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Time/Data/Visualisation

Time/Data/Visualisation

Bye Bye Beautiful Data

Last week the Beautiful Data workshop organised by metaLab (at) Harvard university came to an end. Twelve intense days filled with talks, discussions, hands-on workshops and visits to local museums as well as, of course, local bars.

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Matthew Battles aggregating the participants question on an interactive blackboard.

The highlight, for me, were the people that gathered in the well air-conditioned, dimly lit premises of Harvard’s project space arts@29garden. For a workshop of this nature you can have the best possible organisation – and boy were the metaLab folks organised – what makes it in the end a success or not is finding the right mixture of participants, speakers as well as staff. The “diverse, elite group of curators, scholars, and technologists”, as the programme described the invited participants, turned out to be a very open, social and intellectually stimulating bunch from mostly the United States, but also Mexico and central Europe.

An impressive line-up of guest speakers accompanied us throughout the two weeks. Seb Chan’s talk left a lasting impression on me and, I think, on most participants. He presented his work at the Cooper Hewitt museum on making their online collection accessible and usable on the web. It all seemed so simple when Seb walked us through the features of their new website, but the takeaway point of it all was the need to let go of perfection. Data will never be perfect, collections data certainly not; the point is to get it out there anyway and to do something with it. Museums and institutions need to partly let go of their authority and expose their imperfections, so that the public can understand and, if necessary, help out. What became evident throughout the two weeks is that collections holders themselves don’t necessarily know much about their own data and that by opening it up they could learn a lot about their own history.

David Weinberger similarly pointed out the changing nature of authority. Our knowledge has, for centuries, been shaped by books and papers: truth is what it says in the book. Today, Wikipedia took on the position of the Encyclopedia Britannica in being the turn to place for finding “truth”. Part of Wikipedia’s success, Weinbergar says, is its ability to acknowledge its own fallibility. Institutions who want to remain credible, need to begin communicating their imperfection. It can start as simple as with changing the wording on a website, like Cooper-Hewitt’s collection being “pretty confident” about knowing something, rather than pretending something to be absolutely certain.

Of course, we participants were also invited to share our insights in ‘lighting talks’ that took anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes. Personally, I enjoyed these peer presentations the most. We had Pietro Santachiara talking about the “Tourist in Rome Syndrome”; the belief that everything is important and the importance of leaving things away. Gudrun Buehl told us about their ‘aztec style’ – or forged Aztecan? – birthing statue and how it made its way into Indiana Jones. Rich Barrett-Small from the Tate presented what they got out of making their dataset available on GitHub and copyright lawyer Katherine DeVos Devine dismantled the photographing policies of the Tate and other participant’s institutions on the spot.

I can’t mention all the highlights. If I could I would write more about the work done by the metaLab folk themselves: Jeffrey Schnapp’s presentation on Curarium, Jeff Steward’s visualisation of movements and interactions within the Harvard Art Museum collection and Yanni Loukissas’ time-wise visualisations of the Harvard Arboretum dataset.

I would also write more about the project work undertaken by the participants in the second week and the amazing outcomes, which I hope will be made accessible in some form very soon. Rich’s Colour Lens, a colour based cross-collection browser is already online. Steven Lubar outlines his impression of the workshop on his own blog and the project essay by Kristina Van Dyke and Steven Lubar is accessible as well. Cristoforo Magliozzi from metaLab was instrumental in producing videos together with the participants, such as Gudrun and Pietro’s Memorable Encounter and Lanfranco Aceti and Vincent Brown’s Border Cuts.

I’ll update this post with links to further projects once they become available. For now, I end with a big Thank You to everyone at metaLab, all the participants and speakers, and last but not least the Getty Foundation for their generous support.

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Beautiful Data at Harvard University

Beautiful Data, a summer institute for telling stories with open art collections brings together museum professionals, scholars and technologist to work on new ways of making use of the growing amount of digital collections data that is becoming accessible

Arts at garden

Image: The workshop will take place at Arts @ 29 Garden, the creative project space of Harvard University

During the next two weeks, I will take part in this summer institute organised by Harvard’s metaLAB and funded by The Getty Foundation. I have been invited as one of 22 professionals and academics in the field of museums, archives and digital humanities to work on concepts and practical solutions for new ways of art-historical storytelling using open digital collections and to critically discuss the ethical, curatorial and intellectual challenges of digital media in a cultural context.

I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to give away of the programme here, but I’m impressed by the number of high-profile speakers and participants the organisers managed to gather for, what can only be, an exciting, stimulating and challenging workshop. Watch this space for updates and outcomes.

The Tate Collection on GitHub

OpenGLAM alerted me via Twitter that the entire digital collection of the Tate is available on GitHub. I haven’t heard of any other institution who makes their collection available through this platform. It does kind of give a lot away, but then again, that’s the whole point of open data.

Why not Linked Data, asks a fellow Tweeter and Tate’s web architect Rich Barrett-Small justifies their move to GitHub with it being the most time- and cost-effective solution to get the data out there – for now.

Yes, SPARQL endpoints are the weapon of choice these days, but what’s wrong with using GitHub? It’s an incredibly versatile platform by far not limited to programmers, but equally useful for thesis writing or democracy.

What’s great about using GitHub, as opposed to APIs, is that it doesn’t only give you access to the data, it gives you the data. Maybe I’m old school, but I do like having real files on my hard drive, as opposed to it all being locked off in a cloud. And it’s still possible to keep the data updated, by syncing it with the original repository.

But enough about pros and cons of technical details, let’s have a look at what Tate offers.

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Exploring Digital Collections

A growing number of museums and other holders of cultural datasets are making their collections accessible to the public via online interfaces. Not always does accessible also mean approachable. Often, the interfaces are about as attractive as Excel sheets and as much fun to use. What we need is interfaces that support exploration and discoveries in digitised cultural data.

Most of the cultural institutions who have their collections online, provide a basic search field, sometimes with options to further specify and filter results. Some even fully subscribe to the Open data philosophy and expose their entire collection via a SPARQL interface. Both interfaces however do not function if a user does not formulate a specific question. They immediately ask the user “what are you looking for?” without first presenting a glimpse of what can actually be found. All too often, a user is not specifically looking for a certain thing, but simply wants to look around.

I would like to look at examples, where this behaviour is supported. Where collections are exposed via rich interactive interfaces, that encourage to browse, learn and discover things. Interfaces that provide one with questions, to which one likes to find answers — as opposed to search fields that ask for questions where one inherently knows the answer already.

Originally I intended to write a blog post on some of such examples I have collected. However, it would not really do them justice to summarise them in one single post, or it would just be a really long article that no one would read anyway. So instead, I will write one article per example, in which I will provide an in depth description and impression. I will update this post and the articles that follow as I go along and maybe discover things that are worth to compare among the examples already presented.

So here we go.
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