Opening Cultural Data: Inspirations from Britain and Finland

Sampo Viiri blogs about the Finnish Open Cultural Data course’s study trip to London 15–16 May 2014.

The GLAM organisations (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) have in their collections enormous amounts of cultural data that have so far been accessible mainly in physical format. Nowadays the Internet makes spreading knowledge digitally much easier. The Open Cultural Data course, organised by Open Knowledge Finland, aims to provide tools and skills for the Finnish GLAM professionals on how to digitally open their organisations’ cultural data to broader audiences. The Finnish Institute organised workshops in London 15–16 May as part of the course that has been held in Finland this spring.
Thursday 15 May
The group gathered at Mozilla’s London office where Paula Le Dieu and William Duyck explained about the activities in which Mozilla UK participates. Mozilla is a non-profit organisation heavily based on volunteer participation. The idea of open source and openness are at the core of all Mozilla activity. Mozilla’s main product, the Firefox browser, has championed open source principles and nowadays all the main browsers embrace certain openness standards. One of the reasons why the US based Mozilla decided to open their London location was because the principle of open web was already firmly rooted in Britain. For example the BBC has a public role of making content available to everyone. The government, creatives and the GLAM sector were all enthusiastic regarding to Mozilla’s ideas of openness, so the UK was a fitting base to build open source tools.
We discussed the main obstacles for GLAMs to “push their archives through the door”. Opening data requires new skills and also new attitudes, and sometimes there is a fear that opening data leads to lost profits even though the reality can be quite the opposite. Content is also only valuable when combined with expertise. This is why there needs to be good communication between the GLAM professionals and the technology infrastructure providers.
One of the initial reasons to kick off Mozilla was that by the end of the nineties, the basis of the Internet had changed. For the early geeks the web had been inherently interesting and exciting. They had gotten used to poking things and learned how to “make the web”. For the second wave of Internet users the web was just a thing to consume, which required a different kind of approach.
Mozilla’s Webmaker project aims to make the broad audience once again participant in “making the web” by providing easy-to-use tools. William Duyck presented the Webmaker and various different tools that Mozilla has developed for the public. This is something highly relevant for the GLAM sector and cultural data as well. By embracing the broad audience and making them participate the GLAMs could open their data with less costs than by making everything themselves.
Mark Hedges and Stuart Dunn from King’s College London’s Department of Digital Humanities continued on the community participation theme. They have done research on different crowdsourcing projects in the field of humanities. According to them the GLAM sector’s engagement in digital methods has typically led to enhanced experience in exhibitions and adding certain extra to the collections. However, recently crowdsourced methods have also contributed to creating genuinely new knowledge and interpretations to the material.
Mark and Stuart showed several interesting case examples where crowdsourcing has produced, for example, more detailed collection and object metadata, retroactively corrected OCR (optical recognition software) texts of archival material, the narratives of social media, and creative input from the visiting public itself. One of their findings has been that most high profile and successful crowdsourcing projects have been coordinated by the GLAM sector, not by universities. Galleries, archives and museums have always been public facing, meaning that their engagement in crowdsourcing would be quite natural. 
Last but definitely not least, Adam Green from the Public Domain Review introduced the benefits of public domain for the GLAM sector. The Public Domain Review is an online journal and not-for-profit project dedicated to promoting and celebrating the public domain in all its variety. Adam showed some interesting material he had collected on his website and different online projects based on non-copyrighted material. One of the best aspects of public domain is the possibility for the public to recreate and remix the material in whichever way they choose. This can lead to a feeling of collectivity and participation. We discussed the different possibilities and problems with copyrighted works and pondered how public domain material could also be used to create profits. The group concluded the day by making some GIF animations from stereographic images.
Friday 16 May
Friday’s sessions were held at the British Library, where Nora McGregor, Anna Vernon and James W. Baker from the library’s Digital Research team enlightened us about their interesting work with digital collections. The Digital Research team works with already digitised material, inventing new ways on how to use the library’s vast collections. Perhaps their most well-known project is the British Library’s online images on Flickr, where the library has published millions of pictures from their scanned books. Nora explained about the quite ambitious move when they decided to publish the pictures without knowing what might lurk in the depths of the collections. Sometimes you need a certain bold attitude to open cultural data. Anna Vernon introduced us to the different copyright aspects that need to be dealt with when publishing the collections online. The rules vary by country but the common EU legislation also opens possibilities for collaboration.
One important topic raised in the discussion is that because Finland is a small country and it doesn’t have big organisations like the British Library, we need collaboration in the GLAM sector to fully use the potential of digital collections and data. Hopefully this spring’s course will lead to new ways of collaboration in Finland and maybe also with other countries’ organisations.
Lastly James W. Baker held a workshop where the group invented new ways of using digital tools on imaginary collections. As James said, it is easy to get obsessed with data but what really matters is the research and how to use the data. This is where I believe the GLAM professionals step in. When the professional staff and also the researchers develop new digital tools and skills together, there are huge possibilities in humanities research. This is a topic in which the Finnish Institute in London will also continue to look into this year by conducting a survey on new trends of digital humanities in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Finland.
Overall, the two days were full of excellent presentations and the atmosphere was very enthusiastic. Personally, my head was buzzing with new ideas and knowledge and my notes full of scribbled remarks and future questions. Always a good sign.
More information (mostly in Finnish):
Twitter hashtags: #kulttuuridata #datakoulu

One thought on “Opening Cultural Data: Inspirations from Britain and Finland

  1. Earl Smtih says:

    We often discuss the many knowledge skills and abilities that true leaders need to possess, unless someone approaches each and every aspect of his performance from the standpoint of how it both impacts others.


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