About Me

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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Davy Graham, goodbye

Davy Graham, goodbye. What a wonderful and inspiring musician, and what a legacy he leaves in his own music but, perhaps even more, in the music of others.

From his website:

It is with great sadness that we have to announce that Davy died yesterday [15th December 2008] amongst friends and family from a massive seizure at home after a short battle with lung cancer. There will be a private family funeral held in the next few days and a public memorial in January; details of which will be available at http://www.lescousins.co.uk/ shortly. Davy will be missed by those of us who loved him. The many fans who came to see his last concerts gave him much joy and satisfaction and was something he drew great strength from.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Zemanta: another channel for Europeana content?

OK there are several ways I could frame this post, but obviously one is that here is another opportunity for Europeana to channel its content.

So what is Zemanta? Well TechCrunch just wrote about the launch of its public API, and from what they say Zemanta is looks to be amongst a burgeoning sector of semantic enhancement tools - another with an API announcement this week was uClassify, and you can also look to OpenCalais, Hakia, AdaptiveBlue's BlueOrganizer and others including Yahoo!. These are tools that take in (text) content, analyise it, and identify entities within or characteristics of that text. These might be embedded into the text, or returned as recommendations, classifications, or links to related material. Sometimes we're talking about a machine-facing service, sometimes an end-user one e.g. the BlueOrganizer plugin. With Hakia and Yahoo!, these are services built on the power of their search engines. Zemanta sounds like it's squarely in this area, digesting content and returning links, images, keywords etc. from a database including (of course) Wikipedia, Amazon and Flickr. Looks like it's a plugin too.
uClassify is a little different - it learns to classify your text as you train it. I'm characterising it as a semantic enhancement technology but that may not be right in a strict sense. In any case, it will "enrich" the content you submit by putting it into categories you've assigned. That said, when I used oFaust, one of the apps built on top of its API, it took my snippet of Moby Dick and told me it was like Edgar Allen Poe, but needed work! Hmm. Whether that was down to the classifier or the training, though, I don't know.
So to go back to how Zemanta might fit in with Europeana, it's basically that we could work with them to digest our content and create relevant links to Europeana's vast (hopefully) and authoritative collection of cultural heritage content: artefacts, media, documents, people, events, and places. This is where I expect it helps to be big and standardised, as it should be easier for companies like Zemanta to work with one provider of cultural heritage content than with thousands of museums, libraries and archives.
To read more about Europeana (formerly EDL) check out my earlier posts: Europeana and EDL

Friday, December 05, 2008

Building communities pt.2

In my previous post about "Building Communities in the Digital Arts and Humanities", the workshop I recently attended, I mentioned that one concrete suggestion had caught my imagination, and that of others, in the final discussion, but I forgot to actually write about it. Rather than heavily editing that post, I'll outline it here.

John Byron, Executive Director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, proposed a sort of helpdesk for the digital humanities. The situation at present for anyone with a problem can be tricky: non-specialists may have no clue where to turn to find advice on, say, digital preservation, whilst techies might wonder who to ask about, for example, reconciling two metadata schemas; and yet, if you knew who to ask, there's almost certainly someone out there who could answer that query, in a centre of expertise, a grass-roots network, a software house etc. But what if there was one website (or just an e-mail address!) you could go to with your problem, which would direct the query to the right place to get it answered? The model might be one of triage - a crack squad of dedicated elves with a deep knowledge of the sources of expertise decide who to send the question to - or of an expertise marketplace, akin to Experts Exchange and the like, where a problem would be posted to a suitable forum (perhaps by elves again) and the community there would propose answers. The beneficiary might be able to assign points for the help they're given.
The proposal is not at heart about how to build communities, of course, but it would face that problem in two areas - building the community of experts, and that of users. Perhaps it would also build on what we learned from the meeting, too, because the idea would be to build on existing communities, creating a community of communities in fact, although quite how would I guess depend upon each community. It would also, hopefully, adapt itself to the needs of the target (user) community too, providing services that it needs rather than what someone else thinks it needs.
I really liked the idea, which would need some funds to get off the ground and to keep going, but which I think is quite easy to explain and show the benefits of. The problem may be one of gaining resources for a project that benefits people worldwide. But there are examples of this working (OCLC, for one). I hope it goes somewhere.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

New hope for Swanee Kazoo?

Those of us who adored I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue with the late Humphrey Lyttleton*, and wondering if it will ever return or could be the same without him do at least now have an opportunity to participate in a very exciting project you can address with either a swannee whistle or a kazoo, as is your wont. I'm not sure if there are any parts written specifically for either intrument, but feel free to co-opt any part that takes your fancy. Go on, make it happen, bring back Swanee Kazoo! (apologies to those of you unfamilar with the game, you probably live in the wrong country)

* Apparently Humph was once president of the Society for Italic Handwriting.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

NEDCC conference

"Persistence of Memory:Sustaining Digital Collections" is a conference being run shortly in Chicago by the NEDCC (December 9-10), and I should have stuck up a note about it yonks ago but it's mainly strictly "digital preservation" stuff as opposed to sustainability in the way I treat it. However there are a couple of papers that look closer to my research interests, notably Simon Tanner's (of KCL), entitled "Making Digital Preservation Affordable: Values and Business Models": the emphasis on valuation is key. Katherine Skinner's "Collaborative Adventures in Digital Preservation: Creating and Sustaining External Partnerships" may be relevant too, although it looks as though it's in essence about developing networks of partners for preservation activity. Having spent the first part of this week hanging out with various very interesting people from KCL, it's clear the place is stuffed with people I should be pestering for insights in my research area. If I whisper, perhaps they won't hear me coming....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Building communities

<<<<<BIG WARNING>>>>>
Major pontification with no real conclusions follows. Look away now.

[UPDATE: I forgot to include the Big Idea I mention below, which I've now written about separately]

I got back late [last] Wednesday from a meeting/seminar/workshop/conference thing (papers now here) in at the e-Science Institute in Edinburgh which I'm still digesting [a week after I started writing this...] but which gave me plenty to think about and introduced me to many interesting people from the digital arts & humanities world (DAH*). Weird though it seems when written down, this world intersects all too rarely with that of museums, libraries and archives(MLAs). That said, one aim of the organisers seemed to be to develop ideas for filling the void left by the Arts and Humanities Data Service, which was wound up this year and did have some relationships with MLAs, not least my own via the LAARC.

Anyway to the point. The object of the exercise was to explore community-building in DAH. What conditions favour this, what sorts of communities may fare best, what structures within the sector can or would help? I must confess that I frequently felt confused about whether we were speaking about the AHDS-related problem or a wider question, and whether the communities in question were partnerships and networks, or audiences for some product/service that the former might provide. Nevertheless there were several interesting presentations on day 1 (Tuesday), and I think fruitful discussion on day 2, when we worked in breakout groups to brainstorm a few questions around the topic., with at least one really stimulating idea emerging, courtesy of an antipodean mind (now why isn't that surprising?) I'll pick out a few of the things that grabbed me.


  • demonstrating value. Value to funders, if you're going to get their support for your network/partnership/wha'evah. Value to those you want as partners. Value to the people you want to use whatever it is you're promoting. It wasn't the idea that was interesting but the increasing recognition of the need not just to have a good idea, but to sell it. There's an ever-widening discussion of what makes a good indicator of value in various contexts - I know this from the museum and cultural world, but of course the humanities/academic world is grappling with the same hydra. Perhaps for my circle it's a debate over the appropriate usage of web stats, whilst for many at the meeting it was about citations. Same problem.

  • marketing. Plenty of cross-over with the above, in fact. As well as the obvious sales pitch aspect, if you're trying to build a community, there's the flipside of marketing: learning your market's needs in order to create the product that it wants.

