Metadata open content Web 2.0

DigitalNZ – API access to New Zealand collections launches

One of the best things I saw at the National Digital Forum in Auckland last week was DigitalNZ. Being a Kiwi myself, I am immensely proud that New Zealand has leapt forward and produced a federated collection product that aggregates and then allows access through a web interface and an open API. That it has brought together very disparate partners is also very impressive.

I spoke to the team behind the very choice project who are based at the National Library of New Zealand – Virginia Gow ,Courtney Johnston, Gordon Paynter, Fiona Rigby, Lewis Brown, Andy Neale, Karen Rollitt – who all contributed the following interview.

Tell me about the genesis of DigitalNZ?

Digital New Zealand Ā-Tihi o Aotearoa is an ongoing programme that is in implementation project phase. It emerged as a response to the difficulties many New Zealand public and community organisations faced in making their content visible to New Zealanders amid the swell of international content available on the Web. In 2007 it received four years government funding as a flagship action of the New Zealand Digital Content Strategy, Creating a Digital New Zealand.

The Wave 1 implementation project has been led by National Library but is a very collaborative project. We’ve got representatives from education, culture and heritage, broadcasting, geospatial information, Te Puni Kokiri (Ministry of Māori Development) and the National Digital Forum on our Steering Committee. The project began earlier this year and then really ramped up in June 2009. The project aimed to set up the ongoing infrastructure for the programme and to deliver with exemplars that demonstrate what is possible when there is concerted work to improve access and discovery of New Zealand content.

We’ve taken a test lab approach – we’ve identified and worked on potential solutions to some of the many issues that prevent access, use and discovery of New Zealand digital content. Some of these areas have included licensing, metadata quality, improving access to advice around standards, formats and protocols and the development of a draft framework to help organisations prioritise content for digitisation.

It is important to us that DigitalNZ isn’t seen as ‘just another website’.

We are working with New Zealand organisations, communities and individuals to aggregate their metadata and help make hard to find content available for discovery, use and re-use in unique ways.  We’ve developed three innovative tools that are ‘powered by Digital New Zealand’ and fuelled by the metadata and content from the many different content providers that we’re working with.

DigitalNZ is made up of:

1) A customisable search builder lets people design their own search widget to find the type of New Zealand content they are interested in – be it antique cars, pavlova or moustaches! People can flavour it and embed it on their own blogs and websites. We developed this to show new ways for people to discover and interact with New Zealand content and we especially wanted people to use the tools how and where they wanted. 

2) New Zealanders can craft their own commemoration of the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice using the Memory Maker – a tool that lets people remix film, photographs, objects and audio clips into a short video that can then be saved, shared, and embedded.  This example is helping us show what is possible when you can free the licensing of publicly available content for reuse and remixing. 

3) We’re using ‘API Magic’. We’ve developed an open API that enables developers to connect the metadata that fuels DigitalNZ with other data sources, enabling new digital experiences, knowledge, and understanding.

How did you manage to get each of the content owners to buy in to the project?

By lots and lots of talking, visiting, sharing and blogging!

We started by identifying and contacting a wide range of New Zealand content providers, building also on our existing professional networks and contacts as far as possible because time wasn’t a luxury on this project.

It was hard work because DigitalNZ was a completely abstract concept for many content providers until a few weeks ago. We didn’t even have that snazzy diagram explaining how it all fits together until we had gone live!

[That’s a cool magic hat!]

So we basically just committed ourselves to communicating (and communicating and communicating), being open with our information and honest about what we did and didn’t know each step of the way, and helping people out so it was as easy as possible for them to participate.

Content providers took different amounts of time to reach an ‘ah ha’ moment with us and to realise what this could potentially mean for them – “OK, so you’re like a giant free referral engine to my content” or “So I could basically use your tools to make my own search box for my site”. At the end of the day we aren’t doing this for us!

Face-to-face meetings were the most effective, as it meant we could just chat with people about the issues and problems we are all trying to solve. It was a great way for us to learn about people’s content too.

But we also glued ourselves to our inboxes and set up a private DigitalNZ content blog so content providers could talk directly to each other. The discussion of issues around licensing, for example, was great because it meant we didn’t have to do all the thinking and talking!

