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.


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.