Summer reading

Blame the baby boomers, Sean Illing on Vox, looks at how postwar generations burnt through their inheritance and left millennials to clean up the mess. Meanwhile in New Zealand Gex X is leading the cleanup with Simon Wilson in The Spinoff on our hopes and dreams for Jacinda. Another Spinoff story, this from Mike Dickison positioning Wikipedia as a public policy response.


Duterte Threatens to Dethrone the Jeepney as King of Filipino Roads, by Aurora Almendral in the NYTimes, makes me wonder how governments can make major change without hurting what it’s disrupting.

Good piece about different ways government could charge for data, improving quality and ensuring sustainability, by Andrew Nicklin

Interesting point about overdoing user focus in government decision making: ‘By putting the emphasis on citizen engagement, policy-making quickly becomes purely “demand-driven”, skewing resources to those most able to engage with officialdom’ from Daniel Rogger writing on the World Bank blog.


Finally a hat tip to @edsu for the following:

Three-part ‘File Not Found’ series about archiving and digitising in Science Friday. Part 1: audio and video and the problem of tape machines; Part 2: saving the internet amid political change in Trump’s America; Part 3: on the digital dark ages and immortal data.

Short fiction by Hengtee Lim (Snippets) in Medium on technology enabling people to remember their previous lives.


Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending a meeting with our organisation’s Te Ara Wānanga, a critical friend grouping of Māori leaders that provides advice and guidance to Manatū Taonga on Māori cultural issues. I’ve attended their meetings before and always value the opportunity to listen directly to people like Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Karl Johnston, and others.

This wānanga was a little bit different in that it included kaihautū from our partner organisations, Ngā Taonga, Te Papa, Heritage NZ and DIA, as well as most of Manatū Taonga’s senior leadership and third-tier management teams. One of the main topics was looking at Te Ara Taonga and better approaches for the cultural sector, and government in general, to engage with iwi.

Te Ara Taonga has seen these five cultural sector agencies (or six if you count DIA as National Library and Archives NZ) come together and jointly engage with iwi. Iwi have responded positively to this; it saves time, it means they only have to tell their story once to all agencies at the same time, and iwi and agencies can collaboratively work out who’s best to respond to iwi needs around the same table.

I came away inspired and feeling that maybe New Zealand is on the cusp of generational change in Crown-Māori relations. Certainly sitting around a big table talking about these issues together, openly, honestly and in an atmosphere that encourages people to contribute and listen, is a great space to be in.

But I also came away wondering what the role is for Pākehā. Listening is one part, and an important part, but it’s got to be more than that (and no one’s going to argue with that, right?).

Pākehā need to do more than listen. They need to do the some of the hard mahi, not as leaders but as workers taking direction and instruction from the actual leaders in this space: Māori.

There aren’t enough kaihautū to do all the mahi on their own. That’s true in the cultural sector and it’s true right across government. It’s probably also true for many iwi. The pressure on a handful of Māori who know how to work in the space occupied by Crown and Māori interests is huge and well-known. For those in government, they need genuine support that comes from an entire organisation behind them.

But Pākehā need to step back and let Māori lead. Pākehā need to follow, and that means follow instructions. In this world Pākehā don’t get an automatic spot on the paepae. They need to start in the wharekai before they can enter the wharenui, and earn our stripes in a different way to fit into a different world.

For some Pākehā it’ll be a huge challenge to give up leadership and accept authority from someone else. For some they’ll complain that it’s not in the spirit of partnership for Pākehā to take a back seat. But to embrace partnership we have to learn a new way of working and learn from the people who know this part of our culture.

Only when we’ve learned from Māori, and Māori have the space to lead, can we think about leading together in partnership. I look forward to that day, and in the meantime I’m looking forward to learning how to make an honest and genuine contribution to getting there.


Earlier this week I watched a videoed talk of Kaila Colbin, talking to chief executives of New Zealand cultural agencies (those organisations funded through Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage). Her talk, Riding the Exponential Wave of Change, was about the technology changes hitting society today (and yesterday, tomorrow, etc.).

Colbin is the New Zealand representative of the Singularity University. As the name suggests it’s founded on an explicit belief and trust in the idea of technology leading us to the great technological singularity where machines out-learn humans in how to be human, and from there exceed us. I don’t know enough about the singularity, and I’m not sure I want to know much more, but figure we’ll all need to grapple with it whether we like it or not (and whether it’s true and real or not).

