Monday, 13 September 2010

'Go forth and digitise' - Bill Thompson at OpenTech 2010

I've realised events like OpenTech are a bit like geek Christmas - a brief intense moment of brilliant fun with inspiring people who not only get what you're saying, they'll give you an idea back that'll push you further... then it's back to the inching progress of everyday life, but hopefully with enough of that event energy to make it all easier. Anyway, enough rambling and onto my sketchy notes from the talk. Stuff in square brackets is me thinking aloud, any mistakes are mine, etc.

Giving the Enlightenment Another Five Hundred Years, Bill Thompson
Session 3, Track A #3A
[A confession - working in a museum, and a science museum at that, I have a long-standing interest in conserving enough of the past to understand the present and plan for the future, and just because it's fascinating. It was ace to hear from someone passionate about the role of archives and cultural heritage in the defence of reason, and even more ace to see the tweets flying around as other people got excited about it too.]

The importance of the scientific method; of asking hard questions and looking for refutation not confirmation.

But surely history is all about progress - what could go wrong? But imagine President Palin... History has shown that it's possible for progress to go backwards.

What can we do? He's not speaking on behalf of the BBC here, but his job is to figure out what you can do with the BBC's archive. [Video of seeing the BBC charter - the powerful impact of holding the actual physical object is reason enough to conserve things from the past, it's an oddly visceral connection to the people who made it that I've noticed again and again while working in museums and archaeology.]

We need to remember. To remember is to understand, to resist. We need to digitise. Remembering comes along with digitising; our experience of the world is so mediated by bits that unless we makes archives digital in some form, there's a real danger that they will be forgotten, inaccessible. Also need to build mechanisms so that stuff that's created now are preserved alongside the records of the past. We need to do it all. If we do it well, we'll give current and future generations the evidence they need to resist the onslaught of ignorance, the tide of unreason that's sweeping the world. Need to create reasonable digitisation of solid artefacts too.

We need to do it soon 'because the kids may not want to'. The technology exists but thinks there's a real danger that if not done in the next ten years, it won't be done; people won't realise the value of the archives and understand why it has to be done. Kids who've grown up on Google will never do the deep research that will take them to the stuff that's not digitised; non-digital stuff will fall into disuse; conservation/preservation will stop.
Don't let Google do it, they don't value the right things.

Once it's in bits, preserve the data and the artefact; catalogue it, make it findable, make it usable - open data world meets open knowledge world. Access to APIs and datasets is important to make sure material can be found. If you know it's there you can ask for it to be digitised. Build layers on top of the assets that have been digitised.

Need to make it usable so have to sort out the rights fiasco... Need a place to put it all, not sure that exists yet. New tools, services, standards so it can be preserved forever and found in future. Not a trivial task but vitally important. The information in the archives supports true understanding. Possibility of doing something transformative at the moment. [He finished with:] 'Go forth and digitise. And don't forget the metadata'.

Crowdsourcing metadata seems like a good idea; V&A gets a shout-out for crowdsourcing image cropping [with an ad hoc description 'which one of these are in focus' - they might be horrified to hear their photography described like that. I got all excited that other people were excited about crowdsourcing metadata, because creating interfaces with game dynamics to encourage people to create content about collections is my MSc dissertation project.]

OCRing text in digitised images - amazing [I need to find a reference to that - if we can do it it'd instantly make our archives and 2D collections much more accessible and discoverable]

Question re Internet Archive - ans that it doesn't have enough curation - 'like throwing your archives down a well before the invaders arrive' - they might be there in a usable form when you come back for them, they might not be.

Question: preservation and digital archaeology are two different things, how closely are they aligned? [digital archaeology presumably not destructive though]

[And that's the end of my notes for that session, notes on the Guardian platform and game session to come]

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