8 min read

Bits2Blogs 2013

Today I’m blogging at Bits2Blogs, a conference showcasing how the cultural sector can use new technologies to engage audiences. I’ll be updating this as the day goes on, but also keeping information going with twitter and storify.

As the attendees swarmed into the faraday cage-like Great North Museum (something of an irony given the theme, and to the consternation of those who had issues with the wifi), John Coburn of Tyne and Wear Museums welcomed the group to the event. This is the 8th (?) annual Bits 2 Blogs, with the first taking place in Teeside in 2006.

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

Jason DaPonte (Managing Director & Executive Producer, The Swarm@jasondaponte

Storify notes

DaPonte discussed the ways museums need to consider the futures relating to mobile media. Or more importantly, beyond that to the world of subphones (a phrase I hadn’t heard of) or Internet of Things (one I had). For example, instead of the unnatural action of holding up your phone for AR, how about playing tag with hoodies, as the Neighbourhoodies project does? As useful as an app that lets you get refunds for your tube being late is, why doesn’t your Oyster card do this anyway?

He challenged museums to think about how they can use their information—”your collections are a lot more interesting than most information from sensors”—and to think about how to create a ‘virtuous cycle’ between your connections and your users. Good exemplars include COSM (which shows how to make apps with data) and UK based Tales of Things (recording memories relating to things such as the recent Oxfam Curiosity shop which included Annie Lennox talking about her clothes). As it turned out, ToT creator Claire Ross was in the audience:


‘Press Play: Making the best of your online sound recordings’

Ian Rawes (Founder, London Sound Survey@LondonSounds

Storify notes

People whistle less due to not owning birds anymore? Lavender sellers would be considered noise pollution? These were the type of insights that Ian Rawes showed you could pull out of what would otherwise ‘humdrum’ sound samples. He reflected on what he’s learned from his London Sound Survey website collection and provided useful tips for those interested in online sound archives.

He made a key point in the presentation of sound data. While a good content description is essential for sound archivists (and obviously valuable in its own right as sound archives are difficult to parse otherwise), they’re not particularly attractive to the casual listener. Rawes describes the different ways people can explore his sound information (by topic, location map, tube map, accent etc). He also pointed to what other leading sites do to make listening inviting for people browsing: the Beeb provides journalistic teasers, photos and other extras on their pages, as does the NPR, and other artists.

Those wanting practical information were also in for a treat, as he gave information about platforms (Soundcloud is now the standard, but don’t just store your data there as any service may go down), recording platforms (there are a number of good devices available for less than £200), and content strategy (he provided a means of understanding your collection as an ecosystem.

And for those that were curious about his collection? He says his most popular sounds items are people (particularly street preachers) and animals.

‘Digital Media at the V&A’

Andrew Lewis (Digital Content Delivery Manager, Victoria & Albert Museum@rosemarybeetle 

Storify notes

While his talk was about the V&A work, Lewis started on a more personal note. Riffing off the earlier comment from Jason DaPonte about ‘hackers doing weird stuff with data’ to show his personal project @twitr_janus. (He admitted, “this may not improve my personal standing”.

Personals projects, aside, he discussed the ways that the V&A has attempted to not be a ‘giant ship that’s hard to turn’ and adapt to the changing needs relating to digital.

‘Digital Curation and the Virtual Audience: the challenge of engagement’

Sarah Cole (Founding Director, Time/image@time_image and @irny

Storify notes

In what was arguably the most takeaway-driven (as in ideas, not food) talk of the day, Sarah Cole gave examples of the good, the bad, and the useless when it came to engaging virtual audiences.

The useless? Social media. Andrew Lewis of the V&A had admitted that they don’t get much traffic from social media, and Cole suggested that this is probably the rule rather than the exception. Anyway, it’s hard to hear cultural institutions on twitter when there’s @grumpyycat, @lord_voldermort7 and even @big_ben_clock! Furthermore, she argues that any good conversations that might happen on social media are likely to be lost in the ephemerality of the medium, and should take place in a forum that your site can hold on to the information. Though this last point was somewhat controversial:

The bad? Using the (“a little out of date, but still useful) Arts Council 2010 Digital Audiences Engagement guide as a reference, she notes that people want to find out information before they get to the exhibition. Doing this badly is a page on the Tate, that gives some interesting information about some paintings, which doesn’t lead to anything. She also suggests that organisations work with others to provide a wider picture on their collections.

The good? The examples she showed either helped provide narrative and context, or allow users to engage with the content.

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

Dominic Smith (Digital Media Projects Manager, Tyneside Cinema@dominicsmith

Storify notes

Smith’s ‘blogified’ talk

Having recently finished a PhD in art—”my daughter asked me ‘does that mean you can make art better?'”—Dominic Smith is well versed in the way of the word. And he brought it: ‘flip-flop’, ‘hypecycle’, ‘crapjet’, ‘kibble’. All will be revealed.

