Monthly Archives: December 2012

The O and the Minutiae of the Future-Now

“What’s theo dot php?” Nate asked.

We were sitting in a coffee shop in Melbourne and catching up on things because we still hadn’t sorted out internet access at the hotel. We’d arrived the night before from Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, where we’d spent the day visiting the Museum of Old and New Art which is often just referred to as “MONA”.

“Theo” is actually “The O” the name of the retrofitted iPod touch with custom software that MONA gives to every visitor when they enter the museum. “theo.php” is the URL that you’re emailed the following day which shows you all the stuff you saw during your visit.

It’s not a page that’s especially well-designed for looking at on your phone’s tiny web browser. You can do the pinchy-zoomy thing to move around the page and make the links big enough to click on but only at the cost of feeling vaguely annoyed and disappointed.

Links to individual works are loaded in-situ using Javascript so there are no permalinks (not even self-updating hash marks) or any way to share a link for a particular piece of art that you loved (or hated) with another person. Or even just yourself if you wanted to, say, bookmark it for later reference.

So, that’s not great. On the other hand: Working code always wins.

Few other museums have mustered up the ambition (not to mention the cash dollars) to do something on the scale of The O so until we do any criticism of the work that MONA has done needs to be cut down to size by running it through a filter that is equal parts envy and armchair quarterbacking.

The first thing I did when I got The O was remove the lanyard that you’re supposed to use to drape the thing around your neck. Wearing it around your neck is meant to make the device easier to use which sounds like a classic engineering-as-philosophy excuse. It does actually make it easier to use but only because neither the hardware or the software are particularly well-suited for being shoved in to, and pulled out of, your back pocket.

The second thing I did was put the headphones I was given in the pocket of my jacket. I should have just given them back to the nice “front of house” person but a first visit to the lobby of MONA is a bit overwhelming. I couldn’t tell you what the person who gave me The O said about the device. Mostly I was looking at the impressive glass staircase beyond the entrance and thinking: Oh, it’s an iPod. I can figure this out.

The headphones seemed like overkill. Maybe that’s me. I’ve never been much for audio tours and between The O and the headphones I was starting to feel like I might soon be wearing a fighter pilot’s helmet complete with a built-in heads-up display. One of the nicer bits of The O is that every piece of art comes with a soundtrack; one or more songs that you can play while you contemplate a given work.

I might have been inclined to put the headphones on if The O sported a continuous partial soundtrack. Something that would just play by itself in the background and cut over, from one track to the next, as you moved around the museum.

Or a spoken narrative. That would be awesome and they don’t necessarily need to be pre-recorded. I once walked the 30 minutes it takes to get from the Detroit Institute of the Arts to the city’s downtown core listening to my phone’s text-to-speech software read aloud a very long email from my friend James, so it’s all in the realm of the possible.

Instead it felt like more buttons to press.

The third thing I did, as we were walking down the stairs in to the museum itself, was ask why I couldn’t take pictures with The O.

No one is discouraged from taking photos in the museum but it means fiddling with yet another device. Lots of people are going to want to use their fancy digital SLRs to take high(er) quality photos but most people are going to be perfectly happy with whatever this year’s iPod camera can do. Especially if it makes things easier and especially-er if those photos can be tied to all the stuff that MONA knows about a work that’s being photographed.

Managing photo uploads in a gallery would be a genuine engineering challenge (read: storage and bandwidth) but hardly an insurmountable one and the benefits would be pretty awesome. First of all, it demonstrates that a museum isn’t blind to a reality where everyone walks around with a network-enabled camera, sharing things as they go. Secondly, if you’re thinking about doing 3D digitization of your objects you could do a lot worse than stitching together all the photos that your visitors are taking.

One of the “crazier” aspects of MONA if you’re talking to museum professionals is the absence of wall labels. You know: Those pieces of cardboard stuck to the wall that tell you who the artist is, when a work was made and usually some overly polite interpretive text that is both too short to tell you anything of substance and too long to fit in a Twitter message.

