Sunday, November 28, 2010

DIY Broadband

The website for the Broadband Cumbria campaign was launched over the weekend. As I described a few weeks ago, this project essentially represents the pilot for investment in universal broadband for the UK, and leads Europe as an initiative for connecting rural communities. The most striking thing about it is, of course, that communities in the Eden Valley, Cumbria, will be connecting their broadband themselves, and that will involve some digging. As such, the project has massive resonance during this austere time in the UK.

Systems in every sector of UK society have been set up with the expectation of good broadband access, so it's important to be sure that no one is left behind. If there are entire communities who cannot get online, then this seems to me as important a problem as taking care of digital information; access, in one way or another, justifies its existence in the first place.

Please consider getting involved with the campaign - wherever you are, whatever you do, you are probably using the Internet. Imagine not having it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The fate of Iraq's seized documents

Many will be familiar with the story of the millions of records removed from the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) by the US military after the invasion in 2003. Contrary to an article published in the Brunei Times earlier this year, the INLA's archives are still retained by the US Department of Defence, Central Intelligence Agency, and Hoover Institution at Stanford University. A special Iraqi delegation to the US in April formally requested their return, an event that was covered at the time by Reuters.

I mentioned previously that digitisation cannot be relied upon as a preservation tool, but in some instances it can seem to hold great potential indeed, often revolving around issues of access. When I first heard about the problem of the INLA's seized records, it seemed that a straightforward solution would be to digitise the collections, thus allowing for digital copies to either be retained in the US and the originals returned or, at the very least, provide digital copies to the INLA. This was rather naive.

I've recently been in touch with Jeff Spurr of the Sabre Foundation and chair of the Middle East Librarians Association (MELA) Committee on Iraq Libraries, who updated me on the situation and kindly shared his report on the Committee's San Diego meeting of November 17. As it happens, the Iraqi records were digitised some time ago, but there is as yet no timetable for their return to the INLA. It's unclear why this is the case - the US Department of State has been supportive of Iraqi cultural initiatives in several other regards - but the conversation for their return has at least begun. Dr. Saad Eskander, Director of the INLA, has detailed the problem in an excellent article here.

The post-Saddam INLA under Dr. Eskander has seen the largest reader numbers since its foundation in 1961. His vision is one of open scholarship: the MELA report details extensive expansion in the development of digital collections at the INLA and the desire to make the US-held records fully available from within Iraq is clearly seen as essential for the process of reconciliation there. As detailed in Dr. Eskander's article above, the records are currently only being made available to select US higher education institutions for research under the aegis of the Pentagon's Minerva project.

It would seem that, whatever the potential for open research (or even reconciliation) that would come from the return of Iraq's records, it will be politics that decides the outcome. Similarly, while digital media has great potential to facilitate communication, collaboration and, in this case, Dr. Eskander's vision for the INLA, it will ultimately be people and politics determining the fruition of that technological potential.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Data for transparent government

According to Francis Maude, the UK minister for the Cabinet Office writing in The Guardian today, the current UK Government "will be the most transparent and accountable government in the world". This reasoning follows from the publication of the 'Whitehall accounts' for the first time ever, which detail Government expenditure since the coalition came to power. This data is presented online at

I'm not particularly interested in the finer points of the actual spending, but rather the nature of the move towards transparency itself, how this has been presented and the possible outcomes. It's clear from Francis Maude's claim that this is a work in progress, and an intriguing experiment it certainly is. By the Government's own admission, this is not complete data, but an unprecedented starting point. From a DAM perspective, the website hosting the data itself feels a bit like a work in progress - the information is probably there, but the website doesn't do the user any favours. Yet this raises a key point: to be transparent, the Government needs to present raw data, rather than digested information - it must ride the balance between accessibility and leading the user towards any particular conclusion. There may be virtue in its spare design.

In any case, people are downloading and interpreting the data, and numerous independent developers have already released a number of their own analytical tools. This is where the real nature of the experiment lies: will the Government be held to account and real savings found, or will it be put in a straitjacket, possibly resulting in further spending just to analyse all the claims made against it and avoid more in the future? Everyone will have different views on spending priorities, and their own way of interpreting the data; the findings may well make for good press. One hopes that this won't result in the kind of knee-jerk reactions that have hit US politics, which must be partially to blame on new media, seemingly able to create a loud enough drone that can stifle constructive debate.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Daniyal Noorani's Find Heaven Project

A friend of mine, Daniyal Noorani from Lahore, Pakistan, has put together a very interesting project: seizing on some of the more transcendent media of music and animation, Daniyal is using these as tools in an effort to bridge the growing gap in relations between Pakistan and the US, his current home, reflecting the wider issues that continue to place the West and the Muslim world at odds.