‘Flip-flop’ is a term used by Robin Sloan to discuss the translation between digital and physical manifestations. And when it comes to 3D printing, we’re in part of a hype cycle  where we don’t quite know what to do with it. For all of the potentials of 3D printing, we’re not there yet. Yes, we can make a 3D record that plays Nirvana, but it sounds terrible. (Or even more terrible if you don’t like Nirvana). In other words, right now we potentially have ‘crapjets’ (things that make crap’) or even worse, ‘kibble’ (rubbish that replicates).

However, we are starting to see flip-flopping in regards to making. Artists can flip-flop between digital and real sculpture:

and we’re starting to see a marketplace for 3D objects (Shapeways, Ponoko etc). However, where there’s a market, there’s a potential for pirating. Already there’s a physicals market on The Pirate Bay, and museums need to consider a future where someone can snap a picture and make a replica. Smith also argues that, much like crapjets, the real issue with piracy isn’t about IP (though that is an issue) as much as fidelity: people put up with a huge lack of quality in order for access Think of those horribly pixellated mp4s and avis that people get from torrents etc. Or, something straight from the uncanny valley, fake Disneyland.

What are the choices: Smith offers two:

1. Make it painfully easy to see (as per former Megaupload founder Kimdotcom)

2. Use Creative Commons and give it away so that it can be remixed and enjoyed at proper fidelity rather than crapware.

‘Compelling Objects: Exploring the qualities of digital representation through sensory and aesthetic experiences of objects’

Rachel Clarke (Culture Lab, Newcastle University) @racheleclarke

Storify notes

In a ‘”perfect but entirely accidental” segue from the previous talk, Clarke discussed projects that, rather than looking at technology, celebrated objects (as the anthropologist Sherry Turkle often discusses). Works she highlighted included:

  • “Reminisce”, capturing memories from visitors to Bunratty Folk Park in Ireland
  • The Whispering Table, which is notable for the way it was created, “the technology wasn’t retrofitted onto the objects, instead the objects were carefully designed around the technology, which is something that designers—particularly critical designers—are now doing more often.” 

She also discussed a number of Culturelab (or Culturelab related) projects

  • Personhood in Dementia project by Jayne Wallace which uses jewellery as a means of capturing memories
  •  Talking Memory boxes: “not so much about family trees as family hedges”

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

Ben Templeton (Thought Den)  @thoughtben of @thoughtden

Storify notes

Templeton finished the day with practical thoughts on three projects he has been involved in as part of Thought Den: Arkive’s Survival app, Tate’s Magic Tate Ball, and Brighton Zoo’s be an animal installation.

Recurring themes of all the projects were:

  • Content needs to lead. In each case it was important to think about what was being promoted.
  • A good partnership is key. In Arkive the marketing team really helped promote it, with the Tate they were allowed a lot of freedom, and Brighton Zoo was also supportive.
  • Test, test, test. Admittedly, this is hard, particularly with small budgets. More testing may have shown with the Survival app that they needed to stagger their rewards better, while with the Brighton Zoo one it was important to see how people actually made the shapes as they might not be what you expected. (In the latter case, as money was tight, the old ‘use family members for testing’ strategy was used).
  • Simplicity is hard. (Also related to test, test, test). The seemingly simple idea of bopping objects for Survival required a lot of thought for the actions, and the locations for Magic Tate ball required manually trawling through papers for headlines. And the making shapes for Brighton Zoo was full of potential issues. It is worth it though.

Some more specific points that came out were:

  • HTML/JS is hard. The team used it for the Magic Tate app, which made it easier to port, but the wide range of devices out there mean there are innumerable cases to consider.
  • WordPress is easy … for collecting data. For the Brighton Zoo app, they created a site for the researchers to populate, and then ported the database to the Kinnect app.
  • Unlocking
  • Launching can take a while. The Tate app took a while—6 months in fact—to take off, until resource were poured into it (favours pulled and money paid for PR companies). They also had to get permission from Magic 8 legal team before Apple would even let it be on the app store.

If I were to sum up the overall themes of the day, they would be:

  • Finding—and then testing!—interesting and engaging ways for users to interact with your collections, be it online or in installations.
  • Being aware of the technical limitations involved with project works (also as above)—but carefully selecting content, delivery formats, and designs to make it work.
  • Acknowledging that social media does not engagement make
  • Allowing ways for people to share their own stories relating to collections
  • Celebrating that while we may appear to be moving into the world of the digital, the signs suggest that what can be considered authentic and physical objects will still have value.

For those interested in continuing the conversation (or interested in what they’ve read), there is a Newcastle Digital Culture Group that meets semi-regularly. For more information, contact John Coburn of the Tyne and Wear Museums.