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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 02, 2009


Yesterday the V&A in London hosted first the UK Museums on the Web 2009 conference, run by the Museums Computer Group (MCG, spanking new website here), and then the Jodi Awards. both of which I attended and both of which I found immensely stimulating. As always, it was fantastic too to catch up with various peers, some of them old friends (or indeed supervisors!), others people I knew only from Twitter or their blog, or not at all. I only wish we'd had a week to spend so that all the discussions I found myself in could have flourished fully, but that's the nature of events like this. Hopefully those nascent conversations started with @janetedavis, @psychemedia, Dave Patten, @gsturtridge, Carl Hogsden and so many others will continue elsewhere, soon.
UKMW09 had a very lively back-channel on Twitter. Check out the tag #ukmw09 to see what I mean. I had enough of a job keeping up with what the people I follow were tweeting but I dropped in every now and then to see what others were saying and would find 60, 80, 100, new tweets: too much to follow and still pay attention, so I may do some catching up today. Some papers really seemed to get people excited, though, notable Paul Golding's, and perhaps this showed how well the organising committee had identified what MCG people needed to hear about.
In the middle of the conference there was a break for the MCG AGM. The Group has had a major constitutional overhaul and the changes implied by this are only beginning to be evident, starting with that website and new logo. A very exciting research partnership is in the offing, and together with membership rules that now include mail list members as formal members of MCG, plans for sandboxes and evolving relationships with strategic bodies, it looks like the MCG is getting a real shot in the arm, thanks to an imaginative committee and valuable facilitation by Flow Associates.
This stuff is the notes I took down live at #UKMW09. I'm not planning to edit it*, that will only slow it down so much I never publish this, so naturally you'll find it somewhat impenetrable and full of bits of that amount to straight transcription coz you don't know where the speakers leading you, and other parts lacking enough context to make any sense but hey, if you find anything of interest I'd urge you to look deeper into that speaker's work because all of these papers were way more fascinating than my notes could ever convey - even if I did edit them!
* but you never know.
Enough preamble and caveats, here you go. Oh, any stuff in [square brackets] is my own interjections [or is it Someone Else?]

UKMW 2009
Ross Parry, chair
[...basically I missed Ross pt. 1. Shame, he sets this stuff up so well but if you've heard him before you'll know this.]
Mike Ellis
Today's experiment: QR codes on delegate badges so we can stalk each other. Will get e-mailed vCard of whoever we scan (or key the number in for). Done through Mike's onetag.org service

