map?”

to name just a few.

There’s three active voices in this blog post, my own accompanied by those of Dan MacKinlay (developer) and Renae Mason (producer). Dan reads a lot of overly fat economics and social theory books when not coding and travelling to Indonesia to play odd music in rice paddies; while Renae reads historical fiction, magical realism and design books when not producing and is about to go tango in Buenos Aires – hola!

We figured this blog post might be a warts and all look at the project to date. So grab a nice cup of herbal tea and sit back. There’s connections here to heavyweight developer stuff as well as more philosophical and practical issues relevant to Government 2.0 discussion as well.

So what exactly is About NSW?

Firstly it is the start of an encyclopaedia.

Our brief was never to create original content but to organise what already existed across a range of existing cultural institution websites. There’s some original content in there, but that probably is not be exciting in itself.

While projects like the wonderful Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, ‘Te Ara’ are fantastic, they cost rather more than our humble budget. Knowing up front that we had scant resources for producing ‘new’ content, we have tried to build a contextual discovery service that assists in exposing existing content online. We aimed to form partnerships with content providers to maximise the use of all those fact sheets, images and other information that is already circulating on the web. We figured, why duplicate efforts? In this way, we would like to grow About NSW as a trustworthy channel that delivers cultural materials to new audiences, sharing traffic and statistics with our partners along the way. That said, there’s actually a whole lot of exciting material lurking deep in the original content of the encyclopaedia, including a slew of digitised almanacs that we are yet to expose.

We’re particularly excited to be able to bring together and automatically connect content from various sources that otherwise wouldn’t be “getting out there”. There are a lot of websites that go around and scrape other sites for content – but really getting in there and make good use of their data under (reasonably) unrestrictive license is in facilitated by having the request come from inside government. It’s not all plain sailing, mind – if you look through our site you’ll see that a few partners were afraid to display the full content of their articles and have asked they be locked down.

But, because we work in aggregate, we can enrich source data with correlated material. A simple lucid article about a cultural figure can provide a nice centrepiece for an automatically generated mashup of related resources about said figure. We could go a lot further there in integrating third party content rather than going through the tedious process of creating our own articles by pulling in content from sources like Wikipedia and Freebase. (We certainly never intended to go into the encyclopaedia business!)

Secondly, the site is an explorer of the 2006 Australian Census data. As you might know, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does a rather excellent job of releasing statistical data under a Creative Commons license. What we have done is take this data and build a simple(r) way of navigating it by suburbs. We have also built a dynamic ‘choropleth’ map that allows easy visualising of patterns in a single data set. You can pin suburbs for comparison, and look for patterns across the State. (with extra special bells and whistles built for that by some folks from the Interaction Consortium who worked on the team.)

Third, we’ve started the long and arduous process of using the same map tools to build a cultural collections navigator that allows the discovery of records by suburb. This remains the most interesting part of the site but also the one most fraught by difficulties. For a start, very few institutions have well geo-located collections – certainly not with any consistency of precision. We have tried some tricky correlations to try to maximise the mappable content but things haven’t (yet) turned out the way we want them to.

But, considering the huge data sets we are dealing with we reckon we’ve done pretty well given the data quality issues and the problem of historical places not being able to be reverse geocoded automatically.

Fourth, not much of this would be much chop if we weren’t also trying to build a way of getting the data out in a usable form for others to work with. That isn’t yet available yet mainly because of the thicket of issues around rights and the continuing difficulty in convincing contributors that views of their content on our site can be as valuable, potentially more valuable when connected to other material, than views on their individual silo-ed sites.

Where is the data from?

About NSW has afforded a unique opportunity to work with other organisations that we don’t usually come into contact with and we’ve found that generosity and a willingness to share resources for the benefit of citizens is alive and well in many of our institutions. For example, we approached the The NSW Film & Television Office with a dilemma – most of the images that we can source from the libraries and archives are circa 1900, which is fantastic if you want to see what Sydney looked like back then, but not so great if you want to get a sense of what Sydney looks like today. They kindly came to the party with hundreds of high quality, contemporary images from their locations database which isn’t public facing but currently serves a key business role in attracting film and television productions to NSW.

