Europeana Tech 2015 Closing Plenary

I’m sitting here in my kitchen after a whirlwind trip to Paris for Europeana Tech 2015. I’m making vegie stock, drinking a glass of delicious oatmeal stout, and finally realizing I like to cook to relax. I took the Eurostar for the first time, and bought some stinky cheese from the station on the way back.

It was a great few days, Paris was gorgeous, it was nice to meet some new folks and see some old friends, and I think the talk went well. I’ll be curious to compare the video with my notes. Perhaps one day I’ll try reading directly from notes like the old days, but this was not that. I did like the quick lecture from Jonas Öberg though, where he just spoke to us.

The main thrust of my speech centered around an appropriation of Kevin Lynch’s brilliant The Image of the City. I likened the giant metadata clearinghouses that exist online today with the odd huge ghost cities in China and now Angola, and how, if we adopt the techniques of designing the clues, keys and paths we are so familiar with in our cities to the data landscape — particularly in the cultural heritage realm — we might start to escape the tyranny of the search box. Google is great for searching everywhere for anything, but that’s not what you’re doing when you come to a museum.

Anyway, here are my slides from Friday:

And if you’d like to read it as slides with notes, you can download this 80MB whopper PDF.

Some personal highlights for me were:

  • Meeting the Executive Director of Europeana, Jill Cousins. Always great to meet women leaders, and she’s been at at the helm since it started.
  • Hearing Jaap Kamp’s no bullshit stance on cultural data and the dominance of search as a (misplaced) mentality for exploration.
  • Seeing old mates like Andy Neale, Dan Cohen and Jon Voss. Nice to call them old mates, too.
  • Meeting Ben O’Steen who’s at British Library Labs, which I’d not heard of but plan to haunt. I particularly liked his cheap solution for providing massive data at hack meetings: a big hard drive, a fat wifi pipe and a router. I’m always a fan of people who make tiny flimsy bridges that are only supposed to last for a short time.
  • Sparring with Dominic Oldman about RDF. It’s not clear that it’ll be possible for me to use his work in a project I’m working on. We’ll hopefully meet in the next week or two to see what can be done.
  • Hearing from Tim Sherratt in Australia and enjoying his vibe about “discovery engineers” and the interesting, engaging work that happens at tiny scales versus the mythical mega project.
  • Giggling at the frankly tone-deaf speaker from Google Research who had no idea who we were and made no attempt to learn. Hey, guy… if you’re going to give a speech, try not to say “I have no idea what it is that you do, but let me tell you about things I call…” Seriously, it’s rude and patronising.
  • Navigating Paris effortlessly thanks to Citymapper. Excellent.
  • The overall theme that huge is starting to feel inaccessible. Like having sex with The Hulk. Ahem.


The meeting was held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which proved to be an interestingly inaccessible building. Lots of us were disoriented inside, even after a day, doors were hidden with flat facades, push then pull to get through two doors, literally scale-mail walls, security turnstiles to enter the stacks… it was all there. An interesting counterpoint that I now wish I’d tried to incorporate into the talk, but, oh well.

It’s an interesting time for this group. There’s so much work going on trying to help the computers understand the wily, complicated humans that describe our heritage. It’s SO COMPLICATED because nobody ever describes things in the same way. Well, they probably never will.

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