How to make cultural collaborations scale?

The way it was
There was a time when the idea of the Wikimedia community and a culture sector organisation undertaking a collaboration project would have been looked at with extreme skepticism – from both directions. It was rare for Wikimedians to be taken seriously by professional organisations and it was rarer still for such an organisation to try to work on Wikipedia without being “bitten”.

Times have changed
Now in late 2010, things have changed and we have a different problem.
Now, the issue is how to scale-up our capacity to professionally manage the sheer number of collaboration projects being offered to us, yet still in a way that is consistent with the grassroots nature of Wikimedia projects.


There are still cultural organisations making rearguard actions to ensure exclusivity over “their” cultural heritage. However, it seems to me that we have reached a tipping point in the mood of the cultural sector for curators to become guides rather than guards, for museums to be forums rather than temples. Equally with government data – there appears to be a worldwide trend to providing structured and legally reusable public datasets at the moment (e.g. The UK, Australia, New York city…) Put simply – we are now getting offers from cultural organisations faster than we can meet with them to discuss it.

For example,  two days ago I was the guest of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative in San Diego. BPOC has the task of coordinating innovative digital projects for the 20 cultural institutions in Balboa Park (the main cultural precinct of the city which includes the famous San Diego zoo, art gallery, air & space musuem etc. etc.) They were very keen to hear about what collaboration with Wikimedia projects might look like and how they could get involved, given the variety of content and expertise they have. Then yesterday I was the guest of the Minnesota Historical Society in Minneapolis who want to know how to link their forthcoming professional digital history project with Wikipedia in a way that is compatible and mutually beneficial (see previous post about how the Dictionary of Sydney did this). To that end they’ve already arranged a meetup this weekend with Wikiproject Minnesota and hopefully Wikimedians in San Diego will soon receive a similar invitation!

img_1409[Hotel room view over San Diego]

img_1419[Hotel room view over Minneapolis/St. Paul the next morning. Sunny one day, snowing the next!]

The problem
Whilst I was honoured to be able to visit these places, it is not a scalable model. This is not the Wikimedia Foundation’s fault as cultural outreach does not fall within their purview. Equally this is not a software problem (although there are many technical things that could be improved). It is not even necessarily a Chapters problem as there is no obligation for a local Chapter to exist before GLAM partnerships can happen (although it does help). I believe this is a processes, documentation, training and people-on-the-ground problem.

We simply have no consistent, easily findable, and easy to understand processes for handling potential partnerships when they are presented to us. If you want to make a mass multimedia donation you just have to know someone who knows user:multichill. If you want to develop some metrics you have to know someone who knows user:magnus manske. Furthermore, we also do not have processes of finding, training and supporting people who are willing to be the local contact for GLAM partners – whether that be using the “in residence” model (e.g the British Museum), the “ambassador” model (e.g. the Public Policy project), the “project manager” model (e.g. Wikimedia Deuschland), the “committee model” (e.g. the Languages Committee) or something else. I have learned just today about an interesting “project cycle” system that Wikimedia Indonesia is developing – CIPTA – that might also be an applicable model.

Until we have these things in place I believe that fantastic opportunities for free-culture will go begging. More importantly, the opportunities might not come again. For instance, a major New York institution told me that they would be happy to have Wikipedians on-site collaborating with their curators but not until there are systems in place for if/when something goes wrong. Cultural organisations have the reasonable expectation that Wikimedia should invest in relationship management with them. “Leave a message on my talkpage” doesn’t cut it when you’re negotiating a copyright policy change with a GLAM.

argentina[A screenshot of the first results of a current project between Wikimedia Argentina and their national broadcaster – historic news footage released under CC-by-SA.]

The solution?
I’m not sure yet.
The aforementioned “processes, documentation, training and people-on-the-ground” issues aren’t as easy to crowdsource like Wikipedia articles because they can’t easily be broken down to bite-sized pieces where everyone can contribute.

For a while I’ve been advocating that the Chapters should be hiring an “outreach manager” each to work on building relationships with local cultural institutions. However hiring “coordinators” can also be very efficient way to kill grassroots activity in any field of endeavour – from the union movement to free-culture. Chapter outreach managers could very easily hinder rather than help the community by becoming a bureaucratic bottlenecks rather than enablers. Furthermore, most countries don’t even have chapters (yet).

screenshot21[Screenshot from the British Museum homepage – recognising the fact of Wikipedia featuring their content that came from the Hoxne Challenge event. The article was clicked 57k times yesterday.]

