Conceptual Digital storytelling Interactive Media Interviews

On storyworlds, immersive media, narrative and museums – an interview with Mike Jones

Back when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum, Mike Jones worked in the SoundHouse VectorLab (now called Thinkspace) teaching young people and adults, alike, how to tell stories with digital media. After a few years, Mike left to pursue a role at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS), and a deep study of video games.

As I’ve been thinking about cross-media storytelling and the ways in which museum experiences and exhibitions are becoming more ‘theatrical’, I thought it made sense to get Mike’s thoughts on the matter.

F&N – You’ve worked in a museum for a while so you know the scene. It must be of interest, and perhaps mirth, that museums seem to have cottoned on the idea that ‘story’ matters. But it is obviously more complicated than that. What have you been doing since?

Since leaving the museum world I’ve been a bit of a multi-headed hydra working in lots of different ways on different things, and yet at the same time very focused and consistent in what I bring to all these projects. In simple terms, I’ve been writing for Screen-Based Media – screenplays for feature and TV projects, novels, multi-platform and interactive forms. Sometimes they are my own projects, more often it’s script editing, developing or contributing to other peoples’ babies. At the same time I’ve been teaching as a lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School and this is a particularly vibrant and interesting gig as I teach across all disciplines – screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, designers and so on. And with my colleague Karen Pearlman I’m teaching creative development processes for forms and formats outside of the scope of the traditional ‘film school’ – WebTV and Webseries, Online Documentary, Multi-Platform and Transmedia, Interactive Experiences. Its given me a great sort of vantage point to see the lay of the land – to be researching while I’m teaching and applying those discoveries back into my own work.

I’m now working with a newly formed company in the UK called Portal Entertainment that produces Immersive and Interactive Thriller and Horror experiences for touch-screen and mobile devices. Think Interactive Horror Movie on your iPad! My role with them is as Head of story and in effect this means my job is to ensure that the projects we produce have intrinsically strong narratives – engaging, dramatic, transformative, compelling. And we do this in a kind of platform and technology agnostic way.

The stories are not driven by the technology, the technologies are selected and constructed to best serve that story and the role we want to the audience play in that storyworld.

But I confess I get very frustrated with the word ‘story’ as its become the hot buzzword of recent years. On one hand we hold the word up like it’s some holy relic and sacred cow that must be revered, and yet at the same time (and perhaps because of this word-status) we often fail to really interrogate the word and understand what it means. We simply declare that ‘story is king’ without defining what that means or in particular, what it means in the particular context you want to ‘tell a story’.

In my work with Portal – which functions much like a TV series Writers-Table where a number of writers bring ideas forward that are workshopped, discussed, and brutalised into shape as a group – one of the first things we did was attempt to define not just what makes a ‘good story’ for an interactive touch-screen Horror/Thriller experience but also ‘how do we identify a story that is suitable to that format and environment’?

Not all stories should be interactive, not all stories can be cross-platform, so you need a kind of framework to be able to sort out the right stories from the wrong as much as you do the good from the bad.

So we focus on things like ‘Can the story be told in the First-person or Present-tense?’ and ‘Is there an Active, Meaningful and Motivated role for the audience to play in that story?’. If the story idea possesses these kind of qualities, or naturally lends itself to them, then they are the ideas we pursue and develop further.

At the same time, I get very frustrated with a lot of the baby-out-with-the-bathwater thinking that goes with technology and story thinking; that somehow it’s a ‘Whole New Form of Storytelling’, or that Storytelling on new technologies is somehow ‘All Different, all New’, that the rules don’t apply.

I think what we have to recognise is that technology has never actually changed what a story is. No story-telling technology is near so huge in impact as Radio was to a previously Theatrical and Literary culture. And yet a Radio Play conforms to all the same principles of character, tension, action, catharsis and transformation as a book, play or movie for that matter.

The technology changed what mechanics you had at your disposal to tell that story but it didn’t change what a story was or why people wanted them, what engaged and satisfied them. Just as there’s no precedent for any new media deleting an ‘old’ media (we still have TV, movies and plays in the age of video games and the internet), so to should we avoid gross assumptions of what technology does to the idea of a story. In simple terms, I work across new and old media everyday – from a feature films script to a WebSeries to online and touch-screen interactive, and the skill-set I bring to all of them as a writer and shaper of story experiences is the same – just the canvas changes.

Having said all that, not everything is a ‘story’. That’s the bit that really gets up my nose. A corporate brand logo and their social media adverts are not a bloody ‘story’!

Nor is every museum gallery or exhibition a ‘Story’.’ A story is not just a collection of things or a sequence of events. In this I think breaking down some distinctions between Story, Plot and Narration is very useful.

The framework I like to use, borrowed form numerous scholars in the field over centuries, is that Plot is a sequence of Events, Narration is how those events are Told and Story is what the Viewer experiences through the combination of the Plot being Told in a certain way… or in other words Plot + Narration = a Story Experience in the mind of the Audience.

Once we engage with this idea we can get away from the vacuous notion that ‘everything is a story’ and actually focus on bringing to bear the mechanics and craft to generate an engaging story experience – dramatic questions, a cause and effect chain, a distinct voice in the ‘telling’ of the story, clear point-of-view, characters who are flawed and have desires and obstacles – a story that’s worth experiencing.

This is where I wonder about museums and the idea of story telling.

In factual and documentary storytelling (which is obviously analogous to storytelling in the museum context), the topic or subject is never what the story is actually ‘about’. Stories are not about their subjects – subjects are metaphor, subjects are the means to explore bigger ideas.

So, for example, if a museum does an exhibition on fashion, there is a fundamental story-telling problem if the curator believes the exhibition is actually about fashion. If such an exhibition is going to embrace storytelling then it will no longer be about fashion – fashion will simply be a metaphor for something else and the curators and design team better have a very clear understanding of what that ‘something’ is if they want to create an effective story experience.

This obviously isn’t rocket science and I imagine many curators would agree, yet I see very few museum exhibitions that enact this idea – I see a lot of exhibitions that seem to hint at the idea of storytelling, yet ultimately the exhibition is only about the subject. This is the equivalent of a movie that is all plot and no subtext, all dialogue and no transformation of character.

In this context perhaps we might argue that storytelling is only suitable for ‘some’ exhibitions but not all? What do you think? Is story intrinsic to the museum exhibition? or is it a tool that some exhibitions might use? Is it being used well? Is it being used poorly?

F&N – A number of us in museums have been thinking about exhibition design as ‘storytelling with physical space’. At the same time we know that people in the screen industries are attempting storytelling across both multiple screens and other media. Perhaps there is a potential intersection here? What are some of the key lessons from screen-based media’s attempts to ‘branch out’ that have been learned recently? Certainly with all their experience with audio tours and mobile tours, museums might have some good ‘second screen’ ideas to contribute?

I think the idea of Spatial Narrative is a really important idea and also a vibrant one with lots of good precedents. The obvious connection is with 3D video gaming and ideas by scholar Norman Klein whose book ‘From the Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects‘ deals specifically with the idea of narrative architecture.

My particular take on this is the idea of Player (or in the case of the museum, the Visitor) as Cinematographer; how can the space itself coerce, prompt, dictate or shape the movement and experience of the camera/visitor through the space. Klein calls this ‘gentle repression posing as free-will’. Shopping centres have been doing this to us for decades.

I wrote an article and a video essay specifically on this idea of ‘Player as Cinematographer‘ and I think the implications for the museum space are very acutely connected.

But that does bring us back to where we started with the notion of what a story ‘really’ is – Plot + Narration, point-of-view, dramatic questions, character transformation, catharsis and metaphor. Without these things the spatial coercion and construction may well be shaping your visit but it wont necessarily be the Spatial Narrator of a Story.

