Quantity or quality?

This might seem like an odd question, especially given the vast (vast) quantity of effort that goes into digitisation, rights checking, caption authoring and so on. But I’m also a fan of taking a step back at least every so often and asking odd, obvious and possibly stupid questions.

The question is in part prompted by an (apparently controversial) post on Read Write Web (I Don’t Know Much About Art But I Know What’s Online). I say “apparently controversial” because it seemed to kick off a fair-sized discussion on the MCG list, at least one blog post and a bunch of tweets from people who seemed to be a bit cross about it.

FWIW, it seemed to me to be an interesting and mostly fair post, albeit with moments of obvious silliness. Defining a single “museum experience”, for example, is easily as foolish as defining a single “shopping experience” or single “reading experience” or single any experience – it seems blindingly obvious there is no single experience, no single context, no single person. At the same time the point – that there is, really, nothing quite like seeing the real thing, no matter which way you cut it – is a fair one.

All of that aside, the interesting questions asked by the post seemed to be:

1. Is the Holy Grail of collections online to get THE LOT up on the web?

2. What makes for a good online collections experience, especially if you’ve delivered 1) and your collections number tens of thousands?

And of course, underling these two questions is, for me, the interesting one: why? Why do it at all? Why spend hundreds of thousands (actually, millions upon millions..) of pounds digitising collections for distribution to a digital audience?

Clearly, the use-cases for online collections are as varied as anything else but there must be some answers here, right? If you’re a medium-sized museum considering your digitisation strategy, how do you choose what to do? Is it all about quantity, about some kind of “number of collections items online up 400% this year!” box-ticking exercise? And if it isn’t about quantity but quality, how do you go about measuring the impact of your strategy?

I find it hard to see past my own perspective on this one: personally, I’d always prefer a tiny number of objects (hundreds, or even tens!) where each has been given real, personal attention. Seeing enormous great lists of stuff where QUANTITY IS ALL seems somehow to miss the entire point. For me, this isn’t about the mass of objects but is somehow about the “gaps” between the objects: the relationships between them, the relationships to people and, most importantly, the stories. George Cavan’s now-famous matchbox means nothing without the story attached to it: with it, it has a huge and tear-jerking impact.

There again, I’m a punter and not a researcher. Maybe they’d think very differently.

Update: see Frankie Roberto’s post: “..what an art museum experience might feel like online”

What’s so great about mobile?

I gave a presentation recently at UK Museums on the Web entitled “The Intertubes Everywhere”. It was a re-working of my Ignite Cardiff talk, with a gentle angle towards cultural heritage. Here are the slides:

[slideshare id=2742484&doc=theintertubeseverywhere-091218044628-phpapp02]

The one-liner for those that don’t have the time to go through the slides is something like this: I believe that although mobile has been held up as THE NEXT BIG THING for some time, we are reaching a kind of “perfect storm” of conditions where it is at last becoming a viable reality for many users and therefore something for institutions to think about, too.

This is as much to do with effective marketing and consciousness raising as it is to do with device or network capability: if you’ve tried buying a mobile phone in the last year or two, you will have been offered mobile internet; if you go to a mobile phone company website today, you’ll see smartphones, dongles and internet on the go on their homepage. It would be very hard to miss this kind of marketing push. Couple this with the radical improvement of mobile content, the beginnings of location-based services and the increasing speeds and capability of a “normal” mobile device, and it seems pretty clear that we’re on the cusp of something pretty big.

If you’re in any doubt, check out slides 25-35 of the presentation that Dan Zambonini and I did at DISH 2009, which have some interesting figures on changing mobile usage. With device replacements happening on average every 14 months, even the old-school phones that don’t support mobile internet won’t be here for much longer.

With this level of exposure, it’s obvious that museums and other cultural heritage institutions are going to be following along and getting excited about mobile, either building iPhone apps or creating mobile versions of their sites.