Session 1: Social (Bridget McKenzie, chair)
BMcK intro: Social is deep: connected with museological issues of contested ownership, authority etc. Web can power a civic society.
Matthew Cock (British Museum) & Andrew Caspari (BBC)
A History of the World partnership (AHOW) BM+BBC, 2010-2012 and beyond. 100 episode Radio 4 series, involving 350 museums, local radio stations, website, kids' programmes, plus 100 objects from BM. Radio rather than TV for speed: story rather than visual focus. MC: opportunity for a social site and engagement.
AC: 100 BM objects woven into a history of past 2 million years by Neil Macgregor on R4, 13 then done for CBBC. 600 objects from round the country telling regions' relevance to story of UK & world. Beyond that, UGC: public invited to upload their objects to weave into the story. World Service will overlap with this. Hope to encourage conversation off AHOW i.e in Twitter etc.
Forcing partnerships, encouraging wide participation, building new audiences for digital, museums and history. Pan-platform. "Permanent" collection [very interesting to see how this will work]. Each object has own page, journeys through geography and time via objects.
MC: priority for BM object pages is to get people to listen again to radio show. There will be video, 3D for some, related objects, other contributions, (requested) comments from others as well as open for public comments and, for limited time, questions.
Other museums and public can tag their objects in the same way as BM has done for findability, a simple uploader with variable levels of detail. This open to people worldwide, moderated too.
Launch January.
BMcK: will the collections gathered through this feed into Culture Grid? MC: not decided, governed by BBC T&Cs at present.
Denise Drake (Tower Hamlets Summer University): Staying social online
Small independent charity. Free summer courses to all young people (11-25) in TH. Actually year round. 26 staff. Have helped set up similar summer uni in every London boro, coordinated but independent, 50k places in all.
2 websites, active on 13 social network sites/accounts. Bursaries for film/photo projex, blogs for these.
Asked for a vote for an award, got some strong negative responses but regarded as an opportunity to react positively, quickly. -ve comments left visible. Tries not to do social stuff out of office hours, partly for protection. Child protection issues: don't make "friends" of u-18s; be careful with images (make them small, no name)
Nadia Arbach (now @ V&A)
Wikipedia Loves Art campaign, a way of generating images for WikiPedia, Feb '09. BMA led 16 museums, V&A only UK participant. Next year V&A will lead a proper UK project, Britain loves Wikipedia, and they're looking for museums that want to take part. [see also Nick Poole's blog here]. BMA encouraged their users to join in, V&A targeted the "London" Flickr group. Each museum had own guidelines and routes to participation, interesing use of existing networks.
Hosted a special day blitzing the museum (though could do any time in Feb). Competitive in terms of numbers uploaded by inds/teams on that day.
Official WLA photopool, museums checking correct data attached to photos. Process changing nect time so that quality priotirised over quality - an uploader?
Museums have had people asking them to photograph particular artefacts for them via WLA, or to add images to Flickr groups.
CC licence required for all contributions.
Session Q&A
Q from Jude Habib: how did BBC engage local museums? A: Local radio has a buddy in each station for museums to contact.
Ruth Harper: [my summary: sounds like C24 want in on AHOW]
Q from Mike Ellis: should we build it or should we use what's there? MC: never considered using e.g. Wikipedia because they had the BBC platform.
From me: the "permanent" collection? MC/AC: no plan yet, too busy getting this ready to support the Cultural Olympiad etc. though definitely intend to find a way to sustain this, perhaps through integration with the offer in the BBC History site and the like.

Session 2: Situational (Loic Tallon, chair)
Clients asking how to create a web-like experience in the museum - is that confusing? Mobile growing, also calls for another experience.
Paul Golding (wirelesswanders.com): Situational web
How you give an experience based on where you are, overview of technologies.
Cells have IDs we use to tell where roughly phones are. Public info which e.g. Google can use. Location gateways queried for this, with estimates of uncertainy. "self location" UI important coz errors can be big, want to override. Dense urban areas 300m, semi-urban:600-1200m, rural up to 10kms.
GPS way better. Devices like iPhone offer this plus cell and wifi fallbacks. Getting location info as a programmer can be done on handset (note: location API in HTML5 JS). Or can ask phone servers for location; then use Fire Eagle, GMaps etc.
Proximity services: RFID and the like; barcode and QRs; Bluetooth/WiFi/SigBee; visual recognition. Wifi works where the network has been mapped and is quite dense e.g. in a warehouse. Visual recognition ie cameras recognising images - good for museums?
AR apps like Layar, Wikitude, Junaio. Markup not necessary. Cd create a "digital fingerprint" for artwork and connect to information record. Camera as "third eye" "Disintermediation" of exhibitor/producer's presentation i.e. can bypass the information you're presented with directly in the space.
VWs: massive growth in the tweenies market, our market of tomorrow.
"Conversation via place": e.g. flook.it. "Leave" a note in a space to be picked up by someone moving into that space.
Trends and predictions: 80% penetration of smartphones by 2015, ready for mass consumption. HTML5 browsers on them. AR will be done via these rather than specific gadgets. Location key "web 3" enabler. Indoor location sensitivity/AR popular for enhancing events, shopping etc by '13. VWs will be the popular UI metaphor for some handsets.
Andy Ramsden (University of Bath - UB): QR codes
UB project: what does QR offer to learning opportunities? What do they offer museums, are they a fad?
QRs connect something physical to something electronic. Souped-up barcode readable by phone. Alternatives coming tho using similar principles. Require an activity/task suited to a small screen device. Will cost users if they aren't connecting thru WiFi. When you read a QR, a URL is decoded, you decide if you want to follow this i.e. perform the action.
Creating a QR code: can do on the Bath Uni site: http://www.bath.ac.uk/barcodes.
Thinking about how QR codes could be used in a more social constructivist approach to learning. Tie to a blog. QRs in library for adding books to your reading list. Subscribing to RSS feed: loads easier than plugging long URLs into phone.
Connecting phys to virtual learning materials, because these can be dislocated rather than obliging learner to perform learning task at a PC.
Students becoming much more aware of QRs, 10% have now used them (UB survey)
Mike Ellis: how's this work in museums?
Convergence of technologies finally making lots of thing possible, at last. Networks getting cheaper and mass-market. Data the norm with mobile devices now. Computing power increasing and APIs flourishing, copyright barriers lowering/easy licencing too. And Google. Highly available services.
"Vastpoint sensing" using massive contribution of content esp location-based. With many consumers' devices as sensors, masses of data can be added in realtime to e.g. GMaps.
Predictions: city-wide wireless networks; increased understanding of the tech into our psyche; less geek, more invisible.
Session Q&As
ME: cost shouldn't be a huge barrier, it's dropping
Linda Ellis: Where should people put their stuff to get it picked up by these services? Paul: wherever there's a public API e.g. Flickr. Mike: where the people are.
Joe Cutting: how have things changed in terms of contract/PAYG phones, replacement of handsets? Paul: contract phones replaced on avg every 18 months, but 80% estimate by 2015 for smartphones.
Gail Durbin: ideas for how to use the QR codes they already have on their object labels. Andy: treasure hunt activities tied to OPAC (UBath library expt). Paul: run a competition to answer this question!