F&N – When I wrote about Punchdrunk’s digital efforts I emphasised their idea of a ‘parallel story’ that they were trying with Sleep No More deploying online interactivity to select performances. Parallel in the sense that the online audience experienced an entirely different narrative but using the same set and temporal space as the ‘in theatre’ audience’ with some crossover moments. Is this happening elsewhere?

Parallel and Multi-stranded narratives are an vital part of conceiving and developing multi-platform projects. The idea that an audience on one platform may experience a different set of events, point of view, narration or catharsis to an audience on a different platform, but that all those parallels – be they 2, 3 or more variations – are unified. This brings us to the idea of a ‘Storyworld’ an idea that, like ‘Transmedia’, is a bit of a buzzword, but one which is also a very useful as a conceptual and development tool.

The idea of a Storyworld is not particular to digital multi-platform and is absolutely applicable in traditional television series. It’s the idea of articulating the holistic world in which the stories are set – not just What, Where and When but also defining the Rules and Pressures of that world, the forces in conflict and opposition, the social frameworks and contexts that make that world not just unique but definitively pressurised with narrative potential.

The principle I use is the mantra ‘World First, Then Plot’.

I recently was involved in judging an international Storyworld Writing competition for the Immersive Writing Lab project in the UK and this is what we were looking for in the submissions – a Storyworld that had strong potential to spawn numerous plots rather than a discreetly defined plot. Thus it’s the defining and shaping of the Storyworld that must come first before the articulation of a discreet plot. Increasingly writers working in screen media, both traditional and new, are starting to view their central creative IP as not ‘a’ Plot or ‘a’ Character but rather as the Storyworld from which numerous plots and characters across numerous media may spawn.

I wonder if this idea of defining the parameters of a Museum exhibtions’ Storyworld as a set of oppositional forces, rules and pressures, contexts, settings, characters and themes is a useful developing system for museum exhibitions?

F&N – Now, audience. Early ‘transmedia’ stuff seemed to have really low participation rates and reached only the hardcore fans. Has anything changed? Does the ‘second screen’ stuff broaden this or is it a bit like ‘casual games’ vs ‘hardcore games’?

Its certainly true that for all the cool stuff thats been developed for interactive transmedia multi-platform projects, the audiences are small and moreover, the awareness of the work is very low.

Audiences are growing and these experiences are being normalised as mainstream entertainment rather than a fringe for the hardcore ‘early adopters’. But at the same time creators of these kinds of forms are maturing and realising they don’t need everything and the kitchen sink – that the story isn’t ‘better’ just because they’ve got a Facebook page and buttons you can click.

The best projects I’m seeing are those that are very focused, very specific, not offering platforms for platforms sake, but a clearly defined experience. And in this way genre is crucially important. genre speaks to how the audience expects to ‘feel’, and they engage to satisfy those expectations. In a maelstrom of new media scattered-ness and inconsistency and variation, Genre gives you a really solid narrative handle for the audience to hold on to.

What role is there for Genre in the Museum and Gallery space? Do museums have recognisable genres? can they employ or engage with traditional literary or cinematic genres? I might be more inclined to engage with an exhibition if I knew what feeling-state it was going to satisfy before I stepped inside.

F&N – Obviously sandbox video games are the Storyworlds that a lot of us are familiar with. These environments accrete immersion over time – and it strikes me that although museums might wish to emulate these worlds, the ‘average visit length’ (<1 hr) isn't conducive to it happening. Even when I go to Disneyland or a theme-park it is a day long commitment - and perhaps that's why Tasmania's MONA is so successful - the tourist really commits to a multi-hour journey through it. When I left Sydney I'd been thinking about how to turn museum experiences into 'lifelong' journeys. I'd been considering how Days of Our Lives and those daytime soap operas work. They don't require sequential viewing and you can not 'visit' their worlds for years but then immediately feel 'at home' inside them when you do reconnect. How do you think serialised entertainment can contribute to how museums consider their own 'experiences'? Do you think that immersion in Storyworlds can be achieved in the short period of time of an average museum visit?

Time is obviously a big factor in immersion but there is a different ways of thinking about time. It might mean a long duration of a single immersion (ie. in the gallery for a long period of time) or, it might mean short periods of immersion but numerous of them for a cumulative effect. And this speaks to the importance of episodic narrative and the way we are cognitively engaged by episodic structures. Episodic stories have a long history in print and on screen – from Chaucer and Dickens to The Wire and Mad Men. And also on to sandbox video games which are, by nature, ‘episodic’ narrative experiences. They are not designed or intended (or even practical) to experience in one sitting, instead levels, spaces, missions, the natural rise and fall of tension and release through completion of stages makes for a distinctly episodic experience.

What’s important to recognise about the very rich legacy of episodic storytelling is that its not the duration of a single viewing (or visit) that is as important as the cumulative effect of both ‘returnability’ (what compels us to come back) and the gaps between ‘sessions’ that are the conscious and subconscious processing of the relationships we form with events, ideas and characters. In other words immersion happens as much between sessions, viewings and visits as it does in them.

So, to answer the question of can immersion be achieved in a short period of time, I think the answer lies in thinking of time in terms of episodes and episodic patterns. How do episodes link, how can we be compelled from one episode to another and how does the space and time between episodes build the immersion. One way to understand or inform how this is constructed in TV and games, which might applicable to museum spaces, is consider the idea of Closure as a pattern of dramatic questions. An episode poses one or more dramatic questions that the viewer is compelled to find the answer to. In this it’s important to understand that a Dramatic Question is not just any question, rather its a question with something at stake, something at risk, a question that has an ‘or else’. It’s this element that motivates us within an ‘episode’. Dramatic questions become an episodic pattern through closure; when the question is answered, the episode is ended but a new question or extended question, drives the audience forward into the next episode.

Another way to think of this is the ‘But, So…’ sequence;

“X had to do Y but when they did, they realised Z…
So then they had to A before B,
But when they did, they encountered C.
So…. etc etc.”

This opening and closing of dramatic questions is an episodic pattern and it is the heart of long-form and immersive storytelling. And it works not only for hour long TV episodes or 3 hour gaming sessions but also for short form WebTV series as well.

F&N – Extending that idea a bit … now that a lot of people ‘binge watch’ a series on download or DVD/BluRay – doing an entire season in a single sitting, what does this do to sequential narratives? The viewer’s desire to have deep immersion over a binge session trumps a longer spaced out viewing cycle which might have been how the narrative was originally constructed. Does this suggest that we might be finding that media consumers might be tending towards more one-off deep consumption?

The ‘binge-viewing’ is an interesting phenomena. And there are certainly some writers of long-form series that are adamant that this is not the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to view the series – that the immersion requires the ‘gap’ between episodes.

I don’t really have a hard answer on this other than to refer to what I mentioned earlier; that immersion can come either in duration or episodic pattern (or both). A viewer can become immersed by spending a huge amount of time in a single stretch (bingeing) or they can become immersed through an episodic experience. Both work. And yet there’s nothing new about binging. Pride and Prejudice is a long episodic book but Im sure there are many people who’ve read it almost in one sitting and we wouldn’t say they were less immersed than those who read a chapter a night or even that they had a lesser experience.

In terms of long-form TV series the increasingly normalised mainstream way to consume is actually not so much binge viewing as it is 1-2 episodes per night each night. Which is a step away from the episode per week broadcast mode and obviously facilitated by on-demand technologies, but is still very much in line with the ‘gap time’ between episodes that fulfils the cognitive processing that immersion relies upon.