Continuing along with our obsession for location specific data, we also approached the NSW Heritage Branch who completely dumb-founded us by providing us with not just some of their information on heritage places but the entire NSW State Heritage Register. The same gratitude is extended to the Art Gallery of NSW who filled in a huge gap on the collection map with their collection objects so now audiences can, for the first time, see what places our most beloved artworks are associated with (and sometimes, the wonderful links with heritage places – consider the relationship with the old gold-mining heritage town of Hill End and an on-going Artist in Residency program that is hosted there and has attracted artists such as Russell Drysdale and Brett Whitely). With our places well and truly starting to take shape we decided to add in demographic data with the most recent census from the Australian Bureau of Statistics who noted that their core role in providing raw data leaves them little time to for the presentation layer so they were delighted that we were interested in visualising their work.

Besides our focus on places, we are pretty keen on exploring more about the people who show up in our collection records and history books. To this end, the Australian Dictionary of Biography has allowed us to display extracts of all their articles that relate to people associated with NSW.

As a slight off-shoot to this project, we even worked with NSW Births Deaths and Marriages Registry to build the 100 Years of Baby Names at lives on the central NSW Government site, but that’s a different story, that’s already been blogged about here.

There are of course many other sources we’d like to explore in the future but for now we’ve opted for the low-hanging fruit and would like to thank our early collaborators for taking the leap of faith required and trusting us to re-publish content in a respectful manner.

There are many things we need to improve but what a great opportunity it has been to work on solving some of our common policy and legacy technology problems together.

Cultural challenges

Unfortunately, despite the rosy picture we are beginning to paint here, the other side is that collecting institutions are not accustomed to working across silos and are either not well-resourced to play in other domains.

Comments like “This isn’t our core business!” and “Sounds great but we don’t have time for this!” have been very common. Others have been downright resistant to the idea all together. The latter types prefer to operate a gated-estate that charges for entrance to all the wonders inside – the most explicit being “We don’t think you should be putting that kind of information on your site because everyone should come to us!”.

But we wonder, what’s more important – expert pruning? Or a communal garden that everyone can take pride in and improves over time?

To be fair, these are confronting ideas for institutions that have always been measured by their ‘authoritativeness’ and by the sheer numbers that can be attracted through their gates, and not the numbers who access their expertise.

Unsurprisingly these are the exact same issues being tackled by the Government 2.0 Taskforce.

It’s an unfortunately constructed competitive business and the worth of institutions online is still being measured on the basis of how many people interact with their content on their website. Once those interactions begin to take place elsewhere it becomes more difficult to report despite the fact that it is adding value – after all, how do you quantify that?

We’ve done some nifty initial work with the Google Analytics API to try to simplify data reporting back to contributors but it is more a philosophical objection more than anything.

Add to that Copyright and privacy and you have a recipe for trouble.

Munging data

Did we already say that this project hasn’t been without its problems?

The simplest summary is: web development in government has generally had little respect for the Tim Berners-Lee’s design principle of least power.

While sites abound with complicated Java mapping widgets, visually lush table-based designs and so on, there is almost no investment in pairing that with simple and convenient access to the underlying data in direct, simple, machine-readable way. This is particularly poignant for projects that have started out with high ideals, but have lost funding; all the meticulous work they have expended in creating their rich designs can go to waste if the site design only works in Netscape Navigator 4.

Making simple data sets available is timeless insurance against the shifting ephemeral fads of browser standards, and this season’s latest widget technology, but it’s something few have time for. That line of reasoning is particularly important for our own experimental pilot project. We have been lucky, unlike some of our partners, in that we have designed our site from the ground up to support easy data export. (You might well ask, though, if we can’t turn that functionality on for legal reasons, have we really made any real progress).

As everyone knows, pulling together datasets from different places is just a world of pain. But it is a problem that needs to be solved for any of the future things all of us want to do to get anywhere. Whilst we could insist on standards, what we wanted to experiment with here was how far we could get without mandating standards – because in the real world, especially with government data, a lot of data is collected for a single purpose and not considered for sharing and cross-mixing.

We’d love plain structured data in a recognised format, but it isn’t generally available. (RDF, OAI-PMH, ad hoc JSON over REST, KML – even undocumented XML with sensibly named elements will do) Instead, what there usually is are poorly marked up HTML sites, or databases full of inconsistent character encodings, that need to be scraped – or even data that we need to stitch together from several different sources to re-assemble the record in our partner’s database because their system won’t let them export it in one chunk. Elsewhere we’ve had nice Dublin Core available over OAI, but even once all the data is in, getting it to play nicely together is tricky, and parsing Dublin-core’s free-text fields has still been problematic.