The private blog also allowed us to share sneak previews of wireframes and functionality that helped us build a better picture of what we were doing.

In the end we actually got more content providers to take a leap of faith with us than we were able to process in time for launch. There is a real commitment out there to increasing access to and use of New Zealand content. We just convinced people to take it a step further and try something new.

What technologies are you using behind the scenes?

The DigitalNZ Harvesting model is best described by this diagram that our Technical Architect Gordon Paynter has whipped up.

We started out hoping that OAI-PMH would be the best way to harvest. However, very few organisations are set up to do this and it was clear that we had to work on something easier. So we then worked setting up harvesters using XML Sitemaps and also for RSS feeds. The majority of our content contributors are using the XML sitemaps option.

The DigitalNZ system is in 3 parts: a backend, a metadata store and a front end. The backend harvester is written in Java and some legacy PHP (based on the open-source PKP Harvester project). The metadata store is in MySQL, using Solr to power the search. The front end, including the API, the website, widgets and so on, are in Ruby on Rails. The also uses the open source Radiant CMS.

We’ve also set up a DigitalNZ Kete for organisations to upload any content that doesn’t have a home elsewhere on the web. Kete (basket in Māori) is an open source community repository system (built on Ruby on Rails) that we can harvest using OAI-PMH.

One of the great things about Kete is the built-in Creative Commons licensing structure – our ‘technology’ (in the sense of tools) for dealing with the issue of uncertainty around what people can and can’t do with content.

We extended this by adding in the “No known copyright restrictions” statement as well – taking a leaf out of the wonderful Flickr Commons book. A number of Aotearoa People’s Network Libraries are using Kete to gather community treasures and we are including that content in DigitalNZ as it comes online.

The Memory Maker uses the Ideum Editor One which we have sitting on our server in Christchurch, New Zealand.

We’ve worked with three vendors (Boost New Media, 3Months and Codec) and have taken an agile development approach using Scrum. This was very successful way of working and it enabled us to complete our development with in 16 weeks from go to whoa. It was fast, furious and an absolute blast!

The search widget is really great – how are you expecting this to be used?

We think that it is going to be of really useful in education for teachers to use to define project resources or for kids to build into their own online projects. We also see application for libraries, museums and other organisations to use for setting up ‘find more’ options relating to specific exhibitions, topics or events. We’ve also had feedback from some content providers that they are considering it as their primary website search. We’re pretty delighted with that! We also really hope to see some unexpected uses as well.

Tell me something about the Memory Maker?

We think that these guys can tell you about the Memory Maker much better than us!

We ran the ‘Coming Home’ Memory Maker campaign to demonstrate what is possible when content providers ‘free up’ selected public cultural content for people to remix with permission; and used the remix editor to deliver the content to users. We filled the Memory Maker with content relating to celebrations for the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 2008. A number of National Digital Forum partners provided the content and the Auckland War Memorial Museum has been the wonderful host.

We’ve been delighted to watch as schools and other web users make their own commemorative videos out of New Zealand digital content – not by stealing it, but because they know they are allowed to and we made it easy for them.

Our detailed case study of the Memory Maker project describes all of the details and issues we worked with.
We’re hoping to work with others on new remix campaigns in the future.

What sorts of mashups are you hoping other developers will build using the API?

We’ve got a couple already – check out the Widget Gallery for Yahoo Pipes mashups of the DigitalNZ search combined Flickr and also a headlines search of StuffNZ (NZ website of newspapers and online news) over the DigitalNZ metadata.

We don’t have any specific expectations – just excitement about what is possible. We want to be surprised by what people come up with. The whole point of putting the open API out there is to drive others to make new, exciting things with the content that we’ve made available. DigitalNZ wants to share the love!

Go ahead and make us and our content providers happy.

We’re hoping that when people develop new things they’ll let us know so that we can make it available to others through the widget gallery and share it with others.

What other kind of work is DigitalNZ doing?

