NDF2012 opening remarks

Here are the three main points I made in my talk at the opening of the NDF2012 conference in November 2012. For more about the National Digital Forum, which ran the conference, visit ndf.org.nz.


When I talk to people about the National Digital Forum, I hear a lot of different opinions. Two I find interesting are about the word digital. One, that digital’s no longer an other, and shouldn’t let itself be defined as new or ab-normal by adopting a particular moniker. The other, that digital is indeed the other. It’s a complicated one, the otherness, as it could go either way – digital replaces everything or digital exists separately to everything.

What I see in the programme this year is an awareness that we’re still figuring out the landscape between these ideas. What I take from it is that we’re doing something new and we’re also doing something old. The tools have changed, the possibilities have changed, and ever so slowly the foundations are changing too. But at our core we’re still story tellers, still educators, still learning from and sharing with each other. Digital is part of what we do and it’s also part of all that’s come before.


I’m not sure who said this first, but this slide’s a homage to last year’s conference organiser, Courtney Johnston. It allows me to continue the tradition she established of swearing during the organiser’s welcome.

You do good shit.

(After-note: Courtney called it. It was indeed referencing a quote a from her talk last year taken from Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article, What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library: ‘The library employees give a shit.’ Oddly, the quote’s been pulled from the online version but you can watch Courtney reading the original at about 10 minutes in.)

What we do provides a real public good. It’s about democratising information and empowering citizens with knowledge and resources. We work for real people, real users of our material. They have questions, they’re after answers; they want to be challenged, or learn they were right all along. They’re using our collections, our websites, and our buildings, and making them theirs.

Most of us here work in publicly funded organisations. Like me you might be in central government. Either way, we’ve probably all heard phrases like fiscal restraint, better public services, result areas, doing more with less. We live with these phrases. They’re shaping the environments we work in, and informing the language we use to define our work. But let’s not forget, they’re a means to an end, and that end is to keep on doing what you do.


Together we’re building a digital ecosystem of stories, images, records, objects, film, music – everything. It’s not perfect – rights, restrictions, agreements, even protecting our patches – they all get in the way. But ultimately our strength and our futures lie in breaking the barriers and creating an ecosystem that New Zealanders can’t live without.

As an ecosystem, each person, organisation, dataset, website, whatever, plays its part to support and nurture the whole. In turn, each part becomes crucial to the whole and is – I naively hope – that much harder to remove when times get tough.

I’m encouraged by the number of commercial organisations represented at the conference this year. From our trade sponsors, Vernon and STQRY, to speakers like Glen Barnes, and even that little search company that keynote Piotr Adamczyk works for.

The commercial world sees our value. They want our content and our partnership. Embrace it. Push yourselves out into consumer-facing networks. Forget advertising and marketing campaigns; let your content get out and advertise itself, carry your brand, and sit alongside all the other content that people are consuming. Take any chance you can to let people know about your work by letting it be useful to them.

Become critical to business wherever you can. If someone wants to use your content – whether it’s a walking tour app, a cottage holiday website, or a good-old fashioned book – do whatever you can to make it possible. If you can avoid charging them, avoid it. Don’t do anything to get in the way of them using your content. Give it to them, get attribution and let them do the work to promote you and your organisation by using your content.

Again it’s the ecosystem, the more we embed ourselves in the everyday lives and business of New Zealand, the more sustainable we become.

  1. I have been struggling to put into words your elegant thoughts on digital ecosystems. Thank you for the write-up Matthew. Thank you too for organising a great conference.

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