While it is excellent to see innovation in this field, I’m slightly underwhelmed by some of the mobile offerings starting to appear that seem to be more “because we can” rather than “because we should”, in particular the current trend (and I’m deliberately not giving any examples – you can go find them yourself!) for “mobile collections search”.

It seems to me that the single mantra which should surround any mobile web development project right from the start is something like “never forget: the mobile browsing experience is far, far inferior to the desktop browsing experience”.

Browsing a mobile website is generally not a fun time. You don’t relax when you’re browsing on a mobile; you don’t lose yourself in the content: you’re there in sit forward mode, and you want to do one of two things:

  1. find some information and get out as quickly as you can
  2. use the capability of the “mobile” bit of the experience to do something…well, “mobile”

The first point is a no-brainer, IMO. Consider when and how I might choose to browse a museum website on my mobile. The answer is not “in my living room at home” – if I’m there, I’ll go find my laptop and have a far easier and more pleasurable experience in sit back mode. The answer probably is (and don’t shout at me for being obvious..) but when I’m mobile. I’m out and about, wondering what to do at lunchtime, thinking about whether a museum is open or where I can get tickets or how to get there. I’m not on WIFI, and I want the information as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. I don’t want images, I don’t want interaction, I want information. And I want it right now. And – this is the painful bit – I really, really don’t want to browse the collections. Why would I want a second-rate experience of browsing content using a 2″ screen, some clumsy non-mouse interaction touchpoints and a slow connection? And – more to the point – why would I possibly want to stand in the street (being mobile…) and look at museum collections? I don’t*.

* Actually, sometimes I do, provided the mobile experience adds something. And this is where point 2 comes in:

If I can have an experience which augments my real experience rather than just providing a poor quality facsimile of an online experience – then you’re talking about truly putting mobile capability to good use.

So for example – if I’ve got a known location (and this can mean GPS but more likely in our museum context means “I’m standing in front of artefact X and my phone knows that because I’ve keyed in something to tell it this”), then now is the time for the museum to give me additional information about other similar exhibits, let me bookmark that artwork, or share it with my network.

mobile.nmsi.ac.uk - something I knocked out about 5 years ago and still live!

Some of the museum sites we’re starting to see are making use of this capability – check out BlkynMuse on your mobile (and note the immediate emphasis on “where are you on-gallery?”) as a good example; but there also seems to be an increasing number who are simply putting their museum collections online as they are in some kind of mobile format – either a mobile optimised site or (worse) an iPhone application, with none of the context-sensitivity that makes mobile a value-add proposition for end-users.

Much as I’m glad to see innovation in this space, I’d much rather see museums focussing on point 1 above by having a mobile-sniffing code on their homepage and redirecting to an optimised m.museumsite.com page with visiting information, than putting in a huge amount of effort into providing mobile-optimised collections search. At the very worst, museums should have the subdomain m.*** or mobile.*** and there have a script to strip out the images and so on. There are many ways to do this – here, for example is the Museum of London site stripped using a simple PHP script from Phonefier, or see these tips on how to create simple “mobilised” versions of your existing site with zero extra effort.

Once the simple and high-gain win is done, then it’d be great to see some location-specific and innovative approaches to “virtually collecting” or augmenting collections experiences. But the “browse our mobile collections site” without really thinking about the use-case is pretty much saying: “go here on your mobile and you can have an experience which is infinitely worse than the one on your desktop with absolutely no upside”. In other words, no thanks.

What do you think? Has your museum got a mobile site for visitors, or just for collections, or none at all? What mobile apps have you downloaded or accessed that provide museum collections (or other) information? How was it for you?

UPDATE (about 3 minutes after I posted this…): I just realised I utterly neglected to talk about gaming. Which, IMO, is where mobile (and in particular mobile collections) have a huge amount of potential. I think this’ll have to wait for a future post 🙂

“Can I find it on Google?”

Let’s ask this: Just what do museum website users want?

Actually, before we do that, the biggest question is “who is our audience?”.

