Pushing MRD out from under the geek rock

The week before last (30th June – 1st July 2009), I was at the JISC Digital Content Conference having been asked to take part in one of their parallel sessions.

I thought I’d use the session to talk about something I’m increasingly interested in – the shifting of the message about machine readable data (think API’s, RSS, OpenSearch, Microformats, LinkedData, etc) from the world of geek to the world of non-geek.

My slides are here:

[slideshare id=1714963&doc=dontthinkwebsitesthinkdatafinal-090713100859-phpapp02]

Here’s where I’m at: I think that MRD (That’s Machine Readable Data – I couldn’t seem to find a better term..) is probably about as important as it gets. It underpins an entire approach to content which is flexible, powerful and open. It embodies notions of freely moving data, it encourages innovation and visualisation. It is also not nearly as hard as it appears – or doesn’t have to be.

In the world of the geek (that’s a world I dip into long enough to see the potential before heading back out here into the sun), the proponents of MRD are many and passionate. Find me a Web2.0 application without an API (or one “on the development road-map”) and I’ll find you a pretty unusual company.

These people don’t need preaching at. They’re there, lined up, building apps for Twitter (to the tune of 10x the traffic which visits twitter.com), developing a huge array of services and visualisations, graphs, maps, inputs and outputs.

The problem isn’t the geeks. The problem is that MRD needs to move beyond the realm of the geek and into the realm of the content owner, the budget holder, the strategist, for these technologies to become truly embedded. We need to have copyright holders and funders lined up at the start of the project, prepared for the fact that our content will be delivered through multiple access routes, across unspecified timespans and to unknown devices. We need our specifications to be focused on re-purposing, not on single-point delivery. We need solution providers delivering software with web API’s built in. We need to be prepared for a world in which no-one visits our websites any more, instead picking, choosing and mixing our content from externally syndicated channels.

In short, we now need the relevant people evangelising about the MRD approach.

Geeks have done this well so far, but now they need help. Try searching on “ROI for API’s” (or any combination thereof) and you’ll find almost nothing – very little evidence outlining how much API’s cost to implement, what cost savings you are likely to see from them; how they reduce content development time; few guidelines on how to deal with syndicated content copyright issues.

Partly, this knowledge gap is because many of the technologies we’re talking about are still quite young. But a lot of the problem is about the communication of technology, the divided worlds that Nick Poole (Collections Trust) speaks about. This was the core of my presentation: ten reasons why MRD is important, from the perspective of a non-geek (links go to relevant slides and examples in the slide deck):

  1. Content is still king
  2. Re-use is not just good, it’s essential
  3. “Wouldn’t it be great if…”: Life is easier when everyone can get at your data
  4. Content development is cheaper
  5. Things get more visual
  6. Take content to users, not users to content (“If you build it, they probably won’t come”)
  7. It doesn’t have to be hard
  8. You can’t hide your content
  9. We really is bigger and better than me
  10. Traffic

All this is is a starter for ten. Bigger, better and more informed people than me probably have another hundred reasons why MRD is a good idea. I think this knowledge may be there – we just need to surface and collect it so that more (of the right) people can benefit from these approaches.

If you love something, set it free

Last week, I had the privilege of being asked to be one of the keynote speakers at a conference in Amsterdam called Kom je ook?. This translates as “Heritage Upgrade” and describes itself as “a symposium for cultural heritage institutions, theatres and museums”.

I was particularly excited about this one: firstly, my partner keynoters were Nina Simon (Museum Two) and Shelley Bernstein (Community Manager at the Brooklyn Museum) – both very well known and very well respected museum and social web people. Second (if I’m allowed to generalise): “I like the Dutch” – I like their attitude to new media, to innovation and to culture in general; and third – it looked like fun.

Nina talked about “The Participatory Museum” – in particular she focussed on an oft-forgotten point: the web isn’t social technology per se; it is just a particularly good tool for making social technology happen. The fact that the online medium allows you to track, access, publish and distribute are good reasons for using the web BUT the fact that this happens to populate one space shouldn’t limit your thinking to that space, and shouldn’t alter the fact that this is always, always about people and the ways in which they come together. The changing focus of museum moving from being a content provider to being a platform provider also rang true with me in so many ways. Nina rounded off with a “ten tips for social technology” (slide 12 and onwards).

Shelley gave another excellent talk on the incredible work she is doing at the Brooklyn Museum. She and I shared a session on Web2 at Museums and the Web 2007, and once again it is the genuine enthusiasm and authenticity which permeates everything she does which really comes across. This isn’t “web2 for web2’s sake” – this is genuine, pithy, risky, real content from enthused audiences who really want to take part in the life of the museum. 

My session was on setting your data and content free:

[slideshare id=768086&doc=mikeellisifyoulovesomethingsetitfreefinal-1227110930707512-9&w=425]

Hopefully the slides speak for themselves, but in a nutshell my argument is that although we’ve focussed heavily on the social aspects of Web2.0 from a user perspective, it is the stuff going on under the hood which really pushes the social web into new and exciting territory. It is the data sharing, the mashing, the API’s and the feeds which are at the heart of this new generation of web tools. We can resist the notion of free data by pretending that people use the web (and our sites) in a linear, controlled way, but the reality is we have fickle and intelligent users who will get to our content any which way. Given this, we can either push back against freer content by pretending we can lock it down, or – as I advocate – do what we can to give user access to it.