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

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 ;-)