Colbin’s talk didn’t offer many solutions to the creative sector, nor focus specifically on what the singularity means for it or the existence of artists, reverting instead to the bigger question of what does it mean to be human in a world in which we might (‘will’ in Colbin’s view) be out-humaned by machines?

She had plenty of useful, even positive examples: machines diagnosing cancer more accurately than trained medical specialists and lawyer bots being ‘employed’ by US law firms; and some more worryingly examples: machines composing music that according to people in the know is actually quite good. (Disclosure: I’m unnerved by this. What next, novels written by bots? Paintings by bots? Are they real? Do they have real ‘feelings’ and empathy built in if not created by real people? But this is by the by…)

What really unnerves me is a number of assumptions in the singularity:

  • Abundance – machines will be able to make everything for us. That great utopia of endless leisure time is just around the corner and machines will make it all possible.
  • Equal distribution – we’re all going to benefit. There’ll be no haves and have-nots, no inequality, no poverty, hunger, or conflict.
  • Passive consumption – there’ll be no need for human agency in any of this. Machines will be so good at providing what we need that there’ll be very little for humans to do but sit back and consume – I mean enjoy – the fruits of our – or their – success.

The first two assumptions sound too good to be true; the latter too dispiriting. Perhaps the biggest assumption lies in the belief that technology will be inherently good: by default it will determine what’s needed and how to provide it evenly in a personalised way for each and every one of us.

Here lies the contradiction. Part of the basis of the singularity is that technology is nothing new, nor is the exponential pace of technological change. The printing press brought a huge change; steam power brought a larger change; the information age – and each development within it – brings an even greater exponential change.

Technology is inherent in humanity, conversely humanity (and its biases) is inherent in technology. When we think about technology creating evenly distributed abundance, the singularity doesn’t acknowledge that technology has so far failed to solve humanity’s inability to evenly distribute wealth. It’s simple technological determinism – call it techie trickle-down theory. Under such a theory, at what point does technology learn to think enough for itself that it can override the implicit bias built into every human-made building block on which it was created?

This is where the creative sector steps back into the picture. If technology fails to overcome bias and fails to create abundance for all (my assumption), then artists remain a critical part of society: critiquing the technology as in so many sci-fi films and literature, celebrating the humanity, and reminding us all of the society that both belong to and how it can be better. Doing what many artists have always done, in a world that’s unlikely to change in any meaningful way for most of us. With artists along for the ride I think we’ll survive the singularity.


Small update to add a couple of relevant links:

Boundaries and organisations

Following my talk at NDF last week I’ve been thinking more about how we need to break down some of the organisational barriers across our sector. My talk was in part thinking about how my organisation makes its publishing model more useful – useful to government, to the cultural heritage sector, and ultimately more useful to its audience.

That focus on the audience pushes us in the easily-measured trap of chasing audience numbers. In that we’re not alone. Every organisation typically does it.

The talk that followed mine in the session was from Te Papa’s Michelle Smith. It was a really interesting look at how they’re refining their content development to target social media and search engine optimisation, with two very different approaches. It’s definitely worth a look when the video comes out.

But one slide stood out: a screenshot of search results for ‘Matariki’. Turns out that Te Papa’s Matariki content is battling it out for first place against Te Ara’s Matariki content. So here we have two organisations, same sector, with a good relationship, chasing one audience on the same subject.

I’m not criticising either organisation. It’s how our funding incentivises our work: get the audience, get the numbers, and (hopefully) get the ongoing funding. For our audience it may or may not make sense (on the plus side, maybe we’re presenting different perspectives and different material) but as a sector, are we making the best investment?

It’s one of the problems of crossing organisational boundaries. A pragmatic approach might be to move Te Ara to Te Papa, a suggestion that’s been made in the past but rejected on the basis that Te Ara needs some kind of organisational independence. (It currently has relationships right across the sector and draws heavily on many collections. Would it start to prioritise Te Papa’s collections over others and give a skewed view of national collections?)

The cultural sector isn’t alone in this. New governments create new portfolios, for example the new Crown-Māori relations portfolio. Ideally it should sit right across government – we’re all part of the Crown and should all have relationships with Māori. But it has to ‘live’ somewhere, so it will be housed in an existing department and over time will have to contribute to that organisation’s vision to ensure its survival. Living somewhere means contributing to that place; if you can’t your future’s at risk.

