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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

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.

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