Elevator Pitch

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as facilitator at the first Mellon-funded Triangle Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) in Chapel Hill. For the better part of the week five diverse teams of scholars, librarians, developers, and publishers came together to advance work on projects addressing challenges ranging from data visualization and virtual worlds to providing computational research access to large newspaper collections to building curriculum resources for understanding Sikh religion and culture. It was a great week.

At the end of the event, the teams were each asked to deliver an “elevator pitch” for their project. Quite what this pitch should entail remained something of an open question going into the final day of the Institute, so the project organizers, me included, came up with the following structure, which we shared with the teams the evening before their presentations, on the spot:

  • “The What” What is your project? What needs does it meet or problems does it solve? How does it meet those needs/solve those problems?
  • “The So What?” Why does this project matter? What are its implications for the field of scholarly communication? What are its broader impacts for the way scholarship is produced and disseminated?
  • “The What Next?” What is your plan for implementing your project? What will be the first thing/s you do to advance your project when you leave SCI? How will you maintain working communication between team members in the weeks and months ahead?

It occurs to me that this is a formulation that I have used in many elevator pitches, planning documents, grant proposals, etc. over the years and that it may be useful to others. When you’re trying to convince people to do something, buy something, or support something, these are generally the things they will want to know — What am I buying? Why should I want it? How will you deliver it? Most RFPs, grant guidelines, and the like are variations on this theme. So, when you’re at the early stages of planning a new project, where ever it may end up, this structure may be a useful starting point.

Happy hunting.

Innovation, Use, and Sustainability

Revised notes for remarks I delivered on the topic of “Tools: Encouraging Innovation” at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Digital Platform summit last month at the New York Public Library.

What do we mean when we talk about innovation? To me innovation implies not just the “new” but the “useful.” And not just the “useful” but the “implemented” and the “used.” Used, that is, by others.

If a tool stays in house, in just the one place where it was developed, it may be new and it may be interesting—let’s say “inventive”—but it is not “innovative.” Other terms we use in this context—”ground breaking” and “cutting edge,” for example—share this meaning. Ground is broken for others to build upon. The cutting edge preceeds the rest of the blade.

The IMLS program that has been charged and most generously endowed with encouraging innovation in the digital realm is the National Leadership Grants: Advancing Digital Resources program. The idea that innovation is tied to use is implicit in the title of the program: the word “leadership” implies a “following.” It implies that the digital resources that the program advances will be examples to the field to be followed widely, that the people who receive the grants will become leaders and gain followers, that the projects supported by the program will be implemented and used.

This is going to be difficult to say in present company, because I am a huge admirer of the NLG program and its staff of program officers. I am also an extremely grateful recipeint of its funds. Nevertheless, in my estimation as an observer of the program, a panelist, and an adwardee, the program has too often fallen short in this regard: it has supported a multitude of new and incredibly inventive work, but that work has too rarely been taken up by colleagues outside of the originating institution. The projects the NLG program has spawned have been creative, exciting, and new, but they have too rarely been truly innovative. This is to say that the ratio of “leaders” to “followers” is out of whack. A model that’s not taken up by others is no model at all.

I would suggest two related remedies for the Leadership Grants’ lack of followers:

  1. More emphasis on platforms. Surely the NLG program has produced some widely used digital library and museum platforms, including the ones I have worked on. But I think it bears emphasizing that the limited funds available for grants would generate better returns if they went to enabling technologies rather than end prodcuts, to platforms rather than projects. Funding platforms doesn’t just mean funding software—there are also be social and institutional platforms like standards and convening bodies—but IMLS should be funding tools that allow lots of people to do good work, not the good work itself of just a few.
  2. More emphasis on outreach. Big business doesn’t launch new products without a sale force. If we want people to use our products, we shouldn’t launch them without people on staff who are dedicated to encouraging their use. This should be refelected in our budgets, a much bigger chunk of which should go to outreach. That also means more flexibility in the guidelines and among panelists and program officers to support travel, advertizing, and other marketing costs.

Sustainability is a red herring

These are anecdotal impressions, but it is my belief that the NLG program could be usefully reformed by a more laser-like focus on these and other uptake and go-to-market strategies in the guidelines and evaluation criteria for proposals. In recent years, a higher and higher premium has been placed on sustainability in the guidelines. I believe the effort we require applicants to spend crafting sustainability plans and grantees to spend implementing them would be better spent on outreach—on sales. The greatest guarantor of sustainiability is use. When things are used they are sustained. When things become so widely implemented that the field can’t do without them, they are sustained. Like the banks, tools and platforms that become too big to fail are sustained. Sustainability is very simply a fuction of use, and we should recognize this in allocating scare energies and resources.

A Pound of History

Starbucks

Does a pound of history amount to a hill of beans? Starbucks seems to think so. It’s pushing the history angle pretty hard in its 40th anniversary marketing campaign.

