On Monday night, I found out that I had been slated to talk at the Digital Culture Public Sphere, which ran on Thursday 6 October 2011. This was both a fantastic opportunity, and responsibility, and I’d like to thank Senator Kate Lundy and Pia Waugh for inviting me to be involved. Below are rough notes from my speech. Get involved on the Wiki or Tweet to #publicsphere to contribute your thoughts.
DIGITAL CULTURE PUBLIC SPHERE
SPEECH 6 OCTOBER 2011
My colleague Tim Hart painted a broad picture of the current state of digital culture in GLAM institutions. He illustrated the close ties the sector has to education, and the role we must play in telling our local, state and national stories. Of particular note was Tim’s salient point that even if we don’t engage online, our communities do; we still live in a world that is shaped by digital.
BARRIERS TO ACCESS
Theoretically, the Internet enables new opportunities for developing and delivering Australian cultural content to the world. The National Broadband Network will enable organisations in regional areas notable opportunities for connecting with national and international audiences and markets.
However, there are some simple yet significant realities that prevent many cultural institutions from being able to fully engage with digital opportunities.
There are cultural institutions within Australia that are locked behind strict Internet Use policies, which prevent staff from accessing social networking sites including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Although permission can be sought to access these sites, such policies create immediate barriers to adoption of simple technological advances in the creation of cultural communities. Similarly, such policies ensure that only one or two members of staff are designated as the online intermediary between the institution and its online publics.
Similar policies also prevent some institutions from accessing online cultural resources, including Flickr Commons, where photographic collections from the National Library of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum, Australian War Memorial, the State Library of Queensland and the Powerhouse Museum are made available for use.
Despite increased access to the Internet, these simple Use policies prevent affected cultural institutions from developing a strong digital proficiency.
These are local issues, but they still provide simple barriers to access mean that cultural professionals in affected organisations are dissuaded even from participating in today’s Public Sphere consultation. While no doubt many of you are Tweeting even as I speak, cultural professionals trapped behind limiting Internet usage policies are not enabled to engage in these conversations.
Local issues do impact upon our cultural institutions’ abilities to meet the global marketplace.
LOW DIGITAL PROFICIENCY
There are instructive lessons from a recent study conducted by Infoxchange, with the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund, which examined the capacity level and use of information and communication technology in small to medium community sector organisations.
The study found that organisations with low digital proficiency were excluded from new ideas and innovation delivered by digital means. These organisations accept and expect slower systems and response times and have less access to information and less capacity to advocate for their needs. Such organisations were unlikely to improve digital proficiency, because it was not required or valued internally to the same extent as it was by organisations that had already developed digital proficiency.
Similarly, increasing digital proficiency within cultural institutions will lead to new opportunities to link to global networks and ideas from around the world; to greater potential to connect with donors and funding organisations; and provide important new opportunities to serve Australia’s communities and participate in the telling of local, state and national stories.
In order to develop an active and proficient digital cultural sector, there must be increased access to better training, and a more open online environment.
GEEK IN RESIDENCE
One innovation that could lead to way that such change draws inspiration from the Geek in Residence program; a pilot grant scheme run by the Australia Council for the Arts through the Arts content for the digital era strategic priority. The program places artistically confident technicians, and technically confident artists into host arts organisations on a subsidised secondment. The idea is to create a cultural shift within that host arts organisation, increasing their digital skills and confidences.
Similar programs could be created that would see technologically minded “geeks” inserted into cultural organisations to teach staff within the organisation how to better adapt to advances in digital technology.
EVOLVING AUDIENCE EXPECTATIONS
Global advances in technology today shape the expectations of cultural audiences. This is a key point made in the 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition, by the New Media Consortium. The Report lists six significant challenges for technological adoption in museums, among them the fact that:
Many in museums still fail to grasp the notion that audiences have high expectations with regard to online access to services and information. It is often difficult enough for museums with scarce resources to serve their physical visitors and to keep audiences in their geographical region satisfied; the notion that museums must, in addition, provide information and services via the Internet and mobile networks is too often seen as frivolous or unnecessary.
The Report goes on to identify other key challenges to technological adoption, as well as four key drivers to adoption in the lead up to 2014. These are the increasing value of ‘rich’ media – images, videos, audio etc – in digital interpretation; the expectations of museum visitors to be able to work, learn, study and connect with their social networks in all places and at all times using the device of their choosing; the abundance of resources and relationships offered by open content repositories and social networks challenging us to revisit roles as educators; and significantly, that digitization and cataloging projects will continue to require a significant share of museum resources.
As the report notes, museums – and with them, other collecting institutions such as libraries and archives – are distinguished by the content they keep and interpret. As discussed in the National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper, collecting institutions perform a central role in preserving and making Australia’s art and culture accessible.
