On 27th March (yes, I know, Easter got in the way) I attended the Rewired Culture unconference at The Guardian in London. I’d not been to an unconference before, let alone one associated with a hackday, but I’d followed similar intiatives, such as the THATCamp series at a distance via twitter and blog postings. So I was intrigued – if a little nervous – to find out from the inside how such an event worked. [Coincidentally, there has been the most extraordinary flame today on the UK Records Management listserv about the concept of an unconference, which is obviously unfamiliar (excuse pun) to many records professionals in the UK. I hope this blog post goes a little way towards demonstrating the potential value of this type of event to the archives and records sector.]
The day’s events were organised jointly by DCMS and Rewired State, a not-for-profit company whose mission is neatly summed up in their tagline ‘geeks meet government’. Rewired Culture, which also masqueraded under the twitter hashtag #rsrc, aimed to bring together cultural ‘data owners’ (such as Museums, Libraries and Archives) with Britain’s “vibrant developer community” and “growing and active entrepreneurial base”. The half day unconference strand (which was free, incidentally – thank you) offered an opportunity to discuss how cultural creators (ie record creators in an archive context), curators (read archivists), developers (IT professionals) and entrepreneurs can collaborate to exploit the potential of cultural content and promote innovation in a participatory web2.0 world:
How do we ensure that the exciting work already underway in a number of organizations is shared more generally, so even smaller bodies and SMEs can learn from best practice and find workable routes to market? What are the cultural content business models for the 21st century? …for data owners, entrepreneurs, data users and communites to discuss business models, funding mechanisms and challenges.
Encouraged by the promise that at an unconference, “everybody’s voice is as valid as everyone else’s”, I went along nevertheless expecting to be the only archivist in a room full of people from the big national museums. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find that fellow participants included a bunch of colleagues from The National Archives, as well as a number of other people who for a variety of reasons had an interest in smaller cultural organisations.
My own attendance was also prompted by a somewhat vaguely thought-through idea that techie/geek mashups making use of cultural content could be viewed as one extreme of a user-collaboration continuum (disclaimer: these are very much thoughts-in-progress, and need a lot more mashing!):
During Rewired Culture, I was pointed towards the work of one of the current Clore Fellows, Claire Antrobus, who is researching user-led innovation in art galleries. There are some interesting parallels and contrasts with the archives domain here, and I like the ‘user-led innovation’ concept.
Each unconference session lasted for an hour (possibly a little too long – at times I felt the discussions would benefit from more focus, but this perhaps depends on the participants in each group and anyway, you are at liberty to ‘vote with your feet’ and join another session if you wish, something which is not usually possible in a formal conference setting). The first session I attended discussed institutional barriers to opening up cultural data. Some familiar themes emerged, including language barriers between ‘techies’ and ‘curators’, business drivers for engaging in new, potentially risky, areas of work at a time of significant budget cuts in the public-sector, and identifying external funding streams for technological innovation (I wondered specifically whether the regional structure of the principal archives-sector grant funder, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the emphasis they place upon localised community outcomes for projects they support, inhibits innovation in the re-use of archival content on the internet, which is by definition global in its reach). The session also surfaced what I felt was a misunderstanding of the positivist, Jenkinsonian theory of the archivist as passive custodian (as opposed to active interpreter) of archival content, which one museum professional present had taken as a particular reluctance amongst archivists to open up archival data. My former employer, West Yorkshire Archive Service, has had its full electronic catalogue freely available on the internet for over ten years, which is more than can be said, even now, of many local museum services. Admittedly there is plenty of work still to be done in making this catalogue data available in re-usable, developer-friendly formats, and there is a definite need for better data aggregators in the archives sector – the UK Archives Discovery Network may have an important role to play here. But it would be wrong to fail to recognise the achievements of the sector in making archival catalogue data available, and consequently to miss out on opportunities for its re-use (particularly where it is even now held as easily harvested and re-purposed Encoded Archival Description, as with the ArchivesHub and A2A federated collections). Equally, there is perhaps a need to bring postmodernist trends in archival theory to greater prominence within the UK archives practitioner community, and to explore how such concepts might support the kind of technology- and user-mediated innovation under discussion at the Rewired Culture unconference.
Following on from this, the second session I attended considered what would make the ideal API for a cultural organisation. Here we seemed to be back in ‘If we build it, will they come?‘ territory, or to be more precise, ‘If we release open data, what do we expect developers to do with it?’. Indeed, I agree, it would be very useful to know what use has been made of existing cultural sector APIs and datasets made available, such as that provided by the V&A Museum, or, to give an archives example, what use has been made of the NARA catalogue data that has been made available for download? As a non-geek archivist (albeit with geek-like tendencies), I also freely admit I do not altogether understand what data formats are optimal to maximise potential for re-use, nor do the developer community seem to articulate clearly what ‘open data’ might mean in practical terms.
Finally, at the end of the afternoon, we came to the hack presentations. I was slightly disappointed that only two of the creations (HMRC Artworks and LandingZone) made any use of actual cultural content (as opposed to information about special events or the geographical locations of cultural organisations). Nor, as far as I know, was any use made of archives sector data (although I do not know what data was provided, and it may be that there was no suitable archive data to hand). So the hackers had maybe breathed new life into the discoverability of collections, whereas the real promise of user-led innovation in the cultual sector, it seems to me, is to enhance meaning and understanding of collections. However, I left thinking that a hackday with archival data could prove an interesting experiment – and something of a technical challenge, presumably, given the contextual richness and complexity of archival catalogue data, in comparison to the discrete object record of the typical museum or library catalogue.