New(ish) Work: Wikimedia Foundation

Last year, I was engaged by the Wikimedia Foundation to do a usability and community deep dive into their Wikimedia Commons platform, thinking about how it might be improved or adapted with a critical eye on:

  • what the system is like for new folks,
  • how new institutional partners could be attracted,
  • a sideways glance at the Structured Data Commons initiative, and
  • some dreaming about what a future of the Commons platform could be like.

As well as an internal presentation to the WMF crew, I ended up writing a public-facing version of the work, How could Wikimedia Commons be improved? A conversation with designer George Oates, that was published in October 2018.

I ended up becoming really interested three main things:

  1. Differences in the administrative feel of different language communities,
  2. The diversity challenges faced by the platform, and especially comparing the way the “elders” of the community governed with how the community at Flickr managed to get along without too many car crashes. Very interesting to compare those two different, huge communities to see how different they are, and
  3. Organic vs top-down information systems and how that plays out in the intense Commons “category” system, a topic that’s dear to my heart.

It was super interesting and complex.

First Grant Application

After my initial hesitation (about needing a grant to apply for a grant), the team and I decided to go for it, at least to submit an application. Seems like an occasion to write your first grant. To mark it, I thought I’d copy the Nesta Heritage and Culture Open Data Challenge application into the Work Diary for posterity, because the service we had to use (Collabfinder) is a bit weird, and to add a few comments that came out in discussion with the prospective team. Thank you very much to Harriet, Tom F, Tom A, Tom S and Felix for your time, ideas and effort to help bring this idea together! I hope we get to make it.

Here’s the submission, which we called Two-Way Street:


The British Museum is incredibly popular, with around 6.7 million visitors in Bloomsbury every year. Online, it’s nearly triple that amount. These millions of visitors are mostly silent, and we’d like to make a project to change that to make new narratives about the collection, hopefully from diverse voices.

Today, there are three core views of the British Museum’s stunning collection:

  • Highlights, a curated selection of 4,937 objects,
  • A somewhat hamstrung collection search, and
  • An RDF data interface that only a handful of humans comprehend.

Building on two previous projects at Good, Form & Spectacle (Netflix-o-matic and the V&A Spelunker), we’d like to make a new, responsive interface into the vast British Museum collection. We will also provide a way for interested visitors to leave a note or comment or an opinion alongside it, as part of their visit, and hopefully, to provide a way for people to gather their favourite objects into their own collections.

We’d like to see the British Museum’s institutional philosophy — “A Museum of the World for the World” — manifest in the digital presentation of the collection. The current institution website feels very strictly controlled and curated, so we’d like to help fans find and explore content they feel connected to. Can we help people feel greater resonance with their own culture and others around the world through it? We believe that, by allowing open discussion, new contexts can form around objects. Part of being open means opening a space for alternate readings and discussion that will keep people engaged with cultural heritage for years to come.

Extent of the use of open data
We don’t want to build a bigger walled garden of cultural data. We’d like to create an entry point interface that’s timely, perhaps around the Defining Beauty exhibition. It’s not clear how many of those 19 million web visitors are also part of the 6.7 million in-person visitors. Even if it’s 6.7 million of them, that leaves about 12 million people who wouldn’t be able to witness it.

Having looked at the existing RDF/SPARQL interface to the British Museum, we’re considering making an open data product ourselves, something that’s more contemporary and accessible to more developers.

Potential market / ongoing business
This proposal is an iteration of an existing thread of research we’re already doing about “catalogues without search you can tumble around,” so this project can help us continue this work.

That said, we’ve thought of a few ideas to develop along sustainable lines:

  • Everyone pays £1 to comment, copying the Metafilter membership model.
  • Place a single advertisement to a single destination site for a single product being developed by Good, Form & Spectacle that is secret.
  • Consider the future reusability of the service for other institutions, particularly small ones, but specifically NOT emphasizing a bigger walled garden of cross-institutional data.

We need help with RDF & data acquisition.