  • plumbing. There was a lot of talk about infrastructure, which means a great variety of things: in a way what is the facilitated at one level becomes the facilitator at another (i.e. infrastructure), much as data and metadata can seem to be the same thing seen from different angles. There was a kind of infrastructure that cropped up more than once, though I'm hard pushed to characterise it other than by negatives. It's not generally physical: no cabling, not necessarily servers. It's not the provision of some fundamental service. It's where an agent/network/partnership helps to hook up or facilitate services and, umm, servicees (sorry). A kind of metaservice, if you like. So we had Bamboo, CLARIN, DARIAH and tge-ADONIS, TextGrid all considering or planning to act as intermediaries of one sort or another between DAH services or data and consumers (machine or human). I was struck by the parallels with some of the work I already knew about in the cultural heritage area. Collections Trust has exciting plans about where it will position its Culture Online venture, and Lexara [read my disclaimer] have realigned their Magic Studio to make it the "plumbing" between content providers (including services like Flickr) and other services or end-users/creators. In the commercial world, Gnip is also putting itself in this space, between social apps and those built upon them.

  • Roles and responsibilities. Really I suppose I just mean that a need for new roles is becoming apparent without us yet knowing who in our communities (or outside, perhaps) should be responsible for fulfilling them. We look at the rapid changes in the red-in-tooth-and-claw commercial sector, where networks of networks and a swirling and intermixing of content and services constantly throws up new ways of doing things, and we start to see the opportunities for new services to accomplish our parochial aims, recognise that we can't provide them, or that they're better provided collectively, or that our peers would benefit from them too; but we can be held back from turning this collective need/benefit into collective action in part because we haven't got conventions for assigning/allocating/assuming the new roles implied by these possibilities.
  • Building on what we have. Starting a new community initiative from scratch, including the community, may be unwise for a number of reasons. Often it may be better to look at existing organisations and see how their role could be adapted or expanded, whether by the creation of a special interest group, a regional su-committee, a project or whatever. This way you start with a community and you have an established brand to build from, with both the name and the objectives/values pre-existing to an extent in the minds of (potential) stakeholders. I had in mind the likes of the MCG, MCN, CNI: organisations that could provide the foundations for specialist sub-groups or initiatives.

As you can tell, I guess, a week later I still haven't reached any conclusions. I was hoping that reading my notes and writing this would bring some revelations or clarity, but no. The Edinburgh meeting was more like the exercise stirred up a lot of mud that I'd always known was there and I still don't know how to deal with it, but I think at least I now have a slightly better idea of what it's made. I guess, with my scant experience of big collaborative projects, I am poorly equipped to interpret what I heard from the point of view of the question at hand: community building. All the same I did hear about lots of cool stuff and met fascinating people, and attending was well worthwhile for me - I hope I gave something back. So thank you, Seth Denbo (source of my invitation) and all of the organisers of the seminar. I hope it gave you some clues as to where to take DARIAH, and I hope we can find new ways to knit the digital heritage and digital arts and humanities closer together.

* Apologies. I tried to write this avoiding initials for this but it proved too much work. I doubt it will catch on.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Google kills Lively, advises on digital preservation

Google's well-reported putting-out-of-misery of Lively was announced here, where pragmatically and somewhat amusingly they advise on the digital preservation methods available to those poor suckers who took a chance on a Google Labs experiment. It's pretty simple, really:
"We'd encourage all Lively users to capture your hard work by taking videos and screenshots of your rooms"
Fair enough. I think plenty of DP types would accept that at the moment there aren't that many options for virtual worlds. It's certainly another argument for improving the transportability of material between VWs environments, but presumably this would mean compromising on innovation to some extent. Hey ho, there's plenty more VWs to go around (and I never go to any of them. Not exactly an early adopter, me)

UK press on Europeana's launch

Some UK press on the launch of Europeana:

BBC online: European online library launches
Guardian: Dante to dialects: EU's online renaissance
Associated Press: European history, culture and art goes digital (well not really UK but never mind)

I'll keep editing this stuff as I find more. Plenty of concentration on the awesome content as well as the fact the site was brought to its knees by huge traffic, which I'd see as a success of sorts - best see how the traffic holds up over the next few weeks, though.

Securing endowment

No, not endowments. Decision-making literature* addresses the "endowment effect". In a nutshell, I mean that phenomenon whereby people value what they have more than what they might have, although they be the same. This is tied to the observation that loss of utility is felt more keenly than a gain of the same utility. If I am given a mug (to follow Beach and Connolly's example) I may well require a larger payment to give it up that I would be prepared to pay for it.

This is probably a useful tool to wield when trying to get support for some resourcing decisions in an organisation, particularly those that can be expressed as relating to assets the organisation already possesses, rather than new ones it might acquire. In a scenario where I am seeking funds to support old digital resources, careful preparation of the ground to develop an endowment effect amongst the executive before taking the proposal to the board may be fruitful (this is obvious to the point of being banal, right?) If I just tell then what we have, what it could do in the future, and how we plan to maintain it, it's like saying "here's a mug that will hold your coffee and make you happy, it will cost you a fiver, gimme!" If instead I encourage a sense of pre-existing ownership - an emotional committment - a feeling that this thing is already part of the museum and its loss reduces us, then the costs I propose that we bear are more like the purchase offer for the mug that is turned down: in other words the board may be more likely to turn down the opportunity to avoid those costs. It's like saying "you've got a mug, you love it, if you want to keep the cash then I'm afraid you'll lose the mug. Bummer, but that's life. So cough up!"

How you actually cultivate within the executive that sense of ownership is another question. You could also argue that this is little different to just identifying and drawing out the value of an asset to the decision-makers, but it's a more emotional proposition than simply making them aware of an assets existence and potential future utility, and it may be worth exploring how one can play the psychological game and encourage emotional engagement and attachment to pre-existing digital resources when fighting for the funds to suppport them. It may actually be as important as the rational explication of value, however much we might like to believe decisions would be rational.

Nina Simon amongst others has talked extensively and profoundly on Museum 2.0 about developing engagement amongst our audiences, and I'm starting to realise how this could be equally important within the organisation: if we want to persuade people of the rightness of what we're arguing for, there can be more to it than pure reason, Kant there? (apologies for the shameless mis-referencing here of something I clearly don't understand. I only understand puns.) It's internal marketing, I suppose, and nothing new.

* OK, let's be honest, all I know about is the book I'm reading right now and blogged about previously

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Europeana launch

Tomorrow is the official launch of the "final prototype" of Europeana, the super-duper service bringing together content from museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual archives around Europe. There's so much to be excited about, but I've not even looked at the latest version myself - all the same, the prospects for the project seem to be improving all the time. My own institution aside (still no content from us, I'm afraid, although there's enthusiasm among the ranks), there's momentum growing here in the UK with several institutions signing up in the last few months, most recently those forward-looking folks at the National Maritime Museum. The restructuring of digital heritage at the strategic level, care of the Collections Trust, also bodes well I think.

Here are a press release and some FAQs that are apparently no longer embargoed, so fill yer boots. And by the way I've blogged plenty about this project before both as Europeana and earlier as EDL

Europeana Press Release 20/11/2008

Europeana FAQs 20/11/2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

What makes a good CEO/director?

The National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, Australia, got a new CEO on Monday: Darryl McIntyre, formerly Group Director of Public Programmes at MoL. Rumour has it that he will make a splash by announcing a pay rise for its staff, which is certainly a good way to make friends, and if staff morale figures into what makes a successful museum/archive then actions like this may be more profound than simple ingratiation (which I'm all for, preferably at the start of the financial year).

But aside from having the chutzpah to buy the love of your staff, what makes a good CEO/director? I've never been one, and nor would I want to be, and I've never been a manager, but through my reading and my life at the bottom of the food-chain I've inevitably formed some opinions - biased though they must be by my specific experiences. Below are some things that I think a good director would and wouldn't do, and it turns out I put quite an emphasis on good communications and building trust, lord knows why.

  • Remain in direct contact with staff.
    The layers of management provide essential filtering, sorting and translating functions in funnelling information about the museum to the director, for that person to use in planning and evaluation (together with their executive team). Yet it's also essential for that top person to make contact directly with people at all levels, in part to test the validity of what they're told by other executives. They need to take focussed and relevant questions to people on the ground, and receive questions and complaints directly; not so that they can fix them themselves, but so that they understand where the organisation's mentality is at. More structured consultation exercises are very useful too, if they are followed up with action, but if not then they are empty and counter-productive exercises that simply increase resentment.

  • Provide vision at the highest level, as well as at the next level of strategic aims and objectives, with links from one to the other clearly explained. It's self-evident that this vision thing is perhaps the most vital part of the director's job, and it's a question of marketing this internally and externally, which means communication above all else (as well as iteration in response to feedback). A persuasive argument is needed to bring as many staff as possible along with you.

  • Be seen as a champion of the museum's mission, not of its functional necessities (financial stability etc.) Essential though these are, it must always be clear that the director sees them as servants of the mission, not the other way around. It's part of selling your plan to the people that work for you, which is all the more vital in a context where the driving motivation of employees is professionalism and belief in the worth of the organisation rather than simply earning a wage.

  • Avoid back-biting.
    It must be tough at the top, and there are surely plenty of nasty and unpopular jobs that just have to be done in order to get the organisation on the right track. Still, there is no point in picking fights that don't need to be fought, in leading where no-one will follow, in throwing your weight around for its own sake. Fear is not respect, it's often more related to contempt. In short, top dog needn't mean queen bitch*.

Obviously there's so much more to being a great director that these factors, I've learnt at least that much from Robert Janes. In any case, I wish NFSA good luck with their new CEO. I hope they get more than a pay rise from him.

* Sam is not actually a bitch but let's not be pedantic.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Museum rescues NASA (sort of)

Vindication for all those archivists of old tech: here's a story from the Register about plans to fix up an old IBM tape drive held by the Australian Computer Museum Society (not a museum, it would appear, but perhaps an organisation whose case for a museum is now stronger...). The drive is to be used for recovering data acquired during Apollo missions four decades ago, which NASA suddenly realised might be pretty handy. Isn't it lucky some geeks were keeping this old crap somewhere?

Presumably as long as computer museums can show themselves to be useful and cheaper than the space programme, they be be able to find funding.

Anyone want a SyQuest Sparq? It might save the Earth from asteroids.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

America the beautiful

As the car swung through autumn drizzle and leaf-fall en route to the station this momentous morning, listening to Barack Obama's victory speech with its account of America's historical challenges and responses as seen by one 106-year-old first-time voter, I found myself holding back the tears. I'd thought myself too cynical to get carried along with rhetoric; happily I've found this not to be the case when the rhetoric captures something true and expansive and, in this case, full of hope. I'd like to think, on the other hand, that I'd still not be seduced by Blair-style insincerity and (mis)calculation, where the goal of careful speech-craft is manipulation and misrepresentation, instead of the clearest expression of a vision or argument.

If I'm honest, though, there's always the chance that I'm getting carried away by the moment. I can't forget that, despite my contempt for Blair and the fact that in 1997 I (a Labour-supporter since childhood) voted against him, when he swept into office and rid us of the Tories all my reservations melted away and I wrote him a letter of congratulations, expressing my hope for the future. This rapidly proved to be mistaken, though it must still be said he wasn't quite a Tory (all the time). But even considering that lapse, and the fact that other circumstances are making me especially emotional at the moment, I think this sense of joy, of a meaningful shift in America and of hope for the world, these are real and won't dissolve in disillusionment. Of course there will be disappointments in how Obama acts as president, or perhaps in the scale of his ambitions, and we mustn't forget that he's US President (elect) first and world leader second (what a relief if he can lift that latter burden from our own unimaginative premier). There will be surprises to interrupt any programme of change, although he's lucky that one such shock has come just before the election rather than after.

Why do we outside the US care so much? It's not simply that America's future influences ours, true though that is. For me, I simply identify strongly with the US. Nevermind that I've spent but two short spells there, or that there's much internally or about its disproportionate global influence that strikes one as wrong; and nevermind that the democratic process there is shot through with flaws that can on occasion permit gross injuries against the idea of representing the will of the people; still America's people can show their feelings at the ballot box like no other nation, in an expression of freedom that on a day like today can inspire us all. I dearly hope that the talk of bi-partisanship doesn't evaporate, as the biggest shortcoming of first-past-the-post democracy is obviously that it can result in excluding or denying the values of huge proportions of the population. Here in the UK we have a technocrat at the controls, one who's strengths are solely in economics and who preaches pragmatism. What we all need right now is not a (pure) pragmatist, but someone who can offer a vision the inspire us so that, as Obama says, we can look within ourselves and say "Yes we can!". I think he's that man.

Thank you America. I kiss you!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yeah, of course I knew the Universe was a big place...

...but Mike L's post really brings it home. Follow his first link to get an idea of just how many galaxies there are out there; then follow his second link and zoom out bit by bit from our neighbourhood stars and see how small we are just within this little corner of our galaxy. Like I said, I'd heard the figures but it helps to see. Mind bending stuff.

Decision making psychology

My current reading is Beach and Connolly’s “The Psychology of Decision Making: People in Organizations” (Sage, 2005), which I’ve found incredibly stimulating and which is providing a suite of tools that I’m certain will prove invaluable for interpreting the material I’m gathering through my case studies. I’m going to resist the temptation to put up all my notes on the book, but I’ll pull out a couple of the things that I’ve found in there that I think will be useful to me, even though when they’re put as baldly as this they may seem banal: the book is replete with further insights, experimental evidence, and models for particular situations, and if you’re interested in finding a theoretical basis or empirical support for interpreting decision making, I’d recommend you to have a look at it. I may also run through an example or two from my case studies, suitably anonymised. OK, so, some of the ideas I’ll be trying to weave into my work:

Framing. The way the outcomes of a decision (the action to be taken to solve the problem) are framed is vital. With outcomes framed as gains, people will take more risks; framed as losses they’ll be conservative. When considering whether to invest resources in maintaining a digital resource, we could think in terms of the potential loss of value from that resource, or additional value to be gained, or the opportunity cost of using the resources to this end.

The gambling analogy. Whilst the gambling analogy played a key part in early theory, and indeed has a role in current theories for particular kinds of decisions, there are many kinds of decisions where the analogy fails utterly and many analogies that can work better. Lots of decisions in digital resource management could probably be assessed quite well using normative gambling theory, at least in terms of evaluating probable outcomes and weighing them up against gains or losses. But figuring out the last part of that equation – the value of the gains or losses – can’t be achieved with gambling theory alone.

Scenario theory. One of these alternatives revolves around the construction and testing of scenarios (or stories, if interpreting past events). By creating a web of cause-and-effect relationships (some of them interdependent), weighting them for the likelihood of their outcomes, and again for the value of those outcomes, decision-makers can evaluate which has the best chance of success, and which the best pay-off.
Figuring out an application’s dependencies (and their own inter-dependencies), the likelihood of any of these being disrupted, mitigating strategies and their costs, running the scenarios and figuring out the value of the probable outcomes: this is a complex process, but it’s perhaps one worth pursuing (together with a “significant properties” approach) in evaluating sustainability strategies for museum digital resources.

The nature of the unknown. Even where gambling can seem appropriate, in dealing with uncertainty, it’s not all about the likelihood of a given action succeeding as intended: there is the question of how the scenario will unfold, and even uncertainty as to the value of the outcome in the event of success, since this value may change for the “player” over time. This is pretty pertinent for museum digital sustainability problems, since these will often involve planning well in advance when there is a high degree of uncertainty about not just future conditions and problems, but the value of the resource (or aspects of it) in the future. For example, a learning resource may prove to be much less valuable if there are curriculum changes; the likelihood of this happening may be hard to assess, but the risk might make it injudicious to invest significant effort in making the resource “future-proof”, whatever that is.