In our standards-free world, there is also the problem of talking back.

Often we’re faced with the dilemma that we believe that we have in some way value-added to the data we have been given – but we have no way of easily communicating that back to its source.

Maybe we’ve found inconsistencies and errors in the data we have imported, or given “blobs” of data more structure, or our proofreaders have picked up some spelling mistakes. We can’t automatically encode our data back into the various crazy formats it comes in, (well, that it’s twice as much work!), and even do we invest the time on that if there is no agreed way of communicating suggested changes? Or what if the partner in question has lost funding and doesn’t have time to incorporate updates no matter how we provide them?

This is a tricky problem without an easy solution.

What does it run on?

Behind the scenes the site is built pretty much with open spource choices. It was built using on Python using the Django framework, and PostgresQL’s geographic extension postGIS (the combination known as Geodjango).

For the interactive mapping it uses Modest Maps – which allows us to change between tile providers as needed – and everything is pretty modular and re-purposable, and a whole bunch of custom file-system based tile-metadata service code.

Since we have data coming from lots of different providers with very different sets of fields, we store data internally in a general format which can handle arbitrary data – the EAV pattern – although we get more mileage out of our version because of Django’s sophisticated support for data model subclassing.

We have also used Reuters’ Open Calais to cross-map and relate articles initially whilst a bunch of geocoders go to work making sense of some pretty rough geo-data.

We use both the State Government supplied geocoder from the New South Wales government’s Spatial Information Exchange, and Google’s geocoder to fill the gaps.

And we use the Google Analytics, plus the Google Analytics Data Export API to be able to deliver contributor-specific usage data.

We use an extensive list of open-source libraries to make all this work, many of which we have committed patches to along the way.

We do our data parsing with

  • phpserialize for python for rolling quick APIs with out PHP-using friends
  • PyPdf for reading PDFs
  • pyparsingfor parsing specialised formats (e.g. broken “CSV”)
  • Beautiful Soup for page scraping
  • lxml for XML document handling
  • suds for SOAP APIs (and it is absolutely the best, easiest and most reliable python SOAP client out there

Our search index is based off whoosh, with extensive bug fixes by our friendly neighbourhood search guru Andy

We’ve also created some of our own which have been mentioned here before:

  • python-html-sanitizer takes our partners’ horrifically broken or embedded-style-riddled html and makes it something respectable. (based off the excellent html5lib as well as Beautiful Soup)
  • django-ticket is a lightweight DB-backed ticket queue optimised for efficient handling of resource-intensive tasks, like semantic analysis.


So, go an have a play.

We know there are still a few things that don’t quite work but we figure that your eyes might see things different to us. We’re implementing a bunch of UI fixes in the next fortnight too so you might want to check back in a fortnight and see what has improved. Things move fast on the web,

Digital storytelling Interactive Media open content

Exploring Sydney streets – a composite video experiment with the Commons

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

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

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

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

Interactive Media

Boxee – really social media

One of the projects I mentioned in one of my workshops at the NZ National Digital Forum was Boxee. I was alerted to Boxee by Shannon O’Neill only a night or two ago via his RSS.

Boxee is a good example of the important social side of media use and consumption. It is also a good example of connected media.

At the base level your media files are indexed and connected to their cover art, lyrics, reviews and other metadata from across the web. More importantly, though, the service enables the social element of synchronous watching/listening with your friends. You can alert you friends when you are watching or listening to something, and you can simultaneously watch/listen with your friends.

This ‘sociality’ gets to the core of what media is about – it is about content and the social relationships and meanings that form around that content.

Take a quick look at their promotional video –

Interactive Media Social media

DIY museums on Not Quite Art Series 2 (ABC TV)

If you happen to live in Australia (or know someone who does), then you might be interested in the final episode of series 2 of Marcus Westbury’s Not Quite Art. This final episode is on ‘DIY museums’ and how cultural institutions are adapting to the digital environment. It screens on ABC TV on Tuesday night (october 28) at 10pm, and then is available for free download with the rest of the series and series 1 on the show website.

