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April 13 2011

Ignite Smithsonian examines the evolution of museums and culture

As we all struggle to make sense of a world rapidly changed by technological disruption, the institutions that preserve cultural memory are becoming even more important. Their nature, form and offerings are inevitably changing with the times.

The Smithsonian Institute, as one of the preeminent museum systems in the world, is profoundly engaged in capturing our culture's digital transition. Yesterday, that institution hosted the inaugural Smithsonian Ignite in the "attic of the country."

"I was really gratified to see colleagues from all over the museum world, government, and unrelated fields propose talks," said Michael Edson (@mpedson), director of web and new media strategy for the Smithsonian. "We don't normally get to do this kind of fluid event that flows across disciplines and organizational boundaries. It felt right. It's the role the Smithsonian should be playing: a convener."

There were no shortage of big ideas encapsulated in the Ignite Smithsonian talks, all of which will be available online individually over time. Below are just a few of the themes that resonated in the hours afterwards.

Museums are thinking about big data

The rise of data science has come alongside unprecedented interest in the economic impact of data on society. As with other sectors, museums are thinking about how to manage and use big data in the future.

Brett Bobley (@BrettBobley), the chief information officer for the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities and the director of the agency's Office of Digital Humanities, focused his Ignite talk on the challenges of big data. Bobley highlighted the perils and possibilities that all of that information presents to museums.

"How do we use big, big data for research?" asked Bobley. That's the question that the Digging into Data Challenge is meant to answer. The challenge, as Bobley explained, is to address the ways "big data" changes research in the humanities and social sciences.

Steve Midgley
Steve Midgley of the Department of Education talks about the Learning Registry. (Credit: Michael Edson)

Another Ignite Smithsonian talk by Steve Midgley (@SteveMidgley) looked at a similar theme, exploring how gaining more insight through data can improve education in a digital learning registry. Capturing and analyzing the data generated by people's interactions with media or objects can offer unusual insight into human behavior and learning patterns. "Tim O'Reilly calls this stuff 'data exhaust'," said Midgley, "and we all need to be paying much closer attention to it." Midgley, the deputy director of education technology at the U.S. Department of Education, spoke at length about the Learning Registry at last year's Gov 2.0 Summit.

Rethinking museum websites

Koven Smith
Koven Smith asks "What's the Point of a Museum Website?" (Credit: Uncommon Fritillary)

"We are making great Conestoga wagons in the age of automobiles," said Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces), director of technology at the Denver Art Museum. "In a world of Facebook and YouTube, why would anyone come to a museum website?" asked Smith.

Smith adapted a concept from software development and argued for more "agile content development," where the experience of audiences is not limited by static websites. He wasn't committed to any one vision for what the future of the museum website will be, but rather what they should do: focus on being better enablers, not producers. "What we actually need to do is enable access to content, whether that content is produced by us or others," Smith suggested. "Focus on creating what is unique to us."

Touchscreen virtual exhibits

With more than 100 million iPhones sold and at least 15 million iPads in the wild, digital exhibit designers have new canvases to create upon. As more Android devices and tablets are sold over the course of 2011, the number of touchscreens in the hands of museum-goers will expand even more.

Simon Sherrin (@thesherrin) technical manager for the Victorian Cultural Network in Australia, focused his Ignite talk on touchscreen museum software that's changing how virtual visitors can navigate exhibits. Sherrin shared the example of ImAMuseum.org, where the touchscreen interface has already been put to good use. The Tap Tours software is open source and can be used by any institution willing to implement it.

The rise of citizen curation

The important role that professional curators, preservationists, archivists and other expert staff play at museums isn't going away, but it is shifting. Online, museum staff can now also play roles of conveners and community builders, working with citizens interested in helping to digitize and organize information.

"It is the responsibility of museum as stewards of memory to help citizens think critically," said Neal Stimler in his Ignite talk. Stimler's presentation described how the spread of connection technologies changes the dynamic between traditional institutions and the people who visit them, either online or in person.

Related to that point, research from the Pew Internet and Life Project highlights how important it is for museums to both acknowledge and respond to digital information trends

Fiona Rigby (@nzfi), content manager at DigitalNZ, looked at how the National Library of New Zealand is thinking like a platform provider as it works with citizens to digitize their cultural heritage. The Digital New Zealand online platform includes a digital forum and an open API. The latter has enabled developers to create applications and tools using open data, several of which were developed during New Zealand's "Mix and Match" mashup contest. The winning mashup, NZ Walks Information, mashes up the location data for walking trails all over New Zealand with Google Maps.

Augmented reality is a reality

Constant connectivity and mobile's next act are on the minds of museum curators, given the devices that now increasingly exist in the palms of citizens. A 3-D vision of ‪an "augmented city" ‬by ‪Keiichi Matsuda ‬provided ‬an ‪eye‬-‪catching‬ vision of a near future during one of the interludes at Ignite Smithsonian.