Decision making in groups. As well as offering the chance to share knowledge and, one would hope, use this to make better decisions, group decision making throws up hazards, not least the possibility that, instead of sharing new knowledge, groups will focus their discussions on common knowledge and reject anything outside this, thus narrowing the evidential base for their deliberations. Procedural, structural and social barriers can also bias decisions towards one faction or another.

The role of social pressure, morals and ethics. Although “normative” theory has no space for these factors, they are clearly inherent in many decisions. Etzioni has distinguished between three classes of factor influencing decisions:
  • utilitarian influence – the economic assessment
  • social influence - social pressure to conform, risk of approbation etc.
  • deontological influence [deontology is effect of moral obligation and commitment upon behaviour]. May include internalised reflections of social factors e.g. guilt, but covers internal drivers of behaviour.
An institution acting as one of my case studies – let’s call it Framley Museum and hope they don’t sue – threw up an example wherein a number of middle managers were found to be unnecessary to the continued operation of the institution, although objectively one might view the obvious staff shortages in some affected areas as indicating that claims of “redundancy” were logically false. The deliberations that led to decision to dismiss staff may have included many factors, but one conceivable influence could have been the fact that a key member of the executive, with whom all the targets had been in conflict, was leaving the museum on the day that the redundancies were announced to Framley's staff. Exiting the social context (and the country) in which that director would have been held accountable may have liberated him, for better or worse, from any social influence upon his decision. Whether this also meant liberation from the responsibility to make sound and profitable decisions for the benefit of Framley Museum is an open question; and one has to ask how wise it can be for any organisation to take advice on such vital decisions from people on the point of departure, who then cannot then be held accountable for them in any way. It should also be said that it’s likely that incomplete information contributed to the staff-shedding decision, wherein the directorate was probably unable to obtain or comprehend the information necessary to assess the role of some managers, in part because they’d need to gather the information from the affected parties. Clearly the question of the influence of ethics is complex; likewise the role of information which I have barely touched on here, but which is a significant component Beach and Connolly's work.

These are poor caricatures of concepts from the book, and I haven’t even finished yet (two chapters to go) but I really wanted to write something about it. Perhaps in future I’ll work through some fuller, more detailed examples. If that’s of interest let me know with the usual sound of one hand clapping ;-)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why I blog

Lorcan Dempsey cited an article in The Atlantic Why I Blog. Now, I don't really blog in the sense that Andrew Sullivan means, inasmuch as I don't have much of a relationship with those few readers I have (most of whom currently arrive through searches about the IE7 prompt bug-by-design, or web services for OSGB to lat/long conversion), and I recognise that this intercourse is a key part of what makes blogs a stimulating evolution of (self-)publishing. So there's lots that he says that doesn't apply to me, but I blog all the same, and I'd already been thinking about my motivations for it when that article appeared, so here's my bit.

As the blurb here explains, this is a research diary firstly, intended for me to jot down links and reactions to things I've come across when Delicious won't do, and to explore a few ideas as they develop in case they're useful for my doctoral research. There are reports on conferences and the like, all written with the knowledge and vain expectation (vain in both senses, usually) that other people with my interests will stumble across them and find something interesting or useful, as well as being for myself. Writing for other people like this came later, after I opened the blog from its private status, and it has changed the nature of the blog a bit. In fact opening the blog has been negative in one respect, because I can no longer write about things that need to remain private for the sake of the institutions I want to write about - I have to go back to keeping this stuff in Word, or saving it as draft blog posts that you lot can't see.

I have found myself tempted into using this place for other purposes, too. I've never kept a proper diary - the implied need to write daily is too much for a lazy arse like me - but have sometimes wanted to jot down particular thoughts, accounts or memories, which do occasionally end up on stray bits of paper or notebooks, or perhaps in e-mails or letters, albeit somewhere else in the world. I have, in fact, an almost pathological attachment to memories and my personal past, perhaps rooted in having a happy childhood that's often acted as the key to a happiness in the present. If you twin this with a collector's disposition you have someone who
  1. collects Incredible String Band LPs (the ultimate band for those who yearn for childhood in the years of hippy fallout, and the collector geek's format of choice), and
  2. spends probably too much time trying to capture moments, sometimes at the expense of experiencing them.

Perhaps it's also some foolish lunge for some kind of immortality, for freezing my acts, thoughts and experiences in something "permanent" that might outlast me (as if this were the least bit likely with a blog!). Since our children were born this has changed slightly. I now have the only kind of extended existence I want: I can't live forever but I've had a hand in making something better than me, in making three new universes that by natural law should outlast mine, and who could wish for more? At the same time, the memories are more valuable than ever, and the urge to hold on to every last moment stronger than ever. I keep an occasional journal about the kids' development, and I've also discovered that shedding this urge to leave some amazing, permanent legacy has given me a new freedom to actually do stuff. I'm one of the cursed billions that have the desire to create - music, prose, art, whatever - but lack talent. If you have some need to create for other people, this is a problem, but if you are doing it for yourself it's not, and you can get on and do stuff. Well, now that's how I feel, and I can get on and write songs or whatever with no concern that actually they're pretty rubbish by anyone else's measure: the act of creation and of capturing those memories in a different fashion is the reward in itself.

So I've occasionally used this blog to stray off topic, but I do sometimes wish to go further. This is why lately I've been mulling over why I blog: there have been big things happening at work or at the school where I'm a governor, for example, that I can't necessarily write about, although they may get their chance in future. More importantly there have been very important family things that I want to write about, but which aren't for here - health things, family history, stuff that's not just about me and not yet resolved. They're the sort of thing to share face-to-face with friends and family, but the authoring box on this web page is so tempting for just telling it all to, because writing is such a good way of straightening your thoughts and sharing worries or excitement. Fortunately I've said and written some of this stuff to several people now so it's out of my system, but it had me musing on the limits of what I should blog. It's out there for good once you let it go.

Concluding thoughts? Well as usual I don't have a nice wrap-up for this, but I've splurged my thoughts onto the page, and that'll do for me. Perhaps that says it all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

International projects in the international legal minefield

This is but a (delayed) note to remind myself about the challenges that projects like Europeana face in integrating assets from, and providing services to, several countries with only partially-harmonised legal systems. This was brought home to me by a recent German ruling on use of thumbnails by search engines. Amalyah Keshet (on the MCN mailing list) cited the following snippet from Arc Technica's post on the ruling:

"As much as people complain about the challenges of balancing copyrights and fair use in the US, overseas courts have been happy to provide examples that remind us that some aspects of US copyright law are actually fairly liberal. The latest such reminder comes courtesy of a case in Germany that revisits an issue that appears settled in the US: the right of image search services to create thumbnails from copyrighted works to display with the search results. The German courts have now determined that this is not OK in Germany, where Google has just lost two copyright suits over image thumbnails..."

Monday, October 13, 2008

MashLogic: worth hooking into?

This article on RWW about MashLogic suggests one more tempting possibility for Europeana to distribute itself more widely and get itself integrated web-wide, for those users in love with culture (in the widest sense). MashLogic is a Firefox extension that tries to create links between the page you're looking at and resources that you've chosen, built on web services and soon to become open to developers and partners. Some sort of semantic processing is presumably at the heart of it, and it sounds as though you can effectively help to teach it. Evidently it's in a similar space to Adaptive Blue, amongst others, but offering considerable scope for the user to tailor their experience and for content owners (like Europeana) to hook into it.
I guess people are much more likely to install a plugin that can do the same for a variety of providers in preference to one that's only good for one. So if Euroepana can piggyback on something like this, its appeal could made much broader.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Oh. And there was me thinking Thomson were cool, what with OpenCalais and all.

Thomson suing Zotero. Bummer. If the outcome goes the wrong way it's not great news for quite important stuff like interoperability and doing stuff with your own data. Thomson Reuters are definitely not being cool here.

