In With the New: open, flexible, user-centered

The 2013 Eduserv Symposium, was held in the impressive (and very much ‘keep in with the old’) surroundings of One Great George Street in Westminster, the home of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

‘In with the New’ covered new skills sets, new modes of engagement and new ways of working.  With such a wide topic area, the conference took quite a broad-brush approach. Andy Powell of Eduserv introduced the day and talked about dealing with change, change that may be imposed upon us from the outside, as well as being driven internally.

image from Digital Govt ServiceDavid Cotterill from the Government Digital Service gave the opening keynote, which is what I want to focus on here. He said his talk was about ‘my exciting life as a civil servant’….the audience weren’t convinced about this at the outset, but maybe for those interested in open data, there was some shift of opinion by the end!

He talked about the old consensus, which was built around long-term contracts for IT in government; contracts that were consistently awarded to a limited number of suppliers and not to smaller and more innovative suppliers.  IT was not defined as a core function, so out-sourcing was considered appropriate. But in the 21st century things have changed. There is recognition that IT covers very diverse areas. For Government (and for many other organisations), it covers digital public services, mission IT systems (i.e. more niche or specialised systems for government departments), desktop, infrastructure, connectivity, etc. (the more general IT), and, within government, there are also ‘shared services’ (such as for financial systems). David talked about the need to structure mission IT systems and digital public services so that they can run on different desktops or infrastructures and not be tied down (as often used to be the case).

David went on to argue that the Government really has taken up the open agenda, and showed some quotes: “The latest step is the publications of this report on open standards. And once again the government has got it right.” (Wall Street Journal).  He argued that in order to have flexibility to progress, to upgrade, to move forwards, you need open and standards based systems. You also need to look at specific needs in specific areas and not think of IT as some kind of monolithic thing.

It was surprising to hear him say that “this is a great time to be a supplier”, but he said that many of the current deals within government come to an end over the next few years, so there is opportunity for new suppliers and creating a more diverse set-up.

What is 21st century screenshot about? David said it’s about things like, built using a platform approach (rather than a CMS) which allows the Government Digital Service (GDS) to build products onto it that meet user needs; products that enable the government to engage with citizens. David gave a sense of how this approach is working across UK government, with multi-disciplinary teams including developers, designers, product and service managers, policy, communications, etc.

His core message was to start with the user need. Of course, this is something that we can all agree with, although whether it always happens in reality is debatable, even if it is the intention. We need to shape things in terms of user requirements  right from the start, and not bring it in once all the policy, requirements and  development work is done. We should think about capturing requirements and developing alpha and then beta versions before going live. This may mean that what is initially developed is chucked out after the alpha stage, because it doesn’t meet needs, and then there is a need to start again. I think one of the problems with this approach is that funders do not necessarily facilitate it. How easy would it be to get funding for a project where the iterative process may go on for quite some time, and there is a risk of starting again several times in order to get it right? A further difficulty with this from a funding point of view is that it is much harder to specify what you are going to end up with, because you necessarily need to keep an open mind; you’ll end up (hopefully) with what users want, but it might be different to what was envisaged and you’ll only know after the testing and refining process.

It makes we think about archival software systems, for example.  Surely you should put the user needs at the heart of the development of your system? Ideally you would start out by gathering user requirements for a system, maybe looking at other research done in this area. You’d end up with a specification, listing priorities for your system. Most archives can’t then build it themselves, so they would go out and look at what meets these needs. But would it be possible to test a system out with users, to see if it really does fulfill their needs, and if it doesn’t go back and try something else? The problem here is that if you are buying a system, its hard to apply an iterative approach. However, it may be possible to move to a more user-centered approach. You should have clear evidence that the system does meet key user needs, and, in the absence of an ability to chop and change, you should ensure that the system does not tie you down and that it provides the flexibility to build and modify, so that changing priorities can be met.

It’s good to see Government leading the way. David showed previews of some services that are being developed, working towards a more transparent approach to things like transactional services and he highlighted a government manual about building services that people want to use.  There is now a ‘Standards Hub‘, to promote open standards and also to encourage wider participation in solving data challenges. It is amazing to see Government code onimage of keyboard 'save' key GitHub. Somehow that really brought home to me home how different things are now to 10-15 years ago. David, as well as other speakers at the conference, believes that open standards encourage a more efficient approach, so it becomes a cost-saving venture as well as encouraging public engagement and transparency.

Interoperability, data sharing and standards

I recently spoke at the CILIP MmIT group conference, where I inflicted EAD on a group of unsuspecting librarians. Not just EAD, but MARC and MODS XML and even some Linked Data. They may have said it was a bit like going back to library school, but no-one ran away.

