My DO dialogue

Last week I drove into the gorgeous (if cold!) Victorian high country to attend the inaugural Australian Do Lectures at the very lovely Payne’s Hut.

OMG interesting people! As well as enjoying the official talks, I was plenty inspired by in-between conversations with non-speaking Do-ers. It was an intense connective experience, quite exhausting but since my homecoming I’ve been thinking about it and planning some action.

The diagram below shows some of the frequencies I tuned into while listening to the talks.

My DO dialogue

Obviously it’s ‘sembly’. By identifying themes that multiple speakers addressed, I’m taking a Sembl approach to thinking and talking about my experience of the lectures. It may be a little cryptic (? do I need to explain it further?) but I hope it conveys a substantial sense of DO goodness.

Dear Wellington, let’s make some babies

Ah, Wellington, where a barista serves coffee to a cashless newcomer with “just pay us later”, op shops have natural-fibre clothes to fit women of long length, and an annual conference exemplifies and amplifies goodness.

I was there primarily to attend the National Digital Forum 2012 and – thrill! – to present on Sembl. It was a wonderful new experience to be on stage early in a conference program – and in a plenary session – because in the breaks, conversations had already started. I didn’t need to perform repeated, monologic self-introductions – and nor did my interlocutors; there was space among the already-started conversation to explore where they were coming from too.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. For me, sustaining social openness for the duration of a multi-day event – which is critical, because that interpersonal flow is the source of the magic – feels strenuous. Anything that makes the flow flow more easily is like a full lung of fresh air.

Wonderfully, NDF is in general very conducive to such flow. The organisers do a brilliant job of creating a space in which good things can happen. There’s a lovely collegial vibe, and plenty of social events for folks that don’t know folks. And if you don’t know the way to a venue, Courtney will draw you a map:

directions to Hooch bar, Wellington, New Zealand

From the Comfort Hotel via the bucket fountain to the Hooch bar

So many interesting conversations… fuelled by such passionate and thoughtful presentations:

Chris McDowall presenting on a large screen his clusters of algorithmically-cropped faces of WWI soldiers

Chris McDowall zooming in on his clusters of algorithmically-cropped faces of WWI soldiers

Sarah Barns presenting Italo Calvino's description of the

Sarah Barns’ augmented city projects are great. I liked her quote of Italo Calvino on the city’s “relationships between the measurements of space and the events of its past”.

Nate Solas presenting a large-screen image of the long tail of cat videos

Nate Solas visualising the long tail of cats: the enduring value of cat videos for web visitors to the Walker Art Center

NDF was beautiful and thrilling; so much care, absolutely cynicism-free.

Despite being fairly spent, I trundled myself off the following day to join in the heady fun of THATCamp Wellington. Which was also awesome – thanks, Donelle and Sydney & co. Tim’s workshop was ‘smashing’ 😉 Also very useful was the session on linked open data; it gave me more clarity about the authority, provenance and reciprocity of said links:

notes on the authority, provenance and reciprocity of linked data

Notes from the discussion of linked data: on authority, provenance and reciprocity

(For those that don’t know, I have a special interest in reciprocal linked data.)

In the breaks, there were plenty more compelling conversations to be enjoyed, including a very useful pointer from musicologist, Francis Yapp, to Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor. I can now appreciate the fugue musically as well as mentally!

But I failed, actually, to put as much energy into THATCamp as I’d have liked. I devoted most of my energy to NDF and then limped through the day that was meant to be all about action.

So as a homage to both NDF and THATCamp, and in lieu of completing a THATCamp evaluation form, I wrote a fantasy for a more integrated and even more flow-y NDF-meets-THATCamp experience, where more of the threads dangling tantalisingly at both forums could be tugged, if you so chose, and twisted and woven into a few amazing new things. I offer these thoughts without expectation, and with hope that whether NDF maintains its current, beautiful form or evolves, we can sustain it as it sustains us.

And dear reader, please know that I have co-opted real people into this fantasy without their knowledge or consent. They may not actually want to do these things. You are all, of course, are welcome to respond with your own ideas, adaptations, augmentations, even refutations.



