by Siham Alaoui
In a technological context in constant evolution, heritage institutions such as GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) are nowadays adopting novel approaches to facilitate easy access to cultural information to their users. Whether on digital public platforms, portals, applications or systems, information is used in various contexts, including for leisure, research, or public interest purposes. While some users would consume cultural resources such as online resources (e.g., books, periodicals, manuscripts, etc.), others would prefer to have access to administrative information relating to the operational activities of heritage institutions (e.g., transactional documents, budgets, contracts, annual reports, etc.). Thus, users—notably citizens, researchers, students, journalists, artists, and civil society members—make use of information differently according to their needs.
However, despite the availability of cultural resources online, either on institutional websites or on specific platforms, many challenges arise regarding the discoverability of cultural content, its relevance, and its reusability. To address this, heritage institutions have adopted a new path to tackle those challenges and ensure, by disclosing information in an open, structured and reusable form, to better satisfy users’ informational needs. Releasing open culture data is viewed as an alternative to increase the visibility of these institutions, their activities, and relationships with their users. In that sense, information professionals, namely librarians and archivists, are encouraged to join up their efforts by creating collaborative projects to make culture data open, reusable, and discoverable. This contribution sheds light on the particularities of open culture data and highlights key strategies information professionals should adopt to manage their lifecycle and make them discoverable to users.
1. Open culture data: What is it about?
Open culture data refers to the data that are related to heritage institutions’ activities (Eastermann, 2014; Sennouni, 2017). Culture data is published in an open form, that is, in a structured and reusable form, under a specified licence like Creative Commons, which allows the remixing, reuse, and reappropriation of these data by various users (Open Knowledge Foundation, n.d.). These data can be extracted from information resulting from operational activities, bibliographic and archival description of digital cultural resources, as well as the big data generated from applications and various information systems.
To be considered open, culture data should meet several requirements, chief of which are the following: structure, discoverability, intelligibility, reusability, and availability in a linked form (Open Knowledge Foundation, n.d.). Open culture data should be structured, that is, released in its primary form and in appropriate technological formats (.xls or csv: Comma Separated Values). By publishing data in these technological formats, it is possible to make data more interoperable, which means increasing their compatibility with many technological environments and multiplying their chances to get aggregated to other documentary resources online (e.g., applications, information systems, social media, etc.). The purpose of the multiple aggregations of open culture data is to diversify the perspectives from which it is used, according to users’ informational needs. For that purpose, open culture data should be discoverable, a characteristic that pertains to their relevance to satisfy users’ needs.
Discoverable open culture data means they are relevant enough to meet the users’ respective interests. For instance, journalists’ informational needs are different from artists’ and researchers’ needs. Accordingly, data should be published in an appropriate language to increase their linguistic accessibility. The enriched data description should contain metadata meeting the users’ intellectual and digital abilities. Yet, making data more discoverable is not sufficient to guarantee its usability, since they also need to be intelligible from the user’s perspective.
Open culture data should be intelligible. This means that appropriate metadata should be associated to those data published on public portals. More specifically, metadata should not be only related to the topic covered by those data, but it should provide enough description of several other elements. The institution’s name, the release date and the last modification date, the geographical and chronological coverages, and the conditions of data use are a few examples of metadata that should be added to the description of data to make the latter more intelligible. These metadata make it easier to reuse open culture data, as they provide users with a better understanding of the conditions that justify the creation of data and their release online.
To make open culture data more discoverable, they ought to be released in a linked form. Following the logic of the semantic web, releasing data in an open and linked form allows users to explore possible links between online resources and enrich their experience (St-Germain, 2017). By way of illustration, linked open data can help researchers discover similar scientific reports realized by the same cultural institution they are looking for in their research projects. Similarly, historians can benefit from these data to discover other heritage institutions holding manuscripts or other historical material they are using in their retrospective research.
All the above characteristics make open culture data more reusable. Reusability refers to the faculty of data to be exploitable and consumable by users. By publishing open data in a structured, discoverable, intelligible and linked form, users can benefit from open culture data according to their own preferences. Users should be informed about the types of (re)use they are allowed to make of the released culture data, either for general information needs or for specific purposes, such as leisure, accountability, scientific, or retrospective research.
2. Opening up culture data: Why?
Opening up culture data aims to achieve several goals that support heritage institutions in their respective roles. Of note, releasing culture data in an open form supports transparency, helps generate public value, and reduces expenses relating to GLAM activities (Alaoui, 2020). In terms of transparency, heritage institutions are public entities that must abide by freedom of information access regulations (Alaoui, 2020). By releasing their administrative data in an open and reusable form, they anticipate users’ needs in terms of access to accountability information. For instance, publishing data about financial transactions, users’ information behaviour, collections, and partnerships both at local and international levels would help users, especially journalists and researchers, to support their research with relevant data that holds evidential value.