What I think is important to engage with in the ideas of episodic narrative experiences is that the principles apply not just within mediums but across mediums. So the same thing that compels me to come back for a new episode might also be the same thing that compels me across platforms (or from a gallery space to an online experience). The idea that the gallery represents one ‘episode’ that poses certain dramatic questions which are answered by exhibition’s end but which trigger new dramatic questions, the answers to which I have ‘get’ on a different platform.

This is an idea I would suggests drives many good multi-platform and transmedia projects – recognising that Transmedia Storytelling is Episodic Storytelling – questions posed on one platform compel us to answers on a different platform.

In this way we can actively motivate the audience between platforms rather than simply expect them to go there of their own volition. I think the mistake many multi-platform projects make (and many museum projects too) is to assume the audience are motivated, assume they are already interested and so they neglect to light a fire under their arse, they forget to give the audience really good, motivated, compelling reasons to engage.

Catch up with Mike on Twitter (@mikejonestv) or read his copious articles at

Conceptual Interviews

The museum website as a newspaper – an interview with Walker Art Center

There’s been a lot of talk following Koven Smith’s (Denver Art Museum) provocation in April – “what’s the use of the museum website?”. Part driven by the rapid uptake of mobile and part driven by the existential crisis brought on Koven, many in the community have been thinking about how to transform the digital presence of our institutions and clients.

At the same time Tim Sherratt has been on a roll with a series of presentations and experiments that are challenging our collections and datasets to be more than just ‘information’ on the web. He calls for collecting institutions “to put the collections themselves squarely at the centre of our thoughts and actions. Instead of concentrating on the relationship between the institution and the public, we can can focus on the relationship we both have with the collections”.

Travelling back in time to 2006 at the Powerhouse we made a site called Design Hub. Later the name was reduced to D’Hub, but the concept remained the same. D’Hub was intended to be a design magazine website, curated and edited by the museum and, drawing upon the collection, engaging and documenting design events, people and news from that unique perspective. For the first two years it was one of the Powerhouse’s most successful sites – traffic was regularly 100K+ visits per month – and the content was as continuous as it could be given the resourcing. After that, however, with editorial changes the site began to slip. It has just relaunched with a redesign and new backend (now WordPress). Nicolaas Earnshaw at the Powerhouse gives a great ‘behind the scenes’ teardown of the recent rebuild process on their new Open House blog.

It is clear that the biggest challenge with these sorts of endeavours is the editorial resourcing – anything that isn’t directly museum-related is very easily rationalised away and into the vortex, especially when overall resources are scarce.

So with all that comes the new Walker Art Center website. Launched yesterday it represents a potential paradigm shift for institutional websites.

I spoke to Nate Solas, Paul Schmelzer and Eric Price at the Walker Art Center about the process and thinking behind it.

F&N: This is a really impressive redesign and the shift to a newspaper format makes it so much more. Given that this is now an ‘art/s newspaper’, what is the editorial and staffing model behind it? Who selects and curates the content for it? Does this now mean ‘the whole of Walker Art Center’ is responsible for the website content?

Paul Schmelzer (PS): The Walker has long had a robust editorial team: two copy editors, plus a managing editor for the magazine, but with the content-rich new site, an additional dedicated staffer was necessary, so they hired me. I was the editor of the magazine and the blogs at the Walker from 1998 until 2007, when I left to become managing editor of an online-only national political news network. Coming back to the Walker, it’s kind of the perfect gig for me, as the new focus is to be both in the realm of journalism — we’ll run interviews, thinkpieces and reportage on Walker events and the universe we exist in — and contemporary art. While content can come from “the whole of the Walker Art Center,” I’ll be doing a lot of the content generation and all of the wrangling of content that’ll be repurposed from elsewhere (catalogue essays, the blogs, etc) or written by others. I strongly feel like this project wouldn’t fly without a dedicated staffer to work full-time on shaping the presentation of content on the home page.

F&N: The visual design is full of subtle little newspaper-y touches – the weather etc. What were the newspaper sites the design team was drawing upon as inspiration for the look and feel?

Nate Solas (NS): One idea for the homepage was to split it into “local, onsite” and “the world”. A lot of the inspiration started there, playing with the idea that we’re a physical museum in the frozen north, but online we’re “floating content”. We wanted to ground people who care (local love) but not require that you know where/who we are. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

The “excerpts” of articles was another hurdle we had to solve to make it feel more “news-y”. I built a system to generate nice excerpts automatically (aware of formatting, word endings, etc), but it wasn’t working to “sell the story” in most cases. So almost everything that goes on the homepage is touched by Paul, but we use the excerpt system for old content we haven’t manually edited.

PS: Yeah, the subtle touches like the weather, the date that changes each day, and the changing hours/events based on what day it is all serve as subtle reminders that we’re a contemporary art center, that is, in the now. The churn of top stories (3-5 new ones a week) and Art News from Elsewhere items (5-10 a day, ideally) reinforces this aspect of our identity. The design team looked at a wide range of news sites and online magazines, from the New York Times to Tablet Magazine to GOOD.

Eric Price (EP): Yeah, NYTimes, Tablet, and Good are all good. I’d add Monocle maybe. Even Gawker/Huffington Post for some of the more irreverent details. We were also taking cues from print – we’re probably closest in design to an actual printed newspaper.

F&N: I love the little JS tweaks – the way the article recommendations slide out at the base of an article when you scroll that far – the little ‘delighters’. What are you aiming for in terms of reader comments and ‘stickiness’? What are your metrics of success? Are you looking at any newspaper metrics to combine with museum-y ones?

NS: It’s a tricky question, because one of the driving factors in this content-centric approach is that it’s ok (good even) to send people away from our site if that’s where the story is. We don’t have a fully loaded backlog of external articles yet (Art News from Eleswhere), but as that populates it should start to show up more heavily in the Recommendation sections. So the measure of success isn’t just time on site or pageviews, but things like – did they make it to the bottom of the article? Did they stay on the page for more than 30 seconds (actually read it)? Did they find something else interesting to read?

My dream is of the site to be both the start and also links in a chain of Wikipedia-like surfing that leads from discovery to discovery, and suddenly an hour’s gone by. (We need more in-article links to get there, but that’s the idea.)

So, metrics. I think repeat visitors will matter more. We want people to be coming back often for fresh & new content. We’ll also be looking for a bump in our non-local users, since our page is no longer devoted to what you can do at the physical space. I’m also more interested in deep entrance pages and exit pages now, to see if we can start to infer the Wikipedia chain of reading and discovery. Ongoing.

F&N: How did you migrate all the legacy content? How long did this take? What were the killer content types that were hardest to force into their new holes?

NS: Content migration was huge, and is ongoing. We have various microsites and wikis that are currently pretty invisible on the new site. We worked hard to build reliable “harvesting” systems that basically pulled content from the old system every day, but was aware of and respected local changes. That worked primarily for events and articles.

A huge piece of the puzzle is solved by what we’re calling “Proxy” records – a native object that represents pretty much anything on the web. We are using the Goose Article Extractor to scrape pages (our own legacy stuff, mostly) and extract indexable text and images, but the actual content still lives in its original home. We obviously customized the scraper a bit for our blogs and collections, but by having this “wrapper” around any content (and the ability to tag and categorize it locally) we can really expand the apparent reach of the site.

F&N: How do you deal with the ‘elsewhere’ content? Do you have content sharing agreements?

NS: [I am not a lawyer and this is just my personal opinion, but] I feel pretty strongly that this is fair use and actually sort of a perfect “use case” for the internet. Someone wrote a good thing. We liked it, we talked about it, and we linked right to it. That’s really the key – we’re going beyond attribution and actually sending readers to the source. We do scrape the content but only for our search index and to seed “more like this” searches, we never display the whole article.