According to the 2007–08 Survey of Museums, museums held a total of 52.5 million objects and artworks. Of these, about 5% were held by art galleries, 1% by historic properties, 11% by social history museums and 82% by natural, science and other museums. Museums which had 100 or more employees held 77% of these 52.5 million objects, with approximately 1.3% of the objects on display.
In order to meet the growing expectations of visitors to be able to readily access accurate and interesting information and high-quality media, collecting institutions need to plan strategically for the digitization and cataloging of collections. However, undertaking this process, particularly at institutions that have low digital proficiency, requires hard choices in the allocation of money, personnel and time.
So why should we as a sector commit to such a task?
The Internet has become the true cultural hub of our time. At no previous time in history have people been so connected to so many opportunities for information, entertainment and communication. Now ubiquitous, expedient and on-demand information is available via seemingly endless sources at almost any time, and on virtually any subject. Because of this, the nature of knowledge itself is shifting, and the effects of this change will be far reaching.
If cultural institutions do not engage, if our collections are not online and able to be used, interpreted and reinterpreted by the public in ways more vital than anything we have hitherto imagined, then we risk being accused of irrelevancy to this changing world. If our collections are not made available as freely as possible, then our nation’s most significant objects and stories will risk being lost.
The Australian Library and Information Association lists first amongst its core values that it promotes the free flow of information and ideas through open access to recorded knowledge, information, and creative works.
Similarly, the Museums Australia Constitution states that
A museum helps people understand the world by using objects and ideas to interpret the past and present and explore the future. A museum preserves and researches collections, and makes objects and information accessible in actual and virtual environments. Museums are established in the public interest as permanent, not-for-profit organisations that contribute long-term value to communities.
We cannot now even imagine the full possibilities that might come from the uploading of our collections to the Internet.
CITIZEN SCIENCE AND NEW RESEARCH
Only last month, Kalev H. Leetaru published research that showed that “computational analysis of large text archives can yield novel insights to the functioning of society, including predicting future economic events.” He applied tone and geographic analysis to a 30–year worldwide news archive and discovered that global news tone is found to have forecasted the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, amongst other things.
Similarly, citizen science projects like the Galaxy Zoo project have made significant developments in helping solve the world’s scientific and medical problems. The delightfully-named Zooniverse is home to the Internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects.
With Galaxy Zoo, participants were asked to help classify galaxies by studying images of them online and answering a standard set of questions about their features. In the first year, 50 million classifications were made by 150,000 people. Galaxy Zoo became the world’s largest database of galaxy shapes.
Likewise, it was recently announced that crowdsourcing online gamers playing a protein-folding game called Foldit helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade.
Who knows what possibilities for new discovery, new knowledge and new insight lie hidden in the collections of our museums, galleries, libraries and archives? Digitising our collections and making them available online in usable forms, such as has been done by the Powerhouse Museum and Museum Victoria, who have each uploaded their collection API for use by the public, will lead to incredible new opportunities for cultural institutions to gain new relevance in the global knowledge economy.
We need to look at new partnerships for this process, and new skills for staff (I’d love to see data visualization specialists working in museums).
The arts and creative industries are fundamental to Australia’s identity as a society and nation, and increasingly to our success as a national economy. The National Broadband Network connects us to new global opportunities for engaging with communities and telling out national, state and local stories.
But unless digital proficiency is increased right across the sector, we will never meet the lofty ideals of being cultural world leaders. Planning for digital culture must by included right at the start of the strategic planning process. Too often, it is an afterthought, both in terms of planning and funding.
The Internet liberates our public cultural institutions to be truly public. But we need to address this across the sector, not just in those few institutions that already have high digital proficiency.
 Infoxchange, “Digital Proficiency in Small to Medium Community Service Organisations: Consumer Report, Executive Summary and Key Findings,” (Infoxchange with the support of the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund., 2010).
 L. Johnson et al., “The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition,” (Austin, Texas.: The New Media Consortium, 2010). 5
 Brian Pink, “Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview,” (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010).
 Johnson et al., “2010 Horizon Report.” 4.
 Museums Australia, “What Is a Museum?,” http://www.museumsaustralia.org.au/site/what_is_a_museum.php.
Australia, Museums. “What Is a Museum?” http://www.museumsaustralia.org.au/site/what_is_a_museum.php.
Infoxchange. “Digital Proficiency in Small to Medium Community Service Organisations: Consumer Report, Executive Summary and Key Findings.” Infoxchange with the support of the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund., 2010.
Johnson, L., H. Witchey, R. Smith, A. Levine, and K. Haywood. “The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition.” Austin, Texas.: The New Media Consortium, 2010.
Pink, Brian. “Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview.” Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010.