I was talking to them about data sharing and interoperability, and asked them to look at resources described using different schema, to think about appropriateness: how well does the data format allow you to describe the resource? How machine-readable is it? How human-readable is it? How human/machine readable does it need to be? Is the format robust? Transformable? Sustainable? Interoperable?

These are all things you need to consider when you’re deciding which format to put your data in – except, of course, we often don’t think about these things much at all. These decisions might have been effectively made for you by the community. If all of your peer institutions use a certain data format, then you’re more likely to use it too. And if you want to share your data with the community, using the same format as they do is important.

But this means that you’re relying on other people to make these decisions about the best format for your data. Those people might know the sector and the issues involved in general, but they might not know your specific circumstances or users. Their decision might have been made a long time ago, before advances in theory and technology (MARC was first developed in the 1960s, and EAD in the 1990s). The choice of format might have been based on available tools, rather than underlying principles.

The same goes for cataloguing standards. Is sticking strictly to ISAD(G) really the best way to describe your collections to meet the needs of a global audience? (This is a topic that’s up for discussion at the Descriptive Standards Roundtable at the 2013 ARA Conference )

Of course, standards only work as standards if there’s sufficient community take-up, and a consensus on how to apply them.

XKCD on standards

But progress isn’t made by blindly following rules, and ‘there’s already a standard for that’ is no reason not to think about whether there could be a better standard for it.

Standards should be developed from needs. What do people need to know? What do they need to be able to do with the data? What do we need to be able to tell them? And, if we’re looking to the future, what might they want to be able to do in the future? What do we need to do to the data now, to allow for future wants?

We can only work with what’s available, and it is important to have shared standards and points of reference. But if you don’t take time to consider these points when you’re choosing a standard, you’re not really choosing at all. You’re just perpetuating the status quo.

So take the time to think about what you’re doing with your data. Know why you’re using a particular standard, even if it’s because it’s the best of a bad bunch, or closest to what you want to do. Think about what it can and can’t do. Talk to others who are using it. Look for chances to comment on proposed revisions. The future of standards is the future of your data, and your data is valuable. Don’t let it decay.

A Web of Possibilities

“Will you browse around my website”, said the spider to the fly,image of spider from Wellcome images
‘Tis the most attractive website that you ever did spy”

All of us want to provide attractive websites for our users. Of course, we’d like to think its not really the spider/fly kind of relationship! But we want to entice and draw people in and often we will see our own website as our key web presence; a place for people to come to to find out about who we are, what we have and what we do and to look at our wares, so to speak.

The recently released ‘Discovery’ vision is to provide UK researchers with “easy, flexible and ongoing access to content and services through a collaborative, aggregated and integrated resource discovery and delivery framework which is comprehensive, open and sustainable.”  Does this have any implications for the institutional or small-scale website, usually designed to provide access to the archives (or descriptions of archives) held at one particular location?

Over the years that I’ve been working in archives, announcements about new websites for searching the archives of a specific institution, or the outputs of a specific project have been commonplace.  A website is one of the obvious outputs from time-bound projects, where the aim is often to catalogue, digitise or exhibit certain groups of archives held in particular repositories. These websites are often great sources of in-depth information about archives. Institutional websites are particularly useful when a researcher really wants to gain a detailed understanding of what a particular repository holds.

However, such sites can present a view that is based more around the provider of the information rather than the receiver. It could be argued that a researcher is less likely to want to use the archives because they are held at a particular location, apart from for reasons of convenience, and more likely to want archives around their subject area, and it is likely that the archives which are relevant to them will be held in a whole range of archives, museums and libraries (and elsewhere). By only looking at the archives held at a particular location, even if that location is a specialist repository that represents the researcher’s key subject area, the researcher may not think about what they might be missing.

Project-based websites may group together archives in ways that  benefit researchers more obviously, because they are often aggregating around a specific subject area. For example, making available the descriptions and links to digital archives around a research topic. Value may be added through rich metadata, community engagement and functionality aimed at a particular audience. Sometimes the downside here is the sustainability angle: projects necessarily have a limited life-span, and archives do not. They are ever-changing and growing and descriptions need to be updated all the time.

So, what is the answer? Is this too much of a silo-type approach, creating a large number of websites, each dedicated to a small selection of archives?

Broader aggregation seems like one obvious answer. It allows for descriptions of archives (or other resources) to be brought together so that researchers have the benefit of searching across collections, bringing together archives by subject, place, person or event, regardless of where they are held (although there is going to be some kind of limit here, even if it is at the national level).