Marcus and I have known each other for nearly a decade now and his career to date has been about supporting and developing emerging Australian cultural work. He established the This Is Not Art annual festival, was the director of Next Wave in Melbourne, and is now working hard to convert Newcastle, 2 hours north of Sydney, from a former industrial town into a thriving creative space with flexible spaces for emerging artists of all persuasions.

What Marcus has done in the DIY Museums episode is look at how ‘memory institutions’ are dealing with the reality that they are no longer the sole arbiters of collective memory; nor are they necessarily well placed to collect the burgeoning diversity of contemporary culture and cultural expression. As one interviewee says “everything now is a niche, just the size of the niche differs” – and this poses enormous problems for those who job it is to collect. Fortunately, the same digital tools of production that are, in part driving this diversity, are also providing the means for others to collect and present – again, another challenge for established institutions.

Interactive Media

Visualising Japan – Soma’s Tokyo Tuesday

I’ve been loving the data visualisations of the Japanese census done by Soma. The data source is the Statistics Bureau of Japan, and they’ve collected some very detailed behavioural data which has been made very navigable by Soma.

What’s Japan up to? Let’s find out with some graphs. Let’s get specific, too. How many women with part-time jobs are walking their dog at 3am? Yeah, we’ve got that.

Let’s jump right into this: Japan has the absolute best census in the history of my known world. Not only does it include normal things like age, sex, and the height of each of your pets, but it also legitimizes the gossipy question of What Are You Doing Right Now? Japan slapped a bunch of people with notebooks and a sacred Numbers Mission: keep a log of what you do during the day, in fifteen minute intervals. And those people did!

Now this sort of depth of data is unlikely to be gathered so effectively in any other country, but it does provide a glimpse into a future world of data transparency. It is a reminder, too, as Clay Shirky has been saying recently, that privacy for the most part only exists because of inconvenience – and that rapidly we are reaching a point where those barriers of inconvenience are disappearing. And, like we found with our collection database, once you shift the focus to improving the user experience, the Tokyo Tuesday visualisation makes browsing this rather arcane dataset incredibly engaging.

Play with Tokyo Tuesday. (via Information Aesthetics)

Interactive Media Mobile Picnic08

Picnic08 – Surprising Africa, data visualisation and a little augmented reality

Picnic is a large ‘creativity’ conference held annually in Amsterdam. I’ve been here as a guest of n8 talking about the notion of ‘open museums’.

Here is the final set of notes (with only a minor cleanup for the sake of timeliness).

Closing off my time at Picnic were visits to a couple of parallel sessions. One of the things I was keen to check out was part of the day long ‘Surprising Africa’ programme. This event featured speakers from Africa talking about what most in the ‘West’ would describe as ‘remarkable innovations’. The point, in part being that Western media portrays Africa as an exotic, dangerous, sometimes, lawless, and difficult place – whilst the reality is quite different. Thus what seems ‘remarkable’ is often only because of our collective ignorance.

The day was in part organised by Ethan Zuckerman from Global Voices who has done a great job of summarising. Likewise Erik Hursman’s presentation and notes is essential reading/viewing. As Erik says – if it works in Africa it will work anywhere – and I think one possible future for the mobile Internet is already visible in Africa.

Over in the main auditorium there was a fantastic double presentation from two of the leading lights of data visualisation – Ben Cerveny from Stamen and Jose-Luis de Vicente from Media Lab Prado in Madrid. In fact I think that these two presentations were the highlight of the main hall. Cerveny’s presentation, ‘The Alchemy of Understanding’, was a lovely poetic piece – data visualisation as “the transformation of data into understanding”, “synaesthesia of the world” with the “CPU as the philosopher’s stone”. He spoke of how in designing Diggswarm – a visualisation of how stories rise and fall within Digg – it was essential to create a set of rules to make the visualisation meaningful. As he put it, visualisation requires the generating of a “physics of each dataspace”. I especially liked his final comments that we are now in “an age of meta exploration”.

Jose-Luis de Vicente zipped through a wealth of material. For him and his work at Media Lab Prado the aim is to make use of as many public available datasets as possible. He demonstrated The Atlas of Electromagnetic Space, a project that shows the official uses of the spectrum alongside the activist and artistic interventions in these spaces.

He spoke of the ‘quantified self’ which is also emerging as projects as divergent as and Nike’s iPod linkup and the recently popular Bedpost make it possible for individuals and communities to record more data than ever about their own activities. Whilst some of these already allow simple visualisations, or at least data export (see LastGraph from Aerocode for beautiful visualisations of profile data), there is a lack of high quality interactive works. Then he showed Mail Garden, another collaborative project to emerge from the Media Lab Prado, which is visualisation of email patterns in one’s own mailbox. Lovely.