The two-day National Digital Forum is extended to a three-day digital festival culminating in a THATCampy makerspace, with an optional extra post-festival morning of relaxation and celebration. NDF has some practical outcomes, and THATCamp has an inspiring lead-in and opportunity to develop some collective vision.

Day 1 is the plenary, and comprises a couple of keynotes, several short plenary presentations and a bunch of ignite talks. So there’s a whole day where everyone can see everything on offer.

Day 2 is for parallel sessions. There are two streams: one is for preplanned, interactive show-and-tell. The other is for action-planning workshops driven by the wishes of the participants and facilitated by the likes of:

  • Chris McDowall, Mitchell Whitelaw and Tim Wray – beautiful visual browsing
  • Tim Sherratt and Michael Lascarides – really simple RDF, aka beautiful data storytelling
  • Sarah Barns – augmented Te Papa?
  • Aaron Straup Cope – some strangely but simply useful tool or other
  • maybe even Walter Logeman – a Semblified, Jungian, group dream analysis

By the end of Day 2, we have some plans for action the following day.

Day 3 is a makerspace, for making as per the plans from the two days prior, and for documenting the making. Huzzah! And/or you can do one or more preplanned workshops with the likes of:

  • Ponoko
  • someone who can make artisinal QR codes
  • a website-builder
  • someone with social media smarts

The final session is the morning of Day 4. It’s for unwinding and reflecting, and awarding *prizes* for the most effective work.

In amongst it all, there are other options for engaging, such as:

  • a kind of digital maker faire or pop-up museum – an assemblage of digital or digitally-augmented or digitally-designed displays showing everything from Tim’s experiment in richly contextualised HTML to Emily’s Little Slide Dress to an array of Ponoko-printed or lasercut physical objects.
  • as a conversation kickstarter, an array of named faces of all the delegates, where each face is a link to a short video of that person introducing themselves and their particular passions for digital work. (The point here is to give any delegate that wants it a voice, including those not on the program to speak. For speakers it could be a channel for an alternative abstract, and for everyone it’s an aide mémoire, a way to name-check those who you really should remember but can’t because your brain is so full right now.)
  • some spare screens anyone can use to load up a site as it emerges in conversation
  • an excursion to a nearby art museum likely to be ‘doing good shit’
  • a game of Sembl – either using Te Papa exhibits or the faces of delegates as nodes

And there is yoga or Shiva dancing or cartwheeling – Jiu-jitsu or otherwise. We need to involve our bodies in our thinking!

As a whole, the experience would be expansive – as it is – but also active, directed by a collective vision, resolute, convergent. Our collective energy could manifest in physical–digital form.

Another way of saying all this might be: let’s make some *babies* with all this love 🙂

Create[d] World

A few thoughts from the recent Create World conference of clever, creative people.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Panel on place and creativity – how does digital alter the way we think?

Architect Richard Kirk made the point that perspective drawing as a tool is only a few hundred years old, so we are yet to reap the full benefits of new additions to our creative lexicon, such as virtual worlds. Performance designer Anna Tregloan commented that some people can quite naturally translate a 2D image to imagine it in 3D space, but for others that will always be more difficult, so the theatre tradition of building a little model of the set may endure. Continuing the theme of how we translate human experiences into digital form, and whether we can learn to think in a hybrid way between digital and physical, creative innovator (?!) Hael Kobayashi described the process of making penguins dance for Happy Feet. Humans danced in a warehouse, each one wired for motion capture. A set of screens displayed the merger of their movements with the digital penguins, so the director and key creatives could see, in real-time, penguins dancing on an iceberg.

