Bits to Blogs, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, Newcastle, 19 March 2013

Report from Bits 2 Blogs, Newcastle, 19 March 2013, organised by Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums – the ‘annual event for anyone working in the North East cultural heritage sector who is passionate about using new ideas and new technologies to engage new audiences’

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking day – an interesting mix of people speaking on topics ranging from the Internet of Things to sound-archiving, from crowd-sourcing research right up to digital objects in reminiscence projects, and managing to take in flip-flopping along the way (no, me neither! – see below for what that means). It was my first visit to Newcastle and it was really good to meet lots of new people. Here’s a brief run down of some of the ideas.

Jason DaPonte, The Swarm

What’s the next step for mobile media in museums & galleries?

Jason DaPonte of digital agency The Swarm started by looking at sub-phone technology. That is, phone communication technology used in non-phone situations such as within domestic equipment, cars, clothing and other everyday places.

Jason DaPonte discovers mid-presentation that the podium area has the most reliable signal!

Jason discussed how the ubiquitous distribution of digital communications technology means that almost everything that we do is creating data. This allows us to both understand users and to offer them more contextualised services. However, using personal data can also alienate people as increasingly, the constant data people produce exposes them to being tracked, monitored and spied upon. 

He also said how data about ourselves is never entirely under our control, and that data about us is being independently produced by others (think search indexing, review-sites, fan-sites, etc – all of which are constantly publishing data streams). He stressed that as a basic starting point, we must ensure we are producing all our content as data by default or that content may effectively become less and less visible.

Even once we make our data available, it is competing with a huge number of other sources, although as cultural organisations we have potentially much more interesting data than is generally available elsewhere. The uniquness of our collections data is a strength we should exploit to maintain a voice as data becomes more competitive.

Ian Rawes, London Sound Survey

Press Play: Making the best of your online sound recordings

Ian discussed sound archiving and played some fascinating audio clips of old street scenes, including a beautiful street seller’s song that had rather surprisingly been banned as noise pollution in the past.

Ian Rawes talks about control over core content assets

Ian discussed the technical heirachies of delivering content, starting with the importance of keeping possession of the master audio files to avoid risk of loss in third party services which cannot really be guaranteed, moving through options for lower-resolution delivery files for the web, right up to common distribution channels such as Google Maps, SoundCloud and others.

There was a good discussion of the tensions involved in opening up sound archives. He made the point that some files are inherently difficult to manage and cited oral history in particular. It not only raises rights issues about what you can release and how you manage permissions, but also of confidentiality due to the personal nature of the content. (London Sound Survey site) (London Sound Survey on SoundCloud)

Here’s a sample of some Lewisham market traders from London Sound Survey’s YouTube selection. All credit to London Sound Survey for this gem – Nice!

Digital Media at the V&A

Just before lunch I was presenting on strategic approaches to delivering digital content at the V&A – how we manage digital content and why we do this in the way we do.

Note – this is a development of a presentation given to UK Museums on the Web 2012, which  covered digital governance, with extra content added about our data-publishing models that can efficiently re-use content, the tensions of learning to let go of old content favourites to make room for new ones, using analytics for targeted understanding of specific user-activity and more.

I won’t rehash this here, though. The presentation is on SlideShare…
Download the full presentation here

Sarah Cole, TIME/IMAGE

Digital Curation and the Virtual Audience: The challenge of Engagement

Sarah Cole of TIME/IMAGE, a ‘heritage asset consultancy’ who work with archives and collections, discussed how context and story are important to encourage engagement. She started by looking at some Google content platforms including the impressive timeline feature from a Google Cultural Institute showing some of the excellent examples created by the Nelson Mandela Institute of Memory. This is an attractive way of displaying a context and story in a visual way from various sources.

Sarah also stressed the point previously made by Jason DaPonte, that there is a lot of competition for content, so cultural organisations need to concentrate on what they have that is unique.

Having stressed the importance of narrative and context, she made the case that this should cultural organisations cannot expect to be able to always provide this, but should make use of their audiences to add cultural value and commentary.