Open Mic session
Linda Spurdle (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery): Pre-raphaelite Online Resource
BMAG-built, JISC and MLA funded. Targetted at HE students and researchers. Audience research indicated low demand for social features, commenting etc. Not about fun! "Wikirage" of lecturers a deterrent to making it social. Instead put objects at the heart with zoomable images (via moderately controversial but beautifully effective Sliverlight interface)
Julian ...(Manchester Art Gallery): QR codes in practice
Revealing Histories display hooked into website, ability to submit content.
Current trial: Manchester public sculptures interpreted via QR codes. There's already a GMap of where the sculptures are. Should they try RFID? Small redesign of pages for mobile leads to questions over main collections pages, which aren't mobile friendly. [if end-points were, say, Wikipedia pages, might it be easier to pull into Layar etc?]
Tim Boundy, JANET UK: Use JANET for video-conferencing! Please!
JANET hooks up museums with schools for VC [including the Museum of London]. Both the infrastructure and the booking system made super-easy; number of registered schools growing rapidly (4k now). You need the hardware, JANET can provide the software.
Andrew @ V&A: blogs
Audience, contributors and plan all needed! Knowing limits of your technology and agreeing a schedule. The plan: if for an exhibition, start well before launch!
Shona (Museum of Hartlepool): Articus
Educational resource aiming to increase footfall in the galleries (specifically, booked school groups), aimed at children and teachers. Various activities include creating art offline and uploading, curating own galleries, gathering images to use on IWBs. Launched February but less uptake than expected - is this because of registration requirement?
[They really want school groups to book visits following from this. I wonder, how is the site positioned to tempt people in rather than do it all online? Are they not encouraged to submit and place value in the statistics of thes sites usage in itself, because it seems a bit C20th to value only the visits to the physical museum that it may encourage. It's treating it a bit like fancy brochure-ware, when really what it is, is a valuable service for schools in its own right that simply needs them to find a workable way of measuring its impact in terms of MH's mission. As for why they're losing visitors, what do the stats say on bounce rates, is there real evidence from there that registration is off-putting? Tweet @snowflakeshona with your suggestions]

Next, Ross does some defragging.

