Sunday, October 31, 2010

UK Government digital policy

Iain Lobban, the head of GCHQ, recently came forward in a spate of intelligence leaders publicly discussing hot potatoes. In his case it was the cyber threat to the UK, which subsequently made its presence felt in the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) as concerns over cyber terror and threats to digital infrastructure build.

I preface with this because it’s an indicator of the extent to which we really are in a digital economy, and while digital hasn’t quite torn down the ‘old’ economic models in the way that commentators during the 90s predicted, it’s raised a lot of new possiblities and clearly opened up new vulnerabilities. Security issues aside, I'm interested in feeling out what domestic policy currently is on digital information and infrastructure.

The last Government introduced the Digital Britain programme in 2009 through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This promised a three year plan to boost digital participation, universal access to broadband by 2012 and a fund to invest in enhancing its capacity, amongst other initiatives. The scheme's website can now be found safely archived on the National Archives' servers, which says a lot about what has become of the programme.

Whether for political or economic reasons, or both, the whole thing seems to have been 're-scoped' and will, probably, be rebranded (the reason that universal broadband has been pushed back is the last Government's fault &c., we may yet forget it was ever their initiative). The only concrete thing to come out the programme so far is the Digital Economy Act, shoring up business interests by reinforcing copyright law. Even before the election, many Digital Britain measures had been abandoned due to Tory opposition and the distraction of the election itself.

Meanwhile, without legislative support, it seems that the digital divide in the UK will continue to increase, which essentially equates to an urban-rural split. It's notable that in the constituency of Penrith and The Border, one of the most rural constituencies in the UK, MP Rory Stewart has made broadband a central component of his agenda, at one time presenting the possibility of communities there connecting the final miles of cable themselves. Having secured funding for a pilot project, which could lead the way towards the 'universal' 2mb connection (currently scheduled for 2015), one more Digital Britain measure may yet be achieved. With most in Government and business agreeing that high-speed broadband is the most ciritical element required to enhance the digital economy, this pilot is one to watch.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Digital development: INASP

I had the opportunity to meet with Peter Burnett from INASP (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications) yesterday, an Oxford-based development organisation supported by multilateral funders and INASP partner countries.

As is fondly said of many of the best British institutions, they seem able to punch above their weight. INASP's name itself certainly provides only a limited indication of the real scope of their work. Their basic mandate - providing access to electronic journals in the developing world - is not as simple as it sounds and requires five main areas of activity, very briefly:
  1. ICT training, including bandwidth management and optimisation, and associated online IT skills.

  2. Information delivery, negotiations with external publishers and the development of library consortia in-country.

  3. Library development, particularly surrounding digital collections, with long-term preservation and access.

  4. Open access, providing a platform for developing countries to publish their journals online and AuthorAID to provide support to individual researchers.

  5. Publishing support, facilitating websites that can host electronic publications created in developing countries.
As far as I'm aware, INASP is the only group looking to establish a digital knowledge infrastructure in developing or emerging countries in this kind of holistic manner. The follow-through on these initiatives is also quite something - the whole digital foundation is taken one step further by trying to connect national policy makers in partner countries with the research information delivered via the means decribed above, promoting evidence-informed policy making.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ontology in digital media

Frankly, a blog on digital issues doesn't lend itself particularly well to imagery, though I look forward to being corrected on this. Since I'm dipping into the philosophical here, I've taken the opportunity to preface this piece with a view from outside our seminar room, which I snapped last week.

View from outside the Anatomy Theatre, Kings College London
Ploughing through readings on DAM, one word seems to come up rather frequently, clearly packing some weight: ontology. It's come up so often that, rather than dismissing these philosophical trappings as superfluous to practical implementation, it seems worth taking the bull by the horns and exploring the potential of an ontological enquiry in this context. I did, after all, begin this blog as a means of self-education.

The term 'digital' is probably taken for granted by most people, and registers largely at the conceptual level. It's a fluid medium that is hard to pin down: is it merely our conceptual perception of information presented on a screen, for example, or the process by which hardware and software interact to interpret digital data - or even the physical medium to which any of these can ultimately be traced?

These notions were put forward by Kenneth Thibodeau at the US National Archives and Records Administration some years ago and I find them very useful, not least because they highlight some of the major differences between digital and traditional preservation concerns. Essentially it seems that in most cases, the conceptual delivery of digital materials are of prime importance (that is, the point at which digital data takes on meaning for humans), to the point that the physical source and even the logical processes that deliver digital data in conceptual form can be altered to suit that end. Compare that with the object-orientated world of traditional preservation which seeks to alter physical objects as little as possible - when applied to digital media, a traditional approach would probably favour the preservation of obsolete hardware instead.