So, what is the solution? How does the Wikimedia movement increase its capacity to professionally handle partnerships with cultural organisations in a way that in a way that builds upon our great advantage – the worldwide volunteer community.

Your suggestions?

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10 Responses to How to make cultural collaborations scale?

  1. samuel says:

    hi. speaking from the glam point of vue, i’d just suggest to make sure to engage with the “tech” people before the collaboration is agreed upon with the institution directors. the ones that will be putting collections out to be taken in pictures, the ones that’ll sorting out databases… the ones that’ll be the best “advocate” and facilitator inside. Otherwise, like what you said about “bottlenecks” for wikipedians is true for glam workers also : it’s “just” another “top-down” job…

  2. Diaa says:

    We’ve created for that reason. When someone achieves a licensing partnership, uploaders can facilitate the technical part from there.

  3. John Broughton says:

    When you say “The aforementioned ‘processes, documentation, training and people-on-the-ground’ issues aren’t as easy to crowdsource like Wikipedia articles because they can’t easily be broken down to bite-sized pieces where everyone can contribute”, what you mean (if you think about it) is “The Wikimedia Foundation should create/document processes, make official contacts, and hire a local person to coordinate local Wikipedia volunteers.”

    How much would it cost to hire a local, experienced Wikipedian, who would go to training in San Francisco, to be the official (local) Foundation point person and coordinator? A college student – available full-time during the summer and part-time during the rest of the year, or a Wikipedia editor who is retired, would cost, including travel and other costs, on the order of $25,000 per year; that’s 40 projects that would cost only $1 million to run for a full year, after which local volunteers should be able to carry on by themselves. (Figure $20,000 for salary and $5,000 for everything else; quite nice for either a student or a retiree.)

    With a paid, local coordinator, the detailed parts of a project – working with the GLAM staff – could be done by local volunteers. This is where crowdsourcing would work well.

    And yes, obviously, the Foundation should spend a relatively small amount of money, just once, so that no one needs to know someone who knows user:multichill, and no one needs to know someone who knows user:magnus manske; rather, the trained, local coordinator knows how to find and use well-documented processes that the Foundation has professionally created and maintains.

  4. Interesting perspective, Liam.

    I’ve been thinking about this on a more basic or even simplistic level–and it’s one we’ve talk about: but partnership continue because they are beneficial to both sides.

    Partnerships don’t work because “we should do things.”

    But it’s so tough with Wikipedia because from an outside perspective all of the content seems to appear magically and then be taken for granted that it’s there. This is also an outcome of the creative commons model. It’s hard to even know how what you’re doing is going to necessarily benefit anyone or any institution.

    So, it seems Wikipedians do things not necessarily to benefit anyone else, but because it benefits them to do it, and that’s even more difficult to quantify.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post, Liam. You do a great job translating Wikipedia and the cultural sector for each other, and keeping representatives of each talking strategically and thinking creatively. Thanks for the personal effort you make through your travels, presentations, writing, and helpful connecting–maybe you could offer Witty Lama clones to the Wikimedia Foundation?

  6. Good post, Liam. This is an important question, and one that can be asked in many areas.

    When it comes to an actual answer, I don’t have one. But I think that the ones you are thinking of, should be edited into a brochure and be made part of the Bookshelf Project, see A few years ago I would have suggested that we improve the Best Practices pages on Meta, but they seem to have come to a standstill. But the Outreach wiki is becoming more and more active, and though I may be partial, it seems that one of the problems is that we don’t have a central place to look for information – and that is what the Bookshelf Project was designed to be.

    Other than that, I concur with Jenny Mikulay, Witty Lama clones would perhaps be a solution to think about.

  7. Lori says:

    Thanks for putting all of these thoughts in one place. The importance of face-to-face collaboration with GLAMs has come up a lot in conversation lately. I have personally seen the impact that a sit down meeting has on a room full of understandably cautious museum staff; people who are wading their way through scary ideas of free culture and copyright. Being able to negotiate and talk these institutions through the process, and be a contact for them as they go about it, is extremely valuable, if not a necessity. You’ve proven that this is a worthwhile investment for Wikimedia. Now it’s just moving forward with it.

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