MONA is full of wireless receivers and The O does some fancy-pants triangulation to figure out where you are in the building and only show you works that are nearby. It’s pretty clever, really. It’s also not very fast. Or rather it’s only fast if you remember that our ability to do this at all is still kind of magic – but that gets olds pretty quickly in a museum setting.

Maybe it was because the device isn’t configured to stay on all the time and silently update its location as I moved around? After all, the iPods all come with big honking extra battery packs. Maybe it was because I kept turning the iPod off every time I stuck in my back pocket? Maybe it was because the app itself kept crashing and I had to wait for it to restart?

When it is working and you click on an individual piece you get a handsome photo of the thing you’re looking at with five additional tabs for finding out more information. They are:

Summary

The basics like artist name, dimensions and a button to indicate you’ve seen the work, so that it will show up in the history of your (theo.php) tour around the museum.

There’s also a “love” and “hate” button which is bit heavy-handed but still kind of charming. After you’ve indicated a choice there’s some nice copy telling you where your ranking falls relative to everyone else’s. I sort of wish that those stats were shown to you before you indicated a preference precisely to see how people would game the system. I would totally go on a tour of the most hated things on view at MONA.

Meanwhile, why can’t I love or hate an artist?

Ideas

Or as I’ve started calling them: Fortune cookies. Short little pithy and fluffy aspirational dribblings of interpretation that are cornier than they are funny. They feel like throwaway comments that betray a lack of faith in the ability of visitors to be smart enough to figure things out on their own.

Art Wank

This felt like a deliberate provocation but it is David Walsh’s party so he can do whatever he wants. MONA is his personal art collection and he paid for the whole thing, building included, out of pocket. I didn’t read any of these texts if that’s what you’re wondering. They were too long to read standing up and too long to make me want to stare at a bright screen in an otherwise dark room.

Gonzo

I wish this hadn’t been labeled “gonzo“. At the end of the day, though, I don’t really care what it’s called so long as it never goes away. This is the best part of The O. It leaves you feeling like there’s some avenue for understanding why a given piece was collected by the museum. The tone is conversational and through it emerges all the wiggly and sometimes contradictory motives that went in to acquiring a piece.

It says: We probably know more of the shop-talk that surrounds a work of art but we are still human like you and our appreciation is something that we can, and want, to share with you. That we can hopefully make you appreciate how we fell in love with a work even if you think it’s crap.

Call me crazy, but I’m just not sure what’s “gonzo” about that. It seems like minimal competence, really.

Media

So. Many. Buttons. Do I have to press them all?!

A few quibbles about the tabs:

  • It’s not clear when you’re using the device whether the texts will be included in the summary version of your tour so I found myself literally taking pictures of the thing in order to ensure that I’d have a way to recall the text I was reading. This suggests something that could be made… better.

  • The layout and formatting of the text is terrible. There’s not really any excuse for this. The type is all smushed up together and the line heights are too small and the margins are non-existent. It all smells like some sort of default iOS NSTextWrapper handler from 2007. There is no shame in looking at what Readability or Instapaper are doing and just copying that.

  • If I’ve gone to the trouble of clicking on one of the buttons for an artwork, or maybe clicking on a button and scrolling through some amount of a text, can that please count as having “viewed” a work? There are a bunch of things, like the creepy-worm-body-artist-guy, that MONA doesn’t think I’ve seen because I neglected to click the <I SEE YOU> button.

But it mostly works. Except when it doesn’t. Every once in a while, some or all the items in a room (sometimes upwards of 30) will be bundled up in to a single listing that, when clicked, opens a nested list of individual objects which you then have to scroll through to find the thing you’re looking for. In anger.

(pause)

It’s kind of a terrible time to be making mobile apps or, rather, it’s sort of the mobile equivalent of that time when people thought writing websites in Java was a good idea. Java is awesome for lots of things just maybe not websites, or anything that needs to change often. Native mobile apps feel the same way and there’s the added burden that they are being aggressively used as a weapon by the companies (the vertical “stacks“) that support them. See also: The long, sad history of vendor-specific authoring tools.