Keynotes on photography, animation and the active audience

Tom Ang‘s keynote was an entertaining blend of a romp through the history of photography, some behind-the-lens information about particular shots, and some philosophical observations about value and power in photography’s new world:

  • Photoshop has programmed us!
  • Boundaries of what is shareable have shifted.
  • The concept of the ‘still image’ is now a misnomer: they fade, zoom, slide – and fast. And the more abundant they become, the less we attend to each.
  • Because images are so abundant, there are no longer iconic images of world events. (I’m not convinced of this point. The process by which images become iconic has changed, but I reckon crowd wisdom will choose images over time. Note, for example, the twitter #ows discussion of iconic imagery, and the meme of the cop casually pepper-spraying seated protesters.)

Ian Taylor’s story of the success of Animation Research Ltd – and his team’s down-home methods – was awe-inspiring. But my strongest takeaway from his talk was the importance of taking your time to learn – ergo the immense value of free education. Which we no longer have.

As a longtime advocate for participatory approaches to cultural representations, I was very interested in Ernest Edmonds‘ talk on art and the active audience. My favourite parts:

  • Some early research found that babies less than one week old can learn – by controlling the turn of their head on the pillow – to switch a light on and off, and that once mastered, they become bored with it.
  • Our vocabulary for interaction is developing. For example, there are many different kinds of play: danger, competition, camaraderie, subversion, fantasy, sensation, captivation, difficulty, simulation. And so on!
  • Don’t assume that more is better. Performance and communication might be better with lower bandwidth. This is an intriguing point, and I wanted more from him on this. I wonder if he means, for example, that in some cases audio works better than video,   because it gets inside your head but doesn’t restrict your visual attention. Or that pixelated imagery like in Minecraft, works in part because it’s low-res, so the player can more actively/imaginatively inhabit the scene and the characters. In short, I suspect this point relates to the value of leaving space within a representation, for the audience to fill from their personal creative sources.

An audiovisual meditation on gold

Not your average academic conference, Create World includes a range of clever, creative performances. Of the four, this was my favourite – it’s an audiovisual meditation on the mineral gold, and it made my heart hum. (I recommend: go full-screen and use headphones or big speakers.)

The Solar Angel from abre ojos on Vimeo.

Other prezos

The quality of stream-session presentations was consistently good. I attended those on:

  • a multi-disciplinary creative technologies degree (Judit Klein, Auckland Uni of Technology)
  • iPads for music-making (Jamie Gabriel, Macquarie Uni)
  • an iPad app for assessing teachers of music, art and drama (Julia Wren & Alistair Campbell, Edith Cowan Uni)
  • EEG-mapping of artistic consumption and as artistic work (Jason Zagami, Griffith Uni)
  • a weather-data-generated sonic sculpture in Sydney (Kirsty Beilharz, Uni of Technology, Sydney)
  • kinaesthetic potential of educational gaming (Helen Farley & Adrian Stagg, Uni of Southern Queensland)
  • serious games (Tim Marsh, James Cook Uni)
  • digital research methods, including Wikipedia article-writing (Kerry Kilner, Uni of Queensland)
  • Playtime, an animated movie (Thomas Verbeek, Uni of Otago)
  • Ishq, an audiovisual work commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of its exhibition on Islamic art (Kim Cunio and Louise Harvey, Griffith Uni)

I presented – and have shared on the Museum’s Education blog – Gamifying relatedness: an iPad app-in-progress. Hearty thanks to Paris for his guest appearance.

A grand design for active digital learning

This week I wangled a visit to the digital learning facility work-in-progress that is UC‘s InSPIRE centre, directed by Prof Rob Fitzgerald and site-managed by Jonno – thanks for the tour, people.

InSPIRE will be “a focus for research into innovative good practice pedagogy that utilises ICT to enhance student learning outcomes”. So it’s a technology-enhanced space for teaching and learning about technology-enhanced teaching and learning. Deliciously meta! And if, like me, you wonder about the little ‘n’ in amongst all those caps, ‘InSPIRE’ stands for Innovative Sustainable Practical Imaginative Research Education.

Below are images I snapped; see the InSPIRE site gallery for building plans.

It is exciting to preview this embodiment of technology-enhanced active learning; and I like the approach Rob is taking: set it up then see how it’s used; like building the footpaths once you can see how the space is used. That means you build in flexibility – roll-out lecterns, lots of AV points in the floor, digital switching to project one room’s proceedings into another.