Releasing culture data in an open form can also help heritage institutions generate public value by fostering collaborations with their users. Publishing data about cultural resources, such as bibliographic and descriptive data relating to books, manuscripts, periodicals and other documentary resources, can help users to identify documentary resources and engage in collaborative projects with heritage institutions (Estermann, 2014). For instance, the latter can organize joint initiatives and invite users to get involved in the collaborative description of resources. By using collective intelligence, users may be engaged in crowdsourcing activities, aiming to stimulate the value of cultural resources by adding appropriate metadata, such as locations, chronological data, and thematic metadata to make resources more discoverable online. In the same vein, citizens can be involved in developing mobile applications; they can help heritage institutions increase the value of cultural content by designing applications for leisure purposes for children and teenagers, for instance, or by developing interactive maps or platforms for retrospective purposes (e.g., historical research).
Open culture data can also be used by heritage institutions to promote their resources (Alaoui, 2020). By adopting several marketing approaches, those institutions can benefit from each other’s published data to identify, using appropriate metrics (e.g., number of downloads per resource, clicks on web pages, users’ login frequency, etc.), the most relevant resources and the less popular ones. The latter can be subject to an appropriate marketing strategy to make them more visible to users.
Last but not least, increasing efficiency is also one of the aims of opening up culture data. Heritage institutions have limited resources, a problem that justifies the need for collaboration initiatives between those institutions and their users. Publishing data about operational activities, such as use of financial resources, can help other institutions and users understand resources management issues and get engaged in various collaborative projects. For instance, realizing financial campaigns, including crowdfunding campaigns, as well as opening calls for donations of materials (e.g., recorders, laptops, storage material, CDs, USBs, etc.) are a few examples of how opening up cultural data can increase the efficiency of heritage institutions.
Releasing culture data in an open form can help heritage institutions increase their visibility and enhance their users’ loyalty. In doing so, many actors are involved and pursue different tasks regarding the creation, management, release, and storage of open culture data.
3. Open culture data: Who is involved and how?
In addition to users who consume data according to their respective interests, information professionals, that is, librarians and archivists, are the experts who ensure the lifecycle management of open culture data. Librarians are engaged in data curation, which means that they ensure the processing of data as a content. Through curation practices using international normative frameworks such as FRBR (Functional requirements of bibliographic description), FRAD (Functional requirements of author description), and FRSAD (Functional requirements of subject author description), they ensure the link between the described resource and its author, as well as its subject. By using these normative frameworks, librarians ensure data are more discoverable and published in an open and linked form.
In order to ensure the quality of open culture data, especially by releasing them in a linked form, archivists can use the RiC (Records in Contexts) normative framework, which is published by the International Council on Archives and is inspired from the other frameworks stated above. Instead of focusing only on content, archivists should ensure the description of the activity that generated culture data. The use of RiC’s framework combines the description of data (datasets) from the perspective of the content, the container, and the context in one place. It describes the conditions of data creation and their properties as archival objects (Alaoui, 2021). Archivists also ensure the adoption of measures regarding the secure preservation of datasets by choosing the appropriate strategies to document the traceability of data and their secure long-term preservation.
Information professionals’ tasks are also supported by IT experts who ensure the technical requirements regarding the structuration of data and their interoperability in various digital environments. They are also involved in designing platforms and portals where data are published and managed. IT specialists have an ergonomic role in the process of open culture data management, since their role is to design platforms that are ergonomic enough for users. They also play a key role in technical security of data management systems by suggesting best practices to protect personal data extracted from online systems.
All these experts have the role of executing commands from top management, who elaborate policies and strategies regarding the disclosure of open culture data. These regulation tools concern the prioritization of data to disclose, according to financial considerations, the relevance of data and users’ needs. Experts can make choices regarding strategic orientations of heritage institutions, based on their annual strategic plan and the needs of their partners (e.g., cultural industries, public officials, etc.). They also set goals in terms of public resources use, such as financial, material, technological, and human resources.
Figure 1 summarizes the different points discussed above on open culture data:
Figure 1: Open culture data : what, who, why and how?
4. Towards a collaborative approach: How can information professionals join their efforts in open culture data lifecycle management?
Open culture data projects require a collaboration between many actors that together form an ecosystem. They interact with each other and co-create initiatives using various technological tools. In order to help heritage institutions achieve their goals in terms of releasing open culture data and generating public value from it, the open culture data ecosystem should be well designed and integrate specific configurations involving many actors. This ecosystem involves three key components: (1) people, (2) technologies, and (3) initiatives.