That said, if a particular issue comes up we’ll address it responsibly. We want to be a good netizen, but part of that is convincing people this is a good solution for everyone.

F&N: What backend does the new site run on? Tech specs?

Ubuntu 11.04 VMs
LibVirt running KVM/QEMU hypervisor
Django 1.3 with a few patches, Python 2.7.
Nginx serving static content and proxying dynamic stuff to Gunicorn (Python WSGI).
Postgres 8.4.9
Solr 3.4.0 (Sunburnt Python-Solr interface)
Fabric (deployment tool)
ImageMagick (scaling, cropping, gamma)

F&N: What are you using to enable search across so many content types from events to collections? How did you categorise everything? Which vocabularies?

NS: Under the hood it’s Apache Solr with a fairly broad schema. See above for the trick to index multiple content-types: basically reduce to a common core and index centrally, no need to actually move everything. A really solid cross-site search was important to me, and I think we’re pretty close.

We went back and forth forever on the top-level taxonomy, and finally ended with two public-facing categories: Genre and Type. Genre applies to content site-wide (anything can be in the “Visual Arts” Genre), but Type is specific to kind of content (Events can be of type “Screenings”, but Articles can’t). The intent was to have a few ways to drill down into content in cross-site manner, but also keep some finer resolution in the various sections.

We also internally divide things by “Program”, programming department, and this is used to feed their sections of the site and inform the “VA”, “PA”, etc tags that float on content. So I guess this is also public-facing, but it’s more of a visual cue than a browsable taxonomy.

Vocabularies are pretty ad-hoc at this point: we kept what seemed to work from the old site and adjusted to fit the new presentation of content.

The two hardest fights: keeping the list short and public-facing. This is why we opted to do away with “programming department” as a category: we think of things that way, no one else does.

F&N: Obviously this is phase one and there’s affair bit of legacy material to bring over into the new format – collections especially. How do you see the site catering for objects and their metadata in the future?

NS: Hot on the heels of this launch is our work on the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative from the Getty. We’re in the process of implementing CollectionSpace for our collections and sorting out a new DAMS, and will very soon turn our attention to building a new collections site.

An exciting part of the OSCI project for me is to really opening up our data and connecting it to other online collections and resources. This goes back to the Wikipedia surfing wormhole: we don’t want to be the dead-end! Offer our chapter of the story and give them more things to explore. (The Stedelijk Museum is doing some awesome work here, but I don’t think it’s live yet.)

F&N: When’s the mobile version due?

NS: It just barely didn’t make the cut for launch. We’re trying to keep the core the same and do a responsive design (inspired by but not as good as Boston Globe). We don’t have plans at the moment for a different version of the site, just a different way to present it. So: soon.

Go and check out the new Walker Art Center site.

Collection databases Interviews User behaviour

“Do curators dream of electric collection records?” Exploring how the Powerhouse online collection is used

As one of the first of a ‘new style’ of museum online collections, launching several internet generations ago in 2006, the Powerhouse Museum’s collection database has been undergoing a rethink in recent times. Five years is a very long time on the web and not only has the landscape of online museum collections radically changed, but so to has the way researchers, including curators, use these online collections as part of their own research practices.

Digging through five years of data has revealed a number of key patterns in usage, which when combined with user research paints a very different picture of the value and usefulness of online collections. Susan Cairns, a doctoral candidate at the University of Newcastle, has been working with us to trawl through oodles of data, and interviewing users to help us think about how the next iteration of an online museum collection might need to look like.

I asked Susan a number of questions about what she’s been discovering.

F&N – You’ve been looking over the last few years of data for the Powerhouse’s collection database. Can you tell me about the different types of users you’ve identified?

Based on the Google Analytics, there seem to be four main types of OPAC users. I’ve given each of them a nickname, in order to better identify them.

The first group is the FAMILIARS, composed of people who access the OPAC intentionally. FAMILIARS know of the collection through either experience (having used the online collection previously, or from visiting the museum), or via reputation (ie GLAM professionals, researchers or amateur collectors). FAMILIARS come to OPAC with the highest level of expectations and have the most invested in the experience. Trust and authority are hugely important for the people in this segment.

The second group, I’ve called the SEEKERS. Like FAMILIARS, SEEKERS are driven by a desire for information they can trust. However, unlike FAMILIARS, SEEKERS do not yet know about the museum and/or its collection. This group includes people who are new to collecting communities, or student researchers etc. If they find what they are looking for on the OPAC, SEEKERS have the potential to become FAMILIARS.

The final group for whom authority and trust in information is important are the UTILISERS. These visitors, primarily education users (like school students), have specific and particular research needs, which are externally defined (ie they might be looking for answers to set questions). This group is task-oriented.

The last group that comes to the OPAC is the WANDERERS. These are casual browsers who seek fast and convenient information, but don’t necessarily need depth in their answers. Seb once nicknamed them “pub trivia” users, and that seems pretty apt.

F&N – What sort of proportions do each of these make up?

By far the greatest number of OPAC visitors are WANDERERS. More than 80% of all OPAC users – whether in a two-year period, or a six-month timeframe – visited the collection online once. Obviously not all of these will be WANDERERS, but a significant proportion of OPAC users are clearly coming to meet short-term information needs.

At the opposite end of the scale, around 5% of OPAC users visited the collection five times or more during the last six months. These visitors have the most invested in the current OPAC, having spent time learning to negotiate it.

F&N – Have these users changed over time? (As other collections have come online etc)

The actual make up over time doesn’t seem to have changed that much, although the numbers of visitors dropped a little after a peak in early 2010.

Having said that, there are seasonal trends in the users. The search terms that UTILISERS often use to find the collections (such as “gold license”) are more popular during the school year than at other times. Similarly search terms go through peaks, depending on media interest, such as a high number of searchers who come to the OPAC looking for Australian media personality Claudia Chan Shaw, whose dress is in the collection.

Some search terms are just weird. One of the most popular search terms ever was “blue fur felt” which skyrocketed to popularity in January – July 2010, but has not been used to bring visitors to the OPAC since.

F&N – Are overseas users different from Australian ones?

During the last six months, the OPAC actually had more international users than domestic ones, with the top ten international countries visitors coming from the USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, India, Germany, France, Netherlands and Philippines. The search terms that lead international users to the OPAC are very different from those within Australia. After all, many of the most searched for items are that link up with the school curriculum, and that is very Australia-specific. These items also make up a significant proportion of the most-looked-at references.

The search terms overseas users to access the collection are often far more specific – such as particular clock brands etc, which would indicate a higher proportion of amateur collectors (SEEKERS and FAMILIARS) than WANDERERS.

Australian users spend longer on the site, and have a far lower bounce rate, so once on site they engage more.

F&N- You’ve been speaking to our curators about how they use ours and others collection databases. What are some of the things you’ve learned from this?

Talking to the curators has been absolutely fascinating. Every single curator that I have spoken to has his or her own ways of researching and gathering collection information. Some curators rely heavily on books, while others spend a significant amount of time conducting face-to-face interviews. Others use websites like Trove, or conduct community consultation online, using wikis and blogs. However, every researcher utilises Google and the Web in some way in their search for information.

No matter how a curator conducts collection research however, all are looking for two main types of information. The first is the broad contextual information for an object that places it into an historical and social framing. This includes the broader history or biography of the creator or manufacturer, and information on the social period in which it is or was used.

The second type of information is specific to the object itself, and includes information about maker’s marks, the object’s history (including provenance, such as how, when and why it came into the collection, why it was owned and used), and any stories that relate specifically to the object.