InSPIRE has all you need to create and share media (down to kitchenettes :), and it includes some great lo-tech: writeable walls, and a good-quality audio podcast room — with video capability, yes, but – isn’t podcast mobility great?

It has an industrial, resource-conscious aesthetic: projecting onto walls rather than screens, exposed ducts, recycled hardwood timbers, underground 25kl rainwater tank.

And it embodies a DIY ethic: BYO mobile or laptop and data: input plates for USB to project your data or to record proceedings; mobile interactive.

I can’t wait to see it in action. It’d be a wondrous venue for THATCamp Canberra, or any other smallish conference.

Maybe Rob will chime in if I have munged any details. (If he doesn’t comment, let’s just assume it’s all just so 🙂

In the neighbourhood

Applications are almost due for the Bold Ideas, Better Lives challenge.

I was thinking to submit an idea – something that came out of reading Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence. But I haven’t done enough research or had enough (as in, any!) feedback to know if it’s worthwhile. And I just realised that on top of writing a 1900-word intro to the idea, you’re meant to put in a 3-minute pitch. Then there’s the small issue that I’m not sure I’m keen to champion this idea to the point of implementation. I’d use it. I’d be happy if it worked! And I’d be more than willing to help make it manifest. But the idea of talking it up through the whole process of shortlisting and selection… Well, I’m probably just not that much of a champion. In that regard, anyway.

So instead, I offer the first 700 words of an idea to anyone who happens to read this, and hope for some (constructive) critical feedback, or at least some expressions of interest.

What is your idea? (100 words)

I’d like to strengthen communities by facilitating real-world interactions through an online hyper-local aggregator and hub. Enter The Neighbourhood – a platform for creating a directory, noticeboard and town square for residents, visitors, business-people and local government to exchange information and ideas about local conditions, events, opportunities and ideas. It would feed information about the weather, infrastructural and social issues, jobs, trade, community activities. It would invite and enable people to share goods, ideas, and media – in other words, to funnel relevant parts of our current activities for the benefit of the community around our physical home.

What is the social need or challenge your idea could address? (300 words)

City living can be isolating – especially in very car-oriented cities – and in many neighbourhoods people are almost unknown to each other, having very little contact. We have opportunities to share information, experiences, goods and ideas through workplaces, distributed networks of family and friends, and digital communities. But where we live is important; our local community is potentially a rich source of interaction. If we have a lost pet, or surplus home-grown zucchinis, if we are creating an art installation, or need a new footpath – in all these circumstances, a good outcome can depend on the quality of our local relationships. Our individual and communal wellbeing could be dramatically improved by a digital town square that facilitated real-world relationships. If we know each other better, we would be in a better position to take good care of each other – to look after our neighbours’ house, garden, or pets when we’re away; to look out for the neighbourhood children; to care for, listen to and learn from our old folk.

The Neighbourhood would build constructive real-world relationships – and thereby improve collective wellbeing – through a simple and useful aggregation of relevant information, and hub for activity both online and in physical space. As well as the community benefits, an actively engaged community would be advantageous for businesses and governments. For businesses, it would constitute a highly effective channel for communicating with residents, promoting local products and services, and tailoring them in accordance with feedback. As the dawn of Government 2.0 approaches, access to a hyper-local community network would also be highly beneficial for two-way communications – genuine dialogue – to identify priorities, refine policies and so on.

The Neighbourhood would cultivate goodwill and generate social capital.

What inspired you to come up with your idea in the first place? (300 words)

This idea was inspired by Steven Johnson’s book Emergence. He looks at how swarms or networks operate in micro-organisms, insect colonies, human cities and the internet, and finds that at every scale – and in the absence of a master planner – local interactions suffice to bring about emergence – a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I was thinking about this notion of emergence in relation to my own neighbourhood. I live on the main street in a suburb of Canberra, where although people do walk past, most traffic is motorised and, particularly on Friday nights, vandalism and ‘criminal damage’ are common. (I know this from experience but also because my street makes a regular appearance in the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter.) I don’t believe people are the problem here. I think our cities and lifestyles are serving us poorly, and we need a solution based on goodwill rather than fear. Surely, the more we interact locally, the better off as a community we’ll be.