Another very important aspect of DigitalNZ is that we want to work with NZ organisations to improve understanding and knowledge about how to make their content, easier to find, share and use. One of the issues that we’ve come up against was metadata quality. The search tool has shown that search results can only be as good as the quality of the metadata that goes in. Working with people to improve their metadata will make the API stronger and also the discovery experiences for people.

The Contributors’ section of the site provides guidance on how to participate in DigitalNZ as well as good practice advice on content creation and management. The good practices guide are being developed across all aspects of the digital content lifecycle: through selecting to creating, managing, discovering, using and reusing (including licensing) as well as preservation. We’re interested in hearing from people that might be able to share expertise and perhaps help build up the material on the site.

We’re also working on an advisory service that will provide support and guidance across the spectrum of content creation and management issues that organisations are facing. This will be developed further over 2009 and we hope to include information, training and development, peer support, discussion forums, as well as draw on the knowledge of collective experience and wisdom out there.

Go and take a look at DigitalNZ!

open content

Crossing the 1000 in the Commons

A little while back we crossed the 1000 image mark for our uploads of historic images to the Commons on Flickr.

We’ve just started adding a third distinct collection of images – the Phillips Collection (which joins the Tyrrell and Clyde collections). The Phillips Collection is another set of glass plate negatives taken between 1890 and 1920. We are uploading roughly 10 Phillips images a week and 25 Tyrrell images a week with Clyde images going up less regularly.

Paula Bray, our Image Services Manager writes

This collection of approximately 200 glass plate negatives appears to have be made by a photographic studio from around 1890 through to 1920. Some of the subjects in this collection include portraits, costumes, recreational activities, fencing, women boxing, the Blue Mountains and city scenes. The collection was donated by Raymond Phillips and, although not confirmed, it may be his father who was the photographer. There are some clues we have come across whilst scanning this collection that may prove this but we might let you discover these as we post more over the coming weeks. There are many people featured in these images that reappear in other scenes. Perhaps they were family members.

Paula will be delivering a paper at Museums and the Web 2009 looking specifically at the impact of the Commons on the Powerhouse as well as on image sales. Early evidence suggests that image sales are actually up on last year for the very same images that we have placed in the Commons.

AV Related Imaging open content

Exploring ‘On the wallaby track’ – a video experiment with the Commons on Flickr

We’ve been experimenting with a few ways of showing up some of the amazing and often hidden details in some of the Tyrrell images we are putting up into the Commons.

Jean-Francois Lanzarone put this little test video together in an hour today. This one reveals the detail of ‘On the wallaby track’ that shows the high resolutions that we scan these glass plate negatives at.

View the original image in the Commons on Flickr. Or on the Powerhouse Museum’s own website.

We will be making a few more of these over the coming months an experimenting with a few different formats and styles. We’d love your feedback.

(cross posted from our Photo of the Day blog)

Conferences and event reports open content

On platform power: museums, authority, digital culture

Nina Simon has done a great job of summing up the potential changes brought by the abundance model of digital to the museum sector.

The notion of ‘museums as platforms’ is not new – even if the technologies to make them such in the digital environment are.

One of the primary fears museum professionals (and all professionals) have about entering new relationships with audiences is the fear of losing control. For hundreds of years, we’ve owned the content and the message. While we may grudgingly acknowledge the fact that visitors create their own versions of the message around subsets of the content, we don’t consciously empower visitors to redistribute their own substandard, non-authoritative messages. So when people like me start advocating for the creation of tools and opportunities by which visitors can share their stories, reaggregate the artifacts, even rate and review each others’ creations, museum professionals of all stripes get concerned. If the museum isn’t in control, how can it thrive?

We have to change the framing of this conversation. There is a difference between control and expertise. In these conversations, people often say, “don’t expert voices matter?” and my emphatic response is YES. Content expertise matters. Content control shouldn’t.

Recently Henry Jenkins of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide fame has posted about similar issues in the university sector. Jenkins was interviewed by “Alexandre Cayla-Irigoyen Chef de pupitre – Societe Monde, about OpenCourseWare, Collective Intelligence, and the modern university”.

