[Each year we have an official event blogger to help make sure people who can’t attend our events can get a sense of the conversations and hot topics on the day.  It’s also a lovely chance to introduce some new voices to the wider museum community.  This time our official blogger was Rachel Kasbohm (@rekasbohm). Here’s her post…]

UKMW12: Strategically Digital

Facing a restricted budget and limited resources, museums already face immense challenges to stay current, innovative and hip. Introduce the growing desire and use of technology, and museums can struggle to keep up. The 2012 UK Museums on the Web Conference delivered insightful speakers with practical and executable advise and a chance to network with other museum and technology enthusiasts.

Themes and practical advise about executing technology projects in museums—not just a series of ‘eureka’ moments—are summarised below:

  • mobile, Mobile and MOBILE! As Tom Grinsted of the Guardian stressed, apart from glasses, wedding rings and piercings, a mobile is the most intimate accessory we have. The importance of making content accessible on mobile platform is not only important but ESSENTIAL. 40% of visits were mobile based, and there has been a 170% growth of people accessing mobile content in the recent years. Furthermore, Google won’t even rank your page in its result if it isn’t mobile-friendly.
  • Digital First; don’t ‘tack it on at the end’. John Stack of Tate and Rich Barrett-Small and Andrew Lewis of the Victoria & Albert Museum spoke of the difficulties of not putting digital first. Technology and digital aspects too often have a horizontal influence rather than a vertical presence. Indeed for the sake of seeing a project through to the end, it requires that technologists be included from conception to result.
  • ‘Google Analytics is your friend’ and putting your audience first. Don’t guess what your users want; find out through extensive user testing and ready-available analytical software. Likewise, responding to these data rapidly is essential to creating something that your audience will use and enjoy.

Mia Ridge, the MCG Chair, opened up with what it means for a museum to be ‘strategically digital’; meaning that technology might not always be appropriate for the project in mind. Indeed, ‘not it’s about technology for the sake of it’. The speakers of the day followed this mentality offering tips for the trade, cautionary points and promoting the appropriate use of technology.

Session 1: Lessons from the sector

Andrew Dobson, of Grand Union, and Paul Rowe, of Vernon Systems gave outstanding keynotes and set the tempo for those to come. Andrew argued that technological standards, such as coding, are being adopted through community conversation and agreement, not governing forces, such as Microsoft.  Indeed, technological change is driven more and more by community consensus. Next up, Paul Rowe gave examples of success and faults on displaying collections online and the important of keeping the ‘visitor at the heart of the collection’. Small museums striving to publish and increase the accessibility of their collection have put all of their images online. Also a proponent for transparency, he mentioned how having your content and even other not so ideal matters promotes accessibility, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art which gives information on its de-accessioning.

Next up, the guys at the V&A and Tate delivered a light-hearted, but sincere look at the current state of technology in the museum sector and where it needs to go. Stressing an iterative project, governance and the all too important, and often left out, cross-departmental communication, Andrew Lewis used flow charts to realistically show how a ‘brilliant idea’ becomes a product. Having a clear directive, involving technologists from the start and going off realism rather than idealism can help in seeing a project through to the end. Rich Barrett-Small also stressed the importance of developers; they are not ‘the grumpy guys down the hall’, but an essential component to any project from the start. They need to have a ‘strong and credible voice’.  John Stack from the Tate came next to discuss the importance of responding quickly to change and thinking realistically about digital projects; only two a year can be completed.

The Open Mic session gave others in attendance that day a chance to talk about projects they are working on or have done.

Session 2: Turning strategy into reality

After lunch and more networking, Tom Grinsted gave an inspiring and provoking presentation about his experiences with the Guardian and the importance of mobile integration. He broke through the traditional notion of creating mobile content based upon mobile users and their demographics. Rather, we should be looking at their motivations and interactions. From this and paying close attention to user studies (both HCI and analytical) we can design, through an iterative process, usable and accessible content. In a startling conclusion, he asked how many people in the audience are smart-mobile users; nearly everyone raised their hand. Then, of us in the audience who worked in an organisation, how many had mobile-accessible website. Very few did. We all use smart-mobiles, so why haven’t we pushed this in the organisations we work for? Next up, Nick Poole gave us tips for navigating the extensive ways to get your online content out there and how and why you should let those 3rd parties (such as Google) ‘eat up your metadata’. His presentation gives a clear summary highlighting the difficulty, cost and benefits of different third parties. Definitely worth returning to for those organisations looking to get their names out there! Lastly, Simon Tanner of King’s College spoke about impact and the importance of having the answers to the lingering, but important, ‘so what’ question. Impact can be positive and it can be negative; in fact, he stressed the importance of negative impact. Only having positive impact is just marketing, he stated. Also impact isn’t just about return on investment and isn’t synonymous with high numbers. Indeed, evaluating impact goes much further and should include areas such as community change, education and engagement/outreach.

Session 3: Putting digital strategy into context

In the final session, the focus was the implementation of digital projects and strategy in a museum question. First up were Claire Ross and Jane Audas of the ‘Social Interpretation’ project at the Imperial War Museum. Seeming a bit negative at first, their experiences gave us the realisation of the difficulties in seeing a digital project through to the end. Promoting radical-trust, Social Interp may have been the case of ‘too hard, too fast’ as it was up against museum deadlines, but it has collected interesting and insightful comments from users. One of the key lessons and something for people in the heritage sector to think about is the way in which funding is given, used and what is expected from those who have funded a project. The mentality of ‘do as much as you can with the money you are given’ is not sustainable. Oh yeah, and QR codes don’t work! Next up was Stuart Dempster from the Strategic Content Alliance drove home the point of simplifying digital content for your audience, right down to how people donate. He highlighted the Powerhouse Museum as having excellent revenue collection practices with their simplified option to donate on their web. He also prompted the audience with the question of how digital collections can be used in online classrooms and virtual teaching. Could they be an asset for those in certain disciplines, or is there no substitute for the real deal? This is a question to be considered by academics and online collections managers. Wrapping up the conference was Katy Beale of Caper talked about Happenstance and Culture Hack. Happenstance deployed resident technologists to 3 locations in UK to undertake agile development. She stressed the importance of making communications transparent and visible. Highlighting the ‘Offbot’ project management system, she advocated for transparency of processes within digital projects.

#UKMW12 trended above Christmas on Twitter showing the level of engagement and interest from the audience and others not in attendance that day. Of course interesting topics and discussion about the workshop were circulating on the Twittersphere. One that caught my eye and is definitely worth exploring is how the ideas, partnerships and projects have developed next year at UKMW13.

#ukmw12 trended over 'Christmas'