I might also add that, by nature, DAM is a more active process, because leaving a digital object in a box (whatever form that object may take) for 50 years is going to ensure its loss and destruction, rather than its preservation, as would be the case with paper or other physical objects. But I don't believe that DAM can be truly effective without ontology, since its effective delivery hinges on a proper understanding of the differerent facets of a digital object and how they relate to one another to achieve preservation, function, accessibility and so on. Whether or not you even aware that you are applying an ontological investigation to DAM processes, it's always there. As such, it does seem like a practical tool, even if the etymology of the word is Greek.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A National Digital Library for the US

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books there's an article by Robert Darnton, Director of Harvard University Library, from a recent talk that opened a conference on the possibility of creating a National Digital Library for the US. His ideas on the library in the 'new age' are fleshed out rather more extensively in an earlier article from 2008, featured in the same publication.

In Darnton's writings he gives a laudible defense of the traditional book and library institution. This perhaps appeals more to a minority (even a small minority) in the current research climate, but it's an important argument that often gets drowned out. While agreeing entirely with the ideas of access and traditional preservation that he describes, it's a little concerning to see what has been left out of this discussion surrounding a National Digital Library.

To begin, it isn't just the 'modern' and 'postmodern' student who performs most of their research digitally - all the signs show that, within the sciences in particular, we are being inundated with born-digital material. We will find that even the most bookish scholar - should we decide to value his output sufficiently to archive it - will at least have left behind an email correspondence. Indeed, the first hits for 'born-digital data' via Google find an explanation of why the Crafts Study Centre at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design chose born-digital storage for the 'reusability of the resource', and an article in the New York Times praising Emory University's acquisition of Salmon Rushdie's digital files. It should go without saying that, meanwhile, the scientific community have long since entered the age of the petabyte.

While many books have indeed lasted many hundreds of years, they, like digital data, also get lost and destroyed - any advantage they have displayed in longevity doesn't seem to compensate for their limitations in time and space as research tools. With a focus on the printed book, dismissing born-digital as an 'endangered species', we are throwing out the majority of modern scholarship. It therefore seems that this approach will create exactly what Darnton claims to want to avoid: the library as museum. It's a museum of past research at the expense of the future, dictating the centrality of the traditional library when in fact the modern researcher expects resources to come to them, and not vice-versa.

Just digitising books is really only a part of the digital puzzle when it comes to libraries and, for the reasons mentioned above, doesn't reflect the current and future trends in scholarship. Nor is it a progressive response to the question of a National Digital Library: the first digital library started in 1971 with Project Gutenburg; the first ISBN issued to an e-book was in 1998; Google Books was launched in 2004. The push for digitization presented here sticks to a rigid hierarchy surrounding the supremacy of the book and simply doesn't accommodate born-digital (or even archival) content. Copying every book around is not going to address the most pressing concerns for a National Digital Library and will never further the scope of scholarship.

In a recent survey of 275 US insitutions (with a 70% return), the OCLC identified that special collections in the US were primarily concerned with issues of space, followed by born-digital content, and then digitisation. Only 50% of insitutions had assigned responsibility to born-digital collections. Ignoring born-digital collections and focusing on books does not take care of the problem, and while we'll probably have our Folger First Folios to consult for years to come, much of modern research will be left uncollected and unpreserved, and the real potential for new avenues in digital scholarship lost. It may well be that the scale of the problem does necessitate the creation of a new, exclusively digital insitution, but the realities of digital scholarship are far more dynamic than they're given credit for here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Collecting UK online publications

It's not difficult to understand why copyright concerns aren't always tackled in scoping documents concerning digital futures (as mentioned in the previous post) - the topic is big enough that it probably merits a report entirely to itself. One angle on the copyright issue is the question of legal deposit for UK online materials. The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport recently ran a consultation on the Collection and Preservation of UK Online Publications, to which there were a number of responses from various institutions.

The general recommendation from the Legal Deposit Advisory Panel (LDAP) to the Secretary of State for Culture (currently, Jeremy Hunt) was regulation-based harvesting and archiving - the libraries have a legal entitlement to UK domain sites, though by the nature of the material in question, the libraries will need to collect (or harvest) these materials directly themselves. Incidentally, 'agents' are mentioned as harvesting material on the behalf of libraries, which continues the theme of third party involvement in matters concerning digital management.