Courtesy of Danny Weitzner's "Open Internet Policy" blog.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The End of the Road

Not some dire news, but a long-delayed write-up of the festival I went to on the 12th-14th September. Well, the long and short is that it was fantastic, the perfect reintroduction to (multi-day) festivals since it's been, um, a long time. I went with friend/brother-in-law John, who I went to Glasters with a few times (2-4, we can't really recall) in the '90s and we both felt it was pretty much the perfect festival and the perfect line-up. OK, if it was my actual fantasy line-up there would have been Micah Blue Smaldone and Kaki King, too, and one or two others, but quibbles aside there were so many acts there I'd been longing to see, and a number of wonderful surprises too.

Amongst the acts I was eagerly anticipating were the beautiful Shearwater. They struggled a bit with the sound and we didn't see the set through, mainly due to exhaustion. Micah P Hinson was super intense, looking like Woody Allen in wellies but blasting away any ambivalence I might have harboured about the album I have. Dirty Three! I cannot say enough about how exhilarating they were, another trio with an unfeasible amount of emotional energy in a small package. We were struck by the intimate dynamic you could see in quite a few trios, and the power it could generate, and none more so than D3. Kurt Wagner of Lambchop was an amazing one man show, entertaining and engaging but intense, and raw like a refracted version of the ancient country blues guys I'm listening to so much right now. Mercury Rev were deliriously cosmic. Calexico wrapped up the main stage joyously and mixed new material I'd never heard with favourites I'd yearned to see them do. We caught some of Bon Iver which was lovely. And the surprises? Bowerbirds (who also chimed in with Bon Iver for a couple of tunes), Liz Green, Devon Sproule, Sun Kil Moon (ex-Red House Painter Marc Kozalek), A Hawk and a Hacksaw (I knew them a little before, but they knocked me out). Any disappointments? Well, perhaps Conor Oberst was a little less enrapturing than I hoped, but then I had very high expectations and he gave it a lot. The band sometimes had a bit too much inclination to, um, please themselves, though. And Tindersticks were Tindersticks, but I preferred them in more intimate venues (Moles in Bath, I recall, was great. Way back when.) I had no great expectations of British Sea Power or Richard Hawley, which were borne out. There was a schedule clash which American Music Club lost, so I don't know how they were - I've loved that band so long it seems wrong to have missed them, but there was an embarassment of riches there and I've seen them several times (again, way back when...)

I'd love to write this up properly but perhaps instead I'll put in a Flickr slideshow and if I get around to annotating those photos that'll do for reviews. Oh, there are a couple of videos of Mercury Rev and Calexico too.

All I'd say to end is, lovely festival, great atmosphere and the right size (5,000 people, don't know how they afford to put it on but it works beautifully). Thanks Sofia and Simon!

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

OT: In't the interweb marvellous?

[Apologies in advance, this is a puerile post]

Oh, the wonder of the Web! Useless knowledge of the sort I most adore but which would previously have been simply unavailable, or impossibly hard to gather, is there in all its flawed glory, should you wish to look. Witness the answer to my casual question to colleague Prez, "surely there must be there people out there called Shirley Knott?". Yes, there are (or were). And I doubt they want us laughing about it, either, but hell, there are worse names.

Who wants to go in with me on a social networking site/self-help group? Perhaps http://www.blemishednam.es/ would do it. I'm seeing forums (OK, that's a bit old skool), widgets, dating, maybe a really pointless API. Well, if you beat me to the execution, at least give me a credit on the site.

A quick test of SemanticProxy: what, did you expect it to be perfect?

You can see Thomson-Reuters' newest semantic web leg-up here: SemanticProxy. The idea is great, it really seems to take OpenCalais' proposition further and offer a helping hand in building all sorts of RDF-centred applications. However a word of caution is advised: you'll probably get some pretty funny results so they need to be taken in the right spirit; they're a great first step but not perfect.
Take this page for example: Shakespeare’s first theatre uncovered. Paste the URL into the box on the demo page. If you look at the entities SemanticProxy identifies, some are impressively accurate. For example, it spots Jack Lohman, Jeff Kelly and Willian Shakespeare as people; identifies currency, facilities and companies reasonably well; finds phone numbers etc.
On the down side, quirks include that it considers the Museum of London a "facility" not a company or organisation; designates Chelsea Old Church (mentioned only in the navigation) both a person and organisation; thinks Taryn Nixon is the director of Tower Theater Company (though the text says "Taryn Nixon, Director of Museum of London Archaeology"); and calls Shakespeare a Hackney planning officer!
SematicProxy looks very impressive, still, but this quick test does at least illustrate what a fiendish problem these guys are trying to tackle. The team point out that it's a beta: "No guarantees, no promises", they say, and I hope they stick at it and that I get to play with it properly some time soon!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Boring notes on stuff cribbed from TechCrunch

OK there's lots of catching up to do but not now. Here are three things from TechCrunch that said to me "these might be useful at museums like MoL" or "research material!" Perhaps I can have some actual thoughts about them in due course.
  • Google Launches Audio Indexing. The first mainstream search engine to do this, AFAIK (though not the first with the technology), and the implications for search and semantic integration are obvious
  • Internet Movie Database adds video footage. This is here in part because (like YouTube etc, I guess) Europeana needs to keep destination sites like this in mind. Is the IMDB a suitable place for any material from museums, libraries and archives? Perhaps not, but on the other hand they may have material that can stretch the role of the IMDB
  • Amazon Gets In On the Content Delivery Business. As Amazon's cloud-play grows, MoL and others may be getting a more attractive way of offering media that has previously been quite hard and expensive to host. We await details and prices!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gathery and Giftag

So here, by the sound of it, is the hProduct equivalent of Gathery, the application I built to collect museum objects marked up with some POSH. No-one was going to support an object microformat, for strong reasons (though I still wish there was a more general object uF for objects than hProduct), but essentially this product is the same thing, but for making a wish-list. Read more on RWW: Giftag: Social Wishlists Using Open Standards . I'm wondering now, though, whether there might be mileage in using hProduct with extensions for museum collections - it's still better than the nothing we have at present.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Queen and Open Source

A post by Alan McGee on the Guardian's blog on Tuesday argued that Queen, and especially Freddie Mercury, were actually "punk". He hung his case on the assumption that punk meant "never being boring". The vigorous debate that followed in the comments in part attacked this assumption or definition of punk, and in part added new criteria by which we might identify what deserves that label. For me, I'd say that, given the limited nature of the straw man McGee erected, he's right: Queen were punk. But he's wrong, too, in that punk (to many people) is/was more than simply a good show; more indeed than rebellion or subversion, as some comments argued. To be a useful category that doesn't also include, say, Marcel Marceau, Joan of Arc, Jack Kerouac or a nice crucifixion, we need to bundle these characteristics with others. My bundle of essential punk features might be very different from yours - I'd call the Litter, Faust and, yes, the Creation supreme punks, perhaps only the Pistols and Crass were punk enough for you. The point is that it's helpful to distinguish between the phenomenon or category, and the aspects that define its essence. Otherwise we end up with fun but muddled rhetoric - fine on the blog, of course, but not so fine for serious debate.

This next bit is related, bear with me...