Figure 2: The open culture data ecosystem
4.1. The open culture data ecosystem: people
Open data release requires the development of collaborative projects between archivists and librarians. Working together, they ensure the extraction, description, preservation, and dissemination of cultural data according to generally accepted standards. While librarians describe data from a subject perspective, archivists do it from a contextual perspective aiming to underline the activities that the data describe. As mentioned earlier, the use of international standards can help these professionals join up their efforts to make a complete curation of culture data in a manner that meets the users’ needs both from an archival and a library science perspective.
While doing so, many strategies should be adopted by information professionals to better understand users’ needs. Librarians can suggest various ways to understand the user’s information behaviour, and how the interaction with open culture data is described, chiefly by answering the following question: “What type of culture data is the most requested and used?” The use of key indicators mainly used by librarians to develop their collections can be beneficial to release more relevant data. Furthermore, the development of a better digital literacy is also an activity where librarians are mostly solicited. Archivists, on the other hand, can collaborate with librarians in providing a more complete description of culture data, since the archival description covers the activity that produced these data, as well as the subject of these data.
4.2. The open culture data ecosystem: technologies
While managing and releasing open culture data, information professionals make use of IT platforms and systems aiming to manage the lifecycle of data. In that sense, they may solicit IT experts to design technological platforms that are not only effective in terms of performance but also user-friendly. In fact, in the aim of making the appropriate use of data released on public portals, those technological means should be easy to use, especially by users who do not have advanced digital skills. Furthermore, they ought to integrate web 2.0 features, such as comments, scales and short surveys, to make it easier for users to share their experience with heritage institutions. Open culture data should also be released in an open and reusable form, in compliance with open technological standards aiming to ensure the interoperability of data with various digital environments.
The design of appropriate technological tools by IT experts in collaboration with archivists and librarians, as well as users, can help institutions integrate lean approaches in their everyday work. It is viewed as a key success factor in the implementation of IT technologies regarding information use and, more specifically, in the context of using open culture data in designing applications and website development.
4.3. The open culture data ecosystem: initiatives
Making open culture data more visible by generating public value from publicly available datasets means using them in innovative projects. It is particularly the case of hackathons, those technology-centered initiatives inviting users, such as developers and web designers, to build design projects on mobile applications that facilitate public life. For instance, open culture data can be used to design applications that identify cultural heritage institutions according to geographical patterns or even according to the cultural resources they offer to users. This helps citizens become more familiar with what their institutions can offer to them, making it easier for those institutions to gain more visibility.
To do so, hackathons are to be supervised by experts, such as IT specialists, archivists, and librarians. IT experts have the role of ensuring the technological quality of web developers’ outputs, especially by assessing the interoperability of data and programs in various digital environments. Librarians and archivists have a semantic role in supervising open culture data initiatives. It is necessary to ensure that users have the correct understanding of the data produced online and to evaluate the extent to which they have made the correct interpretation of it. As metadata specialists, information professionals can join up their efforts to provide a better understanding of data released on public portals.
Open culture data ecosystems involve many actors who interact with each other and make use of their digital abilities while using specific technological resources to generate public value from released data. To ensure a better achievement of open data release objectives, information professionals should collaborate with each other in the lifecycle management of data, as well as in the supervision of its use.
Digital transformation has led heritage institutions to adopt new strategies to make their resources more discoverable and their activities more visible. With the technological developments and the social pressures regarding freedom of information access, these institutions have started to release their data in open and reusable forms. Open culture data allows users to get more familiar with heritage institutions’ activities and their cultural offerings. They can make use of these data in various contexts, according to their interests. However, to ensure a better reuse of these data, information professionals should reduce the gaps between them and build on collaborative initiatives that make it easier to master the data lifecycle management. While archivists are concerned with the contextualisation of data and the description of the activities they are related to, librarians can add more value to this description from a subject point of view. They can also suggest relevant strategies providing a better understanding of users’ needs through the study of their online information behaviour. These two actors can solicit IT experts to assess the technological quality of data and the platforms where they are released. Therefore, openness calls for bridging the gap between information professionals and encourages them to work together to make heritage institutions more visible.
Siham Alaoui is a PhD candidate in archival science and public communication at Université Laval, Québec (Canada). She holds a bachelor's degree in Information Science (obtained in 2013 from the School of Information Science, Morocco) and a master's degree in Information Science (obtained in 2015 from the Université de Montréal). She is interested in digital documentary mediation (information and data management), particularly in the current context of universities’ digital transformation. She is the author of several scientific and professional articles published in specialized journals in information science (e.g., Archives, Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, Documentation et Bibliothèques, Comma). She has also given papers and lectures at conferences and symposiums.
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