Interview: Mia Ridge - open linked data and digital audiences
Mia Ridge is a fullitime PhD student working on crowdsourcing the digitisation and geo-location of historical materials. Mia is ex-Lead Web Developer for the Science Museum in London, past MSc student in human-computer interaction, and current Chair of the Museums Computer Group.
Mia writes the Open Objects blog: openobjects.blogspot.co.uk/
As more and more open and/or linkable cultural heritage data is becoming available, what challenges do museums face in making meaningful use of it?
As the technical issues become less of a barrier, the challenges for museums in publishing and using linked and/or open data move closer to the core task of making their collections intellectually and technically accessible to their digital audiences.
The best way to tackle the challenges around data is to ‘drink your own champagne’ and use linked data (that is, structured data that links to published vocabularies to define terms used in the records) for internal or partnership projects. Collections data becomes more usable for everyone when entities like people, places and museum-specific thesaurus terms are linked to shared definitions. That way, when one museum has records about the Countess of Lovelace, and another about Ada Byron, everyone knows they both mean Ada Lovelace.
The movement towards open data also brings challenges. Working out which licence to use for metadata (the basic catalogue record) or data (full content or ‘digital surrogates’ like photographs or texts) to maximise access while protecting potential commercial income is tricky but best practice models are emerging.
To make the most of linked and/or open data projects, museums need to actively engage with communities of developers who want to use their data. Hack days (one or two day events where people gather to turn digital data into workable prototypes) are a great way to road-test open data.
Making meaningful use of the improved datasets some users will send back to the museum can also be challenging for documentation teams and collections management system vendors, but it’s a nice problem to have, and just part of the potential of open data.
As you said in your keynote to the EuropeanaTech conference in Vienna last year, ‘Collections are big, resources are small’. What are the most effective and inexpensive ways for museums to help audiences engage and participate digitally?
The specifics will vary for each museum, but working with existing communities and online services is the most effective way to get started. Talk to enquiries, outreach and front of house staff who already engage with the public to find out what visitors love about your collections, and use online web and social media analytics to discover how and where people are currently engaging with your digital content.
When resources are limited, your design should model activities that are known to work for your audiences and collections. If you have connections with existing communities, you can invite them to help you test the interactions and interfaces you’re creating - it can be as simple as testing paper prototypes or clickable screen designs with visitors in your galleries or asking for feedback on a beta version of the project. This can also help you find ways to engage a core audience and encourage them to market the activity to other potential participants - handy if you don’t have a marketing budget!
For sustainability, it’s useful to consider the impact of online projects on the museum itself - small, manageable changes to working practices, making online activity visible in the venue and to other staff, and internal acknowledgement of the importance of the project helps. You’ll need to allow for community management resources to keep your sites looking loved, but you can let audiences help you manage any problems by empowering them to maintain standards.
When using existing social media services or communities, you should always check that their terms and conditions are ok. And don’t forget your exit strategy - how will you preserve collections and content if the service shuts?
Many museums are behind the general public when it comes to digital and social media. When will they catch-up and ‘digital’ simply becomes a central intuitive part of the museum experience?
Good question! Some change is generational, but for some reason it’s difficult for museum staff to translate ‘digital’ changes in their audiences and the outside world into potential for their museum. There are signs of hope - some museums are integrating digital specialists and outcomes across their organisational structure and in their access and engagement strategies - but as museum staff are asked to do more with less, it’s increasingly difficult for people to keep up with changing technologies and to experiment with ways of staying relevant to their audiences.
You’ve recently spent a week as ‘geek-in-residence’ with the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies team at the Powerhouse Museum. What did you learn from the experience and what did you contribute to the team?
My residency at the Powerhouse Museum was a great reminder of what I love about museums. It was a rare opportunity to explore designs for audience participation without the overhead of traditional museum projects. I spent my week thinking about activities that are engaging and meaningful for the audience and that also add value for the museum by improving content about collections or capturing stories that can make their objects more relevant.
I hope the team benefited from a different perspective. Seeing the value of your work through fresh eyes can be validating, and realising that some of the quirks of museum work are common to many museums can be reassuring. Beyond the tangible outcome of the project design we worked on, I hope my residency gave them the same sense of excitement about their museum and its collections and audiences as it gave me.
Mia Ridge in conversation with Museum Identity magazine