When we create more open platforms, we destroy old monopolies of information. That can be a brutal blow for those who gain their self worth from their role as the dispersers of that information. So, yes, when you open it up to students to submit materials, teachers feel threatened. There are some legitimate concerns here, having to do with the credentializing of information and the liabilities of the university. For most of us, credibility on the web is situational: we are not so much assessing content as we are assessing the reputations of the sources of that content. We tend to put our greatest trusts in the institutions we would trust for information in the physical world. So, many people who sought information from Universite de Montreal or MIT will make a general judgment about the reputation of the institution and then apply it to all content which gets circulated.

For me, a lot of this has to do with how we frame the materials — as a reference work (which meets certain criteria of reliability, which many faculty members would be hard pressed to meet) or as a space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion (where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated). Most academic web resources represent the former; Wikipedia and YouTube would be better understood as the latter.


A lot of bad work could tarnish the reputation of a university. How can it reconcile openness and the promotion of itself as a supplier of good knowledge?

It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other’s content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?

My personal take is that the digital strategies and representations of a museum and the physical museum itself can co-exist but be different. Whilst I am excited by the potential of a museum which “create[s] a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place”, it would be foolish to assume that this doesn’t already happen amongst visitors – indeed the research shows it does – even if the museum doesn’t realise it. Can we do it actively, and better?

The digital museum needs to be able to make the most of an attention economy where information and content is in abundance. The physical museum, on the other hand, needs to be able to make the most of an experience economy where the opportunity to see/feel/smell/hear/touch ‘the real thing’ is incredibly scarce. It is likely that only together that optimum learning occurs.

I am making generalisations here but in their galleries art museums with their object-focus coupled with ‘acceptable subjectivity’ have the most opportunity from scarcity, and science centres without objects and veneer of ‘scientific objectivity’, the least. Natural history and social history museums sit somewhere in between – depending on what their exhibition and research focus is. Unfortunately, though, scarcity thinking often carries over from the physical galleries to the web – in part this explains the reticence of many art museums to share collections in the digital space.

Platform approaches are the norm in the digital space. If a museum isn’t actively making their content available, then their audiences are taking it in any case (or finding it elsewhere). The platform is more often than not forums, blogs or Flickr. The museum is not even in the frame. I’d agree with Nina, Jim Spadaccini, and many others that ‘platforms’ actively guided by and engaged with, but not built by, museums are the way forward.

Platforms in this sense, build authority – or as I’ve said before, allow museums to ‘assert’ their authority. Absence is invisibility.

Paradoxically, it may turn out that a ‘platform approach’ online might in fact allow an even more ‘curator as auteur’ approach in the physical galleries.

Different, diverse and conflicting perspectives, remixing and mashups, collaborative creativity might be encouraged and enabled allowing audiences to engage deeply in their own ways with a fuller range of content in the online environment in order to allow a more controlled, directed, and stylistic vision in the galleries.

This might be a fruitful line of experimentation for museums with diverse, predominantly adult audiences, and large collection/object-based exhibitions. It could combine the best of both worlds – unique experiences of objects in the physical spaces, open collaboration and object-centred democracies where the tools support it in the digital space.

open content Picnic08

Picnic08 – Open Musuem (more)

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

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

Following Jelmer Boomsma, a representative of Hyves talked about the collaboration with Musuemnacht and what Hyves stood to gain from the project. I had to pop out for an interview for most of the presentation so I don’t have any notes of particular import for the session.

However following Hyves, Dick van Dijk from the Waag Society, an organisation that operates a little like a new media incubator, gave a demonstration of some mobile, location-aware projects they have been working on. Interestingly the projects have been less about the technology and more about ensuring that the broadest possible groups of people engage with the content. Titled “Connecting: People, Stories, Places”, these projects reminded me a lot of the ‘digital storytelling’ movement – ordinary peoples’ stories made more powerful through their own voice, and through making connections with others. The location-aware aspect of this work fell mainly into the ‘city tour’ model of mobile heritage but where walkers were taken on a particular personal journey – the digital story.