Casastristes is a public database of empty housing across Spain and is also features a number of nice interactive infographics showing the changes in housing affordability and building rates across Spain. Casastristes exemplifies the need to move from ‘just’ visualisation to social action.

Here he showed Cascade on Wheels, a project that scraped traffic data from the Madrid government website and presented it as an interactive map of traffic density in the city. In Cascade on Wheels, busy streets appear as ‘walls’ of traffic that can be seen to prevent or disrupt social activities and reveal patterns of discontinuity between areas of the city.

Nuage Vert uses projections onto industrial smokestacks to reveal the pollution levels generated by industrial plants; and AEG’s Noise Awareness reveals data about noise in the city in the city itself.

Running out of time, Vincente concluded by asking what sort of new efficiencies could be gained if the data held by city-owned bicycle scheme Bicing might offer up if the data about which cycle bays were empty, which were not, and the rate of exchange and use were made public? For one, it would be immediately possible to find out where the nearest city bike was – without needing to chance it to the next station. Of course, the city has contracted out the service to a private provider and the data has become locked up, reducing efficiencies and ultimately public good.

The final session of Picnic08 for me was on augmented reality. With a room full of marketers looking for the edge in ‘interactive marketing’ I was pleased that the Nokia presenter David Murphy, focussed on other possibilities for augmented reality. He opened with a series of slides showing the advance of augmented reality technologies from huge backpack computers and headsets to what we have now – a mobile phone with built in camera, GPS, compass and accelerometer. Basically the clunky prototypes made by computer science researchers only 5 years ago have been rapidly superseded by mobile phones. He demonstrated a number of new applications coming from the Nokia Labs which make the AR of Engin on Android look positively old school.

And that was the end of my Picnic. I hope you have enjoyed reading these notes.

Interactive Media Mobile Picnic08

Picnic08 – The Internet of Things

Picnic is a large ‘creativity’ conference held annually in Amsterdam. I’ve been here as a guest of n8 talking about the notion of ‘open museums’.

Here is another set of notes (with only a minor cleanup for the sake of timeliness).

Day Three was full of clashes and I was out at Westergasfabriek terribly early in the morning – even before the free (sponsored) barista coffee opened. But getting in early meant securing a table and laptop power outlet to catch some of The Internet of Things workshop.

The notion of the ‘Internet of Things’ was best summed up by Rafi Haladjian from Violet who are best known for their Nabaztag, the Internet enabled rabbit. He described how technologies always become pervasive starting out as highly expensive and shared by many (clock tower), to then being shared by a few (expensive private clock), before becoming personal (pocket watch), commodified and generic (the disposable digital watch), and then making the leap to becoming pervasive (even your microwave oven and TV now has a clock). The Internet is in the ‘personal’ stage with the mobile web and the iPhone – where the Internet is available pretty much everywhere in the highly developed world. The big shift will come when every device that has a microchip in it is also connected ambiently to the Internet – so rather than having special devices to access the Internet, all our devices connect to the Internet and to each other. At this stage the Internet is not a ‘separate place’ as in the 80s/90s conceptions of ‘cyberspace’, but is fully integrated into everyday life and you no longer go out of your way to ‘connect’ – you just are.

We are already seeing examples of this.

Oliver Christ from SAP talked about some of the megatrends affecting the developed world. The ageing society that we are going to find ourselves in means that healthcare will no longer ‘scale’. Pervasive technologies will become essential to keep citizens out of institutional healthcare for as long as possible by allowing connectivity to health care professionals all the time, ambiently. Need to change your medication? Your pill dispenser will already have downloaded the next prescription from your health consultant and sent back your bio data to them. This is also going to be driven by an increasing service economy – moving form selling products to solutions (Christ gave the nice example of moving away from selling drills to selling ‘holes’ which is typified by SaaS but is not just limited to the technology sector).

We are also seeing the possibilities of pervasive computing with car to car communication in some new models of car. Here cars communicate silently with each other to alert drivers of hazards up ahead, using data sourced from cars already ahead of you. Not only this, because your car is silently communicating with others on the road without your intervention, better decisions about speed, tyre pressure etc can be ‘assisted’.