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 2, Use

For all the emphasis on the tool itself, the primary aim of One Week | One Tool is not tool building, it’s education. One Week | One Tool is funded by NEH under the the Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities (IATDH) program. IATDH grants “support national or regional (multistate) training programs for scholars and advanced graduate students to broaden and extend their knowledge of digital humanities.” Thus training is the criteria by which One Week | One Tool will ultimately be judged.

A key argument of One Week | One Tool is that learning digital humanities consists primarily in doing digital humanities, that digital humanities is a hands-on kind of thing, that to learn tool building you have to do some tool building. At the same time, we recognize that there’s a place for instruction of the hands-off sort. To that end, the first 18 hours or so of One Week | One Tool (essentially from Sunday night until mid-afternoon on Monday) were reserved for presentations by CHNM staff. Jeremy offered a practical introduction to software development best practices and tools. Trevor described the range of outreach strategies we have employed on projects like Zotero, Omeka, and the National History Education Clearinghouse. Dan provided the view from 30,000 feet with thoughts on the state of the art and near future of digital humanities software development. I kicked things off on Sunday with a brief introduction to CHNM and our tool building philosophy. Several strains of thought and practice inform our work at CHNM—public history, cultural history, radical democracy, dot.com atmospherics, and more—but to keep things simple I summed up our tool building philosophy in one word: use.

Here is more or less what I told the crew.

At CHNM we judge our tools by one key metric above all others: use. Successful tools are tools that are used. The databases of Sourceforge and Google Code are littered with interesting, even useful, but unused open source tools. Academic software projects are no exception. Every year NSF, NIH, and now NEH and IMLS award grants for scholarly software development. In recent years, the funding guidelines have stipulated that this software be made freely available under open source licenses. Much of the software produced by these programs is good and useful code. But little of it is actually used.

There are several reasons for this. Many efforts are focused narrowly on the problems of a particular researcher or lab. While the code produced by these researchers proves useful for solving their particular problems, even when released, it hasn’t been designed to be generally applicable to the needs of other researchers in the field. It is, in effect, a one-off tool released as open source. But open source code alone does not constitute an open source project.

Other projects build generalized tools that may be of potential use to other researchers. But few make the necessary investment in outreach and, yes, marketing to make potential users aware of the tool. It is for this reason, among others, that we see so much duplication of effort and functionality in scholarly software projects.

Building a user community is the first prerequisite to building a successful open source software project. The success of software is judged by its use. The universal assessment that iTunes is a hit and Zune is a flop is not based on the quality of the code or even the elegance or potential usefulness of the experience. It’s based on the fact that everybody uses iTunes and nobody uses Zune. This is not to say that software has to have millions of users to be successful. But it is to say that successful software is used by large swath of its potential users. To be sure, the total population of potential users of cultural heritage mapping tools is much smaller than the total population of potential users of digital media playback software. But any open source software project’s goal should be use by as many of its potential users as possible. In any case, we should aim to have our software used by as many cultural heritage institutions and digital humanists as possible.

Moreover, a large and enthusiastic user base is key to a successful open source software project’s continued success. If people use a product, they will invest in that product. They will provide valuable user testing. They will support the project in its efforts to secure financial support. They will help market the product, creating a virtuous circle. Sustainability, even for free software, is grounded in a committed customer base.

Related to building a user community is building an open source developer community. Some number of users will have the inclination, the skills, and the commitment to the project to help on the level of code. This percentage will be very small, of course, less than one percent, which is another reason to build a large user base. But this small group of code contributors and volunteer developers forms the core of most successful open source projects. They find and fix bugs. They provide end user support. They write documentation. They add new features and functionality. They provide vision and critical assessment. They constitute a ready-made pool of job candidates if a core paid developer leaves a project.

This developer community is a project’s best chance at sustainability, and collaboration at the developer level, rather than collaboration at the institution or administrator level, is usually key to a scholarly open source project’s lasting success. Getting provosts, deans, and directors from partner institutions to commit FTE’s and other resources to a project is very welcome—we’d love some commitments of this sort for the tool we built last week. But it’s not where the strength of a collaboration will be located. Individual developers, who commit their time, effort, ideas, code, heart and soul to a project, are the ones who will keep something going when money and institutional interest runs out.

A developer community does not develop on its own, of course. It requires support. First and foremost, a developer community needs open communication channels—an active IRC channel and listserv, for example—something which, in the case of a university of library-based project, means a group of responsive staff developers on other end. Community developers need profitable access to the project’s development roadmap so they know where best to contribute their efforts. They need well-documented and thoughtfully-designed APIs. They need technical entry points, things such as a plugin architecture where they can hone their chops on small bits of functionality before digging into the core code base. Most importantly, community developers need a sense of community, a sense of shared purpose, and a sense that their volunteer contributions are valued. All of this has to be planned, managed, and built into the software architecture.