The day concluded with an insider’s perspective of the ‘Slash/Slash generation’ (mainly young people who are, for example, dj/fashion designer/artist/permaculturist – coincidentally this is applies to almost everyone I know!). Nalden, one of the Museumnacht community, and now one of the most prominent young bloggers in the Netherlands, talked about his motivations and actions online and how in his view of the online world, heritage content competes for attention with music, fashion and entertainment. This was an good way to end the day even if I could see others in the audience finding Nalden’s youthful enthusiasm a bit hard to take – because it clearly demonstrated the need for museums to open up simply to maintain relevance over coming generations.

All in all the Open Museums part of Picnic was one of the most successful ‘Picnic Specials’ along with Surprising Africa. The attendance was solid and the ideas discussed traversed the different interpretations and permutations of ‘openness’ – from reaching out to non-traditional museum audiences, to inter-institutional data sharing and co-creative visitor interactions.

Copyright/OCL open content Picnic08

Picnic08 – Open Museum part two

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

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

Following my presentation, Fiona Romeo from the National Maritime Museum in London spoke. Fiona began by reminding us that often by themselves museums (outside of the art museum world) often hold incredibly banal and mundane objects whose significance is only apparent when placed into a particular context. This poses enormous challenges for museums in a digital environment that offers the user/visitor the opportunity to actively decontextulise objects (especially when browsing collection databases etc).

Fiona then detailed her recent work mapping some of the NMM collections to draw out the stories associated with objects – something that works incredibly well when the objects collected pertain to navigation and voyages of discovery.

For the NMM, the opportunities for collaboration lie in working with ‘data artisans’ outside of the sector to reveal new stories and ways of seeing our data. To this end she discussed the NMM’s work with Stamen in visualising the language of memorials – a quite poetic and revealing presentation of otherwise rather dull data; and also some of the object licensing to game developers Six To Start who make alternate reality games (and for whom some of the NMM’s maps and objects were a fantastic and uptapped resource).

Fiona emphasised that we under estimate the worth of our own data – we should ‘love our data’. It is rich and interesting even if we see it as incomplete – and by connecting with such ‘data artisans’ in the commercial and creative sector, we may begin to see for ourselves, new opportunities.

Paul Keller from Kennisland talked about ‘museums, fans and Copyright’, arguing that one of the things that is currently paralysing museums in taking advantage of the new collaborative opportunities of digital is this perception that ‘new business models of unimaginable wealth’ are just around the corner. Of course this is totally unrealistic – the bags of money don’t exist – and as a result we get a situation of ‘rights stagnation’ where the museums digital assets are locked up.

Of course, fans are already bypassing museums to take advantage of digital. Paul gave the example of Bittorrent communities whose collective collections of Dutch documentary films are more complete, more accessible, and of a higher quality that those preserved (and inaccessible online) by the Dutch National Film archives. The official film archives are paralysed by ‘getting permission’ while those who want access now just bypass them completely.

Stepping back from the obvious IP issues here, Paul gave another example of an amazing searchable video archive made by two Germans. 0xdb uses the data from video torrents along with their subtitles (sometimes fansubbed) to create a wonderful full text search of around 6000 movies. Whilst downloading is not allowed the metadata and rich content is astounding.

Jelmer Boomsma from n8 gave an excellent run down of the collaborative audience development strategies of the Amsterdam Museum Night. The Museumnacht is a good example of making museums more accessible to wider audiences and Boomsma’s presentation looked at how, in just 3 years they have transformed their strategies to make the Museumnacht reach even wider audiences and build strong participatory cultures around them.

In 2005 Museumnacht was seemingly successful. 26,000 visitors across all the museums in the one night, and a 94% ‘very satisfied’ audience. But there was one problem, the average age of attendee was 37 years old. Now n8 new that young people were interested in museums and culture, just that the event wasn’t appearing on their radars, so rather than take shortcuts and underestimate the intelligence of the audience (a dance party in every museum, or free beer etc), they focussed on redefining what the Museumnacht event was and who it was for.

Over 2006 and 2007 the print campaign began to be supplemented with an extensive and diverse online campaign where they gave the audience the tools to become ‘an ambassador’ for the event itself. They instituted competitions to design the campaign materials, design a Museumnacht t-short, as well as ways to build your own programme for the night and then share it with your friends and even make your own audiotour.