One of the things that seems to get lost in the discussion of “native” versus the “web” is that the web has not-quite-already-but-nearly won. Which is to say that rendering engines not browsers have won. Which means that HTML (and some combination of Javascript and CSS) has won. As has HTTP.

Almost.

HTTP has basically won as the network and transport layer for most things. Web-based rendering engines are still not really the equal of fussy and bespoke hardware and device-specific APIs when it comes to performance but everyone expects them to be soon, or to reach an acceptable threshold where the rest of it doesn’t matter. Once that happens why would you ever go back?

But we’re not there, yet. And tomorrow’s future promises do little to help get things done today. That is our burden, working in the present.

So, if you ever meet anyone who was involved in building The O buy them a drink and thank them for being willing to step up and stab themselves in the face with the minutiae of the future-now. We are better for it.

Also, when was the last time you had oysters at a museum?

‘Discordances’ – or the big to-do list

Yesterday Aaron rolled out a minor data update to the online collection. Along with this he also whipped up a ‘anti-concordances’ view for our people/company records. (Yes, for various reasons why are conflating people and companies/organisations). This allows us to show all the records we have that don’t have exact matches in Wikipedia (and other sources).

Along with revealing that we don’t yet have a good automated way of getting a ‘best guess’ of matches (Marimekko Oy is the same as Marimekko) without also getting matches for Canadian hockey players who happen to share a name with a designer, the list of ‘discordances’ is a good, finite problem that can be solved with more human eyes.

People | Wikipedia | Collection of Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

We are currently inviting people (you, for instance) to parse the list of non-matches and then tell us which ones should link to existing but differently-spelled Wikipedia pages, and which ones need to be created as new stubs in Wikipedia itself.

If you’re feeling really bold you could even start those stubs yourself! You can even use our easy-to-insert Wikipedia citation snippet to reference anything in our collection from your newly created articles. You’ll find the snippet tool at the bottom of each object and person/company record.

A proposal: Glossaries (dot json)

Untitled

Early in the development cycle of the new Cooper-Hewitt collections website we decided that we wanted to define as many concordances, as possible, between our collection and the stuff belonging to other institutions.

We’re going to save an in-depth discussion of the specifics behind those efforts for another blog post except to say that the first step in building those concordances was harvesting other people’s data (through public data dumps or their APIs).

Defining equivalencies is still more of an art than a science and so having a local copy of someone else’s dataset is important for testing things out. A big part of that work is looking at someone else’s data and asking yourself: What does this field mean? It’s not a problem specific to APIs or datasets, either. Every time two people exchange a spreadsheet the same question is bound to pop up.

It’s long been something of a holy grail of museums, and cultural heritage institutions, to imagine that we can define a common set of metadata standards that we will all use and unlock a magic (pony) world of cross-institutional search and understanding. The shortest possible retort to this idea is: Yes, but no.

We can (and should) try to standardize on those things that are common between institutions. However it is the differences – differences in responsibilities; in bias and interpretation; in technical infrastructure – that distinguish institutions from one another. One needs look no further than the myriad ways in which museum encode their collection data in API responses to see this reality made manifest.

I choose to believe that there are good and valid, and very specific, reasons why every institution does things a little differently and I don’t want to change that. What I would like, however, is some guidance.

In the process of working with everyone else’s data I wrote myself a little tool that iterates over a directory of files and generates a “glossary” file. Something that I can use as a quick reference listing all the possible keys that a given API or data dump might define.

The glossary files began life as a tool to make my life a little easier and they have three simple rules:

  • They are meant to written by humans, in human-speak.

  • They are meant to read by humans, in human-speak.

  • They are meant to updated as time and circumstances permit.

That’s it.

They are not meant to facilitate the autonomous robot-readable world, at least not on their own. They are meant to be used in concert with humans be they researchers investigating another institution’s collection or developers trying to make their collections hold hands with someone else’s.

So, here’s the proposal: What if we all published our own glossary files?

What is a glossary file?

