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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

Friday, September 23, 2011

Europeana's Data Exchange Agreement: more than just a licensing change

The announcement yesterday that the Europeana Foundation had officially adopted the new Europeana Data Exchange Agreement may have passed you by, but it seems to me to be a vital moment in Europeana's history, or if you prefer, its future. This agreement is key to its sustainability – by which I mean, not that it is a guarantee of long-term viability, but that it couples the resourcing and the value proposition of the service more transparently than ever before. Let me expand on this.

For Europeana to be more than just a portal website it must be part of the data landscape, an ever-growing circle on that famous Linked Data diagram. I don’t think anyone concerned with the project could conceive of it as anything else nowadays. The “Distribute” strand of the 2011-15 Strategic Plan (PDF) pivots on the re-use of content away from the Europeana site, via the API or Linked Data channels. This is the Europeana that I am talking about sustaining, and this is what the EDEA makes possible. Without it, the offer could only be the ghost of that: a portal site. With it, it could become pervasive. It’s the difference between a drinks machine and mains water supply. Coca Cola like to slap on a label saying “Buxton” and sell water for 10,000 what it costs from the tap to those people that come to the drinks machine. Thames Water, by contrast, put it in pipes and get it everywhere – unbranded, plentiful, pervasive. The EDEA brings into focus a similar choice for content providers: do they want their water in the mains, or would they rather put it in bottles and try to find buyers on their own? Europeana has staked its future - I do mean that - on the mains supply approach.

The two most significant resources that Europeana relies upon are finance and content*. You might also add users, or you might prefer to count them on the “benefit” side of a cost/benefit equation. Crudely put, finance comes largely from the European Commission and content largely comes from cultural heritage content partners (either direct data providers or, more commonly, via aggregators). These two stakeholder groups, providing the grist to Europeana’s mill, are looking for different things, although their interests overlap greatly. To sustain a social enterprise, which is at heart concerned with generating public good rather than a net profit, requires whoever is providing the resources for it to perceive that the value thus generated is worth the cost. If this value proposition is not strong enough to persuade them to supply the necessary resources, well, it won’t be resourced and will fail.

Europeana has now laid out its value proposition to content providers, along with what it requires in return. Given the vision of the Strategic Plan's “Distribute” strand, this requirement could never really be less than the CC0 license the EDEA requires, but equally the “mains supply” model of cultural content is the foundation of the value proposition that the EDEA offers to museums, libraries and archives that sign the new agreement: you will find your content hosed across the internet, heliping you to deliver your public mandate but also carrying new traffic back to your site and opening up commercial opportunities. The word “exchange” in the title of the Agreement also highlights the other part of the value proposition: that the enrichments Europeana makes to the raw metadata it receives will also be CC0 licensed and will be given back to the providers. Note also that whilst the EDEA is not a contract with the funders, it again reflects the value proposition to them: culture on tap through openly licenced, reusable data.

So the EDEA is not just a new licensing agreement. If you like, it is the sustainability plan in super-brief form: give us your content and let us set it free, and here’s what you get in return - oh and funders, this is why we're worth the €€€. Since the Strategic Plan laid out a vision of open-licensed, distributed and open data, this was really the inescapable conclusion. If it finds sufficient favour, that vision of a mains supply of culture may have a long life, and that bubble on the Linked Data diagram may keep growing. If it doesn’t, well, it’s either back to the drinks machine or back to nothing. It's worth the gamble, I reckon.

* Oh, and political support. This is a big one, and is the source of powerful backing for the open data train to which Europeana has hitched its wagon. If Commissioner Neelie Kroes has anything to do with it this train is going to gather speed rapidly – see her speech to the OpenEurope Summit this week for starters.