Lagging, leading, bleeding

Posted on June 6, 2007

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My Clash of the Networks post has got a bunch of traffic – not surprising really – underlying this is an emotive issue which all museums, and probably most technologists, struggle with. Mike Lowndes (ex NHM Website Manager) has opened up a thread in the comments which expands the “should we free our data?” question into “do we have time and resource to do this?”.

This is a really interesting one, and one which I’ve been talking and thinking about for a looooong while. It touches on innovation (how do you do it?), risk (how do you manage it?), museum treacle (how do you wade through it?) among others.

Here’s the conundrum: R&D takes time, is about trying lots of things which probably won’t work in the hope of (hopefully) finding one which will. It is a brave company head who takes focus away from the bread and butter of day to day business and instead gets his techs to spend some time just thinking – essentially throwing away (at least in the short term), the “hourly rate” which they otherwise could have earned. (Obviously this “earning” is slightly less obvious in money terms in museums than it is in an agency who charges by the hour, but the principle is the same…). This doesn’t even touch on the time management issues which plague all of us – if you’re faced with an inbox of must-do stuff, you’re hardly going to ignore it in favour of some weird idea which probably won’t work…

But…R&D – any innovation, in fact – is undoubtedly incredibly important for major technology companies. The question here is whether it is, or should be, important for museums online.

I would argue, emphatically, yes. Not just because I want to work in a sector which leads rather than lags, but also because I believe strongly that museums have some of the best content that there is. We are also stakeholders in the long tail – niche content is our domain, through and through. When you couple this with the fact that a lot of this new stuff – mashups, api’s and social applications – are usually cheap or free, and often easy to implement, and it’s a no-brainer from my perspective.

Museum collections, the “application” which I put together in about 20 minutes using Google Coop was an example of this. I think it’d be great to see more of these coming from the sector, many more – lightweight, quick, cheap implementations of simple ideas. Rough around the edges, not user-tested, un-designed, sketchy – yes. But that’s kind of the point.

I think there is a gap in the sector but it’s an awareness and “fear of the unknown” gap, not a knowledge gap. After all, if you can put together an HTML page, you can embed a widget or create a blog…

I believe that the more demonstrators we have the more we’ll begin to understand how or if people use them. And if there’s no time during the working day then hey, let’s do some fiddling at home instead. It’s what I do. Sad though that is…

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