It’s very similar to government publishing. Again, ideally, it should retain some kind of independence to provide analysis and interpretation of history and society free from the political levers a government wants to pull. But like a new portfolio it has to live somewhere and if it strays too far from its home organisation’s goals it less likely they’ll back you.

This is a tension we need to think about a lot more. How do we start to measure success that is less about the organisation and more about the organisation’s contribution to something bigger, something that stretches across organisational boundaries. It’s not going to be a few shared projects or some ad hoc collaboration. It’s about a shared and agreed strategy that acknowledges we’re all heading in the same direction; thinking about what we’re good and bad at; taking the lead on what you’re good at; and accepting that others are better placed to deliver in other areas (even if you’ve traditionally done them). To paraphrase Pia Andrews in her conference opening address, it’s deciding what to take forward and what to leave behind.

Pipes and platforms

This is an edited version of the talk I gave at NDF2017. The talk was supposed to be about moving from publishing through pipes to providing publishing platforms for others to use. It got a bit messy, and hopefully makes more sense written down. The platform question is really about how publishing at Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, could play a more active role in both government and the cultural heritage sectors. But along the way I got more and more interested in what it means to update digital content in the form of Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

I work in the team at Manatū Taonga that manages our historical and reference publishing. We’re part of a tradition of government publishing going back to the 1930s – war history, history of government activity, historical atlas, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, NZHistory, Te Ara. My team’s focus for a few years has been on managing Te Ara and NZHistory. They’ve been built up over many years. NZHistory launched in 1999 and has grown organically even since. Te Ara launched in 2005 and was built up over the following 10 years with a new theme released every year or so.

Without meaning to be harsh, NZHistory leans towards a Pākehā view of our history. Te Ara made an explicit attempt to present a Māori perspective – it engaged a wananga, translated significant amounts of content into te reo and included specific Māori perspectives. I’ve been referring to them recently as legacy or enduring content to distinguish them from other content that the ministry produces that’s more time-limited or for a specific project. That distinction is quite crucial to our new digital strategy that places Te Ara and NZHistory squarely in the role of supporting new ministry projects.

Updating an encyclopedia – do you really want to do that?

Over the last year we’ve been doing a lot of work updating the Social Connections theme. It’s one of Te Ara’s 12 themes and was published in 2011. Social Connections is heavy on statistics – census, health data and so on – so it was a fairly obvious place to start for maintaining the currency of the website. But in some ways it’s the hardest given its coverage of contemporary issues at the time. That gives it an historical significance – it’s how we looked at and wrote about society at a point in time. I’ll come back to that later.

It also points to some more general issues that stretch across Te Ara, one of which is the way subjects sprawl across content in all of the themes. We’ve been looking at keywords recently. Keywords are not a radical idea in this sector I know, but it’s one way of picking up on that issue of sprawl.

A simple or obvious example is of places – we have articles about places, articles about iwi and biographies of people significant to that place, and references across a wide range of other subjects. Bringing that content together makes a lot of sense. Birds are another good example – we have entries about birds scattered across themes – forest birds appear in the Bush theme, Sea birds in the Land and Sea theme.

I’m not going to dwell on this – it’s a fairly simple thing we can do to tie a lot of content together. We’ve done it successfully on NZHistory, search engines love keyword pages because they’re so content rich, and with no promotion people are using them a lot.

But we’ve learnt some more fundamental things too, and they throw up some really interesting questions. It’s another not-radical idea…

Things change. Facts change. Ideas change. But more fundamentally, how we think about ourselves, and what we think is important to say about ourselves, changes.

What we consider worth writing about changes. Take the Te Ara article on digital media and the internet, written by Russell Brown in 2014. In those short three years the internet has changed a lot. His article covers the territory of what was important at the time, and as a record of that it’s valuable. But do we tinker with it to make it seem more contemporary, or should we let it stand as a record of what we thought then and start from scratch for an updated version?

Changes in society also influence the way we might approach a material about particular communities. We’re currently grappling with how Te Ara talks about gender diversity and in particular gender fluidity. The way society in general thinks and talks about gender is changing rapidly – again, for the better – but it’s changing fast. It’s not that gender diversity didn’t exist in the past, but government publishing has tended to take a top down, slightly academic approach. That’s just not appropriate or accepted by communities themselves anymore.