They worked with Hyves, the largest social networking site in the Netherlands (well outranking Facebook and MySpace), and trialled a customised banner advert. This failed and despite 160,000 page impressions it only generated 80 click throughs! So instead they worked with Hyves to set up a Hyves Group to enable 2 way communication, perks and discounts and importantly the tools to share with other Hyves users. In 2006 2% of their traffic came through Hyves, and in 2007 this was up to 8% and capturing 20% of visitors aged 16-24.

Now the new Museumnacht site is incorporating an Opensocial-style set of logins whereby many of the social networking and sharing functions will be available to any network user and also remove the requirement of a separate Museumnacht website login.

Geotagging & mapping Interactive Media open content Picnic08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviews open content

Commons on Flickr: an interview with one of our Flickr friends, Bob Meade (part one)

Bob Meade has been one of our most prolific ‘friends’ on Flickr. He has done an enormous amount of tagging, added a great deal of additional research to our images, and was the man behind the discovery of the Mosman Bay Falls.

Paula Bray (the Museum’s Image Services Manager) and I conducted a long face to face interview with Bob who very generously agreed to speak to us about his background and motivations.

It was an incredibly revealing interview that demonstrates the power of museums and cultural institutions opening up their collections to ‘amateur’ researchers and enthusiasts. It also explores the Flickr and the Commons experience from the perspective of a user – the motivations that drive participation, frustrations and expectations – as well as touching on Flickr etiquette and Copyright.

I am posting this with the permission of Bob, with the intention of helping other cultural institutions learn more about behaviour online, and to also begin to understand the opportunities that now exist to engage audiences around collections and other content. These stories, ultimately, are far more powerful and important qualitative research than raw usage figures.

I have made only minor edits to the transcript so bear with the conversational tone and flow.

If you find this useful and would like to cite it in research papers and the like, I would appreciate it if you would tell me about it in the comments or via email.

To read more about the Museum’s experience of the Commons on Flickr read our three month report.

Here is the first part.

Further parts will follow.

On blogging, photography, and discovering the Commons.

Bob: One day, my wife, told me that she’d been to a Hill & Knowlton Breakfast Bytes presentation, at which Frank Arrigo had spoken. Frank Arrigo works for Microsoft. He used to work in Australia. Now, he works in Seattle. He’s a very keen blogger and one of his jobs was to be a Microsoft evangelist.

My wife was very excited telling me about blogging. She came home and told me something, “You know Bob, look this up.” I looked up Frank Arrigo’s blog, and thought it was very interesting, what he did was a mixture of things to do with his work; things to do with IT, also, things to do with his family; a mixture of his personal views on things; a mixture of what his children were doing.

I thought, yeah, this blogging is interesting. I need to know what it’s about. I thought the best way to understand it was to do it. I wanted to start a blog, and I thought about what I could blog about.

Because the conventional wisdom is that, a blog should have a theme. I thought I’d blog about my life as a stay-at-home dad, and also to document my son growing up.

Even now, just looking back a few years, I like to look back at some of the things I wrote about when he was a one-year-old, or a two-year-old. Now, he’s four-and-a-half.

Being a blogger led me to interest in reading other people’s blogs. One day, I was reading a blog post by Jason Kottke, who, as we know is a well regarded blogger who writes about design and ideas.

Kottke mentioned that Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker, had a blog at The New York Times. On it Morris was talking about a photograph by Roger Fenton, in the Crimean War, and having a discussion about these two, almost identical, images taken by Roger Fenton in 1853, or thereabouts.

One had cannonballs on the road. One had cannonballs off the road.

I don’t know if you are familiar with both these photographs. Apparently it was like pretty famous, because that was sort of one of the first cases of documenting war in photography.

One image appears to be more dramatic because the cannonballs are on the road, and one image is less dramatic because the cannonballs are sort of spread about kerb side in the gutter of the road.

Morris read a book by Susan Sontag, where she referred to this picture and referred to a guy, who is an expert in the history of photography who said that the photograph with the balls on the road was taken after the one without the balls on the road.