Wait. Before we do that, let’s assume that – what – 70-80% of museum website users want to find out some logistical stuff: “what’s on? how do I get there? how much is it?”. Let’s assume that this bit is solved with a page or two of dull but useful information. Let’s ignore the 70-80%. They’re boring. There’s only so much you can do with a map and some opening times, right?

Now let’s consider the other stuff – the content – the collections, the exhibition stories, the richness. Just who are these people, what do they want, and where do they come from?

Determining audiences for museum websites is a slippery game which generally involves phrases like “lifelong learners” (everyone) or “educators” (teachers, parents, children – oh wait, everyone) or just “everyone”.

I’m being slightly mean, and actually the definitions are a little bit better than that, but still there is an underlying tension which is something to do with deeper questions about success, publicity, depth of resources, marketing, integrity – and that horrible, horrible phrase which frequently does the rounds: dumbing down.

When a curator oversees a website, for instance, he or she often fights the dumbing down thing tooth and nail. Curators are about depth, about academic rigour and cleverness. Curators aren’t (often) about publicity, traffic, sound-bites and volume. This is fine, and museums should be about quality and richness and integrity. If it wasn’t for this, they wouldn’t be the respected institutions that they have become.

The problem is that museums online want (and increasingly need) to be mainstream, too. We see Flickr and Facebook and Google and viral marketing and Twitter and….[etc] and, frankly, we want some ‘o’ that. And the tension there becomes more intense. Can you build traffic and volume and virality online and still manage to “not be dumb”? Can these deep, rich, academically sound experiences also be mainstream? Is – getting to the crux of the question – a mainstream user shallow or deep?

One of the big, enduring discussions, for example, is about how Google provides search into museum collections. Museum people tend to twitch if you suggest they should focus on exposing their collections sites to SEO best principles and forget the in-house search (or even just stick their stuff on Wikipedia and forget the whole in-house piece altogether), because they say that Google doesn’t provide the granularity that is required. For some researchers – those who want to find out the year an object was invented or the country of origin, for example – this lack of granularity is indeed a problem. For many others – those who just want a picture of any old steam engine for their desktop or wherever – it isn’t.

Balancing this requirement / audience / success equation is in itself a game. The best solution (do both) is clearly the answer, but many institutions fail to realise this, tending to focus on arcane in-house terms and interfaces rather than trying to find ways of building SEO via common content entrance points like Google. It becomes a user interface question, yes, but it is also about much bigger-picture strategic issues about success.

What each museum needs to decide is what this success looks like. And if – as is usually the case – success is about museums becoming more used, more embedded in people’s lives, more human – then success is, frankly, about Google. There, I said it. Where else does anyone begin a search for – well, anything? Do we really think that people come to museums to begin their search? Really?

So success – in the case of Europeana, for example – seems to me to be about asking the question: “can I find Europeana stuff on Google?”, not “can I find Europeana stuff on Europeana?”. When I’m looking for information on Leopold Mozart, I’m not – ever – going to start my search on one of our individual museum sites or any of the aggregators, federators or whotsitators that have been developed, including Europeana. I’m going to Google. Firstly, because I clearly don’t know who knows stuff on Mozart’s father and I can’t go there if I don’t have that specialised bit of information yet (and Google (currently) provides the single best starting point for my query); but secondly, because Google is there as my homepage, a hook in my Chrome browser search bar and as a known entity in my consciousness. Why would I start my search looking at detail in a single book when I’ve got access to general information about the whole library?

This is grandmother / eggs for many people working in museums, but I’m not sure it is as obvious to the big projects we’ve seen emerging from the museum sector. For some of these projects, specialised audiences are their success, in which case local approaches do work better. But for the majority, success is increasingly about making enough SEO noise for more general audiences.

And is this “dumbing down”? Yes, I suspect it probably is.

The whole NPG / Wikimedia thing

There’s acres and acres of stuff to read and write about the whole National Portrait Gallery legal action threat against Wikimedia contributor Dcoetzee and his addition to the Wikimedia collection. I’m not going to try and add to the noise too much but it would seem apposite to at least comment given my current thread of presentations and posts is all about freedom, openness and MRD.