Project Goals

  • Press on the opportunity of open data; you relinquish control when you truly open your catalogue
  • Help the institution see its own collection differently, maintaining the greatest respect for its staff and their work
  • Foster conversations; Introduce some fiction into the “catalogue of truth” by allowing the public to talk independently.

Project Tags

radical access, community development, open conversation, fact & fiction, fun


It’s now up to the initial review panel to decide our fate. In the meantime, I’m working on real cost estimates of how much it will take for us to put the work together. That’s a team of 4-6 working for a month or so.

I’ll be very curious to see how this whole process pans out.

gfs:visit=3 Counterpulse

I went to visit with the folks at Counterpulse at the beginning of July. Here’s their mission:

CounterPulse is building a movement of risk-taking art that shatters assumptions and builds community. We provide space and resources for emerging artists and cultural innovators, serving as an incubator for the creation of socially relevant, community-based art and culture. CounterPulse acts as a catalyst for art and action; creating a forum for the open exchange of art and ideas, sparking transformation in our communities and our society. We work towards a world that celebrates diversity of race, class, cultural heritage, artistic expression, ability, gender identity & sexual orientation. We strive to create an environment that is physically and economically accessible to everyone.

I love the active language both there, and in their Strategic Plan 2012-2015. They’re just moving into a new space in the Tenderloin, and it’s really interesting to see how the local color is investigating, and how Counterpulse is engaging with the street.

Here’s the original glasswork in the foyer windows. The premises used to be a porn theater:

Counterpulse is inhabiting a former porn theater

Even in such early days, the team is making great use of the space, holding a bunch of events, and even yoga sessions upstairs. There is going to be space downstairs where artists-in-residence can work to develop their performances, and right now there’s an art exhibition there. From the outset, the new space is being designed for all sorts of use.

Art in the Basement
The Plan

We talked briefly about how an archivist-in-residence might work along side the artists to capture the process as it happened. A big part of what Counterpulse offers is to help artists describe and document their work. Another thing I thought was great was that the internship program has really strong continuity year-on-year. There are four or five internship types (production, education, etc), and actually, during my visit, last year’s interns were handing off to the new batch.

Thank you to Shamsher, Judith and Julie for hosting me!

As I try to get around to writing up all my visits, I’ve begun a visit log in a Google spreadsheet and a set of photos on Flickr, in case you’re curious. (At the very least, you’ll see how behind I am in writing up!)

gfs:visit=2 Gray Area Foundation for the Arts

I’m a huge Josette Melchor fan. She’s the brilliant founder of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, and I went to visit her and her creative director, Chris Delbuck, last week. (Chris is the one who tipped me off to the Oxford comma cartoon.)

After almost ten years in various homes in and around San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Gray Area has moved to a new home, the Grand Theater on Mission Street. It used to be a dollar shop.

Gray Area Interior

It was really exciting to see the place at such an early stage. There’s a ton of work being done on the old theater, and Josette’s already started running courses up in the old projection space.

That’s one of the things I admire most about her approach. While Gray Area’s basic DNA involves investigating the intersection of art, technology and community, that’s not just about creating exhibitions — Gray Area was the first gallery to show Aaron Koblin — it’s about building community and offering courses to help train interested folks in the “art of technology.” The obvious bi-product of that is different sources of income, a theme that I’m particularly interested in researching, and will write a little more about over the course of the coming months.

The new theater space is suited to all kinds of uses, the perfect stage to continue the already-fantastic programming. There’s the various design and tech classes, big events, lectures, conferences, and something new for Gray Area: a co-working incubator. This week, they’re announcing open, private or studio memberships, where interested people can subscribe to come and work in the space. (See the bottom of this page for membership details.) The disclaimer here is two-fold: I’m hoping to grab a spot myself, and I’ll also be on the jury to help sort through the applicants. But! The hope is that we’ll see a wide array of people applying to join the new space, since cross-pollination is so interesting and important in arts/tech/community overlaps.

So, watch the Gray Area space for updates on when to apply. And if you’d like to find out more about the many initiatives coming out of Gray Area, have a flip through this presentation: