Finally back in the saddle after a month exploring the delights of Memphis and Locombia, I spent an extremely enjoyable day at the HEIRNET Data Sans Frontières conference and it raised a few points worth blogging about.
The first is that it felt as though there is increasing acceptance that standalone data provision websites – i.e. those that attempt to provide the data they hold in a strictly defined and limited fashion – are failing to attain their potential because you cannot second-guess the user. The result is unnecessarily large overheads and dissatisfied customers (whoever they may be). The only solution is to separate your data model from its representation so that others can find new ways to repurpose and ‘mash-up’ your information. It’s generally these green shoots of innovation that make the internet the all-things-to-all-people powertool that it is today.
So warm, fluffy feelings all round then? Well maybe – but there’s a long way to go yet. Perhaps illustrative of some of the things left to be done was the response to a question I asked as to whether the new data access websites offered by English Heritage and the SWISH Partnership (representing Scotland & Wales) were built upon publicly accessible web services so that other websites could use their data. SWISH seemed to be on the ball – not yet, was the answer, but it’s very much on our agenda. About EH’s HeritageGateway, however, there was considerably more conferring. And then came the thunderbolt, in the friendly form of Crispin Flower of Exegesis who’s been working on the system (I paraphrase considerably):
‘Yes – the HeritageGateway site does build upon web services offered by contributing data providers.’
And are they public?
‘Well, that all depends on the resource provider because they generally host their own data and maintain rights over it.’
So in other words, all that, e.g., Middleshire County Council now have to do to make their HER available for computational use is push the big red button marked “toggle public web service” and away we go?
Well I’ll be damned. OK – so it’s not quiiiite that simple, because the HeritageGateway can’t yet cover all counties (there are still a number of councils out there who’s IT budget only runs to fixing the toaster), and those web services there are aren’t fully documented yet, but most of all it’s up to us, all of us, to persuade those data providers that can to push that big red button. So I shall start by personally offering to buy a round for the entire IT team of the first council to do it.
The other thing the conference brought up, in conjunction with a later conversation I had with my friend Gabby Bodard, of the Digital Classicist, is that community fever seems to be spreading. Now this is undeniably a Good Thing. Antiquist, Dijklas, DigiMed, IOSA, Methods Network, EPOCH, FISH, the HEIRNET discussion forum, and so on, all provide important services and fora for thought and collaboration. But there is currently a danger that in our unquestionable desire to be relevant and useful, we build the same fences and suffer the same mission creep as the standalone websites we criticize. My open question to all those groups (and any I’ve inevitably missed out) is: how can we build an ecosystem of communties that directly interact with, and support, the services and resources provided by others?
Answers by WebFeed please. :-)