Steven Johnson has in fact implemented a similar idea in Outside In – a platform for aggregating hyperlocal news, blogs and discussion. From my perspective, however, it is limited in that it’s not focused on the physical world except insofar as it uses location to organise the news feeds, and it’s not intended to facilitate interaction, only to supply information.

I’m actually surprised there isn’t yet a thing such as The Neighbourhood already. Aggregation; social media; cloud computing; we-think; and emergence – all these capacities enhance our potential to improve the way physical neighbourhoods operate. It seems we could all benefit by augmenting our physical communities with a digital overlay – by using our digital networks to enhance and empower our local communities. Such would be the point of The Neighbourhood.

Going to the govhack fest

With some trepidation due to my lack of geek credentials, I have registered to attend Govhack. Keen to find out how I can contribute.

I’ve also added a project idea to the wiki, based on this idea. As a conceptual taster for how useful it might be to have a browseable overview of government activities (which you can control / explore and then use to find a pathway to web-based material that interests you) I made this Wordle tagcloud using the latest Administrative Arrangements Orders:

Tagcloud of Australian Government activitiesEven a static bundle of words gives you a sense of the range of activities the government is involved in.

Whether or not this idea takes off, I’m excited about being involved in this event. Hope to meet you there!

My take on the GLAM-wiki recommendations

Following on from my last post wondering about the lack of public comment to date, here’s my take on the recommendations. Obviously, as well as being really long, this post is selective and partial – many items seem to me to be straightforward and correct, so I have not commented; others are better discussed by experts in that area. Some of my comments might indicate my ignorance on some issues; I’m happy to be corrected. We all have our ignorances – as I think is evident in some of the requests themselves. So it’s good to have the conversation, and to keep the momentum going.

A key point in the recommendations – and my response to them – is that the cultural sector needs to be educated in the ways of Wikimedia. This venture is just beginning!

1.1 Law requests to GLAM

The idea of proactively publishing the copyright status on each collection item’s description page makes perfect sense, but it is unlikely to be simple to implement. It might (or might not!) be straightforward to adjust the collection database to accommodate a new publicly-visible field, but populating that field for every item would take a lot of human resources, and in the case of government archives, often a single item (a paper file) might require various copyright statuses.

Of course people should be free to use public domain work! Do some cultural institutions really have an actual policy that requires users to ask permission to use public domain content? And do others really place ‘copyright-like restrictions’ on public domain content? Is that even legal? I can understand the Wikimedian view that it might be better to have no online access to public domain content if a donor agreement has prohibited third-party use – it is cause for frustration and potential conflict to have it there.

I’m all for using creative commons licensing where the work is wholly owned and controlled by the institution and/or free for educational use. As someone who has been responsible for responding to requests to reuse published material, I can attest that it is often very time-consuming to craft a response to a request that could be handled by an up-front license with a clear attribution statement. But I also know that this would be a significant change for cultural institutions and that without a ministerial directive, it won’t happen across the sector any time soon.

1.2 Law requests to Wikimedia

On the request to publish donor information as part of the attribution statement, isn’t it up to the license-creator to specify how the attribution should be made?

GLAM sector workers’ access to resources about Wikimedia and the free culture movement seems critical to the success of the collaborative venture. (Note, this request seems to belong more in the Education area?) Some elements that could usefully be incorporated into a toolkit, training package or FAQ are:

  • customised training in adding content to Wikimedia and creating and editing Wikipedia pages
  • a list of benefits of creative commons licensing over other forms of copyright control
  • an explanation of how non-commercial licensing is fraught, and the benefits – including business-wise – of allowing unrestricted use
  • strategy and tactics for negotiating with donors to achieve the best outcome for public access
  • demonstration of successful partnership projects eg German Federal Archives