The balls must have been put there by Fenton’s assistants to create more drama in the photograph. And Morris, thought, “That’s interesting; I wonder if that’s true?” And then he started researching it, got the two images then thought, “you ought to know, maybe this photograph came first.” So then he talked to other experts in the history of Fenton’s photography, who said, “Yeah, we don’t agree with that guy. We think that the photograph, without the cannonballs on the road, was the second photograph, because it was known that cannonballs were harvested and recycled.

And then this like caught fire on his blog in The New York Times. He had people from all over the world analyzing it, looking at the angle of the shadows on the cannonballs, counting the cannonballs, which is very hard to do.

A huge debate over which photograph came first ensued, and that got me to thinking, that there can be a lot behind the surface of a photograph and also close analysis of a photograph can reveal information that’s not apparent at first glance.

And also, taking into account the historical factors that are known at the time can reveal something about the photograph.

For example, the idea that cannonballs were harvested. Yes, maybe that means yes, the ones with “balls off” as it was called, came second.

He also drew into the mix, a lot of historical documentation, letters of Fenton that were written at the time to his wife, memoirs of Fenton’s assistants, all those sorts of things. And, ultimately, Morris went to these places near Sebastopol, finding the exact same place and sort of did a bit further analysis about what he thought had happened.

I found it very fascinating, and the contributions of people who were not designated experts made to these sorts of discussions. The comments were really extremely valuable, which Morris, himself acknowledged.

That idea in my head lay dormant for awhile.

Another blog that I read is the Library of Congress blog by Matt Raymond, who is nominally the PR director of communications (for the Library of Congress) and he blogs about different things.

Earlier this year, he blogged about the Library of Congress putting images up on Flickr. I didn’t really pay much attention to it, at first, because the pictures that he chose to illustrate it with on his blog, revolved mainly about baseball, so I thought it was going to be mainly all about baseball.

But then, he blogged again later, maybe it might have been a few weeks later, where he talked about the fantastic response that they had had and the rich information that they had derived from the community, adding details, tagging, all that different sorts of things.

And I thought, “I don’t really understand what he is talking about”, because I don’t really understand about the value that people were adding by tagging.

So I went back and had a look at Flickr.

I had started a Flickr account in 2005 and uploaded maybe four or five pictures of my son, just so I could understand a little bit how Flickr worked. I had never touched it again.

However when I was looking for at the Library of Congress photographs and seeing how people were like contributing information, I saw something. I can’t remember exactly what it was but I thought, hey, I know something about this. I think I might put that in there. So then I had to work out, how you put a comment on, and sort of go back and try and remember the password to my Flickr account and things like that.

So then I started out, doing it on the Library of Congress Flickr photostream.

I thought, “maybe, I know a bit about some of the things here”, but they’re, of course, USA-centric in the main. Although in the Bain collections, the Library of Congress has got that, there’s a lot of historical figures who were prominent in, early 20th century, late 19th century also appear there.

I thought it would be interesting if something like this was happening in Australia. Then lo and behold, the Powerhouse Museum started putting up the Tyrrell collection of photographs. So I started commenting there too.

Now I still have a look occasionally at the Library of Congress photographs, but now that there’s the Powerhouse Museum, the Library of Congress doesn’t hold as much interest for me.

On the Powerhouse and cultural institutions

Seb: Were you a regular visitor to the Powerhouse?

Bob: An occasional visitor. I’ve been here, once in the last five years before my recent visit with my son. So then I’ve been here maybe twice, three times, maybe four times in the last 20 years.

Seb: So the Powerhouse wasn’t top of mind.

Bob: No.

Paula: What about using the Powerhouse website? Have you searched our collection online?

Bob: Only once before, in the middle of last year.

Bonhams and Goodmans Auctioneers were auctioning off a piece of memorabilia belonging to Sir Isaac Isaacs, who was first of all, one of the fathers of the Constitution of Australia. He then went on to become an Attorney-General, a High Court judge, and ultimately Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, and then Governor-General of Australia.

The memorabilia was a medal that had been presented to him at the time of Federation. It was up for auction.