Similarly the approach to bi-culturalism and the treatment of Māori subjects today appears a little like ‘othering’ – Pākehā view here, Māori view there. In the context of the time it played an important role in shining a light on Māori culture. New Zealand really needed that light. Have things changed? Do people generally accept now that Māori culture is an inherent and important part of everybody’s culture in Aotearoa? I hope they do, and I optimistically think we’re at least heading in that direction. But what does that mean for the structure of a website that’s built on a very clear and distinct bi-cultural model?

Writing things down and publishing them is a way of fixing things in time. What we choose to write about, the words we use, the perspective we come from or privilege, all places that work in historical context. It’s similar to the way museums, archives and libraries reflect the decisions they make about what is and isn’t collected, kept, discarded, digitised, released and so on.

I’ll be honest, this is where I get slightly hung up on where to go to from here – doubt creeps in. If what we wrote and how we wrote it fixes information in that moment in time, should we change it? Are we somehow breaking the historical time continuum by effectively changing the past? If today’s society doesn’t like the way we talked about a subject once, doesn’t changing it to reflect today’s sensibilities hide both the progress we’ve made and the darkness of our past?

Maybe that’s getting too dark, and I want to pause just long enough to reassure anyone who’s worried, that we’re still updating Te Ara – we have been and will continue to. But we’ll have to be more targeted in our approach.

We also need to approach it with a hierarchy in mind of how we change and update different content, where some is easy to update, some not so easy but worth doing either through updating what’s there or doing a new version of the article. But there may be content where the subject itself has changed in scope or importance so much that a totally different approach is needed.

We’re going to address this with what we’re calling topic pages. They’re a kind of higher level or supercharged keyword page.

What we’ve learnt from some of the audience research we’ve done this year is that people, especially young people and students and teachers, are looking for both credible and reliable content but also a diversity of perspectives and voices. It’s not enough to present only the ‘government sanctioned’ view. That’s still valid, but learners need to see other views alongside it so they can develop those critical thinking skills that are so important in a world of fake news and fake history. Our role in that world is to be as active as we can in presenting our content in a wider context. Being an active node in the network, to use Pia Andrews‘ words.

This is where topic pages can play a part. They’ll include relevant content and resources from across Te Ara and NZHistory as well as updated material about the subject, with context around historical material, interpretation of different viewpoints, education material, classroom teaching prompts, material and links with other sources like DigitalNZ and Wikipedia, communities and recent research. It also provides a way for us to bridge the different perspectives within our content. I’m thinking in particular of the bi-cultural content and how we can weave Pākehā and Maori perspectives back together again.

The benefits for us is it provides a framework around which we can manage the updating process. We can focus on particular topics. We can quickly pop up a topic related to something that’s in the news or trending in our analytics, or support another project that’s underway at the ministry or out in the sector. We know from librarians that people regularly ask about certain subjects – the Treaty, New Zealand Wars, local history to name a few. All topics where thinking and interpretation changes in ways we need to reflect and record. And we can work in a more focussed and coordinated way with subject experts and communities of interest.

Te Ara as a platform?

This is the part of the talk that actually relates to the topic I’d pitched for NDF. If I’d just stuck to this area I wouldn’t have gone over time, but I just found the material above far more interesting. There are some ideas worth thinking about, but I’ve abbreviated it and hope to think about it more clearly in future.

How Te Ara, and more broadly Manatū Taonga’s publishing, can serve other organisations more effectively?

At a simple level it’s being a more active node in the network. That’s where I see the value in topic pages. In making connections between our content where people can get a broad overview of a subject, drawing on other organisations work and data, and linking people to other sources of information.

A second way is as a platform for other organisations to publish research and content aimed at a general audience. I’m thinking here especially of government departments, many of whom are publishing information about their work. It’s not their core business and it’s not material that’s related to specific public relations campaigns; it’s just general information they happen to be specialists in. We have a far greater reach in education and public engagement than they do, and we can place their content in a wider cultural context. While we’re at it, can other organisations help update related content in some of the subjects where Manatū Taonga lacks the subject expertise?

Beyond government departments, we want our websites to be a place where communities can tell their stories. We’re currently working with Ngati Awa to tell their Treaty settlement story as part of the Te Tai Treaty Settlement Stories project. Again it’s about reaching a wider audience for them, but it’s also about us sharing our expertise to upskill iwi in research and publishing, not to mention contributing to a more meaningful relationship between the Crown and iwi.