This video held additional resonance, ‪given the context of an‬ ‪Ignite ‬t‪alk on augmented reality‬ delivered ‪by ‬Margriet Schavemaker (@marschave), head of collections and research at the ‪‬Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. "Space hacking" can allow people to populate cities with an augmented reality of museum objects. These digital constructs can enable museums to hold dialogues with new audiences, far from the physical instantiations of the collections themselves.

Schavemaker's presentation was a reminder of how much of the future already exists in our present, offering several examples of how augmented reality is being used in museums today.

Creating space for creativity

Innovation often has its genesis in people having fun. The Smithsonian's CTO, Carmen Iannacone (@SI_CTO), gave his staff permission to "go out of your way to allow some experimentation into your life." He suggested that managers should allow for a 15% decrease in productivity to explore ways to increase productivity by 50%. As Alice Lipowicz reported for Federal Computer Week, the Smithsonian CTO shared his perspective about knowledge workers and some tips on learning and using new media tools during his Ignite talk.

Iannacone's perspective built upon the ideas Philip Auerswald (@auerswald) shared in his Ignite presentation. "If we don't have playgrounds, there isn't a protected area where creative ideas can happen," Auerswald said, emphasizing the importance of such spaces from infancy through adulthood. Auerswald is behind a proposal to reinvent the Smithsonian Arts & Industries building as a Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on the National Mall.

Ignite + Smithsonian

"People seemed to really understand and appreciate the Ignite-Smithsonian equation," said Edson. "Ignite stands for something in the tech and media industries, the Smithsonian stands for something in the broader culture, and putting them together resulted in something new and interesting. I'd like to do the event again and see what happens."

Much more detail about the Ignite Smithsonian speakers, their Ignite talks and related resources can be found at the Smithsonian's wiki.



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August 10 2010

"Knowledge is a mashup"

These days, we hear a lot about open data, open government, and Gov 2.0. President Obama's Open Government directive has given us access to huge data sets through avenues such as data.gov. But we have a lot more assets as a country than just digital 0s and 1s in CSV files. We also have artifacts and science and history and experts. Can open government apply to those assets as well?

smithsonian-logo.png

If the Smithsonian Commons project is any indication, the answer is yes. I talked to Michael Edson, director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian about the project.

The Commons, which is currently being prototyped, is one of the best examples I've seen of "Gov 2.0 in action." Highlights include:

  • Open access to data and knowledge, applied in a way that matters to people's lives.
  • It's transparent, participatory, and collaborative in a way that harnesses what Clay Shirky has called "the value of combinability" -- an end result greater than the sum of its parts.
  • It is made significantly more useful by our contributions.

If these things are important to you -- if you see the power of freeing real objects and history and culture -- then go check out the prototype and let the Smithsonian staff know what you think. They need to hear from you before they can go on to the next phase in the project.

What is the Smithsonian Commons project?

Gov 2.0 Summit, 2010The Smithsonian Commons project is an effort to provide online access to Smithsonian research, collections, and communities. After all, not everyone can pop into one of the Smithsonian museums anytime they want. Even if they could, the buildings hold less than 2 percent of the collection. And anyway, if you're a teacher and want to borrow some American history for a class lesson, I hear the people that work at the museums don't like it much when you collect a bunch of that history in a shopping bag and fly back to Seattle with it.

But that description makes it sound like the project is about making a web site and putting pictures of stuff online, and that's not really it at all.The project goes well beyond just access. This is key, as making information available should be merely the first step. It also has to be applicable and useful to people's lives and it has to be the foundation for collaboration that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

How can people use the information? In the case of the Smithsonian Commons, Edson says the idea is for it to be a catalyst and a platform to empower "innovators, explorers, and sense-makers."

In addition, Edson says the Smithsonian Commons "isn't just a commons of stuff the Smithsonian owns and controls ... Rather, the commons is about seeking powerful network effects from the sum total of the stuff, and the data, and the expertise, and the activities and programs, and the communities that form where stuff needs doing and figuring out in the real world."

He notes that, "in the 19th and 20th centuries the best way to do this was to build big bricks-and-mortar institutions and throw all the stuff and experts in there together so organized work could happen." But now, "we have important and audacious new goals that won't yield easily to the old ways of getting stuff done."

The prototype home page shows how this could work. A teacher can search through the vast collection for material for her class because the public has collaborated on tagging, recommending, discussing physical objects (from across all Smithsonian museums), and assembling videos, articles, and community-uploaded material. The teacher can filter by grade level and can download or share what she gathers, as well as store it in her personal collection. The sample video associated with the prototype shows the teacher downloading the information to a PowerPoint slide, but she could just as easily share the information to a Facebook page. (OK, maybe students don't want teachers to know about their Facebook accounts. But you get the idea.)

smithsonian.gif

Why is the Smithsonian Commons project important?

We tend to think of information as data on a screen, but as Edson points out, the physical items that museums house represent ideas, science, culture, and history:

"I think museums, libraries, archives, and research organizations have a critical role to play in building the preconditions for sustained rational thought and discourse in society," he said. "And we can and should be an engine for creativity and innovation. I think we provide the building blocks for this by publishing our collections and research data in as open and free a way as possible. We provide scaffolding through scholarly research, exhibitions, publications, and public programs. But the mortar — the connective tissue that holds it all together — comes from the curiosity and activity and participation of millions of users, makers, and participants."

