Big Data, Collaboration and Scale

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In his book, “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” the economist Dr E.F. Schumacher, the inspiration for the current British Prime Minister’s ‘Big Society’ idea (the similarities and differences are not for this blog), talks about an appropriate scale for a particular activity. The example that Schumacher gives himself is that of teaching. Some things, said Schumacher,

“can only be taught in a very intimate circle, whereas other things can obviously be taught en masse, via the air, via the television, via teaching machines, and so on. What scale is appropriate? It depends on what we are trying to do”  

The scale of a project therefore needs to reflect its objectives, but projects that reach a certain level of scale and largeness will experience limitations and constraints on the type of objective they can pursue satisfactorily. We see and experience the limitations of scale all around us, for example, when we visit different towns and find that that different high streets all host the same shops offering all the same goods. It also describes, to some extent, why Google have been so successful. The scale of Google is enormous with a business model based on attracting, and continuing to attract, as many visitors as possible (I am one!). This model means that most of the services that Google offer are aimed at a mass and general audience.

Schumacher’s conclusions came from observations of a world increasingly obsessed with largeness, economies of scale and globalisation. But this obsession often fosters blandness, commoditisation, repetition and a lack of humanity (note Frederick Winslow Taylor and modern digital comparisons). Thankfully these tendencies towards the large are met by a human reaction towards the stimulating, differentiated, and innovative – often expressed through relative smallness.

The Europeana project might be seen as just this type of reaction and the rhetoric certainly supports this contention. For example,

“Can Europe afford to be inactive and wait, or leave it to one or more private players to digitise our common cultural heritage? Our answer is a resounding ‘no’…. Our goal is to ensure that Europe experiences a digital Renaissance instead of entering into a digital Dark Age”. The New Renaissance – Report of the Comite Des Sages

The provision of a publicly funded and open access cultural heritage resource covering the broadest of European culture is something that many of us applaud and want to succeed. However, developing such a project of large ambition and scale, requiring the cooperation and collaboration of many different countries, organisations and people, and establishing a centralised cultural heritage digital repository that surpasses anything that a generalist like Google can offer is an ambitious undertaking. As a portal to link cultural heritage resources together the structure and scale works well. However, as a repository for knowledge and data reuse, scale introduces some difficult problems and magnifies issues far from resolved at a local level in many locations.

For those of us working in museums, archives and galleries this type of venture has a number of domain specific issues and risks that, on reflection, far exceed those that Google would have dealt with (and are able to side step) and which are not necessarily solved with money. But more than this the same issues of scale that support and sustain Google’s mass market business model tend to work against the more principled ambitions of projects like Europeana.

Just as Google’s success is founded on a model which (at least seemingly) allows friction free access to resources, so Europeana must do the same. But issues of scale, as with Google, mean that questions of data quality creep in – but in Europeana’s case for different reasons and in potentially more destructive ways. Its scale and structure mean that (particularly in the current economic climate) the project must either herd cats or make compromises that may limit some of its ambitions. Unlike Google, mistakes or changes in direction in such a complex structure of membership can be difficult to rectify and disagreements about strategy can quickly lead to splintering and balkanism.

These risks are inherent in a model of largeness but to a certain degree the Europeana mission has come about as a result of the general inertia of cultural heritage organisations to use the Internet to bring their combined knowledge together (surely this is the Internet’s primary contribution to furthering the development of humankind). The question now that Europeana is established is how can we, as a sector, support and sustain these efforts and help it, and other services, to develop and become richer and important resources?

My answer is to convey upon them the gift of smallness and by doing so bring the Europeana mission closer to the people and organisations that matter. This distance could be slowly reduced by gradually replacing single mechanical national aggregators with communities of museums, galleries, archives and libraries with shared interests and who (whether for intellectual or practical reasons) are able to share local infrastructures, services and expertise. In this way smaller more sustainable networks of knowledge can connect more directly with large portals (in terms of both data and people) and provide them with richer contributions. This distinctively different and innovative approach also requires that portals, like Europeana, equally reach out and actively support and favour this form (or culture) of collaborative digital curation to ensure that we don’t repeat past failures of well intentioned largeness.

In other words, the formation of a truly sustainable ‘Big Cultural Society’ in which big data is also quality data requires the foundation of natural collaborative frameworks formed at an appropriate scale which, when joined together, can create a Web of culture and science.

Dominic Oldman – Oct 2012