There are already examples of ‘pay as you live’ insurance schemes which offer significantly discounted premiums and policies if you allow yourself to be tracked and thus assessed as to exactly how you behave rather than the current inaccurate ‘modelling’ applied at the moment. Norwich Union in the UK offers a policy which uses your car’s GPS data to calculate your risk level (and hence premiums) based on when, where, how fast, and how frequently you actually drive.

All this is becoming possible because the ‘data input’ and ‘data collection’ of pervasive computing no longer need to have the enormous costs associated with them of previous times.

Joe Polastre from Sentilla spoke of how “the internet is lonely” and wants more devices connected to it. Looking at the car industry he showed how already car manufacturers are providing the capacity for your car to email its vital signs back to you periodically to tell you how healthy it is, and how this lets you track fuel efficiency and on road costs more effectively. Polastre used the example of WalMart’s detailed energy auditing to show how pervasive monitoring was able to make enormous reductions in energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and expenditure. For example by being able to identify the particular section of the store that was using the most energy (the lighting section) and make adjustments to operations (replacing all the bulbs in the sample lights with energy efficient bulbs) they were able to save $6m per annum. Likewise the simple act of painting their store roofs white in some states, WalMart saved $30m per annum.

All this relies on pervasive low cost measurement systems. Polastre then went on to discuss the enormous energy reductions able to be made in the industrial processing sector – copper and aluminium production etc – because of better monitoring equipment.

The final part of the Internet of Things demonstrated a number of RFID devices that are coming on to the market – Tikitags, the Mirror – and others. The Mirror is the latest from Violet/Nabaztag which is an RFID reader. It comes with a set of Ztamps which you can attach to anything at all to connect them to the Internet and build a suite of customisable interactions. With them and the Mirror you could have your umbrella tell you the weather forecast for example. This was very nifty and showed the massive drop in the cost of RFID technologies.

Nokia is soon releasing a new phone which will have ‘near-field communication’ capacity built in, giving another way to interact with the growing ‘Internet of things’.

Geotagging & mapping Interactive Media open content Picnic08

Picnic08 – my presentation in the Open Museum sessions / Open Museum part one

Picnic is a large ‘creativity’ conference held annually in Amsterdam. I’ve been here as a guest of n8 talking about the notion of ‘open museums’.

Here is the second set of notes (with only a minor cleanup for the sake of timeliness) which were taken during the Open Museum sessions on Day Two. (More notes on the rest of Picnic still to follow)

Open Museum was billed as “a one-day marathon focussing on the idea of an ‘open museum’, a public institution that engages with its environment. Inspired by the great Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg, the Open Museum symposium looks at how museums in the 21st century can learn from media, and how media can learn from museums”. Organised by n8 who run the annual Museumnacht (Museum Night) in Amsterdam, this was an action packed 6 hours of presentations, which, because it was nestled in amongst the rest of Picnic, drew a very diverse and interested crowd. As a result the Dutch newspapers, the local blogging community and others have covered it in good detail.

The sessions kicked off with Michiel van Iersel from MuseumLab taking a run through the history of museums arguing that museums have always had to adapt to changing times and that, on the whole, these changes over the centuries have transformed museums for the better (at least from our current viewpoint) into more transparent, open-to-all institutions that are even opening sub-galleries in airport lounges (see the Rjiksmuseum at Schipol Airport). Michiel’s introduction placed a necessary historical backdrop behind the day’s proceedings – ensuring that we didn’t get too caught up in the emperor’s new clothes.

I followed Michiel with a rapid fire look at the potentials of an ‘open, collaborative museum’ online. In this I argued that in the digital environment, museums that do not take advantage of the opportunities to connect with other institutions (at the global level) and their publics (at the hyperlocal level) are not only missing out on many opportunities, they are at risk of being leapfrogged in relevance by other institutions or even informal organisations. Online, a singular collection of objects is now rather meaningless and the digital space opens the necessity to connect collections internationally. By the same token, online social media offers the opportunity to connect with and engage with local communities in ways previously only theorised about in the scholarship of the ‘new museum’.

Openness is a way for museums to be seen to be ‘creating new value’ from the old – and to assert their relevance in stimulating new creativity, economic and cultural production. Museums can collaborate with the community to improve findability through tagging of various kinds; and make discoveries, create communities of interest around their collections and in so doing improve their research and collection data.

