GLAM WIKI: Finding Common Ground
Friday, August 7th, 2009 @ 8:08AM
This is an important and timely conference and I congratulate the organisers of Glam Wiki for their foresight.
There are several public policy initiatives which place Australia in the vortex of the social revolution that is occurring on the back of some incredible digital technological developments over the last 30 to 40 years or so.
The first is the prospect of the national broadband network. The NBN will resolve the greatest blockage to realising the potential of digital communications once and for all. That blockage was the seemingly intractable inequity of the digital divide.
Whilst ever there were some in our society who were not able to participate in the digital revolution for reasons of geographic isolation, socio-economic status or poor communications infrastructure, public investment in the services and content had an equity question hanging over it.
Well, combined with substantial public investment in the digital education revolution, particularly primary and secondary level, governments can move forward with confidence to create and inspire the vast social, cultural and economic dividends to be derived from a ubiquitous high bandwidth network across the who country.
MAKING THE CASE
My brief today is to address the issue of public sector information (PSI) and reflect on the importance of it’s open accessibility. However to best illustrate the case I want to use the digitisation of cultural assets and their availability online as a topical and meaningful example.
To make the case for the cultural assets to be available online it is important to start with a couple of fundamentals:
Increased digital access can:
· Remove the inhibiting effect that living in a vast country has on experiencing our cultural collections;
· drive interest in cultural collections and the associated social and cultural history;
· enhance and facilitate educational use of the cultural assets;
· Drive new communities of interest and inspire innovation ;
· Enables improved preservation of original cultural assets.
A really good example of this last point is the deterioration of some artefacts. Take the diary of Burke of Burke and Wills fame. It was written in pencil and every time was opened a few more grains of carbon fell away. Digitising this diary has facilitated a level of access, study and research that would otherwise have been impossible in the long term.
So, we do have common ground on the motivating factors. These assets are already in the public domain, so concepts of ‘protection’ that inhibit or limit access are inappropriate. In fact, the motivation of Australia’s treasure house institutions is or should be, to allow their collections to be shared and experienced by as many people as possible .
I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to the principles of openness and increased accessibility. This principle is being applied to both general public sector information as well as our collections. Take Senator Faulkner’s speech launching Information Awareness Month, which the new Minister Joe Ludwig has fully endorsed : he describes the default position of the government going forward as being one of openness and online availability of information.
REPORT ON CURRENT INITIATIVES
I will take this opportunity to report briefly on a number of initiatives that will facilitate these important steps forward that are already underway. These take the form of:
· Legislation, with Bills relating to the FOI and the Information Commissioner to be debated in Parliament soon;
· Policy initiatives, such as the next stage of the digital deluge project undertaken by three of our national institutions, NAA, NLA and the NFSA;
· The Government 2.0 Taskforce charged with preparing a strategy to improve government’s use of social networking and other web 2.0 tools.
With this political leadership across a number of senior portfolios, the challenge evolves into a practical one. The question of HOW we achieve greater online access to our cultural collections is one I want to discuss today.
I think there are four substantive responses to this question: Digitisation, permissive copyright, open standards and metadata.
First, we must continue with digitising the collections. This is an extraordinary challenge for the cultural institutions. Finding the resources, mostly within existing budgets has been challenging to date and frankly, unrealistic in the future.
For example, in my role as a member of the National Archives of Australia Advisory Council, I know that over the last seven years, the Archive have digitised 2% of their paper record holdings for access via the web. At the current rate of digitisation, it will 350 years to complete the task.
In response to this challenge, the federal government committed $805,000 to a joint ‘digital deluge’ project to allow the NAA, NLA and NFSA to plan how they digitise their collections as well as develop the IT infrastructure necessary to manage their large digital collections and extend the life of the material.
CEO of the NFSA, Dr Darryl McIntyre really summed up the goals of the program when it was announced and I quote: “We are excited to be working with our friends at the NLA and NAA to resolve the digital challenges of sharing our collections with the wider community. This is a fantastic opportunity for the NFSA to mass digitise analogue audiovisual material and to significantly increase acquisition of new media works.”
The second answer to the question of HOW we achieve our goal is the issue of the functional freedom of the digital images once they are there. It is one thing to have a digital image in a cultural collection: it as another question and an entirely different policy problem as to when, how and how often they can be used.
Whether it is a teacher, an academic, the media, a business, a local council, community club or your daughter’s facebook, we all ought to be able to freely access the cultural assets of our national institutions which by definition are held in custodianship of behalf of the people of Australia.
At the moment the copyright treatment of cultural assets is complex and confusing. While you would expect some degree of complexity for works still under copyright, it shouldn’t be confusing.
For works out of copyright, which is the case for a substantive body of our national cultural collections, it is disappointing and counterproductive to find that through the liberating process of digitising the collection, an additional layer of traditional copyright constraints have been applied.