You might say that the Archives Hub is likely to be in favour of aggregation! But it’s definitely not all pros and no cons. Aggregations may offer a powerful search functionality for intellectually bringing together archives based on a researcher’s interests, but in some ways there is a greater risk around what is omitted. When searching a website that represents one repository, a researcher is more likely to understand that other archives may exist that are relevant to them. Aggregations tend to promote themselves as comprehensive – if not explicitly then implicitly – which this creates expectation that cannot ever fully be met. They can also raise issues around measuring impact and around licensing. There is also the risk of a proliferation of aggregation services, further confusing the resource discovery landscape.

Is the ideal of broad inter-disciplinary cross-searching going to be impeded if we compete to create different aggregations? Yes, maybe it will be to some extent, but I think that it is an inevitability, and it is valid for different gateways to service different audiences’ needs. It is important to acknowledge that researchers in different disciplines and at different levels have their own needs, their own specific requirements, and we cannot fulfill all of these needs by only presenting data in one  way.

One thing I think is critical here is for all archive repositories to think about the benefits of employing recognised and widely-used standards, so that they can effectively interoperate and so that the data remains relevant and sustainable over time. This is the key to ensuring that data is agile, and can meet different needs by being used in different systems and contexts.

I do wonder if maybe there is a point at which aggregations become unwieldy, politically complicated and technically challenging. That point seems to be when they start to search across countries. I am still unsure about whether Europeana can overcome this kind of problem, although I can see why many people are so keen on making it work. But at present, it is extremely patchy, and , for example, getting no results for texts held in Britain relating to Shakespeare is not really a good result. But then, maybe the point is that Europeana is there for those that want to use it, and it is doing ground-breaking work in its focus on European culture; the Archives Hub exists for those interested in UK Archives and a more cross-disciplinary approach; Genesis exists for those interested in womens studies; for those interested in the Co-operative movement, there is the National Co-operative Archive site; for those researching film, the British Film Institute website and archive is of enormous value.

So, is the important principle here that diversity is good because people are diverse and have diverse needs? Probably so. But at the same time, we need to remember that to get this landscape, we need to encourage data sharing and  avoid duplication of effort. Once you have created descriptions of your archive collections you should be able to put them onto your own website, contribute them to a project website, and provide them to an aggregator.

Ideally, we would be looking at one single store of descriptions, because as soon as you contribute to different systems, if they also store the data, you have version control issues. The ability to remotely search different data sources would seem to be the right solution here. However, there are substantial challenges. The Archives Hub has been designed to work in a distributed way, so that institutions can host their own data. The distributed searching does present challenges, but it certainly works pretty well. The problem is that running a server, operating system and software can actually be a challenge for institutions that do not have the requisite IT skills dedicated to the archives department.  Institutions that hold their own data have it in a great variety of formats. So, what we really need is the ability for the Archives Hub to seamlessly search CALM, AdLib, MODES, ICA AtoM, Access, Excel, Word, etc. and bring back meaningful results. Hmmm….

The business case for opening up data seems clear. Project like Open Bibliographic Data have helped progress the thinking in this arena and raised issues and solutions around barriers such as licensing.   But it seems clear that we need to understand more about the benefits of aggregation, and the different approaches to aggregation, and we need to get more buy-in for this kind of approach.  Does aggregation allow users to do things that they could not do otherwise? Does it save them time? Does it promote innovation? Does it skew the landscape? Does it create problems for institutions because of the problems with branding and measuring impact?  Furthermore, how can we actually measure these kinds of potential benefits and issues?

Websites that offer access to archives (or descriptions of archives) based on where they are located and based on they body that administers them have an important role to play. But it seems to me that it is vital that these archives are also represented on a more national, and even international stage. We need to bring our collections to where the users are. We need to ensure that Google and other search engines find our descriptions. We need to put archives at the heart of research, alongside other resources.

I remember once talking about the Archives Hub to an archivist who ran a specialist repository. She said that she didn’t think it was worth contributing to the Hub because they already had their own catalogue. That is, researchers could find what they wanted via the institute’s own catalogue on their own system, available in their reading room. She didn’t seem to be aware that this could only happen if they knew that the archive was there, and that this view rested on the idea that researchers would be happy to repeat that kind of search on a number of other systems. Archives are often about a whole wealth of different subjects – we all know how often there are unexpected and exciting finds. A specialist repository for any one discipline will have archives that reach way beyond that discipline into all sorts of fascinating areas.

It seems undeniable that data is going to become more open and that we should promote flexible access through a number of discovery routes, but this throws up challenges around version control, measuring impact, brand and identity. We always have to be cognisant of funding, and widely disseminated data does not always help us with a funding case because we lose control of the statistics around use and any kind of correlation between visits to our website and bums on seats. Maybe one of the challenges is therefore around persuading top-level managers and funders to look at this whole area with a new perspective?