One of the more interesting sections of the report is that covering policies for deposit, access and use (p. 31). Despite defining online content as "available free of charge and without access restrictions" throughout the report, the LDAP recommends that "access must be confined to readers (and staff) using terminals, screens or devices that are controlled by the Libraries, and whilst they are on the Libraries’ premises". This takes the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 (which aimed to encompass digital publications but not websites - the 2003 Act calls them 'non-print publications') and applies it in a literal fashion to all online content, resulting in an apparent contradiction.

Having said that, while I'm not sure how threatened libraries really are by a transition to digital, this level of restriction could empower them as gatekeepers to the most complete collection of archived web content available - after all, the websites would not have continued to exist without their intervention, the live web is not the same as a depository and there would be multiple access points to this content throughout the UK. However, the idea of taking something that was once "available free of charge and without access restrictions" and making access restrictive is probably too much of a leap.

So far, web archiving in the UK has been permissions-based, rather than regulation-based. While the precedent for web archiving operated under a much more restrictive model, it could easily allow free access to all. It will be interesting to see if re-writing the legislation to accommodate this (if indeed it is re-written, I believe that there is going to be a second round of consultation, which is a positive sign) requires a compromise between ease of harvesting (ideally, regulation-based) and ease of access (free for everyone, anywhere in the UK).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A fear of the digital?

We've spent the last week examining various documents concerning the future of digital collections and their associated technologies in cultural institutions over the next couple of decades. Specifically, two of the UK's national libraries have recently attempted to tackle the subject in separate scoping documents: the British Library's 2020 Vision and the National Library of Scotland's report on the library in 2030.

I've noted recently that, based on my brief experience so far, many cultural institutions don't seem fully prepared for digital (whether culturally, strategically or technologically), but the idea that institutions might actually be afraid of embracing digital is a slightly different angle that emerged from some recent discussion surrounding these documents.

There are certainly a few reasons to be fearful of launching major projects concerning digital collections and infrastructure. The one that springs most readily to mind is the existing perception of the impending obsolescence of analogue media. "Throw it in the Charles [River]" was one scientist's recent response to the collection storage problem at Harvard College Libraries. All of us access and use different information in different ways, so as a blanket solution the notion would be a bit absurd, but the idea of obsolescence is a pretty powerful one, not least because those who hold it often appear to have more influence on outcomes than the institutions in question.

Libraries, in particular, are stuck with the problem of at once appearing to be 'vital' by embracing digital, yet not letting go of core cultural elements within their institutions that in many instances stretch back hundreds of years (like storing books). While the scientific community requires an increase in the quantity of born-digital material to continue pursuing cutting-edge experiments, the cultural sector doesn't need digital in the same way, but rather appears to see it as complementary to their original mission of preserving analogue cultural collections (mostly, these are digitised items, so a direct link remains to the analogue). Digital can certainly promote learning and access, but in some cases it may be a necessary evil driven by economic and political factors.

Perhaps fear is also reflected in a reluctance to handle the really big questions associated with digital collections within these documents. It's slightly frightening for some to think that we can't save everything - indeed, that we can't save most things - so who tackles the problem of what to save? Then, with the Digital Economy Act passed in the UK in April, copyright will continue to be a significant hurdle, but this isn't usually explored in much depth, if it's broached at all. Finally, who will manage these projects, and with what technology? Certainly, it's a big unknown, but perhaps it's better to shoot first and ask questions later, particularly when you're under attack.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Research on the Silk Road

I've been fortunate to have had involvement in some pretty varied projects lately, so I thought I would post a link to a bit of work I put together with a colleague at the Harvard Art Museums. The project (ongoing) involves an examination of paintings on textile recovered from the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, Western China. The poster here, focuses on such paintings in US collections.

I've been drawn to Dunhuang, and the Silk Road in general, ever since seeing the fantastic exhibition The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith at the British Library in 2004. The Mogao Caves are particularly important, as they yielded a sealed cache of documents, paintings and other artefacts untouched for a period of around nine hundred years. The materials from the caves have been of wide interest to many disciplines, revealing economic, social and religious aspects of Silk Road cultures, Asiatic languages and, in the case of the paintings on wall and textile, artistic development.

Indeed, so extensive are the materials recovered from the site that they have spawned an international digitisation project, aimed at connecting researchers around the world with these unique artefacts: the International Dunhuang Project. Almost as interesting as the artefacts themselves are the stories of the (mostly) European explorers who raced into the Chinese deserts to procure them - one of them is thought to have inspired in part the character of Indiana Jones.