How does the Smithsonian Commons project impact developers, makers, and innovators?

When I see the work of the open government movement, I am impressed by how much has been accomplished, but also see there is so much more to be done. Developers need to take that raw data and make it applicable to the every day lives of citizens. Makers, hobbyists, and experts can take what the Smithsonian Commons project hopes to provide as a foundation for collaboration, innovation, and relevance to our every day lives.

And that ability is one of the core attributes of the Smithsonian Commons project. Edson explains:

"I often describe the Smithsonian Commons in Maker terms — that a commons is a kind of organized workshop where the raw materials of knowledge creation can be found and freely assembled into new things, by us, by you, by anybody. Cory Doctorow or Mister Jalopy might say that the Smithsonian Commons is a museum and research complex as it would exist if reconstructed around the Owner's Manifesto. Knowledge is a mashup!"

Edson says this collaboration is important in achieving the Smithsonian's five-year plan of "unlocking the mysteries of the universe, understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet, valuing world cultures, and understanding the American experience" which Edson notes is doing what "Tim O'Reilly would call "stuff that matters."

Why the Smithsonian project is "crazy good"

"We say that the Smithsonian Commons will be vast, findable shareable, and free," Edson says. "These four things together give us something powerful and unique. Take away one and you get something good, but not crazy good."

What does this mean in practice?

  • Vast: Anyone can have access to the entire Smithsonian collection, staff, vistors, and partners.
  • Findable: Search, navigation, and user experience design, recommendations, comments, and social networks come together to help users find exactly what they need
  • Sharable: The project encourages use and reuse for work, pleasure, education, online and offline
  • Free: "The Smithsonian Commons will be built on the premise that free, high-quality resources will spread farther and create more opportunities for discovery and creation than those that are restricted by unnecessary fees and licenses," Edson says.

Who is the Smithsonian Commons project for?

Smithsonian Commons is for everyone, of course. But in the beginning, the makers and innovators are key. The Smithsonian wants to operate the Commons project a bit like a Web 2.0 startup: launch early and often. Iterate based on how people use it and what they really need. Who can make the best use of what the project has to offer and what is most useful to them?

The Smithsonian Commons prototype is the first step in that process. Publish some ideas and get feedback. Iterate. Repeat. Then ramp things up once the best direction becomes clear. Edson notes that getting permission, or at least forgiveness, for working this way is perhaps one of the greatest challenges in the Gov 2.0 movement: "In Gov 1.0 and in most large organizations, we like to design things in toto, pour the concrete, and be done with it. Varying that process requires a lot of stamina."

I think this is an awesome approach. Now that we can put things online easily and let people use things the way they want to rather than force our audiences into a particular model, why not take the best advantage of that? Edson says that it's easy to make generalizations about the Smithsonian audience, but in reality the Smithsonian is "the consummate long-tail business".

This project will be a great experiment to see how a large government organization can operate like a Web 2.0 startup and learn the needs of the audience as the project evolves.

The power of what the web can be

This project is an amazing example of the true capabilities of the web. It merges offline and online information, makes experts available in any topic we want, provides global collaboration, and gives all of us access to valuable knowledge as building blocks for something even greater. In "Cognitive Surplus" -- and noted above -- Clay Shirky talks about "the value of combinability." This project is a perfect example of what he describes. As I wrote about this concept on my blog:

"Shirky writes “if you have a stick, and someone gives you another one, you have two sticks. If you have a piece of knowledge — that rubbing two sticks together in a certain way can make fire — you can do something of value you couldn’t do before.” And here too is another new surplus the culture of the web gives us. By sharing knowledge, tools, failures, successes, ideas, we can better combine them for sums much greater than the parts. He notes that the community size has to be big enough, sharing has to be easy, there should be a common format or way of understanding the information, and then, there’s the last component, the one that technology can’t solve — people. Can we work well together? Do we understand each other, trust each other, want others to make what we do better?"

Edson says:

"The thing that makes the Smithsonian Commons different than a commons developed by a commercial entity is that the Smithsonian is in the forever business. By putting something in the Smithsonian Commons we're asking people to trust us. We're not going to scam you. We're not going to violate your privacy. We're not going to get bought by a competitor or just decide to go out of business one day. We're going to be honest about what we do and don't know, we're going to be open to new ideas and points of view, we're going to help each other figure out the world, and these promises are good, forever. Museums and libraries and archives are some of the few organizations in our culture that enter into those kinds of promises, and we take that responsibility very seriously."

So what's next?

Edson says that the Smithsonian has never done a project like this before, so they've got no real process for it. Right now, they are soliciting feedback and comments. You can head over to the prototype right now and tell them what you think, what you would like the project to be, and how you'd best be able to use it. The reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive. But the Smithsonian wants to hear from as many people as possible before going forward so, ultimately, they build what people really want rather than what they think people might want. That's a true Web 2.0 approach to Gov 2.0.


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