In order to find this information however, very few of our curators use museum collection databases – even those curators who conduct a significant amount of their research online. The reasons for this varied, but emerging themes included a difficulty navigating online collections (once it could be located on the institution website in the first place), a sense of frustration at being unable to find relevant information/objects, and most important, a lack of trust in online collection databases.

Not one curator that I spoke to trusted either our own OPAC or other online collections as a resource that could provide complete and authoritative information. Where a number of curators did find online collections useful however, was in providing immediate access to images of objects and to get a sense of whether another institution held objects that might be important to their own search. Knowledge about what was in a collection was useful, but not necessarily the collection knowledge that was included in the online record.

A number of curators did use our own OPAC to see what information was being communicated to the public, and to answer public enquiries. However, it was very clear that there are ongoing issues with trust and authority.

Two things that did increase trust for curators however were good quality images (through which they could get a visual sense of the object), and PDFs of original documents. Curators trust that which they can see themselves. For most curators, their expertise is such that they will have an intuitive sense when information they come across is likely to be correct.

Following Susan’s initial work we started looking at the SEEKERS in more detail. Why were they coming to the site? And, more importantly, were they satisfied with what they found?

We’ve had a pop up survey running for the last two months – again using Kiss Insights – and the numbers have started coming in.

In order to survey only the SEEKERS we have set the survey to only show to visitors who’ve arrived via organic search, have visited at least three pages, and, obviously, are in the museum’s online collection. The survey, thus, has quite a limited reach and has been triggered by only 3900 visitors in the time – and has been completed by 229 respondents.

It is somewhat heartening to find that the largest subgroup of Seekers – those doing ‘amateur research, hobbyist and collectors’ – feel the content they find is ‘good’, and that the lowest positive ratings are for the ‘other’ group. This is especially interesting if we look by object and see which object records are being rated as ‘poor’. Here we find a mix of well documented (at least according to us) and very scantily documented (no image, metadata last copied from a paper stock book entry in the 1980s).

Once we get to a critical mass of respondents – 1000 or more – in this group we should have some more actionable findings. Then we move on to looking at the the other groupings.

Developer tools Interactive Media Interviews Mobile User experience

Interview with Rob Manson on Layar, streetARt and the AR Dev Camp

A little while back at the beginning of June we hosted the Sydney AR Dev Camp. Organised by Rob Manson and Alex Young, the AR Dev Camp was aimed at exposing local Sydney developers to some of the recent developments in augmented reality. A free event sponsored by Layar and the Powerhouse, it filled the Thinkspace Lab on a Saturday to network and ‘make stuff’. Rob and Alex also launched their new buildAR toolkit for content producers to quickly make and publish mobile AR projects using an online interface.

AR Dev Camp Sydney
(AR Dev Camp Sydney by Halans)

AR Dev Camp generated many discussions.

Some of these are covered and expanded on by Suse Cairns and Luke Hesphanol.

The ARTours developed by the Stedelijk Museum and presented as incursions into other spaces – including a rumoured temporary rogue deployment at Tate Modern – really demonstrate the way that AR popularises some interesting conceptual arenas. Indeed, just walking down Harris St that morning, booting up Layar and seeing a giant Lego man hovering over the Powerhouse was something that you’d rarely see. Margriet Schavemaker, Hein Wils, Paul Stork and Ebelien Pondaag’s paper from Museums and the Web 2011 this year explores these in detail.

I spoke to Rob Manson in March, as the event was being planned, about some of the changes in AR.

F&N: A lot has changed in both AR and Layar since we last spoke, way back when MOB released the PHM images in a Layar in 2009. Can you tell me about some of the changes to the Layar platform and other AR apps as you’ve seen them mature?

RM: I can’t believe how quickly that time has passed! But in a lot of ways we haven’t even started and the path in front of us is starting to get a lot clearer now.

Layar has continued with their main strength which is massive adoption (and those figures are just for Android!). It’s now the most dominant platform in the whole AR landscape. And just this week they announced Layar Vision, their natural feature tracking solution. Layar has become the default AR app that everyone refers to.

With this new version 6 of Layar you can now add image based markers, animation, higher resolution images and a much simpler improved user experience. And of course it supports a lot more interactivity than it did way back when we created the first Powerhouse layer – it now includes layer actions and proximity triggers. Our buildAR platform makes it easy for you to customise all of these settings and we’ve already announced full support for the new Layar Vision features.

Despite being an early adoption, the Powerhouse layer was loaded 2384 times by 853 unique users in 13 countries in just under 18 months. Whilst that may not sound like a lot, we’ve also had heavily promoted layers run by advertising agencies for major brands that did almost exactly the same numbers as the PHM layer. So on the whole I think the PHM layer has performed pretty well. Especially considering it was created quite early on and there’s not really a lot of reasons for people to return to the layer or share it with their friends.

Now Layar have also released the Layar Player SDK which allows us to embed the Layar browser within our own iPhone applications. This has opened up a world of new opportunities and means we can wrap layers in even richer interactivity and allow users to create and share media like photos, audio and videos. This is what led us to create

F&N:Obviously your StreetARt App is indicative of some these new changes – the ability to separate off as an App in its own right and have interactions.

Yes, we’ve created an App framework around the Layar Player SDK that integrates with our buildAR platform.

The response has been great. We’ve done very little if any promotion except for twitter, a blog post and being promoted as a featured layer and in our first month we’ve attracted over 25,000 unique users from 166 countries. Our total count is now well over 200,000 unique users from over 194 countries.

We’ve engaged with street art and graf communities through twitter and the response has been really good. We’re really outsiders that just enjoy the art and really wanted an easier way to find it ourselves. The artists that have used it have given us really positive feedback and seem happy to spread the love.

F&N: What happens to the aggregated dataset of geolocated works?

This is part of our new features road map. The first phase of social sharing with multi-device permalinks has been released. We’re now working on ways for people to import/manage photo sets from Flickr and to be able to map out and share their own sub-sets of the streetARt locations to create walking tours, etc.

Plus we want to focus on specific artists works, publish interviews and bubble up more dynamic content to the make the whole platform feel more alive.

F&N: How do you see it complimenting non-AR graf apps like All City and others?

There’s quite a few actually. There’s Allcity which was sponsored by Adidas. which was sponsored by Red Bull and most recently Bomb It which is an app based on or supporting a movie. And also the Street Art paid iPhone App.

We think there’s plenty of room for all of these apps I’m sure there will be a lot more soon too. However, I think there’s a bit of a backlash building around the sponsored apps as some people in the scene see this as just an exploitation of the graf/streetart community.

We considered this a lot when we built streetARt. In some ways people could point the same finger at us but we don’t charge for the App and we don’t sell sugary drinks or expensive sports clothes/shoes. We just want to find out what happens when you mix cool content with cool technology and so we hope people see our good intentions.

And of course we were the first to do it with AR!

F&N: One thing I’ve been finding challenging with AR, despite all the talk of ‘virtual and physical worlds merging’, is that the public awareness of the data cloud that surrounds everything now is still very low. I’d be interested on your thoughts as to how to make people aware that AR content exists out in the world at large.

I think that’s a critical point. Recently some artists published what they called the ARt Manifesto but David Murphy posted a really valid critique.

There IS an interesting debate to be had around “control” of the digital layers and where they can be overlaid onto the physical world. But the digital layer is an abundant, effectively infinite resource where the cost to create is continually dropping. The really scarce resource that we should all really be focused upon is “attention”.

