Saturday, 23 March 2013

Re-inventing the wheel: do we need a common infrastructure for museum digital?

Over the last few years (since around the eBiosphere conference) I have several times put together slides detailing the 'Informatics Landscape' of biological collections (there's an example here) and the ecosystem of projects that it, in some way, supports. Over the years projects have been and gone, and the informatics community has coalesced around a number of projects and initiatives: Biodiversity Heritage Library for legacy literature, GBIF for specimen and observational records, Encyclopedia of Life as an aggregator for the public, Scratchpads a platform for virtual research and data sharing.

In a recent Guardian piece (Digital pro bono: time for cultural giants to offer their services) and an earlier blog post (Wouldn’t it be cool if … ) Oonagh Murphy suggests that big cultural institutions could give some of their time to help smaller cultural institutions with their web presence. This is an idea, and would no doubt have a positive impact on the sector as a whole, but should we be looking more towards the biodiversity informatics community? Would it not be better to spend this time developing a shared, open, infrastructure of online tools that smaller museums, and perhaps even larger ones, could use?

If this was the case then we could create an environment for shared development. The cost of developing some piece of functionality could be spread amongst the museums who need it, at a reduced cost to each, and then freely shared with the rest of the community. Other institutions might realise they can tweak it for a different purpose, or develop it further to meet their own needs. It would be possible to create a new ecosystem of collaboration.

This could potentially be a similar model to the Scratchpads - take an existing project (in that case Drupal) which deals with much of the basics - and build on top of it a more specific set of tools that are of use to the cultural community. Some of these enhancements, if they are generic enough, can be released back to the Drupal community for other people to use in their many and diverse projects.

The advantage of this model is that things only need to be done once: develop mobile support and everybody using the platform has mobile support. Individual projects (sites) can brand their content as they wish and still make use of pooled resources and development.