As always (just like the argument currently brewing about Free), there are two possible dangers in any debate like this. First, we go into too much detail and lose the view of the house because we’re examining the bricks too closely. Second, we polarise the debate.

I’m good at polarising, being a bear of simple brain – particularly when it comes to copyright. Simply, I don’t think it works in many cases, and I think this particular example holds – on many levels – great reasons as to why not. Cross-country, cross-domain, cross-sector, hidden images, non-hidden images, etc etc. This level of complexity doesn’t hold well with users, and they will abuse, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Having said that, there are clearly two sides to this particular debate, and actually I think both sides are being pretty reasonable. NPG have offered medium sized pictures; Wikimedia has been on the case for some years seeking access to these (arguably) public domain images. The discussion over the detail in this particular case will ramble on; the legal threat will be sorted out of court; everyone will ultimately go away at least semi-happy.

The bigger picture is the more important question, and it is this: why are cultural institutions putting collection (images) online? I ask this as an open question, as un-loaded as it can be (given you probably know where I’m coming from on this).

The possible answers are these (none is mutually exclusive, by the way):

  • to sell them / variations of them, such as prints, etc
  • to increase exposure to them
  • to increase exposure to the holding institution
  • to increase ticket sales / physical visits to the holding institution

So with these in mind, I think the important questions in this particular debate are not about the devil detail of cross-country copyright or whether Dcoetzee “should” have done what he did. I think they are:

  • does the exposure on Wikimedia increase exposure? (Answer: yes)
  • does exposure of hi-res pictures stop people from buying them (Answer: unknown, but possibly not)
  • does the exposure of the images improve the standing of the institution (as being a place that “has a great collection”) ? (Answer: yes)
  • does the exposure of the images increase click-through to the NPG website (and hence, assuming at least some kind of connection between traffic and physical visits) ? (Answer: unknown – I’m about to submit a FOI request to see if we can find out, but probably yes)
  • does the threat of legal action make NPG look good? (Answer: not really)

There’s some great questions here, which I’ve been asking our sector to answer for a while. Where is value in a networked age? How does virtual equate to physical? Does exposure increase or decrease physical sales (go ask Anderson or Gladwell this one…).

Just as a closing thought, I wonder if the NPG will be chasing Yahoo! for this YQL query or Google Images for this one? I suspect not.

Creative Spaces – just…why?

There’s been a fair bit of buzz around the launch of the NMOLP (National Museums Online Learning Project) – now apparently renamed as “Creative Spaces” for launch.

I’ve known about this project for a long while – when I was at the Science Museum, very initial discussions were taking place at the V&A about how to search and display collections results from more than one institution. The Science Museum were invited to take part in the project, but in the end didn’t because of resourcing and budgetary issues.

My second touch on the project was from the agency end – the ITT briefly crossed my desk at my current employer, Eduserv. We considered bidding, but in the end decided that it wasn’t a project we could deliver satisfactorily given the particulars of the scope and budget.

Back then – and I think now, although someone from NMOLP will have to confirm – the project was divided into two main sections: a series of “webquests” (online learning experiences, essentially) and a cross-museum collections search. The webquests can be seen here, but I’m not going to consider these in this post because I haven’t had time to spend enough time playing to have an opinion yet.

The Creative Spaces site is at http://bm.nmolp.org/creativespaces/ – at first glance, it’s clean and nicely designed, with a bit of a web2.0 bevel thing going on. It’s certainly visually more pleasing than many museum web projects I’ve seen. The search is quick, and there’s at least a surface appearance of “real people” on the site. I hesitate to use the word “community” for reasons that I’ll highlight in a minute.

Design aside, I have some fairly big issues with the approach that is being taken here:

Firstly, this site, much like Europeana (which I’ll get my teeth into in a future post…) seemingly fails to grasp what it is about the web that makes people want to engage. I’m very surprised that we’re this many years into the social web and haven’t learnt about the basic building blocks for online communities, and are apparently unable to take a step back from our institutional viewpoint and think like a REAL user, not a museum one. Try looking at this site with a “normal person” hat on. Now ask yourself: “what do I want to DO here?” or “how can this benefit me?” or “how can I have fun”? Sure, you can create a “notebook” or a “group” (once you’ve logged in, obviously..). The “why” is unclear.