In some respects I can understand why this has occurred. In a pre-digital era, restrictive copyright was the inevitable response to satisfying concepts of responsible collection management and protection.
However, this familiarity with restrictive copyright has now been applied to the digital incarnations of the collections. This has occurred in an almost Pavlovian fashion, without thinking about why we are digitising the collections in the first place.
This has led to all sorts of problems raging from something as simple as a student trying to research the Magna Carta as part of their grade six project through to problems as complex as a historian trying to compile an illustrated history of the centenary of the National Capital. They both, student and historian alike, want to use digitised images and documents in their work. But the processes surrounding copyright restrictions inevitably mean they can’t, or won’t , because their made to jump through too many hoops. If they understand the hoops in the first place.
Statistically we know that every barrier to access dramatically reduces the number of users. Word spreads. People give up.
So how do we fix this? The concept of permissive copyright can potentially solve these problems.
Permissive copyright allows the use, re-use and potential modification of a work. A good example of a set of permissive copyright licences are the ‘creative commons’ licences. These licences clearly attribute ownership and the permission to use, but have several options around commercialisation, modifications and the sharing of modified works.
A simple permissive licensing mechanism is important to ensure both easy management of the licensing of works within the institution, and easy interpretation by members of the public of the specific user rights attributed to each work.
As custodians of these collections on behalf of all Australians I am suggesting that that our national cultural institutions use permissive licences for their digital collections.
Copyright is important to understand in the process of digitising our cultural assets, but we also have several other challenges. This takes me to my third point: the issue of open standards.
Open standards are taxpayers insurance against future cost blowouts, superseded software and procedural inefficiencies. In the digital world unless your software can talk to my software and we can share what we are working on, we can’t collaborate.
If we can’t collaborate, we probably have a snowflakes chance of accessing that work in the future, which means the children of today won’t be able to open their schoolwork, love letters and their personal history later in life.
Storing and making available digital cultural assets in openly documented and free media formats – whether they are photos, text, audio or video – will ensure current and future access to that work, without the hassle of cultural institutes having to continually convert digital assets into the future.
Whilst ever open standard formats are used, new applications can continue to support, or be written to support those digital assets. The difference with proprietary formats is that once the format has reached its end of life, the specifications of that format are buried along with the software tools used to access the asset. This means the format can be at best, reverse-engineered with usually less than perfect representation of the asset, and at worst completely inaccessible.
It sounds like a nerdy issue that serious cultural custodians shouldn’t have to care about, but I put to you that technology issues are no longer only the domain of the professional and hobbyist ICT practitioners. We must all step up our ICT familiarity and skills in order to step forward in an open, accessible and ultimately sustainable fashion.
The term metadata refers to information about a piece of work, such as the date of creation, author, historical notes, category or geospatial information just to name a few examples.
Metadata facilitates access to information through improved search, as well as analysis above and beyond the cultural asset itself. Metadata helps us enrich our understanding of knowledge and therefore make better decisions.
In the context of government, it enables information to be contextualised which leads to more informed decisions, so we can better serve the citizens of this country. From a cultural institution’s perspective, metadata also helps in the future validation and contextualisation of cultural assets for a richer historical picture.
All of these issues are well known and have been canvassed publicly prior to today. From the Innovation Review conducted by Dr Terry Cutler to the Copyright Futures conference held recently at Old parliament House to my Public Sphere on Gov 2.0, the way forward is becoming clear and gathering momentum.
And I can sense it. By virtue of Canberra’s unique status as the nation’s capital, a role it was designed for by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony, the very presence of the national cultural institutions ensures a vibrant and innovative culture. We need to look no further than the incredible efforts of the current generation of cultural custodians to be confident the future looks bright.
We all thrive within it and are grateful for the privilege being a resident of Canberra affords. So when presented with an opportunity to share these rich cultural assets using the digital platform the internet provides, it is a gift to those who may also be so inspired; may be motivated to come and see for themselves; or, as the wonderful innovation that the NAA’s Mapping our Anzacs amply demonstrates, become part of the telling of our history.
Some of the most recent exciting work on the history of Canberra talks convincingly of the origins of National Capital as rooted in ideas – the most progressive ideas of the era: the living city, the garden city, the city in the landscape: a city designed to enhance democratic participation.
With this in mind, the years leading up to the centenary of the National Capital in 2013, present a challenge to apply such visionary thinking of one hundred years ago to the present and the future.
I believe that one way to do this is to liberate our national cultural collections by making them available to all online. Our institutions have been proud of their free admission at the door as a matter of principle: it’s time we applied such a democratic approach to the digital age.
We want the digital doors to be as open as the doors of the iconic buildings that grace the shores of Lake Burley Griffin and this beautiful city housing our national treasures. I look forward to sharing this journey with you.