The wisdom of crowds – UK Museums and the Web 2013

I haven’t made to the Museums Computer Group conference for a few years so it was nice to get the opportunity to attend this year.

Titled “Power to the people” this thematic strand was common to all of the presentations though each speaker had their own unique angle.


As the stubby scroll bar to the right will attest, this is a pretty long post so I’ll quickly sum up the biggest take homes for me.

  • Because online tools allow direct interaction and make contribution easy, professionals are increasingly finding themselves sharing space with, and even deferring to, enthusiastic amateurs.
  • If these tools are designed well enough, internet communities can take up the slack for activities where specialists cannot invest the time.
  • People enjoy having a sense of purpose and belonging. A well organised online community will foster these emotions and help to maintain the momentum of contributions.
  • Don’t assume all your staff are at the same page with digital
  • The best ideas can come from unexpected places.
  • Increases in scale mean more opportunities for serendipitous discoveries.

Overall, if the speakers were representative of the wider community (though not all were from a museum background), it seems that there has been a significant culture shift in museums over the last few years.

Museums are becoming more relaxed about ceding some control and expertise to the general public.

To a certain extent curation has always been about fostering community engagement. Creative use of technology means that this can be harnessed in new and exciting ways.

The rest of this post features write ups about selected talks (I’ve left out the lightning sessions).

Slides and further notes about each session are available on the Museums Computer Group site

The #ukmw2013 Twitter stream is here (or if like me you might have used the more exclusive – i.e. unofficial – #ukmw2013 *cough*)

Guardian Witness

The keynote was by Hannah Freeman, Community Coordinator with the Guardian online. She talked about the developing philosophy at the paper surrounding online journalism (given an award winning promotional push a while back with the Three Little Pigs advert).

Build tools your intended audience/contributors will want to use

In principle the Guardian no longer considers professional journalists to be the only voice of authority and actively works to lower barriers to citizen journalism by building accessible online tools.

One of these tools is Guardian Witness. The idea behind Witness is to make the process of contributing news stories as frictionless as possible for ordinary users. The site gathers and presents content, submitted via an app, and allows contributors to remain anonymous.

This parallels how, as more collections become available online, the division between curators and the public is becoming increasingly porous. Web tools and services by their very nature democratise online discussion and contribution.

With Guardian Witness users that lack the confidence to do so are not limited to posting text. Photography and video can be equally effective at telling a story and provide a lower barrier to entry for some contributors.

The project is in ongoing development to adapt to the way its users work with it.

“Communities of interest”

Many contributors can create content surrounding a particular event or story. This is where the Guardian is trying to encourage voluntary journalism by fostering communities of interest.

Building an engaged community is an effective way to maintain the momentum for generating fresh contributions.

The first rule of Computer Club…

The presentation by Jesse Alter and Simon Delafond of Imperial War Museums demonstrated a unique approach to engaging staff with all the possibilities that digital technology has to offer.

They decided to try an experiment: Computer Club. The idea was to give staff a safe and fun environment to experience digital first hand.

Not everyone is on the same page

From the off they realised these sessions provided useful pointers about where staff were up to regarding current technology (some had never used touch screen devices for instance).

The session proved popular. By setting up a playful environment to explore new things staff very quickly became enthusiastic about the sessions.

Learn through play

Further sessions were set up dealing with social media, gaming technology, film editing and so on. Each group was set a simple creative challenge, an effective one was making a spoof film trailer using an iPad app called Trailer Maker. People quickly learned as they used the tools provided.

Computer Club attendees were also awarded themed stickers for attending each session (an element of gamification through a simple, fun reward).

This seemed to have many benefits:

  • As staff became familiar with various technologies, they began to understand the potential and start to put forward ideas for future development.
  • It seemed like a great team building opportunity – staff were involved from right across the organisation
  • It occurred to me that this was an effective and non-threatening way to influence culture within a team – in this instance it gave people a meaningful stake in digital development. Importantly it gave them confidence to become directly involved.
  • Meaningful and practical developments can come out of using a playful and creative approach to staff training.

Flickr Commons

Next up Nicole Cama from the Australian National Maritime Museum talked about the exciting potential of posting undocumented photos on Flickr Commons.

Flickr allows online communities to discuss and tag images online. The ANMM achieved some great results and has unearthed (even created) affecting stories about some of the undocumented images in their collections.

The fact that these contributions originate from members of the public shows that if you select the right platform, sharing large numbers of images with a wide audience can be a very powerful tool for engagement.

Most Wanted

The Museum Of Design In Plastics (MODIP) has a problem typical to most if not all museums: large collections that have not been fully documented and not enough resources to fill in the gaps.

Marcus Winter (University of Brighton), Susan Lambert (Arts University Bournemouth) and Phil Blume (Adaptive Technologies Limited) described a great project that found an engaging way to tackle this problem online.

Turning object identification into a game.

The team thought about ways to encourage online participation. By taking the FBI’s Most Wanted as their starting point they worked the concept up into an online game.

Contributors can create an account at and by responding to requests for information on the home page earn points for any information they provide. At the time of writing the planned Hall of Fame is not live, but eventually this will be a leader board for the site.

The project also uses social media and Google maps so users can keep up to date with new directives and see where other contributors are based.

This has already achieved encouraging results prior to launch.

One thing they have had to think about is how to get the tone right. Not all contributors will necessarily buy into the role playing aspect of the project so care has to be taken not to go overboard with the gaming side of things and striking a good balance.