Keynote - Richard Morgan (V&A): Making the digital museum relevant in people's everyday lives
[the following, in retrospect, makes not a lot of sense, which is my fault not Richards! By brain was failing.]
What's people's daily experience of museums? Are they as likely to see the commercial arm as anything else?
Making money is important; our digital presence is scattered, how do we make sense of it for people? Will SW do anything for this?
The Q: "maverick activity" that leads to all this, fitted into the corporate narrative (and defragmenting that corporate narrative too).
Capture your data, tho this requires a leap of faith. V&A's new Search The Collections has got 1M records out there, from a low base. Put focus on relationships between records, to be articulated in UI and underneath, to encourage reuse (API).
Interfaces: browsing; visualising through mapping
Browing continuous variables and topologies? FABRIC, TSB-funded project about content-based image retrieval, variables including colour, "texture" (shape and angles, really).
World Beach Project: bringing world into collections.
V&A Wedding fashion site: data includes where clothes bought, an implicit link.
Lots of curatorial stuff and lots of UGC stuff now. How to join it up with real semantic connections?
Collections of photos/paintings of localities, being places of significance, have a fair chance of being in e.g. Flickr too (and tagged). So can we dynamically hook our content into this?
Museums good at finding strong niches we can build networks around. We can delegate to these what the museum cannot provide. Might this even be a way to make cash, selling services around, say, weddings or fashion?
Moving from niches to "web intelligence and insight", looking for stuff that's not so obvious, the signal in the trends. We do have lots of data after all. Can also identify weaker signals, can we een anticipate trends? Helps us argue to funders about the value we (could) give.
Finding the stories in the data is one of the things a technologist in a museum should be doing. [a key point slipped in right at the end there! I'm really interested in where we might find the boundaries of our work moving, or where we might wish to expand them, as we find that digital media peeps have maybe accidentally found themselves to be information curators, analysts, interpreters, and disseminators. There are professionals in museums trained exactly for some of this, but if the webby people know how to hook it all together, plumb in the visualisation tools and the metadata enrichment tools and so on, are we gradually moving onto that turf too? The role of the information or computing professional is always evolving, whether in large or small organisations; I think it's good sometimes to reflect on where it's evolving to]

Session 3 (Mia Ridge, chair): Sensory
Joe Cutting: Telling stories with games
Company of Merchant Adventurers of York: good-looking teading game [did they refactor the code from Elite?] Instructional and fun, that's what it's all about. So what is a game anyway? JC's practical proposition: given goals in a situation, choices, feedback, make more choices i.e back to step 2. Learning through iteration. "Active prolonged engagement", a term coined at Exploratorium. [think I ballsed up the definition a bit here, sorry]
Need enough info to make a good choice. Success or failure must be gradual.
Game models: lots of console games played obsessively by a small audience. Not really what we're after. Arcade games better. Web-based MMORPGs better still, but 3D makes things harder, not easier.
Anne Kahr-Hojland (DREAM in Denmark): Ego-trap
Ego-trap comes out of her PhD work. Visitors guided by mobiles through exhibition at Experimentarium. 2 narrative layers, three levels. Personality test, questions from a woman who has called you; a level at which suspicion is aroused by another person contacting you; ...
AR gameplay, digital narrative determined by physical setting.
Targeting secondarry students. Objectives: to stimulate interest in science, improve learning in that setting by prompting reflection. Reflection prompted by predictions and evaluations, narrative structure, discussion with others. Works well as an exhibition guide; high levels of engagement and recall of exhibitions after play.
The meta-narrative gets less committment than the personal test; is it coz they know what to do in context of a test? Does this interfere with the critical reflection aspect?
[once again, I couldn't really keep up with the ideas properly whilst tweeting and writing this and this definitely shows! There's a lesson there, but I'm too preoccupied with the personality test to realise it]
Victoria Tillotson (iShed, c/o Watershed Media Centre)
Project to bring together practitioners, researchers and users in immersive experiences. "A space for risk", inspire innovation and share ideas, create market place.
Includes artists, creative industry, IT co's, community etc.
mscapers.com: software to create location-based mobile games, which will be hosted on the mscapers site. Cool!
HP facilitate annual festival: mScape Fest.
mScape only works in iPaqs. Oh. But work underway to port to Android and iPhone. Uses GPS so currently only outdoors, indoors version coming[?], also downloadable versions of games.
Pervasive Media Studio: pmstudio.co.uk will be home to cool stuff in due course...
Pervasive gaming gradually spreading in pockets. Face to face, on the streets, on the 'net, without technology. All sorts of genres and timescales.
Simongames.co.uk: game built around location of a Romany caravan, parked around London. Done for Soho Theatre. Interaction between public and travellers in the caravan. [not too sure what the game part was tho, same old story: too distracted. Oops]
Duncan Speakman: sound to navigate public spaces. "subtle mobs" of people gathering to listen to a set of instructions and act on them. "As if it were the last time": a subtle mob in Bristol, coming to London soon. See http://youtube.com/watch?v=FY6S4GkCZ9c