She looked at Zooniverse projects, which included public crowdsourced descriptions of images from Hubble, as well as transcribing old weather logs and ancient Egyptian text. She also mentioned the use of Flickr comments as a means of crowdsourcing historical information, such as the IWM’s Your faces of the First World War

She also looked at a number of Apps that allow users to combine content. She discussed the barriers that Apps introduce such as having to use personal storage space to download the App before you can share in it.

In a rather ironic moment, while reviewing futuristic projections of twenty years ago that we would all be experiencing virtual reality by now, Sarah suggested that this had not yet happened. At the same time a lack of both WiFi connection and phone signal in the room was disrupting the normal virtual conversational space of Twitter, text discussion and instant web referencing that have become standard real-time ways of socially enhancing conferences for some years.

We do now inhabit virtual social spaces as a matter of course I feel, but thankfully just not with silly 1990s headsets and then only when we can get connectivity! To be fair to Sarah, she was emphasising the remaining importance of physical experience. However an emerging theme of the day was that virtual existences have not replaced our physical ones, but instead they have become normalised and intergrated within them.

This led nicely into the next speaker’s topic of flip-flopping…

Dominic Smith, Tyneside Cinema

Flip-flopping: What is it and why should you care?

Dominic Really gave a really interesting exploration of crossover from real to digital and back again. He argued that this is just normal. It’s not one or another, it’s either, anytime. We switch between physical and digital constantly.

He started with 3D technolgogies and suggested that we are only just beginning to see its possibilities noting that the initial gains are large, but that the really fine quality gains are a way off yet in practical terms.

3d model of Beethoven rendered in various numbers of triangulations

Although technology is often seen through utopian lenses, he also raised the issue that instant replication has some less palatable uses, such as piracy. There was an interesting discussion about the nature and ownership of value when anything can be recreated physically. He showed a great video of a fake Disneyland to illustate this.

Rachel Clarke, CultureLab

Compelling Objects: Exploring the qualities of digital representation through sensory & aesthetic experiences of objects, 

Rachel of Newcastle University’s CultureLab talked about the power of objects and also argued that digital technology is not separated from the physical world. She gave an interesting example of a ‘participatory spectacle’ where small communicating digital devices were embedded within tableware, to offer narrative audio to the audience as a participatory experience. The devices were not passive, but had sophisticated inter-connection that modified the audio that was delivered depending on interaction across more than one device.

She also described a technology-supported audio reminiscence project involving family connections to alleviate the effects of dementia.

Like Sarah Cole, Rachel also considered the difference between our views of the future from the past and how we actually are now. She raised the difficulty of predicting the reality of how technology will affect our lives, compared to how it eventually actually does.

Ben Templeton

Unlock the Archive! 3 ways digital innovation can liberate your content

Ben Templeton of creative agency Thought Den closed the day by discussing various projects they had developed for Tate and other organisations. He described the difficulty of universal design within games built in html5 and javascript across multiple devices. He was also commendably frank about how easy it is to miss details within game design. For example, in one game they had developed, the unlockable images had missed the essential gaming expectation that each piece of new unlockable content should better than the last.

His solution to the trickiness of game design was simple and sensible: test, test, test!

Ben also described the lengthy process of getting authorisation from Apple for the Magic Tate Ball App, due to intellectual property concerns about Mattel’s original toy. This was a fascinating insight into the sheer effort of post-launch promotion on the App store, Nokia Home page and social media.

I liked the ethic of taking well-loved games and riffing off the ideas. Ben described how this typically started with the approach: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’

Ben also gave us the word of the day: ‘Onboarding’ – getting people on board and engaged with your concept. Be suggested this worked best with a simple hook.

What we learned

Themes of the day:

  • the need for context and story to give value to content
  • that our cultural content is valuable and we should guard the digital source material, but not let that prevent us from deriving open access from it via other multiple content formats and media
  • that we should accept and address the emergence of data-level information-sharing happening all around us and develop services that build upon a basic data-driven model or risk irrelevance
  • that digital technology and the physical world have started to converge and integrate and should no longer be seen as distinct things

Thanks to all who spoke, and to John Coburn and Gill Scott of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums for a great day