Auto archiving radio programmes

When is “good enough” good enough? What if you have a large archive that you would like to transfer to digital but are hindered by the prospect of transcribing and documenting 50,000 World Service radio programmes?

Tristan Ferne of BBC Research and Development described a project they have been working on with the BBC World Service (that can be viewed at

The answer was to use speech to text software to sift through all the audio. They hired cloud computing space to do this.

Even though this was imprecise (audio quality and speech patterns are not consistent) it was accurate enough to extract keywords which were then used to define suggested topics for each programme.

Topics were then linked using DBpedia linked data (as used by Wikipedia) as a means to apply a recognised and easily referenced standard to the material.

Over to the crowd

At this point a large chunk of work has been done so the remaining effort is about refining and correcting what has been done so far.

The site allows members of the public to log in, listen to a given World Service programme then either suggest new topics or edit existing ones.

This project is a prototype and so far users can only stream low quality audio. With any luck it will be successful enough to attract further funding.

Further technical details about the World Service archiving project.

Democratisation of the past

To follow Dr Paul Long (Senior Lecturer at the Birmingham school of Media) gave a thought provoking talk about the “heritage of popular culture”.

He described the well established practice of online fan created web sites and how these have produced online archives and histories that perhaps have not been documented by mainstream museums and archives.

Also these sites are an alternative or even a challenge to established mainstream and academic accounts of popular culture.

The internet appears to be eroding the established distinction between professional and amateur curatorship.

A sad footnote to the talk is that, despite the enthusiasm and quality of some of these fan built resources, rights holders are not quite so supportive regarding the reuse of their material.

This means that sites like these can be vulnerable to being shut down at a loss to the wider community.

Crowd sourcing community collections

Alun Edwards from the University of Oxford talked about the community collection initiative they first tried out with the Great War Archive, an early JISC funded crowd sourcing project (begun in 2008).

Since then they have branched out into Europe wide projects that have built upon their methods of combining face to face interaction and online tools to gather material.

Using a similar format to the Antiques Roadshow members of the public have participated in sharing First World War memories. Often participation leads to people becoming donors (recognising that the personal material in their possession has a wider significance). These events also attracted new visitors to museums.

The more recent project gathers First World War material from across Europe and can be viewed at The approach builds on the University of Oxford’s pioneering work in this area.

Britain from Above

Sandra Brauer talked about Britain From Above a popular online project designed to document and present a huge UK based aerial photography archive.

With over 1.2 mill photographs to document community activity is core to the site’s success and a big draw for repeat visits.

Though the tools on the site are reasonably easy to use more traditional volunteers were not so confident. They also recognise that it is important to build a relationship with superusers and to foster links with their more enthusiastic contributors.

The solution to this has been community outreach and education sessions. Contributors are also engaged with on and off line to maintain a meaningful connection and to offer continuing encouragement.

The project continues to try out innovative ways to encourage people to participate.

First World War Diaries

Jim O’Donnell came to talk about a project he is doing in partnership with the Imperial War Museum documenting First World war diaries.

This builds upon the crowd sourcing innovations behind the mass galaxy identification project Galaxy Zoo.

Pea super

Jim is a developer for the Zooniverse team that created Galaxy Zoo and a host of other online science-based crowd sourced projects.

By providing well designed interfaces that remove the need for expert knowledge, anyone can spend time visually identifying galaxies via a mobile app or their web site.

They have discovered that by working with massive data sets combined with large numbers of engaged contributors unusual or unexpected things come to light.

At a large enough scale serendipity starts to come into play. For instance a new “pea” type galaxy was discovered by amateur Galaxy Zoo contributors. The people responsible have been named as contributing authors in a real science paper about the discovery.

Sorry about the “pea super” thing.

Gotta catch ’em all

Zooniverse is not just about astronomy. The same approach can be applied to animals too. At its peak the project had 23,000 volunteers identifying automatically snapped photographs of animals from the Serengeti.

Mass classification of war documents

These principles have now been applied to the problem of how to classify 1.5 million pages of ww1 documents.

Soon users will be able to log in and by reading through digitised images of war diaries to transcribe and tag each one.

Eventually common themes will form and it will become possible to browse through the archive and perhaps (hopefully!) previously unimagined or unnoticed patterns may emerge within the mass of data.

Punk science

I found the closing talk by Michael John Gorman of Dublin’s Science Gallery simultaneously inspiring and hilarious. It also served to neatly close the thematic circle described by the conference.

My note taking trailed off significantly at this point (I had hopped over to Twitter by this time) so I’m much more sketchy on the details. The only phrase that jumps out is “armpit cheese anyone?”

The latter was prompted by an installation at the Science Gallery called Self Made.

From the web site:

Selfmade is a series of ‘microbial sketches’, portraits reflecting an individual’s microbial landscape in a unique cheese. Each cheese is crafted from starter cultures sampled from the skin of a different person.

One of the areas sampled happened to be from someone’s armpit. So now you know.

At Science Gallery the visitors are very much participants in the exhibitions and installations (art made from the microbial bloom created by visitors kisses for instance).

I guess Science Gallery veered off on a fanciful tangent from the rest of the talks throughout the day but I liked how it hinted at a possible future where visitors are not just passive consumers of curated exhibitions but also creators – exhibits even – in their own right (if at least with some expert direction).

Museums and exhibitions as happenings maybe?


If web tools are breaking down the barriers between professionals and amateurs, where will this relationship end?

Increasing engagement might be the inevitable result of all this and learning by doing is a powerful means to this end, especially if people have a genuine sense of ownership and have the means to make meaningful contributions.

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