Crystal ball gazing – Free Our Data

As part of the final session on Tuesday I was one of three speakers (the other two being David Anderson and Dan Snow) that each presented a short vision on the future of museums in 2020.

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The audience then discussed the three options and voted. Here is the text of my presentation …

Imagine a world without access to culture. Who would want to live there?

Imagine an online world without access to cultural stuff? This is the future that we need to avoid.
This must not happen.

None of us want to see an online world that is totally dominated by online shopping, porn and gossip.
But that is what could happen if we are not careful. What can we do to make sure that this doesn’t happen? Well, the good news is, it is not about vast quantities of money. It’s about how we behave.
And its about something that we all learned how to do a long time ago at school – sharing

In the future, we are going to need to get better at sharing our stuff with other people. When I say stuff I mean your digital collections and objects – the images, the text, the resources, your podcasts, your videos, your archives, everything that can take a digital form.

It is your responsibility to make sure this stuff is present in that virtual world of the future where people can find it, engage with it, learn from it and use it in ways that have meaning to them.
The online world is changing all the time, there is no way that all museums are going to be able to keep up with that – and I don’t think you should all have to. Other people are busy doing that, who are better qualified and resourced. But what you do need to do, is make sure that your stuff is available digitally to plug in and mingle.

Mingle with the communities and people that are online. No matter where they are, or who they are, or what they are doing. But crucially, it also need to be available to the machines, the robots and spiders, the aggregators and search engines. If you like, these are the librarians, the shop keepers, the delivery vans, the gate keepers, lollipop ladies – you can think of them in lots of different ways – they are the guides to the enormous quantities of digital stuff online that is growing all the time.

And in the future, it will be even more important that your content knows how to talk to these machines.

Now, I want to share a couple of things with you.

Fact one – I love Museums.
I really do, I love the actual physical real places and I want you to be clear, that what I am talking about is NOT some sort of real vs virtual debate.

I’m not saying that we are going to mind meld with out computers and live in a 3D virtual reality version of our universe. I am talking about the opportunities that the online world offer that coexist alongside those of the physical.

Fact two – People are living in search engines.
Over 80% of users start their online activity in a search engine. The most popular sites, around the world right now, are either search related or communities. And I don’t think that is going to change in the future. But, what is going to change is how people search and how they use what they find in their online communities or in their own life.

Who could have imaged five years ago that there would be 10 million people publishing their own blogs? Or 40 million shared photographs on Flickr. Who could have imaged how things like You Tube have changed our viewing habits or the way that the ipod and itunes has changed the way the music industry makes its money?

And search is getting clever. By 2020 it will be really clever.
People talk about web 2.0, web 3.0 or the semantic web and no one really know exactly how it will all work. But they do know that it is vital how digital information is packaged and offered to machines.

It will need standards.
It will need to be structured
And it will need to be tagged with its meaning or meanings depending on who you are.

And for museums, it needs to be known to have the authority that it deserves – that it can be trusted.
In a way what you are going to have to do is get your data ready and then set it free. By doing that, you will be making sure that it is available to the machine of the future to meet and greet. To mash up, to interoperate with, reuse in other places and contexts.

Because if those clever search engines can find it and they know what it is, and where it is from, then they will be able to deliver it via whatever new services we will all be using in the future. The services that will form the new experience economy Will Hutton talked about. The services that will customise and personalise stuff for us.

And if the machines can find it then the users will be able to find it as well.

In a way, search engines are the digital equivalent of the original collectors of the past. People like Henry Welcome, John Soanes or Pitt Rivers. But the machines and robots or the future will be collecting digital meaning not physical objects.

So, we need to make sure that our cultural stuff is set free online and that it can be separated from the institutions own online presence.

This will require a culture change. A new way of thinking about a piece of digital data.

I’m not saying museums can’t and shouldn’t publish their own curated online experiences, or develop their own services. Of course they should. What I am talking about is making sure stuff gets seen, is picked up and used in the online world of the future.

The new services that will be online in 2020 we cannot imagine. In fact, I bet, our understanding of what online means will not even be the same. But whatever it is, we need to make sure that culture is part of it, and that will mean setting our data free.

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MA2007 ‘The Real Thing?

This is a great question for the museum sector and aside from the long list of stuff listed in wikipedia (songs, plays, bands, slogans) it is more than just the debate about the real object vs the digital one.

Of course, both of these are real to the person looking at them – whether on a computer or in the gallery, but I would suggest that the real ‘real thing’ for a cultural object (painting, relic, document, book or installation) is in fact the layers of different meanings, interpretations or significance that different users bring.

At the moment it seems that this layer is mostly a sandwich of curators. Sometimes it has an added layer of user focus, or specialist input but imagine how much deeper the layers would be if anyone could contribute?

I don’t just mean UGC, I mean the layers of meaning that come from different ways of working and looking at the world, that different people have. For example, if you are a small artist group, a national museum, a local authority library or an online archive, the way that you build meaning around your object varies greatly.

The impact of the new world of cross-sectoral partnerships that is being advocated (by some) at this year’s MA conference, is going to be a whole new thing for museums to deal with and are each the ‘real thing’ for someone.

A good topic for a future MA conference session I think?

MA2007 – The summer of UGC?

Was the summer of 2007 the summer of user-generated content?

Ross Parry says it was in his introduction to the wide-ranging and in-depth session on “Handing over intellectual control”.

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He reminded us about the acerbic words of Jeremy Paxman during his Mactaggart memorial lecture
“… obsessions with the red button, with interactivity, fatuous opinion polls, podcasts, ‘multiplatform 360 degree programming’, etc, etc, we’ve all heard the jargon, even if we’re not entirely clear what some of it means.”

He also talked about:

– the scandal of the ‘Bebo Two’ tennis stars with the oh too honest accounts of life in the fast lane.

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– URBIS’s invitation to come to the Hacienda again in second life

The key issues with UGC are four fold he says and they are about motives, principles, quality and management. These issues were explored by Hedley Swain, Margaret Greeves, Rebecca Wilhelm, Nat Edwards and Suzanne Keene through the following questions ….

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A couple of notable things came out for me…

1. UGC is not new, well its not new in the offline world. But it is new in the online worlds and is a very different kettle of fish.

2. It is a conceit to think that UGC is something that you will just get. It’s a bit like the “if we built it they will come” school of thought and is of course a fallacy. Solititing any meaning ful user engagement online is not rocket science but it is also not a given.

3. There is a big difference between UGC where you solicit what are in effect comments on your content (stuff like: tell us what you think? / review the product? / rate this service) and the kinds of UGC that drive or define a service and actually form the content (stuff like wikkipedia, Flickr and Delicious).

4. Museums are not (at the moment) social networks (although arguably they could be) and building up a social network online is only easy if there is already a real world community of interest or practice that you can tap into. People cohere about issues of faith, identity, not usually around institutions, unless that is their community, so lets not kid ourselves that anyone cares enough to contribute their ideas, just because they can.

5. Managing UGC is publishing and all the normal rules of editorial control, voice, tone etc. apply.

6. Voting is a great way to get people engaged in a session.

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MA2007 Measuring Impact – Economic, social and educational

Stuart Davies said something very profound and funny is his talk about how to measure impact … “We’ve spent a f**k of a lot of money so it must have had some impact somewhere?”

However, I left the session thinking that perhaps they had missed something? For me, when trying to look at impact you have to be agreed what your definition of success is. This is where you need to start.

If you can do this, then you can think about how you can measure that, and in turn, ensure there are methodologies in place to measure those things.

I wish someone in the session had talked about this issue – can we agree as a sector how we define success? In fact, that is the wrong question, it is more – how does the government define success for cultural industries? I don’t think this one is rocket science, the work is there for the creative industries and we need to interrogate it for all the museum sector work we do.

The excellent ‘Inspiring Learning For All’ work by MLA, has done this for measuring learning outcomes. They have constructed a framework for generic learning outcomes that has proved to be really useful (and leaves the approach to methodology up to the individual).

This approach works really well and has helped as Sue Wilkinson says “to talk to government in big terms”. Keith Nicholls backed this view us in response to Sandy Nairn’s question, “ Are government hearing the results of this work”.

Keith says “yes”, James Purnell is committed to the “universal cultural offering for young people”, but adds that more work still needs to be done to convey that message to DSFC staff more clearly.

My questions for the future of this work at MLA would be “could you extend the Inspiring Learning for all Framework to look at online learning and the online experience?”

I feel sure that a lot of work has been done on how technology (the smart board or website etc.) has impacted inside the classroom. But my questions relates to outside the classroom and the more informal type of online experiences that museums ca do so well online.

I’d like to see MLA consider this question. It would also help to define better methodologies for collecting and measuring online impact, because without the framework (and the answer to the question what does success look like), we will be lost.

MA2007 Maurice Davies “Empower Don’t Control”

Maurice was in great form for his keynote, passionate and you can tell that he really does believe what he is saying.

He asks “If museums as the new churches of society, then we need to do more than just encounter and celebrate, we need to inspire”

He would like to see museums matter to society and see their exhibitions have as much impact as an opera, play, book or individual work of art to create a full experience that does more than just interpret. His sites examples of exhibitions that have had a key individual at the heart of the vision, individual artists or designers that are from outside the museum world.

This sounded to me like a call to work with the Arts Council more closely.

Will Hutton yesterday was talking about all the cultural sector being on the same page, so that places museums alongside the Arts Council world who have a lot of experience of commissioning exhibitions and large scale installations with artists.

I wonder what would happen if this kind of partnership started to happen? Museum curator’s skill sharing with visual artist organisations with a view to commissioning artists to create the kind of experiences that Maurice talks about (again, this comes back to Will Hutton’s point about the experiential economy – this is the growing area of the creative industries).

In the ACE visual art strategy ‘Turning Point’ they talk about the need to bring together the historical and the contemporary and that is the same as what Maurice was saying about the need to “connect to contemporary issues” and to “interpret the past and the present”.

I wonder how long it will take for this type of partnership to be a requirement from government and not simply an idea? I believe that there is a lot of ways that the MLA and ACE could help each other – not to dictate or overtake, but to exchange expertise, criticisms, success and failures – and I know that there are some organisations that are already leading this.

Personally, I’m not sure that this vision of inspiration should be an expectation of all museums. I quite like things that I can just encounter, things that are just there for me to see, that are not trying to change my life – who wants a life changing experience every day?

But Maurice is right that at their best, the kind of profound life changing shows that are possible in museums are the aspiration that the sector should strive for.

MA2007 Virginia Tandy – Presidential Address

Virginia has won the lottery – no, she’s not giving up her job at the Manchester City Galleries, it was only a tenner but nevertheless she is a big fan. She remembers the cash strapped era of the nineties when the kind of capital projects the lottery has facilitated, were unimaginable.

But what about beyond the lottery, what should our priorities be for the future? Her answers were simple but powerful.
– Partnership
– Learning outside the classroom
– Strategic leadership
– Digital solutions

I agree with her points, in particular the need for more collaboration with arts, libraries, archives and heritage sectors. “How else” she asks “can we do anything on a scale that will make a difference?”

At the 24 Hour Museum, we have actively sought partnership not only with the Arts Council, Visit Britain but also internationally with others who work in the same online publishing field as us (see culturemondo.org). Invaluable, necessary and what audiences would expect to see – culture outside the government department categories and available for audiences to jump between, mix up and explore.

She mentions the great work that is already going on encouraging learning outside the classroom (the new DCMS / University of Leicester report is a good document – ) – not in a box but free of a curriculum that sometimes doesn’t help promote creativity (see Ken Robinson for more on this).

She mentions the new CEO, Roy Clare at MLA and finally welcomes in “a new chapter at MLA to create the powerful strategic body that the sector has wanted and needed for many years.” Hear, hear to that. I am looking forward to getting his scrutinising eye onto the 24HM and give us a change to work more strategically with him and building our services to promote the sector to audiences in effective way online.

It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling to hear her talk about the digital world …
– Let’s have a plan for digital future
– Let’s not lose the next generation of audience
– We must not miss opportunities for effective, intelligent solutions.
– We must have a sustainable approach to our work in all its definitions.

Good stuff and well said. I hope that her role as MA’s president and the fact she gets the digital agenda might lead to them engaging and debating this area more fully in the future.