Interview: Katie Pekacar, policy advisor at the MLA

Museums need to stop building websites and start taking a stealth approach to getting their content out to new audiences, says Katie Pekacar of the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).  At Dev8D she issued a challenge to developers to come up with ideas to take the rich collections offered by the cultural heritage sector and find ingenious new ways to open them up. Here she explains the thinking behind the challenge.

What is the MLA?

The Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) provides strategic guidance on a regional and local level to around 1800 accredited museums that range from national museums, such as the Tate, to tiny little organisations with really specialist collections such postal, weaponry, shoe and button collections…

Why are you at Dev8D?

The issue we keep coming across is that there is a lot of amazing content out there but much of it is hidden. The answer is not to build more websites but to find ways to bring content together so that it makes sense to people, and to put it in unexpected places, places they more commonly go to where it is not necessarily signposted as museum content. We want to be able to get this stuff into people’s lives – infiltrate it, you could say!

To do this, we need to make links between those who can do this stuff and those in the sector who are less digitally inclined. We’re thinking about some kind of ‘buddying’ scheme for the sector where people can work together to see what can be done, and we will end up with better quality data at the end.

Image from Durham Oriental MuseumWhat kind of datasets are on offer?

There’s a wide range. For example, Culture 24, which is a bit like a cultural Time Out, covers 3400 venues with mapping geo data, images and editorial for them. Also included in the dataset on offer at Dev8D are images from the Women’s Library and Durham Oriental Museum (right).

What kinds of ideas have developers here been talking to you about?

The response has been fantastic! One idea has been to use facial recognition techniques against some of the old paintings in the collections so you can find out which figures from history you most look like, and then maybe put it on your Facebook page as your profile picture. Or using Google Maps and uploading collection images relating to areas so that when look at the map, interesting images from the collection appear rather than a picture of the building. It’s a very simple way of piquing interest.

It’s these kinds of ideas and creativity we’re looking for. It’s about finding a hook, different ways of engaging.

How have you found Dev8D?

I expected it to be lots of geeks with computers and didn’t expect it to be so easy to engage with people. I thought that they would be peering at computer screens full of lines and lines of code but I’m seeing stuff I recognise. I also wasn’t expecting there to be so much networking. I thought I would hover around feeling confused for most of the day so it’s been great not to feel like that.

I can imagine bringing curators to this kind of thing, and though they might not necessarily understand everything that’s going on, they would be able to talk to people here about the collections and find stuff out and people would be interested.

I’ve also been really pleased by how many people want to work on projects that you can sum up in a sentence, that can be explained so that anyone can understand, and that’s what we need in terms of outputs. People find it hard to understand what you mean by ‘code’ but if you say here’s a widget that helps you find images by keyword in your area then they get it. This idea of opening up data is tricky topic in the sector but the way to go about it is to show the benefits of doing it and then people will be queuing up to do it.