With each other and other sorts of knowledge providers, museum openness can create richer value for researchers, scholars and even general browsers by connecting collections and research with broader context and richer resources elsewhere – moving from being a singular ‘destination’ to simply a high value node in a knowledge network/web (I equated this to the function of a reference librarian).

Finally I posed the absolute necessity for openness for museums to make the most of location-centric possibilities. Without openness none of the problems of location-centric data will be solved, nor will their promise be reached. In the location-centric space, a single collection is meaningless and is a missed opportunity – only a multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary approach will get anywhere near delivering the necessary user experience to make this meaningful. Think of the current situation much like a tourist map that only shows one chain of hotels on it . . .

I concluded with a series of questions aimed at framing the rest of the day –

1. do audiences really want openness? do we expect to much of them? (early adopter tech communities are far from representative of our audiences)
2. where are the new models of rights and IP needed to sustain openness (I posited CC Plus as one option)
3. how do we build new forms of reputation and trust? (especially within museum with scientific research staff whose reputations rely upon currently closed academic research forms)
4. how do we sustainably support the social needs of communities? (I pose that we should look to the existing structures we use to support offline volunteers etc)
5. how do we transform business models in the sector to encourage institutional collaboration?
6. how do we encourage collaboration between our online and our gallery spaces?

Interactive Media Picnic08

Picnic08 – the first report from the conference with fake sheep and wifi donkeys

Picnic is a large ‘creativity’ conference held annually in Amsterdam. I’ve been here as a guest of n8 talking about the notion of ‘open museums’, or as my presentation was called “Sorry we’re open: the open, collaborative museum“.

Set in the reclaimed grey zone of Westergasfabriek, Picnic08 was quite a remarkable thing to behold. On arrival the place looked more like a rave than a conference – in fact the venue is used for huge parties as well. There were fake sheep stationed around the place, the opening ceremony featured a donkey loaded with a video camera, laptop and wifi leading a brass marching band. On day two I was greeted by people dressed up as poodles and crawling around on fours. And, the picnic’ theme extended through to the ‘discussion’ sessions having the speakers seated at a picnic bench on stage.

Here is the first set of notes (with only a minor cleanup for the sake of timeliness). More to follow.

Charles Leadbeater opened the event with a brief introduction to the opportunities of ‘collaboration’ now made possible. Much in the vein of his We-Think book, he sees great potential in a change he feels we are only in the first decade of. As he says, “there are another 50 years to run . . . we’re only 10 years in”. Using the metaphor of pebbles and boulders on a beach, Leadbetter sees the mass creative production of YouTube as millions of people placing pebbles on a beach that previously only supported the boulders of mass media. For this collaborative creativity to have maximum effect it needs to be understood that “diversity drives this sort of creativity”.

Could we imagine learning, politics and media that was “with you” rather than “at you”? How do we get to the “with”?

Clay Shirky’s keynote problematised Leadbeater’s high level optimism.

Managing communities around social objects is hard. These are design problems that plague everything from Flickr to old style forums. If the computer is a box then lots of ‘features’ and complexity matters, but if the computer becomes a communicative/social device then simplicity matters because ‘synchronisation between the mental models of the users’ matter more (communication intent is foregrounded).

Linus’ law – “Many eyes make all bugs shallow”. The best example of this is Pluto on Wikipedia. Wikipedia gets better because it is arguemntative. There is no ‘hive mind’ here. What happens is a very small groups cares much more than everyone else. What Wikipedia does in this instance is allow broad participation rather than apply traditional managerialism that, in the name of efficiency, drops off 80% of the users who only minimally participate (80/20 rule), keeping only those who ‘most participate’. But now in the digital space there is no need to optimise like this and lose so many but instead allow a lot to contribute a little.

But then there is “the Gallileo problem” – the semi locked article. Essentially this is the manifestation of a 500 year old flamewar involving the Catholic Church. This indicates that it is probably necessary to stop thinking about ‘users’ in the generic and start to consider users an inevitable unequal and unequally motivated. This then allows systems to build in defense mechanism to allow the head users to fight off the tail users when necessary – much like governance in a democracy.

Shirky then moved on to discuss the unequal participation and unequal motivations behind Aaron Koblin’s Ten Thousand Cents. This is a collective art work created by 10,000 ‘workers’ on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Ten Thousand Cents from Ten Thousand Cents on Vimeo.

