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.