2.1 Technology requests to GLAM

On the request to publish stable and clean URLs for collection items:

  • this is a really important request – anyone who uses collection material needs to be able to cite and link back to the original sources
  • the fact that this is a request by Wikimedians to the GLAM sector suggests to me that the GLAM sector didn’t really need to request that Wikimedians ‘take proactive care of the moral rights of content creators’
  • this is another recommendation that, for some cultural institutions, could be tricky to implement in the short term – which is not to diminish its status as a high priority request. One workaround for collection databases that don’t generate usable URLs (let alone pURLs) is to create a Zotero translator and publicise that as a way to generate links back to the item. And it may be that the solution to this problem emerges from an agreed standard for cultural collections, which in turn enables a more semantic identification of collections and items within them.

The idea of providing the general public with read-write access to a metadata repository is sensible. It would generate great community engagement, and it would enable bulk development of rich metadata, which could dramatically improve findability of the material and also enhance its meaning – I wrote a paper about that. But such a prospect would also be fairly freaky for many cultural workers, who tend to be concerned that it would jeopardise the integrity or authority of the collection. Such concerns are not difficult to overcome, and indeed successful models are now proliferating (think Powerhouse collection, Australian Newspapers project).

2.2 Technology requests to Wikimedia

Rather than (or as well as) creating ‘easy and extensible templates for citing institutional sources and data’, perhaps Wikimedia could help institutions to make their own template?

3.1 Education requests to GLAM

How good is the Wikimedian offer to do volunteer work on commission from cultural institutions? Are cultural workers thinking about this, even in a back-of-mind way? They should be!

Personally, I think it’s a good idea for on-staff experts to set up an account on Wikimedia so they can be consulted on specific topic areas. If I was an on-staff expert on a particular topic, I would do so. But I wonder how well-received this idea will be – would ‘Expert advisor to Wikimedia’ look good on your CV? Unless you are a high-level academic, in which case it would make you groovy, I suspect not.

3.2 Education requests to Wikimedia

To me, the idea that Wikimedians should highlight the importance of real-world interaction with cultural heritage is weird. Of course a digital copy of something will always lack something that the original, physical item has. But why should it be Wikimedians’ role to remind people of that? Should gallery hosts inform people of the advantages of an online digital copy? (Eg, access from anywhere, any time, sometimes in greater detail and with better light than you can see the real thing; access to items that are otherwise in storage and/or inaccessible in the real world.) This seems a prescriptive, condescending recommendation. Surely each cultural interface can speak for itself. The only way in which this requests makes good sense to me is if it is tied to the request to Wikimedia to improve consistency and comprehensive use of metadata (including physical location of the item). Provenance and context are absolutely critical to understanding cultural heritage. Note that Liam made a similar point in his Wikimania presentation in August.

‘Affirm the compatibility of interpretive debate within encyclopedic neutrality’ – cultural workers who feel this request is a necessary inclusion should read the Wikipedia policy on neutral point of view. My feeling is that the request is already well-met, and seems to work in practice. For example, the long and well-referenced page on evolution includes a paragraph about creationism, which in turn links to a page on creationism that includes sections on Christian and scientific critiques.

Don’t the requests to enable ‘expert contributions’ and external peer review clash with the spirit and process of Wikipedia?

Another request that seems unnecessary is to improve the visibility of the quality assessments of content. Here is a sample page that cites no sources:

Part of a Wikipedia page that cites no sources

To my mind, the orange bar and position at the beginning of the body content makes the message very prominent and clear.

4.1 Business requests to GLAM

These requests all seem reasonable and important and in the case of the request to make images of damaged items available for Wikimedians to digitally restore, generous.

4.2 Business requests to Wikimedia

These requests also seem reasonable, although many of the requests for information about business models could simply constitute items for the training package.

The final request, to generate positive media attention around collaboration projects, would seem to apply equally – or more – to the GLAM sector, which has more resources and a higher, more authoritative media profile than the wiki community.

