Work is elsewhere

I was recently a guest blogger over on the government Web Toolkit and got to talk about some of the publishing work I’m involved in at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage: Multi-Channel Publishing. Like a lot of the people I work with, I’m incredibly lucky to be able to spend the working week doing something I find really interesting. It’s a privilege really, doubly so given the real commitment that the Ministry is showing to exploring new ways of publishing that connect New Zealanders with content about them.

Earlier in the year we also got some love from the Creative Commons Aotearoa, who interviewed me in December last year and profiled our approach to licensing our content. Again, work is taking small but important steps to support openness with its content.

It often feels like I’m surrounded by a lot of really smart and dedicated people both at work and in what we call the wider sector – those museums and libraries and archives that collect and store and protect the treasures that form so much of our culture. They’re people working as much for love as for money, often against the political odds and with two eyes firmly on protecting the present for the benefit of the future. It’s a great thing to be involved in.

I remember before coming back to New Zealand explaining to an American friend in the UK that New Zealand is still a small social experiment – think emigration to the far-flung corners of the Pacific or the other side of the world, depending where you started; think  social security; think the free market ideology of the 80s. New Zealand’s always been a place of experiment. That’s kind of what I feel we’re still doing, but in the culture and heritage world: playing with new forms of technology in ways that respect where we’ve come from and try to navigate to somewhere new.

I’m not trying to oversell it in some glorification of the good-old-kiwi-number-eight-fencing-wire mentality. It’s more a nod to Lauris Edmond’s wonderful lines about Wellington from ‘The Active Voice’ in Scenes from a Small City (Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1994):

It’s true you can’t live here by chance,
you have to do and be, not simply watch
or even describe. This is the city of action,
the world headquarters of the verb –


Five stars of re-use

Anyone working within a taxpayer-funded cultural or research-based organisation at the moment will be aware that we’re expected to collaborate more with other organisations and develop new and innovative partnerships. It’s not simple but it has the potential to be really positive for the people that our organisations serve. I like to break things down into threes, and can see three important angles in greater collaboration: personal relationships, funding, and infrastructure. The latter’s the one I’m interested in here, particularly how we can make systems that help collaboration.

One approach I like is for organisations to – on one hand – stick to their knitting and concentrate on what they do well and – on the other – share what they have with others. With other organisations sticking to what they do well, then many organisations can contribution their own piece of a story to a much greater whole. So somehow they have to work out ways of sharing their parts and connecting it to the other parts.

Open data

Linked open data has the potential to provide a lot of the real technical grunt for this. Without understanding the deep technology of it, it’s a concept I really like: my data can talk to your data and work out where each intersects and connects. To better understand it at a very high level, the 5 stars of open data provided a really simple way of breaking down the steps needed to take your web content from something flat to something more connected and useful on the internet.

Floated as an idea orginally by Tim Berners-Lee, it was aimed at making data not just available but useful. “It is the unexpected re-use of information which is the value added by the web.” The stars are a simple idea, especially in the way they’re presented as steps in a progression. One star isn’t much, but it’s a start, and leads on to ever-greater levels of connection and usefulness.

Digital resources

Sharing content as data seems a long way off for the projects I’m involved with just at the moment (though we’re thinking seriously about it). What’s often more pressing is getting some clarity and efficiency when it comes to sharing digital objects like images, audio, video, and even text. Collectively these objects could be referred to as resources – they’re things that exist that different people want to use and re-use. There’s no real automation involved, rather it’s a matter of seeing something you want to use and knowing how and when you can do so.

Creative Commons has gone a long way to simplifying how resource owners can describe re-use rights. Also, NZGOAL in the New Zealand government context is doing a lot to encourage adoption of some kind of licencing. But it’s still not easy to know what you can and can’t use, to the point that organisations like the one I work for have no simple way of collaborating with large collecting insitutions around re-use, despite the fact that we’re all government funded.

There’s a mental shift required that accepts re-use is positive and is something to be encouraged, and a move from a default position where access is closed to one where it’s open. And in practical terms, it’s going to be a process of small steps. All of which finally gets me to my point. Can we apply something like the 5 stars to resource sharing? Could it help move organisations along as a way of addressing copyright and re-use of digital objects? And would it be useful as a way of measuring progress toward a cultural commons?

Five stars

Here’s a starter for 5 stars of re-use:

✰ resource is available on the web
✰✰ copyright and re-use statements exist
✰✰✰ re-use is restricted
✰✰✰✰ re-use is unrestricted (but with expectations)
✰✰✰✰✰ re-use is freely encouraged (no restrictions, no expectations)

I’ll flesh these out in more detail in a later post, but for now I’m interested in whether they provide a logical progression, whether the end point is attainable (or enough), and ultimately whether as a progression it might help organisations move toward a more open arrangement for their resources?