Last week, in a meeting about a new delivery system for collections content, Mia and I had a disagreement which echoed a recent debate on the MCG list (parts of the "CMS specifications" thread here). The issue was Open Source and whether it's something that we should require as part of the system we are planning for (and future systems). My argument was, and remains, that we are interested in certain significant properties embodied by the O.S. concept, but that these may be found elsewhere. To find the ones that are important to use - say, the ability to modify the codebase, or the existence of a supportive community of users and developers - we don't by definition have to look for an OS badge (which relates purely to the licence, after all - definition). Things such as a community of developers that are claimed as virtues of OS software may be there as a consequence (or cause) of the licence, but they are neither required for the label to apply, nor present only when the label applies. Nik Honeysett made a related point the other day, arguing on the Musenet blog that

"the communities that would be best served by Open Source, i.e. small/medium museums, are the ones that can least afford to contribute and participate, so they are no better off whether its open source or not - the crux of selecting software is that it meets your requirements"
Once again, it's not that Open Source is "right" or "wrong" but that we need to think analytically about the aspects of it that matter to us and whether they can be furnished by any given solution, not whether it wears the right badge. Access to source code is good, but it doesn't dictate OSS. Communities of developers are good, but not restricted to SourceForge and the like (GotDotNet has served me well). Freedom from reliance upon suppliers is good, but think about which parts of the technology stack you're most concerned about. In our case at MoL, large parts of our stack are "closed source" - the operating system and web server, the framework (.Net) and the CMS we use are all Microsoft and essentially closed. But I believe that we'd be more vulnerable if we implemented, say, Drupal, because our in-house development skills are with .Net, and it's the ability to develop what we have that gives us power over our destiny. It's limited, yes, because the CMS's core is closed, but (a) the data is accessible and (b) around that core is a cloud of .Net source code that I can and do develop, some sourced in the community, and which underlies the bulk of the functionality on our sites. I can't modify .Net (though there's Mono) but I wouldn't want to, nor can I recode Windows (ditto). But we have access to the code that matters most, and that's what matters most. You could in any case build a CMS in .Net and licence it by OS rules, but the next level of the stack wouldn't be OS - does that matter? Chances are that if you're installing some OSS then there's still a proprietary element in your stack, or at least a bit that you would be unable to fix yourself. And even if you're top-to-bottom LAMP and could dive into the source yourself to tweak Apache or Linux if necessary, you're probably still dependent on patented hardware. Live with it.

Both the Queen argument and the Open Source argument, then, come out of mixing up labels and characteristics that can attach to those labels. OSS is great, but for reasons that aren't always relevant or found only in OSS. Queen put on a great show, but that's not the same as being punk. Significant properties, in other words, aren't The Thing Itself.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

New Photosynth release

Photosynth v.2: Brady Forest over on O'Reilly Radar has a thorough post on the new release of Photosynth from MS, which (most significantly) includes the ability to create your own "Synths", all of which are shared with/hosted by the community, and which are built with heavy use of your local machine. Clever, and very exciting as far as creating views of museum objects goes. Obviously I have yet to try it out, and who knows, it might turn out to be cheaper and easier to spend a few tens of thousands on a 3D scanner instead, but somehow I doubt it.... Coolcoolcool

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rollin' along with the tumblin' tumbleweed

Well I know it's been pretty quiet on this blog of late, something to do with too much going on at work to think much, and too exhausted in the evenings to do much (aside from fill up the new iPod). And now it's going to get a level quieter still as I'm on leave for a few weeks. Just watch that tumbleweed roll by. Adios for now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why Gnip caught my eye: a bit more depth (just a bit)

Eric Marcoullier commented on my last post on Gnip and I wrote him the following e-mail because, as I say, it's about time I worked through a little bit the reason why his baby caught my attention (not that it's a particularly worked through working through, but hey, it's a start). It was a bit much for a comment but enough for a post, so here you go.


Many thanks for taking the time to look at my brief notes, you must be a busy man so I really appreciate it. It's definitely time I tried to put some flesh on the bones because it's true, I've barely sketched the link between Gnip and my own preoccupations.

My research is looking at how museums keep their digital stuff useful; in other words, how and when we keep on trying to squeeze value out of the digital stuff we've invested in. I'm trying to put a particularly museum-y spin on it because it would be all too easy to look, for example, at general questions related to digital preservation (yawn). Hence I'm exploring the specific conditions and challenges that museums have to face, as well as the way in which they value what they hold - as a "memory institution" with a remit to preserve and to serve the public, a museum has potentially got a slightly different way of valuing what it holds, though arguably this won't really apply to digital material except in special cases (like digital art). So that's the basic thread of my research: looking at how museums can and do decide a strategy for maximising value from their digital assets, and for planning new ones.

Of course, no museum is an island (that's kind of the point of the 'net, right?) and I'm inevitably thinking a lot about the relationships between museums and other parties that might provide or use services and data to/from them - this is key to extracting value, but it's also a dependency for which we need to understand the risks. In the museum community, a lot of the talk (for a couple of decades or more, now) is about how we share our most obvious USP: our collections data. Loads of work has been done on this and yet we still seem to be a long way from the dream of a way of effectively integrating the collections of more than a few institutions. This is why I've been working with the European Digital Library/Europeana project. The reason that Gnip caught my eye was because it suggests another model for data interchange. It may be not be appropriate for the scenario of sharing collections data, and one could argue that in some ways other museum initiatives share some of its characteristics (federated search, metadata harvesters etc.), but I was interested in whether we could learn from the model of a neutral mediating agent as rather than a central pool of data. We're not short of standards but we are short of co-ordinating mechanisms that we can all trust and feel we leave us with some control over "our" data.

The actual purpose of Gnip as an exchange for social data was probably of secondary interest to me, but of interest all the same - it's just an area I don't know much about. I think that on the whole museums won't need to concerns themselves directly about how whatever it is they do will relate to Gnip: I presume that if they incorporate a third party service in their site, or perhaps have an installation of WordPress, then a lot of the mechanics may be dealt with already (or will be in due course). But concern about interoperability and data portability may well be a reason why many museums (my own included) haven't yet done an awful lot with social software - although there are some notable exceptions. If Gnip helps to address these concerns then all that will still be lacking is our imagination!

One other possibility is that museum applications could indeed work with Gnip to integrate individuals' public information with their own services - say, by drawing links between a person's list of interests or music preferences, and what's in a museum's (or a library's)collection; or by suggesting events to attend based on user location, age and interests. I don't understand Gnip well enough to know if this is plausible, though, but it's an intriguing prospect.


Thanks again to Eric for taking the time to contact me, I think it speaks well of new ventures like this (OpenCalais was another) when the key people go out out of their way to make contact with the people that are talking about them.

IMLS looks to the future

Once again, kudos to Nina Simon for her latest post, Notes from the Future: Reflections on the IMLS Meeting on Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century. I have to admit I've not read it thoroughly yet but (a) there's lots going on in the IMLS study that overlaps with my research interests and (b) as usual, she has a pretty strong take on it and interesting things to say, and it's productive perhaps to triangulate between her strong perspective and the equally strong conservative perspective she cites. Have a look. If I have time I'll try to digest it properly and give a proper response - both here and on her blog since they want our thoughts (perhaps even non-US thoughts...)

Monday, July 14, 2008

O'Reilly Radar on Gnip

As I mentioned last week, Gnip looks to be at least of tangential interest to use in museum tech, whether because we may be involved in social software, or as a model for addressing the sort of data interchange problems we face (though of course there are alternative approaches). Jim Stodgill has written an article on O'Reilly Radar of which I understand about 30%, but which looks at how Gnip compares to enterprise service bus, in the problems it's tackling and the solution it offers. It's worth a read.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Delayed post #1: aspects of [web] preservation

[[this post never got finished but I'm having a clear-out of my drafts and they're getting published or deleted, ready or not]]

Brian Kelly just blogged [[hmm, well, back in July, I think....]] on the JISC-PoWR site about "three key aspects of web preservation": experience, information, and access. I have a fourth, but I've been using it in the context of "sustainability" (the subject of my thesis), and so first I want to say a couple of words about this vs preservation, since although I've been writing papers for Ross for a couple of years arguing about the distinction between the concepts, I've not really rehearsed this in public before.