All quiet on the GLAM-wiki front

Two months on from the groundbreaking GLAM-wiki conference, where cultural workers and wikipedians met to consider mutual benefits of a partnership (I blogged about it here), I have been gathering some thoughts on the recommendations – and will post them soon. Strangely, very few people have publicly commented, notable exceptions being GerardM (a Dutch wikipedian), Liam himself, and (briefly) Mia Ridge, a London-based digital cultural worker. What’s with the silence?

Is there a good reason why no Australian cultural workers have commented publicly, or are you, like me, puzzled by the eerie quiet?

In my view, even cultural workers very pressed for time should be thinking about it, because that page of recommendations is an important work-in-progress. Why? Because everyone who works in a cultural institution is responsible in some way for enabling members of the public to access and engage with cultural heritage. I can’t think of a cultural institution whose mission is not to extend and enhance access to and engagement with cultural heritage. And from my perspective, the GLAM-wiki conference buzzed for the very reason that a partnership between the cultural and wiki sectors holds such promise.

If wikipedians and cultural workers could collaborate effectively, both sectors (and let’s face it, the public) would benefit immensely, as Liam suggested in the abstract for his presentation to Wikipedians about the GLAM-wiki conference:

[Wiki] projects have fantastic coverage – both breadth and depth – in popular culture but the same cannot be said for ‘high’ culture. […] if we hope to produce ‘the sum of all human knowledge’ then we need to address this gap. Where this information resides is in the world’s museums, libraries, archives and galleries and we must begin to work with these institutions – for our mutual benefit.

In other words, the wiki community is hoping to get hold of significant knowledge that is currently hidden from popular view because it resides only in cultural institutions. And for cultural institutions, their collection material could gain the popularity of Wikipedia.

So how come – and despite the wiki community’s enthusiasm – the cultural community seems so lukewarm? As cultural workers we might see the obstacles; but we can still seek the goal.

Is it that staff of cultural institutions don’t see the potential? Could it be that we have popularity ‘issues’? Or as a collective, are we simply (still) anti-Wikipedia? I’m curious to learn what others think.

Cultural lessons from the crowd in the cloud

In the last couple of weeks I’ve encountered some great insight into and evidence of the potential effect of large public networks on the work of making cultural assets accessible. It has come from two separate sources – Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, but also the first ever public conversation between Wikimedia and the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums).

I haven’t finished the book yet, so my focus here is on what the GLAM sector might take away from the conference (although no doubt the book is infiltrating my thinking.) The following points are not neatly sewn-up instructional lessons, and of course, people will disagree, but I believe the following are important considerations for those of us working to make cultural assets accessible online.

1. A completely different process of authorisation

I heard a lot of talk about how Wikipedia lacks authority and I heard a lot of what seemed like fear that its perceived dodginess would infect cultural institutions and jeopardise their authority. Well, for me, an almost opposite view is far more compelling.

Cultural institutions hold in their collections assets that have authority because they are original sources. No question; nothing will jeopardise that. And academic research accrues authority through the process of peer review, or by being written by someone who has accrued authority in the course of their professional career.

Wikipedia has an entirely different relationship with authority. Its articles are by definition, necessarily and absolutely not original research. And yes, Wikipedia editing is amateur. But the amazing thing is that Wikipedia articles can achieve a form of authority by virtue of the fact that the community of editors (which includes anyone who wants to be in it) finds a neutral, consensus position, and the article settles into relatively stable content. That stability is a genuine, honourable form of authority. It is not invested through credentials but emerges – and continues to emerge – out of open dialogue. And because Wikipedia gives voice to the community rather than to an individual or institution, in my view, Wikipedian authority is of great value.

I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the only source we need. On the contrary, it is vital to check the original sources, to seek out other sources (including primary sources!), to read critically and to adopt your own position. But Wikipedia is an excellent starting point. How many of us would deny that we regularly use it?! And the fact that Wikipedia content must be verifiable – cite and refer readers to reliable sources – positions it very well as a potential partner for cultural institutions.