Now just who were these 10,000 ‘turkers’ who co-created this art? Koblin’s own research showed that turkers’ return rates and time spent ‘working on creating the tiles of the art varied greatly. Chinese turkers comprised 90% return visits, 24 mins; Egypt 97% return 32 mins; whilst turkers from the USA were only 17% return visits and spent far less time, 3 mins, ‘turking’.

This revealed enormous different global motivations for participation. 10,000 cents, 10,000 ‘turkers’ meant that the distribution of labour was global and what 1 US cent ‘meant’ varied greatly. This spontaneous division of labour, voluntary, but different motivations. Spontaneous division of motivation – some are doing it for love and other are definitely doing it for money.

This makes planning and predictability are incredibly hard to forecast. In these social collaborative spaces you cannot ‘recruit’, only ‘invite’ – and it is this that makes it incredibly difficult to handle – especially for large established organisations.

Shirky then closed by posing the questions as to “why is almost all online collective action about ‘stopping’ things”? Perhaps we need a new governmental license model like GPL – rather than the heavy ‘incorporation’ model – which makes ‘group collaboration’ legal and thus able to get things like bank accounts etc. He then showed some inital attmepts to get towards this through virtual companies (Vermont), Community Interest Companies (UK), MeetUp (USA).

Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist working at Intel gave an interesting talk titled ‘Secrets and Lies’. This explored the challenges of identity, reputation and trust online (and offline).

Bell explained that lies are at the basis of everyday life. They come in many varieties and even the strictest religious codes don’t blanket ban all variants. For children lies can be play, boundary testing, working through rules and identity. For adults and lies can be a conscious prevention of ‘reality’.

Secret knowledge is essential rituals. And in many cultures always something is held back. But now we have taken our lying online and we now are forced to openly operate between a cultural practice (lying is everyday) and a cultural ideal (lying is bad).

With the changing online environment we also find new ‘technologies of lying’ emerging. Tracking services are defeated by new alibi services, cellphone tracking is defeated by the phones being left in a drawer at work. The problem is is that whilst people know how to lie but our devices don’t know how to.

Data trails, location aware, satellite navigation don’t know how to lie when you need them to. Governments, regulators, companies, researchers can, potentially ‘know all’ and this is not optimal. For example all our devices know I was at Picnic all the time. THe RFID in the conference pass tracked me, uniquely, through the space and captured all my interactions.

So technology needs to bring back the imprecision, blurring of truth that we as a society need to function. What are the implications, then for e-government? Reputation indices? where does secrecy fit?

(part two of my notes will be posted soon)

Interactive Media Young people & museums

Teens, Games and Civics 2008 Report from Pew Internet & American Life Project / some implications for interactives in museums

Another fascinating report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Teens, Games and Civics came out recently. Focussing on teen use of games (defined in very broad terms) the report is interesting reading.

It is revealing in that it shows that game playing is most definitely mainstream (95%+ participation) and that gaming is a primarily social and identity formation activity (pp 26-30) for teens. The gender, race and class splits are very interesting and the most popular genres of games (see pp16-25) are racing, puzzle, sports, action, adventure, and interestingly, rhythm (ie Guitar Hero etc) games. MMOGs (heavily skewed to boys) and virtual worlds have the lowest rates of play – I venture that this is possibly because of the ongoing costs associated with them and the usual requirement for a credit card (still a huge barrier to play for teens). This is likely to change rapidly because the report also shows that younger teens are more likely to have visited virtual worlds – again I expect that the impact of Club Penguin on pre-teens will flow through into a greater acceptance of virtual worlds by teens 5 years from now.

The report ends with some tentative results looking at civic engagement amongst teen gamers.

I’d be very interested to see a similar study done amongst Australian teens but already the implications for museums are clear.

Museums which have significant investments in game-like interactives in their galleries and online are already facing a very game-literate set of young audiences. These audiences, when they encounter a museum game or interactive now bring a far more sophisticated set of expectations with them. The recent introduction of new physical controllers like the Wiimote into the mainstream console space will also impact on teens’ opinion of (and thus engagement with) mechanical and physical interactives in our galleries as well. Likewise, as the pre-teens of Club Penguin etc grow older the expectation will be that interactive and game experiences in museums are far more social.