Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wuxtry! Wuxtry! Step right up and donate your money to build the semantic web!

I was coincidentally invited by Mark Baltzegar to join a social networking group called "Museum Futures" on the Twine betasite ( at the same time that Jim so generously offered me a forum here. On Twine, a would-be angel posted some provocative questions. Speaking as one who has worked in museums for a while (without speaking in an official capacity), I've tried to address these questions informally. I'm a lawyer, not a programmer, so I invite anyone to format and add to my response(s) as they see fit.

One of my most pressing concerns right now, as a funder, is in understanding better the technology capacity of the museum community. What skills are embedded in the museums themselves, v. their vendors?

My experience is that this varies from museum to museum, even within a larger complex like that of the Smithsonian Institution. Museums, like the communities of nonprofits and especially those of arts/cultural organizations which they inhabit, are chronically underfunded. I've seen different strategies adopted for dealing with this. Everyone needs a base infrastructure, whether begged, borrowed, or bought, and I've seen acquisition of enterprise-level CMS, DAM, e-mail, and ERP apps for IT staff to maintain and parcel out to the boots on the ground (and more often workaround apps which lack the same capacity to scale but which are easier/cheaper to use and support until the independent, redundant silos overwhelm).

For activity which has direct impact on research or public education on the web, I've seen two approaches. Some hire significant staff (with varying levels of HTML, Flash, KML, and other design and programming skills) in hopes of internally managing Museum work. This represents a significant and continuous commitment to web development, but has a few significant potential drawbacks: (1) it restricts concurrent development of multiple projects to the bandwidth that available human resources can accomplish; (2) it limits institutional knowledge and capacity to the capabilities of those willing to accept a $30-60K annual paycheck as supervised by those willing to accept $90K or less; and (3) it is at the mercy of often frequent attrition. Others throw money at ad hoc development projects as they succeed in soliciting funding. Given the golden rule ("S/he who has the gold…"), this likewise presents significant drawbacks, some of which include: (1) it can skew a museum's agenda by prioritizing development arbitrarily on the basis of that which can be successfully pitched or otherwise capture donors' (or development officer's) interests instead of as dictated by institutional mission or strategic goals; (2) it often limits the control and scope of development to the budget and cash flow secured for the project; and (3) it risks kudzu-like deployment of incomplete apps and functions in an environment where information-sharing throughout the museum is frequently less than perfect (ever try to harmonize the intent of education staff focused on primary-school outreach with curator-historian-academics with exhibition developers… not even considering the pressures imposed by administrative entities?).

Worse, from my 30,000 foot view, is the opportunity cost that is engendered the ongoing commitment of scarce museum resources on a piecemeal museum-by-museum basis. Were cultural organizations capable of sharing development, building upon, and improving a core toolset, all would be significantly more productive and better off, leveraging economies of scale not only on the costs of independent development but also saving funds which otherwise would be expended in one-off discrete online exhibition development. From this vantage point, projects like GMU's Omeka or the IMLS-funded Project Steve ( and are extremely welcome and need to be encouraged, promoted, and funded (hint, hint) inasmuch as they carry the potential to prevent museums from dropping between $50,000-125,000 on a URL silo site which while nice on its own, is ultimately incapable of growth. The irony of this is that in terms of outreach, these costs represent a small fraction of the investment inherent in traditional museum means of communication (physical exhibition development, traveling exhibits, audiovisual productions, and hard copy publication) while carrying the potential to reach much greater audiences. I am a staunch believer that museums get their greatest ROI (in terms of audience outreach) from their investment in new media/internet projects.

How are the skills distributed among institutions, by size, category, or any other salient dimension? Most of our work involves funding collaborations--we seldom fund a single institution to do anything--so I'm particularly interested in collaborative nexi or loci (present or nascent) for museums and technology.

Rather than waiting for a coalition to emerge for funding purposes (look to a temporarily derailed NOAA/NMNH Ocean Portal project as an example of good intentions that appear to have been groupthought -- among other factors -- into hopefully transitory submission), I think you're better off finding an initiative leader with a promising project, even (especially?) if self-nominated. The project funding should be split appropriately (not necessarily evenly) between the amount required for development and the amount required for promotion to and adoption by like organizations. Diffusion theory represents an area of significant academic and empirical study (see Everett M. Rogers "Diffusion of Innovations") as well as getting some recent lay attention (most notably via Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point"). According to Rogers, large-scale adoption is often dependent upon a leader who can provide a model for successful adoption, offer a reasonable or low barrier to entry, and provide a means for "reinvention" of the product to suit the specific needs of the adopter. This is a primary reason why I'm such an advocate (if nonetheless naïve) of joint tool development with broad application. The emphasis must be on broad, since museums (committees in and of themselves) act inherently modularly.

We're also committed to the sustainability of the projects that we build, so my definition of 'capacity' extends to include what museum leaders understand about designing, creating, and managing technology solutions. I know that most leaders don't understand the bits and bytes--no reason why they should. But do they understand how to plan strategically to maximize the ROI on their tech investments? Do they know how to structure organizational relationships within their institutions to produce the most gain and the least pain? Are they prepared to consider innovative business models around technology, such as "community source" solutions to shared problems, in order to reduce the risk and cost of technology development?

In my painful experience, these assets are extremely hard to come by and, when obtained, become more strained the longer that project development is stretched and the less that the sponsor organization has control over initial funding. In a vaccuum of funds, I have been a strong proponent of "funding" multimedia/software development projects by allowing the commercial developers who were ultimately responsible for production a reasonable opportunity to capitalize commercially on the tools they had developed. Let the museums guinea pig/form the impetus for development of the use of these tools and provide the model for successful deployment and let the commercial providers who capitalize risk reap equivalent reward. However, the longer and more complex the project "funded" in this way, the more frequently the model has failed (I'm being coy here, as I'm not quite ready to name names). The carrot of museums' prestigious imprimatur, incessant wheedling, and -- as a last resort -- threats of default are insufficient to guarantee successful outcome unless the developer(s) remain committed to bona fide execution of museum intent and a true spirit of partnership. All of which brings us back to the venal version of the golden rule, as expressed above.

However, if it is impossible to give a selected museum messiah the power of the purse, another way of giving museums some 'oomph' to put behind these types of "in-kind" deals would be shared physical possession and ongoing publicity. As a means of possession, consider an agreement which requires that fully-annotated code, tested and annotated by a mutually acceptable independent party, be placed in escrow or a copy provided to the museum at each major development milestone, with the museum free to divulge this information or make it available to any other developer upon material breach or protracted dispute. For publicity (yay, sunshine!), share everything with an open-source community under a strict gnu-license as it is being built. Invest in ongoing promotion (the cheap version of which is an e-mailed newsletter) to build a coalition of interested participants/adopters ready to alpha-test, beta-test, and ultimately use the product.

Cultural organizations are not about the apps themselves, as these are merely a means to the end of promulgating ideas: information of and about the collections, cultures, and the world we live in, and preserving same (collections, cultures, and the world we live in) for future generations. Museums' primary focus will (should?) always be on funding this activity first and foremost (well, after staying afloat that is). We crave external technology funders with the willingness, resources, and courage to help us develop the apps we're not even aware we need to succeed.

We also must find a way to stimulate meaningful sharing and codevelopment of these apps to save ourselves precious time and still more precious money.

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