It started with a short film, Find Heaven, which made the Official Selection at the 2010 London Independent Film Festival and screened at Harvard University as part of the Muslim Film Festival earlier this year. This has grown into what are effectively four related projects of music and animation, including a studio album and what Daniyal describes as Pakistan's first anime series, relying on expertise in Pakistan itself. He's launched it as a Kickstarter campaign.

The Find Heaven video

If I had $10,000 in my pocket, I know where I would put it - I'd like to see where this goes. But whether or not this particular project succeeds in this instance, I like Daniyal's work for several reasons: it has a strong appeal for young people, which is what is going to make a difference; it's also multi-disciplinary and evidence suggests that it works well at both ends, in Pakistan and with a Western audience. With this kind of subject matter, one can be tempted to cry from frustration, but this stuff laughs resoundingly, yet retains poignancy.

Finally, in cold hard political terms, Pakistan is important. I'm not a foreign policy expert, but here is one explanation for why Pakistan matters, from a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in response to Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan at the start of 2010. The message has been repeated often. Right now, anything that can offer some informed popularisation of the myriad issues connected to these intercultural problems, like the Find Heaven Project, is hugely welcome.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

JPEG2000: the solution to mass digitisation?

Simon Tanner lays it outA number of libraries have begun major digitisation projects using JPEG2000 images. Why is this of interest? It's a question that Simon Tanner, from King's College, tackled at the opening of today's JPEG2000 seminar at the Wellcome Library. His short answer was, bluntly, that cultural heritage institutions are seeing the JPEG2000 format as increasingly attractive for mass digitisation because they can afford it; essentially, it's the only reason the format is considered.

This was borne out in subsequent presentations - that you can do more with less money - but there are other reasons that JPEG2000 can seem enticing. Basically, the cost savings are based on smaller file sizes - the Wellcome Library reported a 89% reduction in file size after compression before loss of 'visual' resolution in comparison to TIFF format for their needs. A smaller file size also means faster processing - high definition, zoomable images of large maps or entire newspapers, visually indiscernible to uncompressed TIFFS, are displayed in real time and rapidly integrate with other image software - two notable projects were the National Library of Norway's digitisation programme powered by Geneza, and the Old Maps Online and Georeferencer projects. Each library that has chosen to commit to JPEG2000 is therefore principally concerned with access: new online collections where more material is delivered faster.

Another notable thread to the disussion was the relative ambiguity of the format's preservation credentials. Richard Clark, the UK head of delegation to JPEG, queried why the digital preservation community hadn't been more involved in feeding back to the developers (compared to the commercial sector, notably the film and security industries). I suspect that communication will be on the rise, as it was noted today that future migrations of JPEG2000 images may result in the loss of ICC colour profiles. This, coupled with concerns about failing image resolution down the road, makes for some pretty fundamental preservation problems.

Implementing JPEG2000: Bedrich Vychodil of the National Library of the Czech Republic, Christy Henshaw of the Wellcome Library and Sean Martin of the British Library

As observed by Johan van der Knijff of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, just because JPEG2000 has been taken up by major institutions doesn't mean that the format is tried and tested in the long term context of digitisation. If anyone still thinks that digitisation is going to save the world's collections, this is some of the best evidence I've seen so far that this is a fantasy - a piece of paper, properly stored, will always outlast a digital file. So why bother? There is a balance between long-term preservation and access here, and while you making every effort to keep the stuff as long as possible (saving you the need, at least, to re-scan), these are programmes driven by access. While a secondary outcome may be the relief of pressure on your physical collections, digitisation projects largely reflect the new order of information retrieval.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Does poetry need paper?"

This is a quote from author Don DeLillo in this month's Prospect Magazine, responding to the rise of electronic publishing. The comment actually referred to language more generally, but poetry itself is a nice place to start in discussing some of the issues raised in the article.

I'm not sure that poetry has ever held the position of being a money-maker. Oxford University Press, for example, axed its poetry list back in 1999, openly admitting that the decision was made on financial grounds. If poetry deserved to be published anywhere, one would think that a university department publishing group would be the place to do it. Nevertheless, university departments are still required to make money, particularly these days, and poetry tends not to - there are just a few publishing houses able to maintain a significant output of poetry, usually subsidised in one way or another from sales in other departments or by a funding body such as the Arts Council England. An article in The Observer a few years ago placed poetry sales nationwide at 890,220, compared to fiction at 45,772,541.

With poetry already under threat within the traditional publishing model, the Internet and e-publishing may be exactly what is needed with its proven ability to effectively market titles peripheral to the mainstream in a variety of media (a phenomenon popularised by Chris Anderson in 2004 as the 'Long Tail'). As an example from my own experience, I've only ever read the poems of Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca in electronic form, via websites. In retrospect there were two advantages to this (albeit, highly subjective): first, since each poem was not bound within a collection of Lorca's other works and essentially isolated on the screen, I would spend more time with a single poem than I would usually do with bound volumes of poetry. Second, because the original poetry is in Spanish, getting hold of the original and the translation (or multiple translations, for that matter) is much easier than hunting down a printed edition with parallel text. Having said that, I would probably favour the experience of a book, particularly if it were presented to the poet's original specifications, but I learnt a great deal about Lorca without ever holding one.