Final session (Marcus Weisen, chair): Accessible digital museums
Lots physical exhibitions still failing accessibility for people with physical or sensory impairments.
Helen Petrie & Christopher Power: Accessible digital culture
Trying to make this an interesting challenge rather than a burden often tackled as an add-on must-do at the end.
The digital past in large part about about websites. There was a burst of interest (following WCAG) with DRC investigation into web accessibility, eGov targets for govt websites, Culture Online funding dependent on accessibility, MLA audit. Then govt unit closed down, sites got more complex - moving target - DRC merged into EHRC, no legal cases brought against failing orgs. EC push, but have the targets been set too high? "Is it too hard to implement accessibility in digital culture and related areas?". UK gov now has Digital Inclusion Champion in Martha Lane Fox. New EC initiatives will target culture more.
Christopher moves us on to the present: WCAG has aged poorly; technology, interaction and user changes; new WCAG out last year tho not much fanfare. Few tools to address WCAG2 conformance. Is it harder to understand than v1? Guidelines are mainly tech-independent and so "future-proofed", grouped into 4 principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, robust. It's about "transmitting meaning" after all.
Success criteria don't tell you how to test your technology, perhaps this just makes it trickier - you have to go to "techniques" section, dealing with implementation. These only deal with W3C technologies. Often not evidence-based but value-based.
Outcome: WCAG has moved the responsibility for developing the correct tests onto the development community.
The future: interacting with content, focusing on users' objectives not the technology. Communicating meaning is the point. About content, not delivery, whether digital or not. Personalisation of content to match user preferences. How do we measure experience and communication of meaning? [the self same problem we have for assessing effectiveness of our digital media even if we were oblivious to accessibility questions]
Contract soon with EC to investigate this problem in the digital culture arena.

Jodi Awards
I didn't take any notes during the awards, and only part way through did I start to tweet coz I couldn't see anyone else doing it (until I looked at my twitter stream!) It was the first time I'd been along to these awards, perhaps because it was also the first time we'd been up for anything and whilst I can't claim any credit at all for that (or for MOL ultimately winning the award we were nominated for) it felt like I had some small justification for attending what was an over-subscribed event.
I found it all pretty moving. The last year has brought disability closer to home, well, into the home for me and I'm some way through a process where the sort of knowledge and values about disability that I've always known in a sort of factual "of course that's the right way to think" kind of way, are turning into the sort of knowledge that is more internalised, that is felt and truly believed, not simply accepted. There's a difference between that knowing and believing. I guess it's called awakening. Anyway, attending the awards was a privilege and an inspiration and I want now to make sure that I embed a righter way of thinking into my work, rather than doing the things I know (or am told) need to be done and assuming that is sufficient.
I was struck in Helen and Chris's talk before the awards (enough to tweet it in very compressed form) that they had identified the communication of meaning as the core of what accessibility should mean, and that this resonated so well with the way I've been thinking about sustaining/sustainability: the purpose of sustaining is not to continue with the thing the way it is, but with it serving what it's for (even this might change, in fact), and a radical change in form might be the best way for something to carry on serving the same purpose. I like this synergy very much, this fact that perhaps we can focus on what a resource is for and serve both sustainability and accessibility ends.
You can read who was nominated, who was commended and who won here, for this and previous years. What you probably can't read, or relive in any way, was the wonderful Skype moment we had with the Karlovy Vary recipients of the jointly-awarded International Award, who couldn't hear us at all. Turns out that the very excellent Matthew Cock was using the wrong mic. Thank you Matthew for the ensuing comedy on a heartwarming but quite serious evening. Thank you too to Martha Lane Fox, who announced the awards and took us through a bit of her own journey. And finally humble congratulations to all the winners and nominees on that list, not least our own Lucie Fitton and Jude Habib (not our own) who deservingly won the Digital Access Online award.