I’m also interested at how underwhelming the technology is. Take a look at www.ingenious.org.uk – a NOF digitise project which I worked on maybe 5-6 years ago. Now, I’m not over-proud of this site – it took ages, nearly killed a few people from stress, and the end result could be better, but hey – it has cross collections search, you can send an e-card, you can save things to your lightbox, you can create a web gallery. And this was more than five years ago. Even then, I was underwhelmed by what we managed to do. NMOLP doesn’t seem to have pushed the boundary beyond this at all, and as museums I think we should always be looking to drive innovation forward.

Secondly, I’m not sure that there is a reason why. Why would I possibly want to create a profile? Where is my incentive? Here’s Wikipedia talking about the Network Effect:

“A more natural strategy is to build a system that has enough value without network effects, at least to early adopters. Then, as the number of users increases, the system becomes even more valuable and is able to attract a wider user base. Joshua Schachter has explained that he built Del.icio.us along these lines – he built an online system where he could keep bookmarks for himself, such that even if no other user joined, it would still be valuable to him

The other day, I had a Twitter conversation with Giv Parvaneh, the Technical Manager at NMOLP regarding this post, which talks about “monetizing” media. He blogged his response here. Now, we had a minor crossed-wires moment (it’s hard to discuss in 140 chrs) – but my point was not that museums should “monetize” everything (although, I DO think that museums should learn about real business practices, but that’s another post altogether). My point was that users need to feel special to take part. They need to be part of a tribe, a trusted group who can do and say things that they find personally useful. They need experiences with integrity. If you’re not sure what I mean, just spend some time on the Brooklyn Museum collections pages. These guys get it – the “posse“, the “tag game“, the openness. Compare this back to what feels like a shallow experience you get on NMOLP. Now ask yourself – “where would I spend MY time?”.

The second major reason is that, once again, we’re failing to take our content to our users. This is a huge shortfalling of Europeana. People want experiences on their own terms, not on ours. Let’s not have another collections portal. Spend your social media money adding and updating entries on Wikipedia, or create an object sharing Facebook application. Or just put everything on Flickr. And, please, please create an API or at the very least an OpenSearch feed. If the issue is something around copyright – go back to your funders and content providers and sit them down in front of Google images for an hour so they can begin to understand how the internet works, before renegotiating terms with them!

The final reason hangs off the search facility. My vested interest here is of course hoard.it – and if you want to hear our rantings about the money spent on big, bad technology projects, then keep an eye out for our Museums and the Web Paper. We aren’t necessarily suggesting that the hoard.it approach should be the technology behind cross-collections searching. But we are suggesting that the approch that NMOLP have taken is expensive, old, clunky and ultimately flawed. Although it is a trifle over-simplistic as a response, why not just spend £20-30k on a Google Search Appliance and simply spider the sites. Why re-develop the wheel and build search from scratch?

If I was less of a grumpy old man, I’d feel bad about being this negative – I like the people involved, I like the institutions, and I understand the reasons why (museum) projects spiral into directions you probably wouldn’t ever choose. But then I remember that this site cost taxpayers just short of £2 million pounds, and that Europeana will cost €120 million. And then I realise that we have an obligation to keep badgering, nagging and criticising until we start to get these things right.

At the end of the day, Frankie sums it all up much more succinctly in his email to the MCG list than I do in this post. He simply asks: why?

hoard.it : bootstrapping the NAW

What seems like a looong time ago I came up with an idea for “bootstrapping” the Non API Web (NAW), particularly around extracting un-structured content from (museum) collections pages.

