Pushing MRD out from under the geek rock

The week before last (30th June – 1st July 2009), I was at the JISC Digital Content Conference having been asked to take part in one of their parallel sessions.

I thought I’d use the session to talk about something I’m increasingly interested in – the shifting of the message about machine readable data (think API’s, RSS, OpenSearch, Microformats, LinkedData, etc) from the world of geek to the world of non-geek.

My slides are here:

[slideshare id=1714963&doc=dontthinkwebsitesthinkdatafinal-090713100859-phpapp02]

Here’s where I’m at: I think that MRD (That’s Machine Readable Data – I couldn’t seem to find a better term..) is probably about as important as it gets. It underpins an entire approach to content which is flexible, powerful and open. It embodies notions of freely moving data, it encourages innovation and visualisation. It is also not nearly as hard as it appears – or doesn’t have to be.

In the world of the geek (that’s a world I dip into long enough to see the potential before heading back out here into the sun), the proponents of MRD are many and passionate. Find me a Web2.0 application without an API (or one “on the development road-map”) and I’ll find you a pretty unusual company.

These people don’t need preaching at. They’re there, lined up, building apps for Twitter (to the tune of 10x the traffic which visits twitter.com), developing a huge array of services and visualisations, graphs, maps, inputs and outputs.

The problem isn’t the geeks. The problem is that MRD needs to move beyond the realm of the geek and into the realm of the content owner, the budget holder, the strategist, for these technologies to become truly embedded. We need to have copyright holders and funders lined up at the start of the project, prepared for the fact that our content will be delivered through multiple access routes, across unspecified timespans and to unknown devices. We need our specifications to be focused on re-purposing, not on single-point delivery. We need solution providers delivering software with web API’s built in. We need to be prepared for a world in which no-one visits our websites any more, instead picking, choosing and mixing our content from externally syndicated channels.

In short, we now need the relevant people evangelising about the MRD approach.

Geeks have done this well so far, but now they need help. Try searching on “ROI for API’s” (or any combination thereof) and you’ll find almost nothing – very little evidence outlining how much API’s cost to implement, what cost savings you are likely to see from them; how they reduce content development time; few guidelines on how to deal with syndicated content copyright issues.

Partly, this knowledge gap is because many of the technologies we’re talking about are still quite young. But a lot of the problem is about the communication of technology, the divided worlds that Nick Poole (Collections Trust) speaks about. This was the core of my presentation: ten reasons why MRD is important, from the perspective of a non-geek (links go to relevant slides and examples in the slide deck):

  1. Content is still king
  2. Re-use is not just good, it’s essential
  3. “Wouldn’t it be great if…”: Life is easier when everyone can get at your data
  4. Content development is cheaper
  5. Things get more visual
  6. Take content to users, not users to content (“If you build it, they probably won’t come”)
  7. It doesn’t have to be hard
  8. You can’t hide your content
  9. We really is bigger and better than me
  10. Traffic

All this is is a starter for ten. Bigger, better and more informed people than me probably have another hundred reasons why MRD is a good idea. I think this knowledge may be there – we just need to surface and collect it so that more (of the right) people can benefit from these approaches.

14 thoughts on “Pushing MRD out from under the geek rock”

  1. whats the incentive of the content holder to advance this? If i make money from my site, be that ads or payment – why would i want to help produce something that gives away all my value with no return?

  2. Arun – that’s part of the question 🙂

    The likely answer – and one that seems to be emerging in many scenarios – is that notions of value in a networked world have to be reassessed and moved away from traditional models where scarcity is the key. So whereas once it would have been good to keep assets under lock and key and charge a premium to access them, now (the argument goes) it becomes more sensible to *expose* content wherever possible – not necessarily *all* of it (ie. small images rather than high-res, or titles/abstracts rather than full-text).

    So in answer to your question – the incentive is that you maximise exposure to your content (a Good Thing) by driving traffic to it through as many possible avenues as possible. What you do with the value model at the receiving end is dependent on the particular scenario. For museums, it might be to convert virtual exposure to ticket sales or hi-res prints. For authors, it might be to have free ebooks with exposed content being used to encourage sales of the “real” thing. For some scenarios (Twitter being the current classic example), it is simply about building such a huge user base that the business model (as yet to be defined) follows on in the shape of ads, a freemium model, etc.

    I’ve written and presented a fair bit on the “scarcity / scale” approaches. Be interesting to hear your thoughts.

  3. Just to explain i come from online news background.
    I agree with the exposure of a small amount of copy – i Love it when we get good position on Google news for instance, however that is different to contributing to ‘no one visiting websites’ google news sends people to our site and improves our stats allowing us to charge more for advertising – meaning i get paid, which means the news gets written and people get informed about stuff they want to know – this would not be the case if people read all my stuff through a syndicating app (unless the app pay me for my stuff, which they wouldn’t need to do if they can just grab MRD from my site).

    I have no other product to sell on the back of increased exposure.

    but maybe you aren’t talking to news guys with this idea?

  4. @Arun – isn’t the key to success in a news (/ any!) environment finding the content contact points that work for *users* (#6: “Take content to users, not users to content”)?

    So RSS as a prime example: I probably have no intention / likelihood of visiting your site for news, but might well add your feed to my feed reader, or have it as part of my desktop news ticker or personalised homepage. Content is delivered to me in a way that suits my way of reading it.

    How you monetise this, and whether it is first-line monetisation (ad clicks on the RSS feed; click throughs and then ad clicks; premium content faster / better to subscribers) or second-line monetisation (better Google juice; more click-through to your site; more visibility; brand awareness building etc) depends on the particular scenario.

    Clay Shirky’s now infamous post has a lot more to say about newspapers and delivery of news online. I don’t subscribe to all of his views, but they’re interesting nontheless…

    re. particular sectors – well, yes, I think everyone should be aware of these approaches, particularly people who look after content rather than those who just do geekery. Whether the approaches work for particular sectors / sites / niche markets is a secondary question. The most important thing IMO is awareness that this is the way things seem to be heading in many areas where rich content is being delivered.

  5. Couple of notes around should we call it MRD or “structured” content as Google calls it via RichSnippets. And…

    @Arun: Don’t need to turn over all content just expose the metadata or other items that will drive traffic to your website, if indeed that is the only viable business model…

    Big problem being that we still don’t know what a fluid business model looks like, advertisement is the closest thing we have for adatption to the current Web, but it is my suspcion other models are yet to be found, e.g. hybrid subscription-authorship model, etc.

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