2. A horde of willing and able enthusiasts

The arresting image below resides in the German Federal Archive but now – along with almost 100,000 others – it also resides in the Wikimedia Commons.

A photograph from the German National Archives via Wikimedia, June 1942 – Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-N0619-506

Jewish women with yellow star, Paris, June 1942 – from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia – Deutsches Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F000136-0009

It’s there because Mathias Schindler negotiated a deal with the Bundesarchiv, by which the archive would release 100,000 images into the public domain, and in return, Wikipedians would help by describing the photographs and matching person data (authority files – the A-word again!) in three places – German Wikipedia, National Archive and National Library.

As an employee of a federal archive, I am acutely conscious of the scale of the work involved in description and digitisation – core tasks usually prerequisite to making cultural assets accessible. Anything with the potential to distribute this load must be worth exploring. That way, more culture can be shared more widely which is, of course, the point.

The experience of the National Library of Australia in soliciting bulk text enhancement – via its wonderful Australian Newspapers project – provides further evidence that the public can be relied upon to do a mammoth amount of good work in enhancing OCR’d microfilm.

3. More accessible doesn’t seem to mean less profitable

And importantly, evidence is amassing at the Powerhouse Museum that increasing the accessible reach of your photographs, through the Flickr Commons, has a massive impact on how many people see and tag your images, but very little effect on image sales.


In short, unlike Angelina, I came away from GLAM-wiki feeling fairly enthusiastic – like Gerard – about the possibilities for partnership.

A Government 2.0 idea – first, make all the functions visible

Senator Kate Lundy’s Public Sphere forum this week was exciting, not least because amongst all the compelling presentations, the Government 2.0 Taskforce was announced. Its role is not only to help the government navigate into the future of greater transparency and collaboration, but also to fund projects to the same end. So what might the taskforce fund? Well, here’s an idea, and a fairly fundamental, simple one at that.

Last night I watched Us Now, a film that makes a great case for how a distributed, collaborative approach can trump a top-down approach in ventures ranging from commercial money-lending to selecting players for a football team to allocating government funds. (An aside: I was struck by how accepting the model railway guys were of the crowd-sourced decision, even though it denied them any council funding. As one of them said – I’m paraphrasing – he had had his eyes opened up to all the other worthy projects, and he was satisfied that the process had been fair. Key point: transparent, collaborative decision-making is satisfying, even when you don’t get what you want.)

Because there seem to be so many areas of government policy and service that might be improved by some citizen collaboration, I started to wonder where those possibilities end. What are the limits to Government 2.0? Of course, the best way to answer that question would be to ask the people. What do you want a say in? And how?

For me, there are many potential points of intervention. My first thoughts are rather trivial – we could ban sticky labels on fruit! And rid the country of those horrid robo-loos that have taken over where public toilets used to be. But I’d also appreciate a say in more serious and complex things like immigration policy, climate change targets, and so on. No doubt there would be many other issues that I’d like to vote on, if I was offered the choice. The tricky part is knowing all the options – being aware of all the ways in which governments shape our environments, cultures and experiences.

The thing is, in order for people to answer the question ‘What do you want a say in?’ – in order for us to collectively determine the scope and limits of citizen governance – we need to be able to peruse the full set of government functions – at federal, state and local levels.

What we need is a visualisation – a view that shows us government functions as a whole and enables us to explore the component parts. Then, we could add an architecture of participation – put it to users as to what issues should be put to the people.

Actually, such a tool could be multi-purpose. Imagine if, having found a function of interest, you could see which level of government performs that function, and which agency, and how to get in touch with that agency. For me, a browsable visualisation of Australian governments has greater potential value as a directory than any ‘enhanced’ search service.

How the architecture of this model of citizen governance might work is of course open, but the way forward for the visualisation part of this project seems obvious. A starting point, at least in relation to the federal government, would certainly be information from the National Archives, which has a key role in keeping governments accountable – by keeping their records – and which therefore takes a lead role in keeping government information organised. For example, it:

So, how about it? Do you share my sense that making the functions visible is a critical first step toward Government 2.0?