Response to Matt MacArthur

In a comment on my most recent blog post, NMAH’s Matt MacArthur brought up a major and valid criticism of the enthusiasm of myself and others like me for open data initiatives:

Mike touches on an important point about what people actually *want* from the Smithsonian (and museums in general). I heard a very interesting presentation from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia recently. They have had their collection database available via download/API for a while now – they are leaders on this openness” front. What they have found is that while this is was a radical/exciting development among proponents who care about such things, in reality hardly anyone has made use of it. This is particularly true for the education audience, who they thought would be eager to use raw data in the ways that you mention. Instead, teachers and students continue to gravitate toward specific bits of content that support their curriculum, and the more traditional, mediated “online exhibit” type of material. Maybe this will change and it still may be an important avenue for the Smithsonian to pursue. But for now, the evidence available to me shows that the public demand to see a lot more of the Smithsonian’s “stuff” online along with reliable interpretation, and have some social functionality around that content, is much greater than the demand to “walk away with our stuff and do whatever they want with it.”

On the one hand, I can’t argue with this line of reasoning. First off, the people who will want to access raw data online is always going to be smaller than the number of people who will want to just look at it, consume it passively. Much like the number of people who use their computers to program, do complex modeling, or calculate is always going to be smaller than the number who use them for entertainment and communications.

Of course, some people say that the fact that most of us just play games, surf the net, and write email means that the personal computer is dead in the water and devices like the iPad are the future. What these people overlook is that the iPad is not a very good device for doing innovative programing or developing next-level software. If you want computers to keep developing on the software level, you need keyboards and processing power. Just because the majority could get by with an iPad-like device doesn’t mean we should stop producing PCs, or that we should stop producing them at a price point that keeps a low barrier to entry so that merit is more important than deep pockets in the long march to innovation.

The situation when it comes to digital archives and exhibitions is not that dissimilar. You want to give the majority of people what they want– if grandma is scared of computers, but comfortable with the iPad, by all means, get her an iPad!– but as long as doing so doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the more passive-consuming majority(1), you also need to be designing keeping in mind the innovators, the hackers, the bleeding-edge early adopters… in other words, you need to design for the developers, as well as the average consumer.

The audience may not be there, at least not at first. But these considerations have to be made from the beginning, to be incorporated into the heart of the code from the get-go, or else it’s going to be nearly impossible if the demand picks up. This is part of what makes the Smithsonian Commons such a awesome and ambitious project– it’s going to have to cobble things from the many different, often privately-contracted and sometimes proprietary CMSs and databases that the various museums of the Smithsonian system, and bring it all together into one place. This is no easy task because when the different projects were begun, they were not designed to interoperate.

It’s important, when beginning a project like the Smithsonian Commons, to design the project so that it is capable of maximum openness. It’s easier to nail some doors shut than it is to tear down walls.

Similarly, while the case of the Powerhouse Museum might be somewhat discouraging– all this great openness and nobody using it– the Powerhouse Museum is not the Smithsonian. No other museum is the Smithsonian. The SI is “the world’s largest museum complex and research organization,” according to the home page. The Smithsonian is large enough that, if the Commons is implemented well, it could counter this trend of disuse. The Smithsonian Commons could be a tipping point.

People won’t develop the tools if there’s not a potential audience for them. If the SI works with other museums like the Powerhouse to ensure interoperability and good data standards, it’s enough of a behemoth that the SI’s working on opening up might actually encourage development and use for the Powerhouse Museum. If people can design tools that allow you to digitally manipulate, analyze, and play with the combined collections of an entire international network of museums, suddenly you’re looking at something with enough potential use, and enough potential audience, that it might be worth doing.

I’m not saying this will happen necessarily, of course. I can’t predict the future. But I can see that the Smithsonian is uniquely positioned to help push this sort of thing into reality. I’d hate to see that opportunity squandered because of a lack of perceived interest.

It may well be that the average user will always be the casual browser, the person who wants to see the stuff, along with a little social functionality. But arguments of “demand” shouldn’t be applied to openness and APIs. There’s a moral argument to this, for institutions with a public service mission, but let’s look beyond that to a completely pragmatic view. With computers, “demand” isn’t a fixed quality. The world only needs so many eggs. With computers, however, demand is a constantly shifting value, because demand created by tools. And tools that can be developed by outsiders with little to no cost other than time can suddenly prove quite important.

Look at Twitter clients– when the website first launched, I doubt there was much perceivable demand for standalone programs that simply talked to a website that let you post SMS-sized messages on the web. But Twitter was created with an open and robust API, and clients emerged and multiplied. They’re key to the site’s success– I doubt I would keep using Twitter as much as I do if I always had to navigate back to and refresh the website. Making it an always-on part of my desktop makes it invaluable by comparison.

Fostering a dev community is a way to ensure a small but powerful group of passionate early adopters. It can bring new and unexpected functionalities to the project. And if people start building tools that take advantage of the Commons’s wide-open API and data standards, they may just come up with a cool tool that brings even more casual users even deeper into the project. Why bet on the fact that they won’t, and close the project off? Isn’t it better to hope they do and leave the possibility open?

Finally, I’d like to suggest that while I said it’s likely that casual users will always be the core of the user base, the numbers may be shifting. Google’s recent unveiling of their Android App Inventor points toward some of the folks with the deep pockets and the big brains actually investing time, money, and energy into lowering the barriers to application development in some interesting ways. If the Smithsonian Commons were interoperable with App Inventor, wouldn’t that be an amazing project for beginning students interested in software development, or the use of new media in traditional disciplines?

(1) The notion of the average visitor’s experience of museums– or experience of any form of media or spectacle for that matter– as being “passive” is one that I find deeply problematic, but that’s a matter for a different post.