Update, 29 January 2013: Mia Ridge posted some links on Twitter in response to this post that I’ve found really interesting. Proposed: a 4-star classification-scheme for linked open cultural metadata from the LOD-LAM Summit in 2011, and one of her own posts On releasing museum data and the importance of licenses. They’ve got me thinking again about the difficulty of attribution for data or content used in mashups, and the complexity of non-commercial licences. To requote something from Mia’s post:

Commercial and non-commercial are very difficult to determine. As such, I make a point of never using photos that have a non-commercial license. Too much hassle. (I also now do not use photos with a share-alike provision. Same reason, too much hassle.)


I’m not sure where I’m going with this post, I’ll be honest. Fair to say that I’ve ventured into heavier academic territory than I’m used to thanks to a tweet from Anne Galloway:

“Openness, it seems, is beyond disagreement and beyond scrutiny.” Or is it? A critique of open politics: (via @TOMM7)

Before I get to that, I’ll come clean: I believe whole-heatedly in the value of openness. I’m not entirely clear what that means in the day-to-day politics of life, but for work in the online cultural world, it means at least aiming to share content and data, build systems to do it better, and encourage people to use and remix our material.

A post from Timothy Vollmer, Library catalog metadata: Open licensing or public domain?, over on the Creative Commons blog, is effusive in its praise of being not just open but as open as possible in sharing your data. In reviewing OCLC’s recent recommendation that its members adopt the Open Data Commons Attribution license (ODC-BY) when they share their library catalog data online, he argues – with good reason – that ODC’s attribution (BY) requirement is too restrictive in an open data environment:

There are good reasons for relying on community norms for metadata attribution instead of requiring it as a condition of a licensing agreement. The requirement to provide attribution through a contract like ODC-BY is not well-suited to a world where data are combined and remixed from multiple sources and under a variety of licenses and other use restrictions.

He concludes by noting that cultural institutions (including The British Library, Europeana, the University of Michigan Library, and Harvard) have adopted a completely non-restrictive licence, the CC0 Public Domain Dedication, for publishing their catalog data online, with those institutions making no more than a polite request that users credit them.

From this, we see that a truly normative approach for the library community would be a public domain dedication such as CC0, coupled with requests to provide attribution to the source (e.g. OCLC) to the extent possible. Such an approach would maximize experimentation and innovation with the cataloging data, in keeping with the mission and values of the library community…

That’s all good then, but keep that innovation idea in the back of your mind.

Back to that tweet, and the article by Nathaniel Tkacz, “From open source to open government” (ephemera 12(4): 386-405; pdf). It draws heavily on an analysis of ideas in Karl Popper’s The Open Society – not something I’ve read but I can follow along ok. In it, open is defined, Tkacz argues, through what it isn’t – in the political sphere it’s democracy as against tyranny. Tkacz wonders what open can now mean politically in a world that’s fundamentally democratic and therefore already open.

In short, Popper’s argument against totalitarian knowledge – replicated faithfully by his close friend and intellectual ally Hayek to defend free markets and private property over centralised planning – is compatible with and even constitutive of neo-liberal capitalism. And it is these same forms of closure that the second coming of openness, together with its new set of conceptual allies, tries to address. But what to make of this second coming? (p.403)

Tkacz cites Google’s claim for openness, a claim based on the commerce that openness sustains. He quotes Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President of Product Management at Google, from a 2009 post “The meaning of open” (no link available) on Google’s Public Policy Blog:

In an open system, a competitive advantage doesn’t derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products.

This is survival of the fittest talk; energetic agency will win out and enterprise will come to the fore.

So what about open culture, or the cultural commons. Is openness similarly defined by what it isn’t in the cultural online world? Probably; it isn’t dark webs, closed agreements, unlinked data, or copyright protection. It isn’t unreasonable access charges or reproduction costs. It isn’t restrictive re-use clauses. But if those are the things we’re trying to break down to create a future cultural world of open data, access and content, what’s left for openness as an idea when we get there? Will we find ourselves battling with our own form of cultural closures?

When all the content’s open and shareable, and commerce has feasted on our taonga, how open will the results be? At that point will we realise we’ve created a world for the technical and creative elite that excludes others? Are we just oiling another industry that will be as self-serving as those that have come before? Or can we trust them (who?) to build and create an open world that includes all of us?

I hope it’ll be the latter, and believe it’ll probably end up a bit of both, but as the people who can make this happen it’s on us to be aware and mindful of how our taonga serve our communities in the future. This final quote from Tkacz, and its final words in particular, are a good way to end:

Rather than using the open to look forward, there is a need to look more closely at the specific projects that operate under its name – at their details, emergent relations, consistencies, modes of organising and stabilising, points of difference, and forms of exclusion and inclusion. (p.404)