I was vaguely interested in how much it would be worth and thinking it might be a good investment. So I started researching about those particular types of medals and it so happened that the Powerhouse Museum has several of almost identical medals in its collection.

I started searching online for the medal, and that led me to the Powerhouse Museum’s online collection. There’s a lot of photographs up of various medals like that and I was using the zoom function to zoom in and get a good look at them.

There were also a couple in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales and other similar institutions around Australia.

However they appear only as a medal, but the one of Sir Isaac Isaacs also had a ribbon attached and a bar saying somewhat Isaac Isaacs M.L.A.

So that was my, really only other contact with the Powerhouse Museum website.

Seb: Do you visit other museums or cultural institutions?

Bob: Yeah, I’ve gone to New South Wales, State Library of New South Wales, The Royal Australian Navy Museum at Garden Island and that’s about it here, recently.

Seb: Would you describe yourself as a museum-goer or as a causal visitor when there’s something special on?

Bob: Occasional visitor.

Seb: Has the Powerhouse’s participation changed your opinion of the Museum or engaged you more with the Museum overall?

Bob: Oh, it’s engaged me more, yes. But it doesn’t change my opinion. I’ve always thought there was a lot of valuable things here and, obviously, incredible depth to the collection. Engaged me more – but it hasn’t changed my opinion.

Part two coming soon.

Conceptual open content

Bob Stein on ‘networked publishing’

Bob Stein over at the Future of the Book has written some very engaging summative notions around the challenges and opportunities afforded by ‘networked publishing’.

Stein charts the move from the multimedia model of the late 80s through to the mid 90s where CDROMs and closed ‘interactive media’ opened up new opportunities for readers but preserved the traditional borders of authorship and publishing along with their business models. However, now, as we all know, the web has exploded all of this.

Borders dissolve not only between author and reader but also between published works themselves, and with this, a century old business model evaporates. Published works, it should be noted, do not evaporate – they just circulate in a different environment – one in which their value is spread.

Stein gives this anecdote –

A mother in London recently described her ten-year old boy’s reading behavior: “He’ll be reading a (printed) book. He’ll put the book down and go to the book’s website. Then, he’ll check what other readers are writing in the forums, and maybe leave a message himself, then return to the book. He’ll put the book down again and google a query that’s occurred to him.” I’d like to suggest that we change our description of reading to include the full range of these activities, not just time spent looking at the printed page.

I would suggest that our museums need to take this into account when we think about an exhibition, a publication, an interactive kiosk, and our online materials. These behaviours are not just limited to books – and once the mobile web enters the mainstream at an attractive price point (in London right now I could add unlimited internet to my phone for GBP5/month) – this will be as much the pre/post visit experience as the in-gallery experience as well.

Stein notes –

An old-style formulation might be that publishers and editors serve the packaging and distribution of authors’ ideas. A new formulation might be that publishers and editors contribute to building a community that involves an author and a group of readers who are exploring a subject . . . So it turns out that far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences.

So how do we move to this more to these new roles and resourcing requirements to best be able to make the most of the new affordances of networked publishing?

There is not a ‘one size fits all’ model – we’ve been exploring this in the last few days of workshops here in London – but I think that museums would be well placed to look at the ways in which libraries have reconfigured and reinvented themselves in the age of information abundance; and also take a look at the way that ‘producers’ work in other media industries.

Copyright/OCL Imaging open content

A new collection in the Commons – Clyde Engineering

We’ve just added the start of a new collection of photographs to the Commons on Flickr.

The Clyde Engineering Photograph collection is full of photographs of heavy machinery. We’ve uploaded the first 50 to give you a feeling for what will be coming in future weeks.

The glass plate negatives in the Clyde photograph collection were taken at the Clyde works in Granville, and depict both the workers and the machinery they manufactured. Subjects covered include: railway locomotives and rolling stock; agricultural equipment; large engineering projects funded by Australian State and Federal governments; airplane maintenance and construction and Clyde’s contribution to the first and second World Wars. Some photographs date back to the 1880s but most were taken between 1898 and 1945 . . . The Clyde Engineering Company photograph collection was acquired by the Powerhouse Museum in December 1987.

Go start tagging them!