Web Adept

Web Adept‘, the UK Museums on the Web conference has been and gone, and I reckon it’s been another interesting year – I really enjoyed helping pull together Mashed Museum and the conference day itself was good too, no to mention the usual opportunities to get together with people you haven’t seen for a while and do some talking.

Overall, one of the things which struck me is that it feels each year as if the mood and pace lifts a little bit more, which is great. Once there was a time when delegates seemed to be endlessly worried about lack of resources and focussed on problems rather than solutions. This year, both at Web Adept but also at the SF MWeb conference, it all feels more upbeat. There is still frustration at the usual ‘museum treacle’ (I noticed Seb used this phrase a couple of times – it’s catching on!), but also a lot of energy. People are starting to do incredible things with not much cash and few staff, and that’s great news…

Here’s a few highlights of the day:

Seb Chan from the Powerhouse gave a keynote on social tagging. They’ve done it with their online collection and have huge quantities of quantitative and qualitative data about how successful it is. Some of the ideas he presented were really fascinating – he highlighted for example the tendency of museum sites to focus more on search (a very cataloguer/librarian/curatorial approach) than browse (the way we naturally – in the real world – work with quantities of content). The lessons from Seb are that social tagging *does* work next to ‘traditional’ taxonomic structures, but also that you really can make this stuff happen with a small team, lots of enthusiasm and some users to test with.

Michael Twidale talked about museums in Second Life. He gave a general – and I’m glad to say, still open minded overview of what museums are doing in there.

I’ve recently been back on Second Life with a new PC. The experience was better – at least it loads – but I’m still slightly bemused by the whole thing. I knocked about a bit, got to grips with flying, checked out a couple of places, but then got bored… The thing is that I’ve been pretty addicted to another 3D world for a while now – www.there.com. With this space there is a very obvious purpose – it’s easy to meet people, pleasant to chat (both text and voice), well designed and pretty engrossing from a social perspective. Second Life on the other hand is ugly and clunky, and in my experience I’ve found it a lonely, unsociable and fairly unsatisfying place to be. Yes, the building aspect is interesting and yes the moves they’ve made towards API’s tweaks the right knobs, BUT it’s a steep learning curve to build stuff when you’re not actually sure *why* you’re building it in the first place. I’m not totally anti SL, I just need convincing that it does something useful. I’d also really like to get to the bottom of their apparently impressive user figures. I would bet at least half if not way more of those are single-time ‘tried it, left, never came back’.

Anyway. Next up was me. I gave a very quick overview of what mashups are and why we should be interested in them, and then ran through the stuff we built.

Nick Poole from MDA did an interesting session on the various legal issues surrounding UGG – his message ‘worry less, do more’ was refreshing and very much in parallel to my own position on this stuff. Then Alex Whitfield from the BL asked some very interesting questions about sacred images online: specifically, how to be sensitive to cultural groups who have different responses to religious imagery and icons; but more generally asking questions about context. What if an image of a sacred cow is aggregated by Google next to some material which religious groups would find unacceptable? Take for example this search – is the page of aggregated results acceptable to all users (“serving sacred cow daily” next to images which some users would consider sacred) ? And am I being unsensitive to these groups by linking to it? This in itself is interesting, but when you extrapolate along Web 2.0 lines – your objects and images being taken out of their original context – it starts to ask some more questions. Very thought provoking.

The first afternoon sessions were on UGC, how to handle shared ownership, authority. I won’t cover them further here but hopefully the presentations will be online soon.

After that, Jon Pratty from the 24 hr Museum (new name – er, for the museum, not Jon – coming soon, apparently!) ran through the findings of the Semantic Web Museums Think Tank – then Paul Shabajee from HP talked about an application they developed which does some semantic stuff. I grabbed Paul’s card and will be heading over to HP at some point to see in a bit more detail what they’re up to. It’s a relief to see something that does Semantic stuff – it’s so often just a concept without any actual real word examples. But – and Paul confirmed this during the session – it still comes down to the age old rub: you only get more out if you put more in. From my experience, it’s hard enough getting curatorial staff, digitisers or anyone for that matter to fill in 15 DC fields with any reasonable accuracy or meaning. Yes, technology can be clever in helping create links and suggestions for semantic meaning, but at the end of the day it just isn’t going to happen in the real world if it’s too hard. Take RDF vs RSS (unfair comparison I know, but you get my point). The simple, easy to do technology wins. So the enduring question – is SW just too hard, and if so, will it ever get easier as computer processing gets more intelligent? If I knew, I’d build it and retire.

Brian Kelly rounded off the day with his talk on accessibility. His only problem was that everyone agreed with him (and Ross asked him to create a punch up…) and me, banging on (sorry everyone – you know I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about this) . Either way, it’s a spot-on talk which I will link to when Brian’s uploaded it.

All in all a really great couple of days. Ross is a star getting this together every year – thanks loads to him and to all the sponsors.

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