Glossary files are just dictionaries of dictionaries, encoded as JSON. There is nothing special about JSON other than that it currently does the best job at removing the most amount of markup required by machines to make sense of things, and is supported by just about every programming language out there. If someone comes up with something better it stands to reason that glossary files would use that instead.

You can see a copy of the Cooper-Hewitt’s glossary file for objects in our collection repository over on Github. And yes, you would be correct in noting that it doesn’t actually have any useful descriptive data in yet. One thing at a time.

The parent dictionary contains keys which are the names of the properties in the data structure used by an institution. Nested properties are collapsed in to a string, using a dot notation. For example: 'images' : { 'b' : { 'width' : '715' } } would become 'images.b.width'.

The values are another dictionary with one required and two optional keys. They are:

description

This is a short text describing the key and how its values should be approached.

There is no expectation of any markup in text fields in a glossary file. Nothing is stopping you from adding markup but the explicit goal of glossary files is to be simpler than simple and to be the sort of thing that could be updated using nothing fancier than a text editor. It’s probably better to rely on the magic of language rather than semantics.

notes

This is an optional list of short texts describing gotchas, edge cases, special considerations or anything else that doesn’t need to go in the description field but is still relevant.

sameas

This is an optional list of pointers asserting that you (the person maintaining a glossary file) believe that your key is the same as someone else’s. For example, the Cooper-Hewitt might say that our date field is the same as the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s creation_date field.

There are two important things to remember about the sameas field:

  • You (as the author) are only asserting things that you believe to be true. There is absolutely no requirement that you define sameas properties for all the fields in your glossary file. Think of these pointers as the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself.

  • There is currently no standard for how pointers should be encoded other than the stated goal of being “easy” for both humans and robots alike. The hope is that this will evolve through consensus – and working code.

For example, we might say our date field is the same as:

  • ima:creation_date

  • x-urn:indianapolismuseumofart:creation_date

  • http://www.imamuseum.org#creation_date

My personal preference would be for the first notation (ima:creation_date) but that does mean we, as a community, need to agree on namespaces (the ima: prefix) or simply that we pledge to list them someplace where they can be looked up. Again, my personal preference is to start simple and see what happens.

The unstated rule with glossaries is that they also be easy enough to change without requiring a lot of time or heavy-lifting. If something fails that criteria that’s probably a good indication it’s best saved for a different project.

It’s easy to consider both the possibilities and the pitfalls afforded by sameas pointers. They are not going to solve every problem out there, by any means. On the other hand they feel like they might be a better than 80/20 solution (or at least forward motion) towards addressing the problem of equivalencies. It’s really just about ensuring a separation of concerns. If we each commit to stating the things we believe to be true and to publishing those statements somewhere they can found then, over time, we can use that data to tell us new and interesting things about our collections.

More importantly, between now and then – whatever “then” ends up looking like – we can still just get on with the work at hand.

Git(hub)

I mentioned that our glossary files are part of the Cooper-Hewitt’s collections metadata repository on Github. Those files will always be included with the collections metadata but I am considering putting the canonical versions in their own repository.

This would allow other people, out there in the community, to contribute suggestions and fixes (“pull requests” in Git-speak) without having to download the entirety of our collection. As always with Git(hub) it offers a way for institutions to preserve the authority over the meaning of their collections and to give other institutions some degree of confidence in the things we are saying.

It also means that institutions will need to commit to taking seriously any pull requests that are submitted and tracking down the relevant people (inside the building) to approve or reject the changes. This is maybe not something we’re all used to doing. We are not really wired, intellectually or institutionally, for dealing with the public pushing back on the things we publish.

But if we’re being honest everyone knows that it’s not only a thing seen distantly on the horizon but a thing approaching with a daunting (and some times terrifying) speed. We’re going to have to figure out how to address that reality even if that just means better articulating the reasons why it’s not something a given institution wants to do.

Which means that in addition to being a useful tool for researchers, developers and other people with directed goals glossaries can also act as a simple and safe device for putting some of these ideas to the test and, hopefully, understand where the remaining bumpy bits lay.

Discuss!