For the last couple of years I've been arguing that the problem of sustainability (S) is distinct from that of archive-style preservation (P). I won't go into the details of the distinction here but in essence I see P as concerning the persistence of a state, and S as the persistence of a process or activity. Recent work by Chris Rusbridge and others has been blurring the boundary ever more, although in a useful way: by questioning the purpose of preservation and weighing up what are the important aspects ("significant properties") of resources, they have been starting to argue for an approach to preservation that looks a lot more like what I was previously describing as sustaining. I still sort of believe that it is useful to distinnguish between the two concepts, but there's a lot of overlap.

The aspect that I think is especially pertinent to sustaining is "purpose". I don't think this is the same as the "experience" that Brian cites Kevin Ashley on (although experience and information may feed into purpose). It's focused on the objectives of the resource, which may be attainable through radically different experiences; for example (in the case of the environment in which KA operates), the learning objectives that an educational resource was created to serve. For a museum, perhaps a resource was prepared for use in a temporary exhibition, with the objective of enriching the experience visitors to that physical space by illustrating relationships betweeen objects, and providing media resources to bring them to life. When that exhibition closes, the original objective is partially voided - there is no physical visit to enrich - but aspects of it may still be viable - the objects probably still exist and the tales about them are still worth telling, perhaps more so than ever since we've stuck them back in the store-room out of easy access. Brian was talking about web preservation, of course, and I've taken a non-web resource as an example, but my interest in the question of sustainability extends beyond the web and the point applies regardless.

In any given digital resource that we're talking about preserving/sustaining, experience and information at least (perhaps access, too, sometimes) will have contributed to the original purpose to varying degrees - sometimes the experience is the whole purpose, sometimes it's an unimportant side effect of providing access to information. And sometimes it's important to the preserver regardless of its significance to the original purpose.

So if the original purpose is no longer served by a resource, what then for our "preservation" plans? There are still often reasons to preserve (freeze) or sustain (keep alive) an application, or aspects of it - in other words, some sources of value, ranging from historical interest to new uses, which may let a resource adapt and survive. The "significant properties" idea fits in to this. For me, if you are trying to maintain some quality of the original it's more of a preservation activity; whereas if you are more fundamentally interested in continuing to extract value through maintaining utility of whatever sort, we're talking sustaining.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Short cuts

Little more than bookmarks from today:

Short URL/snapshot/citation/bookmarking apps:

Google's new VW lively. Is it cool or does it suck? Some debate. RWW techcrunch Raph Koster

I need to find out more about Lexara and Project SILVER: http://www.lexara.com/lexara/project-silver/ and http://www.silvereducation.org/

Monday, July 07, 2008

EDLocal >> EuropeanaLocal

Fleur says: EDLocal becomes EuropeanaLocal. I'm looking forward to hearing what else came out of the recent launch of the project, which will hopefully help to smooth the process of participating in Europeana for institutions of all sizes. I'll keep you posted (but I expect Fleur will do a better job so keep an eye on her blog!)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two interesting ReadWriteWeb stories

Just a quickie. Two things caught my eye on RWW:
Confirmed: Microsoft Acquires Powerset. So MS moves into semantic search with the acquisition of a promising startup. Yahoo! will have to fight ever harder for survival if MS is really determined to do this. Anyway, it may be time to start talking to MS about how to work with all the yummy structured data we have in MLAs (yes, that means you EDL)
Gnip: Grand Central Station for the Social Web. This is all about tackling the myriad interfaces and data formats of social software APIs. It's a comparable problem to that faced in our sector and the solution of a mediator is interesting mainly for that reason. It's also potentially directly relevant where we're working with data in social sites.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Showing us the way

I presume it's uncontroversial to say that it would be useful to have terminologies available as web services. Right now, you can browse various sources of reference terms that are useful to museums (amongst others): sources like the british & irish archaeological bibliography (including its approved term lists); the National Monument Record Thesauri; and the museum codes and SPECTRUM terminology termbank maintained by the Collections Trust (to highlight some UK examples). I'm certain it would be useful to have these available as web services (some more so than others); likewise other thesauri that AFAIK aren't available to programme to: ULAN and AAT, for example, which are collected under the CCO initiative.

There's every chance that I misunderstand some or all of these "services" in terms of how they're used and by whom (I'm very shaky on the status of CCO and its relationship to AAT, for a start). But I'm sure that there are many ways in which a programmatic interface to their contents could be used. Which is why (to get to the point of this post) the service that OCLC's top geeks have come up with here is a great example for us in the museum world to look at (blogged here on Hanging Together). This is a collection of esssentially library-related thesauri onto which they have created web services. I like the look of FAST best of all; it could be really useful for us in the dusty bones world too.

Lorcan Dempsey also blogs today about the WorldCat identities API and other cool services. I fancy the name look-up service: aside from anything else it gives us a URL to refer to for those individuals in the WorldCat database. Here's a not-so-random entry.

So once again we can learn a lot from libraries leading the way. One of the cool things, though, is that OCLC are a cross-domain organisation, and people like Dempsey think constantly about breaking down the barriers between libraries, archives and museums. If they've sprinkled their magic onto library terminologies, I'm sure they'll be only too happy to help the museum world to take similar steps.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mike Dunn on "technical due dilligence"

Extracted from an interview with Mike Dunn of Hearst, published on ReadWrite Web, these are the top five aspects of "technical due dilligence" that Dunn looks for when considering a startup for acquisition.

  1. The primary things I look for are a thorough understanding of a company's current technology state and a roadmap of their future. I then fill in the building blocks to paint a picture of the company and its structure via the next 4 areas.
  2. Staffing: The company should have a proper ratio of dedicated to outsourced staff. The focus for in-house staff should be on owning and extending the company's value-add. The focus of the outsourced staff / service should be on areas where technology is available at a reasonable price.
  3. Infrastructure and Architectural: I look for alignment between the infrastructure in place and their roadmap. I try to understand their architecture, i.e., have they designed something that will be stable, yet scale and grow as their business requires? Have they over or under built, are their investments proper for current state and extensible as their growth requires?
  4. Workflow and Processes: This is usually the hardest part of my interviews with startups because while most have ways they do things, they often aren't comfortable expressing them. They also aren't normally done in a way that's repeatable to the point where they could be called a workflow. This is OK. As they mature, standardized workflows and processes will be established, normally out of a necessity to ensure they're providing a stable environment that doesn't get negatively affected as they introduce change.
  5. Costs: This is the spreadsheet part of the conversations. What has been spent to get them to the point they're at, what do they need to spend near term, possibly with funding from my company, and what do they envision they'll need to spend? I look for a grounded approach to spending.

With a little flipping around these consideration probably apply just as well to museums.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Conference ketchup

Well it's been a pretty busy time. After many years of avoiding presenting at conferences, following a number of crappy performances in '99, I bit the bullets kindly shot at me by Ross and Jill and opened my cakehole to several hundred unfortunate captives, first at the UK Museums on the Web conference in Leicester, and then at the EDL plenary conference in the Hague. And I'm truly grateful to both Ross and Jill for the opportunity to do this: it's very flattering, humbling, really, that they felt I'd have something worth saying to such informed and inquisitive audiences.

In the end, nervous anticipation gave way to the onrush of time and once I was up there in front of faces familiar and not I felt a more at ease than I would have expected. Having listened to the recordings, well, there were a lot more "ums" and "errs" than ideal, but hey, I didn't forget too many things and I kept pretty close to time, which is a big improvement on my earlier debacles.

So what was I talking about? In Leicester, I talked about Europeana. It was not meant to be an overview as such (that's not really my role), but an account of my involvement and interest, focussing on my hopes for the project and, of course, the role that APIs play in that. During Q&As and coffee breaks I had a lot of really useful feedback to my question: what is stopping many more UK museums from getting involved in the project? On the whole these revolved around the burden and mechanics of providing data, which was pretty much as I suspected. It's made me more determined to do what I can to simplify these processes, but also to ensure that the pay-off to partners is as high as it can be and as well understood as possible. Perhaps we have the furthest to go to achieve the latter.