Getting people’s attention, keeping it and then getting them to engage on an ongoing basis is the real challenge. That’s why we’re so happy with the results that streetARt has created too. Not only have we attracted tens of thousands of users from all around the world, we’ve also been able to attract hundreds of really engaged users that return on a regular basis, many of them almost daily. The key to this was populating streetARt with enough Creative Commons-licensed content to kickstart it. This made sure that most people would see some cool art right from their first experience. In locative media [getting the first experience right] can be a real challenge – so we started with over 30,000 images from over 520 regions around the world, and now the users are helping us grow that further. But the 90/9/1 [participation] ratio is a reality and you have to plan for it.

Conceptual Geotagging & mapping Interviews Mobile User experience

A new Powerhouse Walking Tours App and a Q&A with Glen Barnes

About a month ago our second walking tour App went live in the AppStore and was promptly featured by Apple leading to a rapid spike in downloads.

The Powerhouse Museum Walking Tours App is a free download, unlike our Sydney Observatory App, and it comes pre-packaged with two tours of the suburbs surrounding the Museum – Pyrmont and Ultimo. Both these tours are narrated by curator Erika Dicker and were put together by Erika and Irma Havlicek (who did the Sydney Observatory one) based on an old printed tour by curator Anni Turnbull.

Neither Pyrmont or Ultimo are suburbs that are likely to be attracting the average tourist so we felt that they should be free (as opposed to the Sydney Observatory one) inclusions with the App.

Additionally, as an in-App purchase you can buy a really great tour of historic Sydney pubs around the CBD written and narrated by Charles Pickett. We’re experimenting with this ‘freemium’ approach to see what happens – especially in comparison to the Observatory tour which requires an upfront payment. So, for a total of AU$1.99 the buyer can get the two included tours and the pubs tour.

So how’s it going?

As of last week we’d had 1,437 downloads of the free App with the two included tours since launch on June 13. 13 of the 1,437 have made the decision to go with the in-App purchase (that’s a upgrade conversion rate of less than 1%). We started getting featured on the AppStore on June 25 and the downloads spiked but there was no effect on in-App purchases. In comparison, the priced Sydney Observatory tour has sold 53 copies since launch a few weeks earlier on May 23.

We’re pretty happy with the results so far despite the low in-App conversions and we’re yet to do any serious promotion beyond that which has come our way via the AppStore. We’re also going to be trying a few other freemium upgrades as we do know that the market for a tour of Sydney pubs is both smaller and different to that of more general historical tours. You’re unlikely to see families taking their kids around Sydney’s pubs, for example.

We even had an unsolicited review from local blogger Penultimo –

We learned a few things very quickly – mostly about our own expectations. The first was this: it’s not going to be like a museum audio tour. The Powerhouse Museum did not pay a professional audio-speaker to make these tours. This means they have a kind of nice, very slightly amateur feel to them. At first this felt a little strange, but we got used to it.

Glen Barnes gets inspired about outdoor mobile tours during a visit to Pompeii 2003

Glen Barnes runs MyTours, the company behind the software platform we’ve been using to make these tour Apps. Since KiwiFoo, Glen and I had been conversing on and offline about a lot of tour-related issues and I got him to recount some of these conversations in a Q&A.

F&N: My Tours has been very easy for non-technical staff to build, prototype and test tours with. How diverse is the current user base? What are some of the smallest organisations using it?

We’ve got about 26 apps out right now covering 3 main areas:

– Tourism boards and destination marketing organisations (Positively Wellington Tourism in New Zealand and the St Andrews Partnership in Scotland)
– Museums and cultural institutions (Powerhouse Museum, Invisible City Audio Tours, Audio Tours Australia and Invisible City Audio Tours App mainly because the content is great and the they’ve spent a lot of time on the stories, photos and audio. (Did you know that people used to sink ships of San Francisco so they could claim the land over the top of them when it got reclaimed? How awesome is that!)

Invisible City App

I think a good tour has to have something to hold it all together – putting pins on a map just simply doesn’t cut it and neither does copying and pasting from Wikipedia.

I’m also a big fan of real people talking about their experiences or their expertise and this was really bought home to me when I meet Krissy Clark from Stories Everywhere at Foo Camp a couple of months ago. We went exploring out into the orchard and ‘stumbled’ across a song that was written about the place by a passing musician. The combination of the story and the song really took me back to what it must have been like in the middle of the hippy era.

Of course a great story is no good if people can’t find it. Promotion is key to any app.

I think this is one area where organisations really have to start working with local tourism boards and businesses. If you are from a smaller area then band together and release one app covering the local heritage trail, museum and gardens. The tourism organisations tend to have more of a budget to promote the area and by working together you can help stand out amongst the sea of apps that are out there. Also make sure that you tell people about it and don’t rely on the app stores. Get links of blogs, the local newspaper and in real life (Welly Walks had a full page article in a major newspaper, two more articles and a spot in KiaOra magazine). Talk to people and make sure the local hotels and others who recommend places-to-go know about what you are doing.

F&N: Do you see My Tours as creating a new audiences for walking tours or helping transition existing printed tours to digital? I’m especially interested to know your thoughts on whether this is a transition or whether there might actually be a broader market for tours?

We fit the bill perfectly for transitioning existing printed tours to the mobile space but that is definitely only the start. It is easy to do and creates a first step in creating more engaging content. A criticism some people make is that some of the tour apps don’t have audio – but in reality audio can be expensive to produce. I don’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the best but I would rather see some tours out there and made accessible than not published at all. Also if a few new people who wouldn’t dream of going to the library to pick up a walking tour brochure or booking a tour with the local historical society get interested enough to spend their Sunday exploring the town then that is good enough for me.

F&N: Here at PHM we’re trying both a Freemium and an upfront payment model for the two apps we have running. How have you seen these models work across other My Tours products?

We’ve tried to experiment a bit with different pricing models both for our own pricing and the app pricing. In-app purchasing hasn’t really taken off just yet and I’m not sure how this is going to work long term for this type of content. I’m hopeful that as more people become used to paying for things like magazine subscriptions through apps simple In-App purchases should become the norm for content just as it is for in-game upgrades. My main advice would be that if you can give the app away for free then do it as your content will spread a lot further that way. One way of doing this would be to get sponsorship for the app or some other form of payment not directly from the users.

F&N: What are the essential ingredients to having a chance of making a Freemium model work?

For any app you have to provide value off the bat to have any chance at all. For example you can’t give away an app and then charge for all of the content within – You will get 1 star reviews on the store straight away. Apart from that are you offering something that someone just has to have? That is a big call in the GLAM sector but if anyone has ideas of what content that is I would love to hear about it!

F&N: I was struck by My Tours affordability compared to many other mobile tour-builders. Do you think you’ve come at the ‘mobile tours’ world from leftfield? What assumptions have you overturned by being from outside the ‘tour scene’?

When we started we didn’t really look at any other solutions (as far as I know we were working on My Tours before anyone else had a completely web based tour builder like ours). I think we also did a few things with our tour builder that are a bit different because we hadn’t come from within the tour ‘scene’. The whole idea of having to upload ‘assets’ to your ‘library’ before even getting started just seemed a bit weird and convoluted to me so we we just let people add images and audio directly to the stops as they needed them. Also opening up the tour builder to anyone without them having to sit through a sales pitch from me was a first – I see no reason why you have to qualify people before they even kick the tyres.

We also challenged the assumptions that apps were only available to those with lots of money. The internet has this amazing ability to put everyone on an equal footing and let everybody’s voice be heard. This doesn’t mean that all voices are perfect but what it does mean is that money isn’t the measure of quality. Put another way there is no reason why the Kauri Museum shouldn’t have their own app just like the MoMA. It might not have all of the bells and whistles of an app from a major museum but at the same time it won’t take a hundred thousand dollars to develop.