My MP, Chuka Umunna, described society on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? this weekend as increasingly 'bespoke' - how do politicians communicate with an electorate that may be seeing the world increasingly in black and white as their wants are more and more frequently tailored to suit them? This is probably a direct consequence of the new media - the speed of the information we receive, and the choice. Unfortunately, it could be that this choice itself can only serve to narrow our views, as we seek out the information most agreeable to us. As the Prospect article points out, the new novel, for example, may simply be customised by the individual reader, a more interactive experience that some would argue might give you more of what you want, but less of what you need.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why have digital asset management?

I have a philosophy that you should always ask yourself why you're doing something when you do it (and preferably before), and keep on asking that question. For that reason, I wanted to backtrack and apply that to my new discipline, and to this blog. It will probably form a core stream of my writing here, tackling the 'what', 'why' and 'how' of DAM. A number of groups have described the key components in the operation of a DAM system, but I want to start by looking at the reasons for its being in the first place.

Briefly: the 'what'. It is probably the 'asset' within DAM that is most ambiguous, yet defines the discipline itself. My overriding sense of the term is that here assets are leverage. They are kept as a means to some conceptual end (as digital data at the logical level is never an end in itself) - looking at it in its broadest sense, that end could simply be that, in one way or another, someone is willing to invest their time in these assets, which is the key commodity in a digital economy. Any digital file needs to be worthy of an investment of time (that is, also, attention), otherwise it is not an asset.

In one example, digital records held by a business for legal reasons may never be seen, but have the potential for leverage in the eyes of the law. In another example, a university library's forward-thinking digital mission may capture a wider audience's attention and justify it's very existence to university administration, the leverage here serving to attract funding to ensure it's survival as a relevant institution. It could also be said that a business might potentially survive or collapse on the basis of its legal records.

All of this goes some way towards answering the 'why' of DAM, but this can clearly depend to a large extent on the sector within which one is operating a DAM system, as in the two examples above. At this stage I would like to look for some aspects of DAM that serve as the lowest common denominator in justifying its purpose. I believe that these are the access, efficiency and preservation of digital assets. These form the roots that then branch out into various manifestations of detail in different sectors.
  1. Access: DAM allows for the dissemination of digital information to those who require it. There is no asset without access, and this involves the understanding and application of metadata and ontologies, which form a bridge between access and efficiency.

  2. Efficiency: As well as optimising access, metadata and ontologies enhance suitability and reliability of information. Access needs to be rapid and fit for use to make digital information viable. This efficiency is the essence of the 'e' in e-learning, e-science &c. which in fact stands for enhanced - properly managed, digital information can undoubtedly enhance knowledge transfer.

  3. Preservation: Data needs to remain compatible and often interoperable between systems for effective use and optimised access. In most cases, it also needs to meet these criteria of use and access for extended periods of time. DAM systems can deliver this and avoid the need for costly digital archaeology, or total data loss, in the future.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The public domain

I'm probably the last person to blog on this, but what the hell, it's an interesting story. This is the case of copyright infringement by Cooks Source Magazine against Monica Gaudio, which I read about on the Techno Llama blog yesterday and find interesting for a couple reasons.

First, it's provided me, and probably many others, with some clarification of Internet copyright. This case raised the important question of what the public domain actually is. Stuart Karle at the Columbia School of Journalism put it very simply in a Techland news article: just like any published book, original material is within copyright throughout the lifetime of the author plus 70 years - you don't give up copyright just because you put something up on the Internet. As we've seen in many different contexts, you can believe that the digital world is as open as you like, but copyright will usually be there somewhere (this is also, incidentally, the exact same copyright specification that libraries face in digitising their collections).

Second, it's another good example of idea transfer via the Internet. Taking the Techno Llama blog title - Why sue when you can use social media? - it would seem that on balance the resulting Internet storm will be more damaging (at least psychologically) than a quiet settlement. It's difficult to quantify, but Cooks Source Magazine would probably have preferred straightforward litigation at this point. In any case, it seems that Gaudio's outcome was unintentional - it sounded as though she was looking for advice, albeit publicly, and the injustice was confirmed by mass consensus. Just as many people spend a lot of effort in trying to make their online content 'viral', it can also happen by accident. The plus side here is that probably everyone has a much better understanding of Internet copyright law than ever before, which might reduce the chances of further events of this nature, and make future arguments over copyright more clear-cut.