Communities, hackers and curators – some thoughts on parts of the openGLAM meeting

I was fortunate enough to get invited to the OpenGLAM expert meeting (at which I felt a slight fraud – but you get over these things quickly) on Building the Cultural Commons as part of the OKFestival. James Harriman-Smith and I had attempted to do something similar with Panton Principles for Humanities and Literature a while ago (earlier blog post and the Principles) so it was good to come along for the day and find out more and see what other people are doing. GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) is a slightly orthogonal area the one I work in or volunteer in but some of the issues are similar.

The meeting was held somewhere which didn’t require quite so much walking from my hotel (I know I could get a tram or bus but wanted the exercise and time to think). Given the excellent conversations that I had had with Sam Leon and Joris Pekel, I was confident that the day would be thought provoking and good and it turned out to be that way. The question which is being mooted around the Festival in general and is important here is: Now we’ve got opened data, how do we make it useful and keep it relevant?

From what I can make out GLAM data is being opened but one question is how can this be made into a community? How are developers, both inside GLAM organisations and without, encouraged to join in, make and keep making? From a brief Twitter conversation which I have had with Alistair Horne (pressfuturist on Twitter) this appears to be a issue in publishing as well.

The current answer is hacking. Hackdays and hackathons bring developers and business people together over beer, coke and pizza. They end though and may or may not carry on or finish with completed artefacts. Short, sharp and sweet. Whilst it can kick start events and projects, unless there is a community to keep it on, it does not necessarily bring in long term changes.

One answer might be to take the Hackshackers model. In this, there is a community that has been developed by Chrys Wu (I believe – please do let me know if this is wrong) which being journalists (hacks) together with developers (hackers) to offer jobs, technical advice, meet ups. Essentially it is an online community which meets up in real life but also helps to solve problems. Since it is more than a one off meeting, it can continue.

It is one model and builds on existing social networks but crucially it brings focus to the issues that are present or perceived to be present. Perception is vital in some of these as they may not be actual problems but perhaps be symptomatic of other unsolved or unnoticed problems. Having a place which might act as focus but also have links to other relevant organisations.

This seems to be one issue: there is no central place for knowing what problems need solving. In both GLAM and Publishing.

It would also serve to share the existing solutions and share ways of solving problems and issues. Why re-invent wheels? Why not iterate and adapt them – improve existing solutions so that the collective whole can move on and keep solving new problems?

This sharing of information and specs with cookbooks might also help smaller institutions. It is all right for larger organisations who have larger teams and a bit more time to figure out issues but having cookbooks, such as the Open Metadata Handbook and the Data Wrangling Handbook, also help to make information available. One of the actions of the meeting is to revamp and develop a handbook and, as part of something else, I am hoping to contribute to the Data Wrangling Handbook.

I am not going into each action but another theme was outreach. These communities can only really thrive when they cross over and intersect. Cultural and publishing need makers, such as artists, writers and so on. Equally makers need cultural institutions and publishing to curate and manage the work for the long term.

One of the things that I realised was looking across lists was how many issues are common. I guess I have found this from getting more involved but also beginning to reflect on TextCamp and Book Hackday. I honestly don’t know what the answer is but I am pretty sure that the collective mind of the various lists can work it out and keep it evolving.I don’t think just having a mailing list on its own works. I doubt that having each social part on its own, such as forums, but put together and nurtured… ?

Perhaps this is the crux – there is no magic bullet. It is a start which keeps having to change every so often to adapt to ever changing circumstances. Any community which does exist will need to evolve but I think the answer is community not one of hacks. This is a longer path which might require more resources – such as domain and the open source tools required to support it and share the information.

The tools exist and the data, to some extent, does as well. We need to converge to build a virtuous circle where things happen with data and problems which gives confidence to open data. None of this is hard or impossible. It is perhaps fiddly but this is the nature of communities. It can be done.

Any one want to try and actually make it happen?