It is interesting to look in more detail at pricing. We approached pricing by looking at a couple of other generic app builders and also looking at what value we provide. We’ve based the value proposition on the number of downloads that most of our apps will receive. Welly Walks is doing around 30-50 downloads a week which means they are paying around 30-50 cents for each app that gets downloaded. That is great value for them. Other apps are not getting quite so many downloads. If you are a smaller organisation you may only get 10 a week and the price per app is $1.50-$2 which still seems OK.

Looking at the charging models for some other tour builders and at those same download rates over a 2 year period you’d be looking at $11 and $16 an app for 10 downloads a week or $2.50 and $3.50 for 50 downloads a week. Of course, there are other factors apart from cost per download that come into it (For example renting the devices on site) but the bottom line is “Are we getting value for money?”. We may add in different pricing tiers as we add more features but I expect this will be around how deep you want to go with customising the look and feel of the app – custom theming for example.

F&N: I was really impressed to see that you had been implementing TourML import/export.

TourML to just seems like a no brainer. To me it serves 2 purposes. 1) To enable organisations to export/backup their data from a vendors system in a known format and 2) Allow content to be easily shared between different platforms.

Now some vendors want to lock you into their system and their way of doing things and they try and make it hard to leave. Instead we started from scratch building our company based on the modern practice of monthly charging and no long term contracts. As they say, “you’re only as good as your last release” and this keeps pushing us to build a better product. And while we don’t have the TourML export in the interface yet (the standard isn’t at that stage where we feel comfortable putting all of the finishing touches on our proof of concept) we see no reason why people who want to move on should not have access to the data – after all it is theirs.

We also want to see content available on more devices and pushed out to more people. Isn’t the whole point of the GLAM sector to enable access to our cultural heritage? By having an open format it means that a tour may end up on devices that are too niche for the museums to support internally (Blackberry anyone?).

F&N: What do you think about ‘augmented reality’ in tours? Do you see MyTours exploring that down the track?

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with AR. On the one hand I really want it to work but on the other I have never actually seen it work.

I think two examples show this clearly.

On a trip to London last year I was looking forward to trying the Museum of London’s award winning Streetmuseum app which places various historical photographs around the city. But having done so I came away with a couple of nagging issues. I never once got a lock on an image actually hovering over the correct location (even at which has a wide open sky due to the construction of the new crosslink tunnel). Here’s a screengrab from my phone where you will see the photo is way off the mark.

The second unfavourable experience with Streetmuseum was less technical and more a psychological issue – I actually felt really vulnerable standing in the middle of touristy London holding up my iPhone with my pockets exposed. I was always conscious of a snatch and grab or a pickpocket.

The second example was during Museums and the Web 2011 where Azavea held a Walking tour of Historic Philadelphia.

A group of about 15-20 of us set off with the mobile app and walked around the city looking at various sights. It only took about 10 minutes before our devices were tucked firmly back in the pocket as we couldn’t really get it to work reliably – and this is from 20 dedicated museum and mobile practitioners! Let me point out that I don’t think it was a bad implementation of the current technology (they really have a bunch of talented people working there), I just think that the technology isn’t ready. You can download a whitepaper from Azavea on the project from their website which goes into some of the issues they faced and their approach.

I think there are some opportunities around where it does make sense but the outdoor ‘tour’ space I don’t think is one of them (yet). So will we be adding AR to My Tours? Not any time soon in the traditional sense but if someone can show me something adds value down the road? Sure.

F&N:You are also really committed to open access to civic data. How do you see commercial models adapting to the changes being brought through open access?

I’m a big Open Data fan (I helped found Open New Zealand). I’m not sure where that came from but I got interested in open source in 1999 when Linux was starting to take off and I just loved the way that many people working together could build tools that in a lot of instances were better than their commercial equivalents. I’ve also worked for companies where there were a lot of manual tasks and a lot of wasted human effort. Open Data means that we can all work together to build something greater than the sum of its parts with the understanding that we can both get a shared value out of the results. It also means that people can build tools and services on top of this data to without spending days trying to get permission before they even start and can instead focus on providing real value to others. I’m really proud of the work myself and the other Open Data folk are doing in NZ. We’ve got a great relationship with those within government and we are starting to see some real changes taking place.

How will companies adapt to this? If you are charging money through limiting access to content then you will no longer have a business. When you think about it how did we ever get in a situation where businesses produced content and then licensed this under restrictive licenses back to the organisations that paid for it in the first place? If you commission an audio track then you should own it and be free to do what you like with it. Mobile? Web? CC licensed? That should all be fine. Therefore the value that the producer adds is where the business model is. For My Tours, that is in providing an easy to use platform where we take all of the hassle out of the technical side of the app development process – you don’t need a ‘computer guy’ and a server to set up a TAP instance. That is what we are experts in and that is what we will continue to focus on.

Digital storytelling Interviews Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: Most definitely within the cultural sector.

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

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

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

What is the premise of China Heart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for the go live.

Interviews Social media User behaviour

Interview with Mia Ridge on museum metadata games

museum games logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q – What happens to the data after your dissertation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

API Interviews

Quick interview with Amped Powerhouse API winners – Andrea Lau & Jack Zhao

Andrea Lau & Jack Zhao were the winners of the Powerhouse Museum challenge at the recent Amped hack day organised by Web Directions in Sydney.

As part of their prize they won a basement tour to see all the things that the Powerhouse doesn’t have out on display. Renae Mason, senior online producer at the Museum, bailed them up for a quick Q&A in the noisy confines of the basement.

Apologies for the noisy audio! Museum storage facilities can be surprisingly loud places!

API Collection databases Conceptual Interviews Metadata

Making use of the Powerhouse Museum API – interview with Jeremy Ottevanger

As part of a series of ‘things people do with APIs’ here is an interview I conducted with Jeremy Ottevanger from the Imperial War Museum in London. Jeremy was one of the first people to sign up for an API key for the Powerhouse Museum API – even though he was on the other side of the world.

He plugged the Powerhouse collection into a project he’s been doing in his spare time called Mashificator which combines several other cultural heritage APis.

Over to Jeremy.

Q – What is Mashificator?

It’s an experiment that got out of hand. More specifically, it’s a script that takes a bit of content and pulls back “cultural” goodies from museums and the like. It does this by using a content analysis service to categorise the original text or pull out some key words, and then using some of these as search terms to query one of a number of cultural heritage APIs. The idea is to offer something interesting and in some way contextually relevant – although whether it’s really relevant or very tangential varies a lot! I rather like the serendipitous nature of some of the stuff you get back but it depends very much on the content that’s analysed and the quirks of each cultural heritage API.

There are various outputs but my first ideas were around a bookmarklet, which I thought would be fun, and I still really like that way of using it. You could also embed it in a blog, where it will show you some content that is somehow related to the post. There’s a WordPress plugin from OpenCalais that seems to do something like this: it tags and categorises your post and pulls in images from Flickr, apparently. I should give it a go! Zemanta and Adaptive Blue also do widgets, browser extensions and so on that offer contextually relevant suggestions (which tend to be e-commerce related) but I’d never seen anything doing it with museum collections. It seemed an obvious mashup, and it evolved as I realised that it’s a good way to test-bed lots of different APIs.

What I like about the bookmarklet is that you can take it wherever you go, so whatever site you’re looking at that has content that intrigues you, you can select a bit of a page, click the bookmarklet and see what the Mashificator churns out.

Mashificator uses a couple of analysis/enrichment APIs at the moment (Zemanta and Yahoo! Terms Extractor) and several CH APIs (including the Powerhouse Museum of course!) One could go on and on but I’m not sure it’s worth while: at some point, if this is helpful to anyone, it will be done a whole lot better. It’s tempting to try to put a contextually relevant Wolfram Alpha into an overlay, but that’s not really my job, so although it would be quite trivial to do geographical entity extraction and show amap of the results, for example, it’s going too far beyond what I meant to do in the first place so I might draw the line there. On the other hand, if the telly sucks on Saturday night, as it usually does, I may just do it anyway.