This philosophy of use is core to CHNM’s vision of open source software for scholarship and cultural heritage. The tool the crew of One Week | One Tool developed—like Omeka and Zotero before it—should be case in point. It was chosen with clear audiences in mind. It was built on approachable technologies and engineered to be extensible. It’s outreach plan and feedback channels are designed to encourage broad participation. When it’s released tomorrow, I think you’ll see it is a tool to be used.

#oneweek #buildsomething

Brand Name Scholar

Scholars may not like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the 21st century’s fragmented media environment, marketing and branding are key to disseminating the knowledge and tools we produce. This is especially true in the field of digital humanities, where we are competing for attention not only with other humanists and other cultural institutions, but also with titans of the blogosphere and big-time technology firms. Indeed, CHNM spends quite a bit of energy on branding—logo design, search engine optimization, cool SWAG, blogs like this one—something we view as central to our success and our mission: to get history into as many hands possible. (CHNM’s actual mission statement reads, “Since 1994 under the founding direction of Roy Rosenzweig, CHNM has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”)

In my experience, branding is mostly a game learned by trial and error, which is the only way to really understand what works for your target audience. But business school types also have some worthwhile advice. One good place to start is a two part series on “personal branding” from Mashable, which provides some easy advice for building a brand for your self or your projects. Another very valuable resource, which was just posted yesterday, is the Mozilla Community Marketing Guide. In it the team that managed to carve out a 20% market share from Microsoft for the open source web browser Firefox provides invaluable guidance not only on branding, but also on giving public presentations, using social networking, finding sponsorships, and dealing with the media that is widely transferable to marketing digital humanities and cultural heritage projects.

It may not be pretty, but in an internet of more than one trillion pages, helping your work stand out is no sin.

(Note: I’ll be leading a lunchtime discussion of these and other issues relating to electronic marketing and outreach for cultural heritage projects later today at the IMLS WebWise conference in Washington, D.C. I’ll be using #webwise on Twitter if you’d like to follow my updates from the conference.)

When It Rains, It Pours

I was refilling our salt shakers last night when I noticed this little tidbit on the side of the can.

mortons_salt.jpg

It turns out my can is part of a series. In addition to the 1956 Umbrella Girl, Morton’s is printing throwbacks from 1914, 1921, 1933, and 1941. Collect them all at your local supermarket … or maybe just visit Morton’s website.

Haul This

Last night Jeremy mentioned an article from Slate about GM’s use of images of Rosa Parks and other historic persons and events to sell Chevy trucks. Here’s another article from the New York Times. Commentary on the ad—which also features images of Joe Louis, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, the World Trade Center site, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—is roundly negative. The ad may well be in bad taste, but I was interested to read that the Parks Institute (an organization established by Rosa Parks herself) is in on the act, reminding us again that the politics of memory is a complicated business.

Collecting Computer History

Together with colleagues at CHNM, I have been working for several years now on ways to elaborate and extend the practice of online collecting, especially in the areas of history of science, technology, and industry. Some of the results of that work can be found at CHNM’s Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online website, where our own efforts and many others are catalogued in the Collecting Center. There are lots of great projects listed in the Collecting Center, but most (if not all) of them are institutional or professional efforts of one kind or another. Two sites I recently stumbled upon make me think that we need to do a better job of including amateur efforts as well.

The first is Pastelero, which isn’t really a collecting site at all, but rather the personal blog of a Brazilian student, who in one post has put together a great collection of 25 years of television commercials for personal computers. Because it’s not soliciting submissions from the public, Pastelero doesn’t really qualify as a collecting site under the definition we’re using for Echo. But it’s close, and I think if we could encourage casual collectors like Pasterlero to open their sites up to include public submissions, we might have more success in achieving our aim of extending the practice of online collecting.

The second is the evolt.org Browser Archive, which more clearly qualifies under Echo’s criteria as an online collecting site. The Browser Archive is a truly amazing collection, which catalogues and provides free downloads of literally hundreds of more or less obsolete web browsers. (Take a look. No matter how geeky you think you are, I’m sure there are some you haven’t even heard of, much less used.) According to its founder, web developer Adrian Roselli, the Browser Archive started simply as an internal resource for his company’s usability testing work. Along the way, however, it “took on a life of its own” and was released as a public archive. It now encourages browser contributions from the general public, and from what I saw in the “Recent Changes” section, the public is responding.

The Browser Archive may not have started as a historical effort, but it now stands to become a real resource for computer historians. In that respect it shares a development trajectory with some of our greatest museum collections, many of which started without anything like history in mind. This amateur and unintentional aspect to historic preservation is a fact that we at Echo would do well to remember as we work to support online collecting in the history of science, technology, and industry.

Late update (10/18/06): It looks like PC World has tried to steal some of Pastelero’s fire with it’s own compendium of old computer ads.