The idea of scraping pages when there’s a lack of data access API isn’t new: Dapper launched a couple of years ago with a model for mapping and extracting from ‘ordinary’ html into a more programmatically useful format like RSS, JSON or XML. Before that there have been numerous projects that did the same (PiggyBank, Solvent, etc); Dapper is about the friendliest web2y interface so far, but it still fails IMHO in a number of ways.

Of course, there’s always the alternative approach, which Frankie Roberto outlined in his paper at Museums and the Web this year: don’t worry about the technology; instead approach the institution for data via an FOI request…

The original prototype I developed was based around a bookmarklet: the idea was that a user would navigate to an object page (although any templated “collection” or “catalogue” page is essentially the treated the same). If they wanted to “collect” the object on that page they’d click the bookmarklet, a script would look for data “shapes” against a pre-defined store, and then extract the data. Here’s some screen grabs of the process (click for bigger)

Science Museum object page An object page on the Science Museum website
Bookmarklet pop-up User clicks on the bookmarklet and a popup tells them that this page has been “collected” before. Data is separated by the template and “structured”
Bookmarklet pop-up Here, the object hasn’t been collected but the tech spots that the template is the same, so knows how to deal with the “data shape”
Defining fields in the hoard.it interface The hoard.it interface, showing how the fields are defined

I got talking to Dan Zambonini a while ago and showed him this first-pass prototype and he got excited about the potential straight away. Since then we’ve met a couple of times and exchanged ideas about what to do with the system, which we code-named “hoard.it”.

One of the ideas we pushed about early on was the concept of building web spidering into the system: instead of primarily having end-users as the “data triggers”, it should – we reasoned – be reasonably straightforward to define templates and then send a spider off to do the scraping instead.

The hoard.it spider

Dan has taken that idea and run with it. He built a spider in PHP, gave it a set of rules for templates and link-navigation and set it going. A couple of days ago he sent me a link to the data he’s collected – at time of writing, over 44,000 museum objects from 7 museums.

Dan has put together a REST-like querying method for getting at this data. Queries are passed in via URL and constructed in the form attribute/value – the query can be as long as you like, allowing fine-grained data access.

Data is returned as XML – there isn’t a schema right now, but that can follow in further prototypes. Dan has done quite a lot of munging to normalise dates and locations and then squeezed results into a simplified Dublin Core format.

Here’s an example query (click to see results – opens new window):


So this means “show me everything where location.made=Japan'”

Getting more fine-grained:


Yes, you guessed it – this is “things where location.made=Japan and dc.subject=weapons or entertainment”

Dan has done some lovely first-pass displays of ways in which this data could be used:

Also, any query can be appended with “/format/html” to show a simple html rendering of the request:


What does this all mean?

The exposing of museum data in “machine-useful” form is a topic about which you’ll have noticed I’m pretty passionate. It’s a hard call, though (and one I’m working on with a number of other museum enthusiasts) – to get museums to understand the value of exposing data in this way.

The hoard.it method is a lovely workaround for those who don’t have, can’t afford or don’t understand why machine-accessible object data is important. On the one hand, it’s a hack – screenscraping is by definition a “dirty” method for getting at data. We’d all much prefer it if there was a better way – preferably, that all museums everywhere did this anyway. But the reality is very, very different. Most museums are still in the land of the NAW. I should also add that some (including the initial 7 museums spidered for the purposes of this prototype) have some API’s that they haven’t exposed. Hoard.it can help those who have already done the work of digitising but haven’t exposed the data in a machine-readable format.

Now that we’ve got this kind of data returned, we can of course parse it and deliver back…pretty much anything, from mobile-formatted results to ecards to kiosk to…well, use your imagination…

What next?

I’m running another mashed museum day the day before the annual Museums Computer Group conference in Leicester, and this data will be made available to anyone who wants to use it to build applications, visualisations or whatever around museum objects. Dan has got a bunch of ideas about how to extend the application, as have I – but I guess the main thing is that now it’s exposed, you can get into it and start playing!

How can I find out more?

We’re just in the process of putting together a simple series of wiki pages with some FAQ’s. Please use that, or the comments on this post to get in touch. Look forward to hearing from you!