Beside the bookmarklet, my favourite aspect is that I can rapidly see the characteristics of the enrichment and content web services.

Q – Why did you build it?

I built it because I’m involved with the Europeana project, and for the past few years I’ve been banging the drum for an API there. When they had an alpha API ready for testing this summer they asked people like me to come up with some pilots to show off at the Open Culture conference in October. I was a bit late with mine, but since I’d built up some momentum with it I thought I may as well see if people liked the idea. So here you go…

There’s another reason, actually, which is that since May (when I started at the Imperial War Museum) it’s been all planning and no programming so I was up for keeping my hand in a bit. Plus I’ve done very little PHP and jQuery in the past, so this project has given me a focussed intro to both. We’ll shortly be starting serious build work on our new Drupal-based websites so I need all the practice I can get! I still no PHP guru but at least I know how to make an array now…

Q – Most big institutions have had data feeds – OAI etc – for a long time now, so why do you think APIs are needed?

Aggregation (OAI-PMH‘s raison d’etre) is great, and in many ways I prefer to see things in one place – Europeana is an example. For me as a user it means one search rather than many, similarly for me as a developer. Individual institutions offering separate OPACs and APIs doesn’t solve that problem, it just makes life complicated for human or machine users (ungrateful, aren’t I?).

But aggregation has its disadvantages too: data is resolved to the lowest common denominator (though this is not inevitable in theory); there’s the political challenge of getting institutions to give up some control over “their” IP; the loss of context as links to other content and data assets are reduced. I guess OAI doesn’t just mean aggregation: it’s a way for developers to get hold of datasets directly too. But for hobbyists and for quick development, having the entirety of a dataset (or having to set up an OAI harvester) is not nearly as useful or viable as having a simple REST service to programme against, which handles all the logic and the heavy lifting. And conversely for those cases where the data is aggregated, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be an API to the aggregation itself.

For institutions, having your own API enables you to offer more to the developer community than if you just hand over your collections data to an aggregator. You can include the sort of data an aggregator couldn’t handle. You can offer the methods that you want as well as the regular “search” and “record” interfaces, maybe “show related exhibitions” or “relate two items” (I really, really want to see someone do this!) You can enrich it with the context you see fit – take Dan Pett’s web service for the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the UK, where all the enrichment he’s done with various third party services feeds back into the API. Whether it’s worthwhile doing these things just for the sake of third party developers is an open question, but really an API is just good architecture anyway, and if you build what serve’s your needs it shouldn’t cost that much to offer it to other developers too – financially, at least. Politically, it may be a different story.

Q – You have spent the past while working in various museums. Seeing things from the inside, do you think we are nearing a tipping point for museum content sharing and syndication?

I am an inveterate optimist, for better or worse – that’s why I got involved with Europeana despite a degree of scepticism from more seasoned heads whose judgement I respect. As that optimist I would say yes, a tipping point is near, though I’m not yet clear whether it will be at the level of individual organisations or through massive aggregations. More and more stuff is ending up in the latter, and that includes content from small museums. For these guys, the technical barriers are sometimes high but even they are overshadowed by the “what’s the point?” barriers. And frankly, what is the point for a little museum? Even the national museum behemoths struggle to encourage many developers to build with their stuff, though there are honourable exceptions and it’s early days still – the point is that the difficulty a small museum might have in setting up an API is unlikely to be rewarded with lots of developers making them free iPhone apps. But through an aggregator they can get it in with the price.

One of my big hopes for Europeana was that it would give little organisations a path to get their collections online for the first time.
Unfortunately it’s not going to do that – they will still have to have their stuff online somewhere else first – but nevertheless it does give them easy access both to audiences and (through the API) to third party developers that otherwise would pay them no attention. The other thing that CHIN, Collections Australia, Digital NZ, Europeana and the like do, is offer someone big enough for Google and the link to talk to. Perhaps this in itself will end up with us settling on some de facto standards for machine-readable data so we can play in that pool and see our stuff more widely distributed.

As for individual museums, we are certainly seeing more and more APIs appearing, which is fantastic. Barriers are lowering, there’s arguably some convergence or some patterns emerging for how to “do” APIs, we’re seeing bold moves in licensing (the boldest of which will always be in advance of what aggregators can manage) and the more it happens the more it seems like normal behaviour that will hopefully give others the confidence to follow suit. I think as ever it’s a matter of doing things in a way that makes each little step have a payoff. There are gaps in the data and services out there that make it tricky to stitch together lots of the things people would like to do with CH content at the moment – for example, a paucity of easy and free to use web services for authority records, few CH thesuari, no historical gazetteers. As those gaps get filled in the use of museum APIs will gather pace.

Ever the optimist…

Q – What is needed to take ‘hobby prototypes’ like Mashificator to the next level? How can the cultural sector help this process?

Well in the case of the Mashificator, I don’t plan a next level. If anyone finds it useful I suggest they ask me for the code or do it themselves – in a couple of days most geeks would have something way better than this. It’s on my free hosting and API rate limits wouldn’t support it if it ever became popular, so it’s probably only ever going to live in my own browser toolbar and maybe my own super-low-traffic blog! But in that answer you have a couple things that we as a sector could do: firstly, make sure our rate limits are high enough to support popular applications, which may need to make several API calls per page request; secondly, it would be great to have a sandbox that a community of CH data devotees could gather around/play in. And thirdly, in our community we can spread the word and learn lessons from any mashups that are made. I think actually that we do a pretty good job of this with mailing lists, blogs, conferences and so on.

As I said before, one thing I really found interesting with this experiment was how it let me quickly compare the APIs I used. From the development point of view some were simpler than others, but some had lovely subtleties that weren’t really used by the Mashificator. At the content end, it’s plain that the V&A has lovely images and I think their crowd-sourcing has played its part there, but on the other hand if your search term is treated as a set of keywords rather than a phrase you may get unexpected results… YTE and Zemanta each have their own characters, too, which quickly become apparent through this. So that test-bed thing is really quite a nice side benefit.

Q – Are you tracking use of Mashificator? If so, how and why? Is this important?

Yes I am, with Google Analytics, just to see if anyone’s using it, and if when they come to the site they do more than just look at the pages of guff I wrote – do they actually use the bookmarklet? The answer is generally no, though there have been a few people giving it a bit of a work-out. Not much sign of people making custom bookmarklets though, so that perhaps wasn’t worthwhile! Hey, lessons learnt.

Q – I know you, like me, like interesting music. What is your favourite new music to code-by?

Damn right, nothing works without music! (at least, not me.) For working, I like to tune into WFMU, often catching up on archive shows by Irene Trudel, Brian Turner & various others. That gives me a steady stream of quality music familiar and new. As for recent discoveries I’ve been playing a lot (not necessarily new music, mind), Sharon van Etten (new), Blind Blake (very not new), Chris Connor (I was knocked out by her version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, look out for her gig with Maynard Ferrguson too). I discovered Sabicas (flamenco legend) a while back, and that’s a pretty good soundtrack for coding, though it can be a bit of a rollercoaster. Too much to mention really but lots of the time I’m listening to things to learn on guitar. Lots of Nic Jones… it goes on.

Go give Mashificator a try!

Interviews Social media Web 2.0

Ask a Curator Day – behind what the Powerhouse is doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The response was encouraging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to make it ‘epic’!

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

Find out about all the other Australian institutions participating.