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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, April 25, 2009

Catching up with Europeana v1.0 [pt.2]

[see part 1 for stuff about what I did before the kick-off meeting]

So April 2nd/3rd were the kick-off meeting for Europeana 1.0, the project to take the prototype that launched last November and develop it into a full service. There may have been glitches at the launch but at the meeting there was a tremendous feeling of optimism, sustained I suppose by the knowledge that those glitches were history, and by the strength of the vision that has matured in people's minds.

The meeting was about getting the various re-shuffled (and trimmed) work-groups organised, with their scope understood by their members and refined in some initial discussions before the proper work begins. There are tight dependencies going in all directions between the work-groups. My problem was, on reflection, a very encouraging one: it was difficult to decide which WG I should work with, since they nearly all now have some mention of APIs in their core tasks. Given that concern over APIs was the reason I got involved with Europeana, it's great to see how central a place they occupy in the plans for v1.0. Not surprising, perhaps, given the attitudes I've discovered since joining, but feeling more real now that they're boosted up the agenda. For those who worry (as I used to) that Europeana was all about a portal this shows that fear is groundless. Jill Cousins (the project's director) distilled the essence of Europeana's purpose as being an aggregator, distributor, catalyst, innovator and facilitator; the portal, whilst necessary, is but a small part of this vision.

In the end I elected to join WG3.3, which will develop the technical specs of the service, including APIs. Jill is also organising a group to work up the user requirements (to feed to WG3.3), which I'll participate in. I guess this will also help to co-ordinate all the other API-related activity, and I'm thrilled to see several great names on the list for that group, not least Fiona Romeo of the National Maritime Museum. Hi Fiona! I hope to see more from the UK museum tech community raising their hand to contribute to a project that's actually going to do something, but for now it's great to have this vote of confidence from the museum that puts many of us to shame for their attitude and their actions.

So we heard about the phasing of developments; about the "Danube" and "Rhine" releases planned for the next two years; about the flotilla of projects like EuropeanaLocal, ApeNet, Judaica, Biodiversity Heritage Library, and especially EuropeanaConnect (a monster of a project supplying some core semantic and multilingual technology, and content too); and about the sandbox environment that will in due course be opened up to developers to test out Europeana, share code and develop new ideas. Though we await more details, this last item is particularly exciting for people like me, who will have the chance to both play with the contents and perhaps contribute to the codebase of Europeana itself, whilst becoming part of a community of like-minded digi-culture heads.

Man, you know, I've got so much stuff in my notes about specific presentations and discussions but you don't want all that so here's the wrap. As you can tell I've come away feeling pretty positive about the shape it's all taking, but there are undoubtedly big challenges, in terms of achieving detailed aims in areas like semantic search and multilinguality, but also in ensuring the long-term viability of the service Europeana hopes to supply; nevertheless the plans are good and, crucially, there are big rewards even if some ambitions aren't realised.

Within the UK there are a number of large museums with great digital teams and programmes that are not yet part of Europeana. There are also, obviously, lots of smaller ones with arguably even more to gain from being in it, but they have more of a practical challenge to participation right now. But why is it that those big fish are not on board yet? Is it just too early for them, or are there major deterrents at work? I know that there are people out there, including friends of mine, who are sceptical of Europeana's chances of success and sometimes of its validity as an idea. The former is still fair enough I suppose, or at least the long-term prospects are hard to predict; the latter, though, still mystifies me. If we want cross-collection, cross-domain search - and other functionality - based on the structured content of large numbers of institutions, there's really no alternative to bringing the metadata (not the content) into one place. Google and the like are not adequate stand-ins, despite their undoubtable power and despite the future potential for enabling more passive means of aggregation by getting, say, Yahoo! to take content off the page with POSH of some sort (which certainly gets my vote, but again relies on agreed standards). Mike Ellis and Dan Zambonini, and I myself separately, have done experiments with this sort of scraping into a centralised index, turning the formal aggregation model around, and there's something in that approach, it's true. Federated search is no panacea given that it requires an API from each content holder and is inferior for a plethora of reasons. Both are good approaches in their own ways and for the right problem - as Mike often reminds us, we can do a lot with relatively little effort and needn't get fixated on delivering the perfect heavyweight system if quick and light is going to get us most of the way sooner and cheaper. But I can't help but detect some sort of submerged philosophical or attitudinal* objection to putting content into Europeana - a big, sophisticated, and (perhaps the greatest sin of all) a European service. I sense a paranoia that being part of it could somehow reduce our own control of our content or make us seem less clever by doing things we haven't done, even if we're otherwise agile clever web teams in big and influential museums. But the fact is that a single museum is by definition incapable to doing this, and if you believe in network effects, in the wisdom of crowds, in the virtues of having many answers to a question available in one place, then you need also to accept that your content and your museum should be part of that crowd, a node in that network, an answer amongst many. If your stuff is good, it will be found. Stay out of the crowd and you don't become more conspicuous, you become less so. Time will doubtless throw up other solutions to this challenge, but right now a platform for building countless cultural heritage applications on top of content from across Europe (and beyond?) looks pretty good to me. It's heavyweight, sure, but that's not innately bad.

If your heritage organisation is inside the EU but isn't part of Europeana, or if it's in it but you aren't part of the discussions that are helping to shape it, then get on board and get some influence!

Flippin' 'eck, I didn't really plan on a rant.

*is this a made up word?

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