At the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Hague I had an even shorter slot, which was fine by me, as part of a panel whose other members were intimidatingly illustrious. The subject of the conference was "Users expect the interoperable", and this particular session had two panels discussing interoperability in relation to archives and museums, respectively. I took part in the latter panel. I still don't know if I actually said anything, really, because I had little in the way of conclusions to offer: I just teased out some ways in which I thought "interoperability" questions pertained to APIs in a museum context. I also looked at a few examples from the world of semantic enrichment - a strange choice, perhaps, but made because there are really no proper museum APIs to compare to, and in order to show that a lack of standardisation in that area is no barrier to those APIs (Calais, Hakia, and Yahoo! Term Extractor) being useful. Simplicity gets you a long way, as does the use of existing data formats (e.g. DC or microformats). These also fit well with the other drum I was banging, the services that EDL could offer to contributors and third parties for enriching content. So, a kind of bitty talk but at least it was brief!

On Tuesday the conference wrapped up (and I do want to talk a lot more about it ASAP, because apart from anything else the first prototype was shown off and it's COOL!). I attended a hurried meeting of WP1 and Harry Verweyen presented his paper on the business model. I think he's done a great job, although this is so far outside my area of comptence I scarcely dare comment. He'd also done a lot of work integrating some of my suggestions into the plan, and it became still clearer to me how much of this hangs off the success of the semantic web tech part of the project.

Both conferences were really rewarding in their own ways and I'll try to offer some proper notes from them as soon as I find my feet again.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hakia, semantic enrichment, and EDL

Moving in the same direction as Reuters, with its OpenCalais service, Hakia has started offering two new APIs, one related to search and the other to content summarising and enhancement (see RWW's story). Perhaps it has some way to go before this is a really useful service in terms of the quality of its output (if RWW's experience is any guide) but it's early days. In any case, putting this alongside Calais and Yahoo!'s Term Extractor (not to mention other semantic enhancement services extracting, for example, location data), this shows at least that there are quite a few people out there that think there's a market for this sort of service.

Semantic enhancement (as well as data validation) is a service that I've mooted as a possibility for Europeana. With a specialist and very authoritative data set, it could appeal to those needing to enrich cultural heritage content. There may not be a lot of money in it, but as Harry Verwayen pointed out to me, that's not necessarily the only benefit to the service provider (or I doubt Reuters would be in this game). Building traffic around the site and strengthening the brand is a benefit. Similarly, increasing the use of the ontology/thesauri used by EDL increases its influence.

Harry is putting together a presentation for next week's WG1 meeting after the EDL plenary, and he's generously put my name on the front too although I have little to contribute beyond these slightly flaky suggestions. We'll be throwing these ideas into the mix in a discussion of business models for EDL when it goes live.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Following my off-the-cuff post about the Museum of London's strike (in which I did not participate, not being a member of a union), it's become apparent that there is some confusion as to the status of this blog. It's important, therefore, that I make it very clear that the contents of The Doofer Call are a personal expression only. This is a research diary for my PhD that I've chosen to make public in order to engage in debate and help people find things that interest me; my profile states this. However, because I talk regularly about things I'm doing at the Museum I can see that casual readers might mistakenly believe that I am writing in an official capacity, or with official sanction, and any confusion is my fault and for me to address. Hence this post.

Friday's missive may turn out to be factually incorrect (one might argue that the pay at MoL is not rubbish, or that the pay rise was not over a year late) or inaccurate in its representation of the reasons for the disgruntlement that led to the unions striking, but that's not really the point. What's important is that it's clear that what I wrote was not an official press release, but the completely unofficial, independent expression of someone who is also employee, written at home, out of office hours (like this).

So for clarity, I am posting a disclaimer that can also be read as a declaration of interests. Please read it here.

My apologies to anyone who previously mistook this blog to be anything other than my thoughts in my words, I hope this has made things clearer.

Note: all of the organisations with which I have a formal relationship are included as tags on this post in the hope that people searching for the organisations and stumbling across this blog will also see this clarification.

Disclaimer and declaration of interests

The following are organisations with which I have a formal relationship (most of which I've written about at some point). The opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone, and are not to be attributed on the basis of this blog to any of these organisations:
  1. Museum Of London, my employer. This includes Museum in Docklands and MoLAS. The Museum is also a contracted partner in my PhD

  2. the City of London Corporation write the contracts and the pay cheques, and the Greater London Authority are 50% partners in the Museum

  3. University of Leicester, Department of Museum Studies, at which I am studying for a PhD

  4. Lexara (and previously Simulacra and MWR), the non-academic partner in my PhD. Lexara also supply some technology to the Museum of London.

  5. Richard de Clare Primary School, where I am a parent governor with oversight over ICT across the curriculum

  6. EDLNet, the EC project for which I am the official representative of the Museum of London

None of the above sanctions or previews anything that I write here. Equally, you should read my remarks in the light of my committments to them all.

If anything written here is inaccurate or unclear, please contact me directly or through comments about changing it.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Victorian photographers API now also alphatastic

Didn't manage (didn't dare) to upload this before going-home time on Friday. There is now another string to the bow of the nascent REST alpharama here. You can query the people in the database of 19th Century photographic London (pardon the contraction) at the PhotoLondon website we launched recently. Right now, it only sends you back a list of people matching your criteria (100 records per page) with no details. I will soon produce a detailed machine-friendly record page for each person (an example of a human-friendly one is here)

The querystring takes most of parameters you can see on the form including surname, forename, search text (but not multiple words like the form), gender, year of birth/death, "alive in..." year, place of origin, photographic occupation, non-photographic occupation, and presence of attached images. Here's an example search so you can see what you'll get back right now. Here's a wider one.

There are bugs, no doubt, and it will be of more use when I can send you the person's details, as well as a list of countries and occupations to build queries from. I realise I also need to write some proper documentation. Still, it's a start. Please tell me if it might be useful to you, and what you'd like to see it doing/do with it.

Guardian bigs up the 24 Hour Museum

Jack Schofield today writes up 24HM here. It's funny timing - as he himself points out, it's looking at a relaunch pretty soon - but perhaps there are clues in that as to the timing of this review. It's a pretty positive piece on the whole but suggests that "Culture 24 could be so much better" (after its relaunch). I'm as intrigued as JS to know what's planned - and whether, for example, it will be able to consume/aggregate RSS feeds as well as publish them!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Small API update

A couple of small advances on the API front (again, see here)

  • fixed a bug on the geo thing. For some reason an imbecilic code error wasn't breaking the script on my machine, but did on the web server. Now fixed.

  • a CDWALite-lite output for individual object records (example). There's more to add, glitches to fix, and ideally a better solution to the URL, but it's a start. Next thing is a search interface but that depends upon agreement within the Museum. A good solution may be to combine CDWALite and OpenSearch-style RSS, with the records enabling users to find the data end-point, as well as the HTML rendering. In due course I'll probably add tags to HTML record pages to point at data like this, or I may do it with some POSH.

  • the photoLondon website data now has a basic API, which I'll put on the live site next week. It returns basic person details and search parameters include: surname, forename, keyword, birth year, death year, "alive in" year, gender, country of origin, photographic occupation and non-photographic occupation. I'll work on the search result format soon, as well as the person details.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

MoL APIs live (but very alpha)

Well there's more to do, but an alpha version of three services is now there if you want to play. All of them currently put out only XML, no JSON or raw text, GEDCOM or whatever else, but this may change and new services may be added. Have a read here. There is an events database, publications from our Archaeology Service, and a sort of geocoding tool. I've rejigged the code so that adding a different (XML) output format to these involves just writing XSLT and putting in a new value for the "mode" parameter, rather than fiddling around with C#, recompiling and all that. All feedback most welcome. But don't bug me about a collections API!

To start you off, here are links to one request from each service.
  • events API. This won't work forever as the events will expire. Uses the format that Upcoming outputs with xCal, DC and geo extensions
  • publications API
  • the geothingy converter whatsit