Proboscis’ Urban Tapestries: Public Authoring in the Wireless City project (2004-2007) changed what I thought digital storytelling could be and do, and its desire to explore what might constitute a 21st century Mass Observation still resonates deeply with me. I found myself thinking about this after the Powerhouse Museum‘s Seb Chan and Luke Dearnley presented on culture + heritage + digital at last week’s Web Directions South conference.
A few things from their preso have stuck with me, not least because they talked about some approaches to knowledge creation and dissemination that I think academics could put into practice more often. For example, over the past ten years museums have had to learn to give up some of their authority and control, or at least to understand authority and control a bit differently. Describing the current situation, they say:
“Now it is all about being a data provider, getting our knowledge and collections out into the community where they can be debated and gather feedback and attract interest. The social web and now the mobile web has made this possible at the kind of scale that wasn’t possible in 2001. At the same [time] we now have ‘contextual authority’ rather than what we previously imagined was ‘overall authority’.”
And when discussing collections, they raise some interesting points about location and scale:
“The other big change is that of scale. A collection like that of the Powerhouse used to feel ‘large’ but in actual fact it is tiny. Its value in the digital space now is no longer as an island but only in what it can contribute to national and international collections – a collection of collections. That’s a tough challenge for a State-funded museum whose majority of ‘visitors’ walking in the door live in Sydney. But at scale new possibilities emerge.
What this boils down to, at least in terms of traditional social and cultural research, is the necessity of being comfortable with the fact that we create only one of many types of knowledge, but also being comfortable with the fact that we already create the kind of contextual knowledge that can be used by others in ways we can only imagine. (I think that empirical researchers with a background in participant observation or action research are already well on board.)
But I’m reminded that I never learned about Mass Observation in my anthropology classes and, in retrospect, I think it was because in an era of privileged anthropologists exclusively studying the exotic Other, MO sought to create “an anthropology of ourselves” by recording the everyday lives of ordinary British people. In other words, “their” knowledge (both subject and object) wasn’t as good as “our” knowledge–and it didn’t belong in a formal education. But what if all ethnographic data were put together into a “collection of collections” with which people could do all sorts of things? Yale University’s Human Relations Area Files project has done a brilliant job of compiling a wide diversity of cultural materials, but when I used it to create the re/touch interaction design encyclopaedia, well, let’s just say that its digital format did precious little to help me. My point here is that we also need to work with digital media folks more often.
When I think of data visualisation and cultural heritage, I see extraordinary, but still largely untapped, potential–especially in terms of working with qualitative data that do not easily lend themselves to snappy charts and infographics. Locative media have, I think, fared much better in being able to represent less clear-cut or ephemeral information distributed across space and time, allowing us to see over and under things with extraordinary detail. (As an aside, I’m really looking forward to seeing the upcoming Convergence Special Issue on Locative Media.)
But I also remain convinced that data visualisation, either quantitative or qualitative, could be productively complemented by more critical explorations in data materialisation. I’ve written before about how materialisation can be more affective than visualisation, and while Timo Arnall and BERG get a lot of much deserved attention for gorgeous wireless visualisations like Immaterials and Wireless World, my favourite video of theirs has always been Nearness:
That single video did more to help me understand how RFID works than dozens of other papers and visualisations put together, and all because it didn’t just make the invisible visible, it made it physical or materialised it. As Jack Schulze explained:
“RFID is a complex and fairly abstract technology to grasp. We have to be careful in how we communicate with it. There are many leaps of imagination and understanding required to grasp it and hold a useful model of how it works and what is happening, let alone see how it maps usefully and elegantly into the world around us. The familiarity of the chain reaction form, means the audience quickly grasps that the normal kinetic transfer of force in the sequence is replaced by invisible forces that work very closely together. Like invisible digital breaths between objects. Because the form was familiar, our hope was the concept of nearness without touching would be clearly understood.”
But back to Seb and Luke’s presentation. They showed a bunch of interesting work, and I was completely taken by the New York Public Library’s historical menus project. Oh, how I wish that radishes would become popular again! But mostly I would love to see these data materialised as cookbooks and servingware.
The UK’s National Maritime Museum and Citizen Science Alliance‘s Old Weather project is also pretty impressive. As Fiona Romeo and Lucinda Blaser explain:
“A programme of citizen science allows our museum to link cutting-edge science and issues with our historic purpose and subjects. The Old Weather project also delivers a reusable interface for the distributed transcription of archive materials … The logbooks, which date from 1914 to 1923, contain previously untapped information about the weather, ships’ movements and daily events onboard. This data is not available anywhere else, and has the potential to advance scientific understanding of climate variability and change. By taking part in Old Weather, members participate in and gain an understanding of how climate science research is undertaken, data are processed and results used, allowing them to contribute towards important climate research activities.”
Of particular interest to me is how the project treats participants as collaborators in knowledge creation rather than as mere informants or labourers:
“The Citizen Science Alliance is guided by a philosophy that all projects must answer a real scientific research question. The projects must never waste the ‘clicks’, or time, of volunteers, who should be respected as collaborators, including, where appropriate, recognition as co-authors of academic papers.”
The transcription tool also allows for the recording of additional data that keeps volunteer participants interested and engaged:
“While there may be an initial pleasure in encountering the poetic language of the weather scale, there was a risk that the task of extracting observations would be considered ‘dry’ or repetitive after a short time. But our volunteers have been inspired by the real human stories that they discover in the logs and they capture weather data in order to follow the stories of vessels and people through to the end. In doing so, they gain an insight into life at sea during this time period. For example, they come to understand that enemy combat was not as common as they might have imagined, and there is much more in the logs to do with the practicalities of living life at sea.”
Again, the richness of this information and the experience of working with it really makes me want to see people making some ship dioramas!
But the final lesson from their project, I think, is relevant to all public cultural heritage data visualisation and materialisation projects:
1) Provide a platform for volunteers to share their data, findings and challenges;
2) Ensure that professional researchers enter into discussion with the volunteers, both to set specific challenges and provide feedback, but also to respond to the questions and interests that emerge from the community itself;
3) Release all of the analysed data back to the community, as soon as is practicable for the project.
And now, writing all this down just makes me realise how much I want the Counting Sheep project to be a solid exploration of what socially and culturally focussed design research can contribute to the visualisation and materialisation of cultural heritage…