The biggest problem with the session was, I guess, exactly the same as that which it was trying to address, and perhaps will have helped us to break through it before the next gathering. That problem is the vagueness of the project, which made it almost impossible to talk incisively about it. Someone mentioned a 10,000lb gorilla at one point; all I could see was a big cloud in the middle of the room, who knows what was at the heart of it. I've not talked about NCO before so I should do the basics: Flow's inquiry is into the "viability of an online resource to integrate national museum collections", and perhaps we can orient ourselves as to what this might mean by the well-known points of reference that they have mentioned: CHIN/CCO, CAN, culture.fr, Artstore, Powerhouse. It seems that many people said "not a portal", which was the common response at the session too. Given this, we both needed to decide what we were talking about if not a portal, and know that in advance to make much progress on questions like whether a "single point of access" would be of use to various audiences. This isn't a criticism of how the session was run, it was sure to be tricky as a natural consequence of the fact that, even before the project properly starts, it maybe engaged in a major change of direction (and this is the time to do it!).
Anyway, it was a useful process and it did seem to bring out a good degree of consensus on the unsuitability of an old-skool "portal" approach. I took away a couple of key points though, including a useful reminder:
- Fiona Romeo made a remark that inspired a "doh!" moment in me: why not talk to Google about them ingesting our content directly? This time last year we were talking about this very prospect at the UK Museums Semantic Web Think Tank, and it still seems like a really good plan (Yahoo! too, especially since they seem at least as keen on adopting semantic technology). Still, somehow, I'd stopped thinking about this line of attack having been concentrating on the opportunity (or threat, if done badly) offered by EDL. And in the session I didn't shy away from pushing EDL as the obvious place in which collections data should be aggregated, so as to scale to all museums and not duplicate efforts. I argued that NCO should wait for this to firm up before deciding what to do that would compliment or build upon it. However when Fiona mentioned the prospect of working with Google, I realised that over the last 6 months of talking to EDL about how to make sure that it wasn't seen as irrelevant by museums, I'd started to forget that it needn't be the only path down which we go to achieve our goals - just the one that grabbed my attention late last year. I think that the two approaches can be complimentary, and in fact EDL itself would be well advised to talk directly to the search providers about their ingesting structured data. NCO could, in theory, provide something of a breakthrough that would be genuinely extensible and scalable. This would also put the lie to one of my contentions, which was that there was little point in doing something that only involved a small number of nationals. On the contrary, if it opened a very wide door for cross-collection search as this approach might, it would be very worthwhile.
- I had a moment of clarity, which followed on from the recent hooha on the MCG list concerning the disappointment or otherwise of the NOF Digitise programme. One of my arguments was that it would be better to make distinctions in projects between those that do digitisation, those that build functionality, and those that build user experiences. I realised that I'm talking basically about slicing funding differently, changing from vertical to horizontal slicing, and that it's not unlike talking about markets. I'm going to post separately with more thoughts on that.
- We had useful input from Tom. Though he was kind of preaching to the converted about the idea of making our content as widely available as possible, it's not surprising, and he also furnished us with some useful parallels and metaphors. From our later chat at the pub it's clear enough that he's as keen on the lightweight dissemination of semantic data as I am (albeit sceptical about the Semantic Web - but then in a sense so am I, it's semantic technology that is making the headway, and there are riches to be found there that do appear to be speeding us in the general direction of a more semantic web in any case)