The Standard Bearers

We generally like stdough cutting andards. Archivists, like many others within the information professions, see standards as a good thing. But if that is the case, and we follow descriptive standards, why aren’t our collection descriptions more interoperable? Why can’t users move seamlessly from one system to another and find them consistent?

I’ve been looking at a White Paper by Nick Poole of the Collections Trust: Where Next for Museum Standards? In this, he makes a good point about the reasons for using standards:

“Standards exist to condense and share the professional experience of our predecessors, to enable us to continue to build on their legacy of improvement.”

I think this point is sometimes overlooked – standards reflect the development of our understanding and expertise over time. As a novice jazz musician, I think this has a parallel with jazz theory – the point of theory is partly that it condenses what has been learnt about harmony, rhythm and melody over the past 100 years of jazz. The theory is only the means to the end, but without it acting effectively as a short cut, you would have to work your way through decades of musical development to get a good understanding of the genre.

Descriptive standards should be the means to the end – they should result in better metadata. Before the development of ISAD(G) for archives, we did not have an internationally recognised standard to help us describe archives in a largely consistent way (although ISAD(G) is not really a content standard). EAD has proved a vital addition to our range of standards, helping us to share descriptions far more effectively than we could do before.

But archives are diverse and maybe we have to accept that standards are not going to mould our descriptions so that they all come off of the conveyor belt of cataloguing looking the same? It may seem like something that would be of benefit to our users – descriptions that look pretty much identical apart from the actual content. But would it really suffice to reflect the reality of what archives are? Would it really suffice to reflect the reality of the huge range of users that there are?

Going back to Nick Poole’s paper, he says:

“The purpose of standards is not to homogenise, but to ensure that diversity is built on a solid foundation of shared knowledge and understanding and a collective commitment to quality and sustainability.”

I think this is absostatue of toy standard bearerlutely right. However, I do sometimes wonder how solid this foundation is for archives, and how much our standards facilitate collaborative understanding. Standards need to be clearly presented and properly understood by those who are implementing them. From the perspective of the Hub, where we get contributions of data from 200 different institutions, standards are not always well understood. I’m not sure that people always think carefully about why they are using standards – this is just as important as applying the standards. It is only by understanding the purpose that I think you do come to a good sense of how to apply a standard properly. For example, we get some index terms that are ostensibly using NCA Rules (National Council on Archives Rules for Personal, Family and Place Names), but the entries are not always in line with the rules. We also get subject entries that do not conform to any thesauri, or maybe they conform to an in-house thesaurus, but for an aggregated service, this does not really help in one of the main aims of subject indexing – to pull descriptions together by subject.

Just as for museums, standards, as Nick Poole says, must be “communicated through publications, websites, events, seminars and training. They must be supported, through infrastructure and investment, and they must be enforced through custom, practice or even assessment and sanction.”

For the Hub, we have made one important change that has made descriptions much more standards compliant – we have invested in an ‘EAD Editor’; a template based tool for the creation and editing of EAD based archival descriptions. This sophisticated tool helps to ensure valid and standards-based descriptions. This idea of supporting standards through this kind of approach seems to me to be vital. It is hard for many archivists to invest in the time that it takes to really become expert in applying standards. For the Hub we are only dealing with descriptive standards, but archivists have many other competing standards to deal with, such as environmental and conservation standards. Software should have standards-compliance built in, but it should also be designed to meet the needs of the archivists and the users. This balance between standards and flexibility is tricky. But standards are not going to be effective if they don’t actually meet real life needs. I do sometimes think that standards suffer from being developed somewhat in isolation of practical reality – this can be a result of the funding environment, where people are paid to work on standards, and they don’t tend to be the people who implement them. Standards may also suffer from the perennial problem of a shifting landscape – standards that were clearly relevant when they were created may be rather less so 10 years on, but revising standards is a time-consuming process. The archives community has the NCA Rules, which have served their purpose very well, but they really need revising now, to bring them in line with the online, global environment.

In the UK Archives Discovery network (UKAD) we are working to help archivists understand and use standards effectively. We are going to provide an indexing tutorial and we are discussing ways to provide more guidance on cataloguing generally. The survey that we carried out in 2009 showed that archivists do want more guidance here. Whilst maybe there are some who are not willing to embrace standards, the vast majority can see the sense in interoperability, and just need a low-barrier way to improve their understanding of the standards that we have and how best to use them. But in the end, I can’t see that we will ever have homogeneous descriptions, so we need to harness technology in order to help us work more effectively with the diverse range of descriptions out there that reflect the huge diversity of archives and users.

Images: Flickr goosmurf’s photostream (dough cutter); robartesm’s photostream (standard bearer)