I’m also thinking about how we can provide a home for legacy content from other organisations. I talked to someone who’d researched and written extensively to support a museum exhibition. It was published on the museum’s website but when the author tried to find it years later it was gone. The exhibition had closed; the content had fallen off the end of the long tail, and when the museum re-built its website, the content didn’t survive the cull.

It was valuable research and deserved to survive somewhere that it could continue to live within a wider cultural and heritage context. I think we need to be smarter about the lifecycle of content and identify which pieces have long-term value and then make sure we keep them available for the future. And maybe we need to think about some sort of collective effort to keep what we’re creating alive and accessible, rather than dumping born digital content on archives and collecting organsiations and theyeby making our burden theirs. Let’s start thinking about a collective effort at managing the documentary heritage we’re creating today and using platforms – maybe Te Ara, maybe not – living repositories or islands of persistence, to use Michael Lascarides‘ phrase from a few years back.

What to leave behind?

The big question this leads me to is how many platforms do we need in this sector?  Government certainly needs to think smarter about how it engages the public with reference information, and adopt a more audience-focussed approach. It’s been doing that (or trying to anyway) through Better Public Services over the last few years. But the cultural heritage sector has invested significantly over the last 10 to 15 years in services like Te Ara, DigitalNZ, Cenotaph, NZMuseums, Kete, as well as the myriad institutional websites out there.

I don’t think it’s sustainable and it might not be doing our audiences any good, or at least not as much good as we could do collectively. People at NDF have been talking about collaboration for years. A lot of us are now the senior managers in the sector. Maybe it’s time we stepped up and made good on all our talk, made some hard decisions about what to drop and what to take forward (another brilliant thought from Pia Andrew’s keynote), and ask some pretty tough questions of ourselves and our institutions.

Putting a value* on culture

Someone asked on Twitter recently how much does the GLAM sector contribute to NZ’s GDP? The short answer is it’s tricky to tell, but here are some known figures and some of the complications behind them. My thanks to colleagues at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage for sharing what they know.

Culture and recreation

According to Statistics NZ, ‘culture and recreation’ contributes over $900m to the economy, but that includes sport (the biggest contributor at over $400m). ‘Arts and culture’ contributes almost $200m, but it’s unlikely that truly represents the whole GLAM sector. (I think this is the data behind those figures.)

There’s a figure in this infographic from Stats, that the non-profit sector contributed 4.4% to GDP in 2013. Sure it includes a lot of GLAM organisations but probably doesn’t include local and central government organisations. And ‘culture and recreation’ is only one sub-group in non-profits, which also includes 11 other sub-groups:

  • Education and research
  • Health
  • Social services
  • Environment
  • Development and housing
  • Law, advocacy and politics
  • Grant making, fundraising and voluntarism promotion
  • International
  • Religion
  • Business and professional associations, unions
  • Residual categories

Included in the ‘culture and recreation’ sub-group is film societies, community theatres, toy libraries, historical associations, garden societies, operatic societies, pipe bands, Maori performing arts groups, sports clubs, regional sports trusts, racing clubs, tramping clubs and vintage car clubs.

Arts and recreation services

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage is currently working with its funded agencies (the likes of Te Papa, NZ On Air, Creative NZ and so on) on a project to develop a cultural sector narrative. Part of that includes working with Stats to develop better reporting on cultural statistics. For now MCH is working with the Statistics NZ GDP by industry, but the smallest category that’s useful currently is ‘arts and recreation services’. Improving this is part of the work MCH is doing with Stats.

The ‘arts and recreation services’ industry group includes the following 7 sub-groups:

  • Museum operation
  • Parks and gardens operations
  • Creative and Performing Arts activities
  • Sport and Physical Recreation activities
  • Horse and Dog Racing activities
  • Amusement and Other Recreation activities
  • Gambling activities (that’s right – GLAM is in there with gambling…)

The GDP for ‘arts and recreation services’ for the year ended March 2016 (expressed in 2009/10 prices) is $3.038b or 1.35% of GDP. But there are so many caveats in that figure that it’s currently not possible to answer the question of what does GLAM contribute to GDP. It gives a sense of the scale though, and in time we might have a better idea.

* Contribution to GDP is only one way to measure or value something, and a very blunt one at that. It’s useful in some contexts and useless in others, but is worth being able to articulate alongside other richer, more interesting and intangible benefits of cultural sector. As Paul Rowe put it, “knowledge/creativity/sense of community”. Tautoko that! (In my defence, the question was about GDP, thus an answer about GDP.)