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By Susannah Shute on

Cosmic collections: the geeky stuff

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer, answers a few questions about the Cosmic Collections website 'mash-up' competition.

This Saturday (24 October), we’re launching our Cosmic Collections website ‘mash-up’ competition. Just in case anyone else is as baffled as me, I asked our Lead Web Developer, Mia Ridge, a few questions about the competition.

For the non-geeks out there, what’s a mash-up?

A mashup is a website or application that combines separate data sources and/or visualisation tools into a single integrated interface.

A really useful example is moveflat – you can search for housing by bus route or on a map of London.  The site mashes up data provided in housing ads with StreetMap and GoogleMaps so that the interface just works for the site visitor.

Why did you decide to run a mash-up competition for Cosmos & Culture?The idea of a mashup just seemed a perfect match for this exhibition.

Over the past few years there’s been a lot of discussion in cultural heritage technology forums about the need for APIs (instructions and methods for computers to request content and functions from each other) in museums. Some museums have released APIs, but it’s been difficult to find out how much real demand there is from non-museum programmers – I thought this would be one way to find out.

A comparatively small budget for web work in the original project meant we risked producing a bland museum microsite that might not do the objects and their stories justice.  There are so many ways of looking at these objects – as pieces of industrial design, as examples of the way we tell stories about the night sky, as artefacts from the history of science and technology, as personal items belonging to explorers and innovators, as beautiful objects in their own right… opening up the data to let people create their own sites seemed like a good way to enable other people to show us the collections as they see them.

I knew there was an active online astronomy community, and that sites like Galaxy Zoo had ‘crowdsourced’ the classifications of galaxies, leading to some new discoveries.  One of the key messages of the exhibition was that amateur astronomers can still make important contributions, and that seemed to be a good match with the idea of encouraging people use our data in their own research.

Converting some of our web budget into prize money seemed like a concrete way of recognising the contributions and work of people working with our content.

How ground-breaking is it for a museum?

As far as I know, we’re the first museum to run a competition to crowd-source the creation of an exhibition site like this.

A few museums have produced APIs or published other ways to programmatically access their data and there have been lots of mashup competitions and hack days in the private and public sector but the combination is new. I’m very lucky – when I approached the curator with my idea, she could have thought I was being just a bit too experimental, but she decided to give it a go.

What might the finished mash-ups look like?

Good question!  I have absolutely no idea – which is both exciting and scary. Typically, mashups might use timelines or maps, but there’s some amazing visualisation work going on and tools like IBM’s Many Eyes make them really easy.

I’m hoping that the final submission date won’t be the end of it – we’d like to help build a community of developers who are interested in working with museum content. I’ll also be using the competition to work out how we can improve our collections API, and as input to on-going experiments with our online collections. I’m taking the approach of small experiments and iterative development that I can fit in around bigger project deadlines, partly because it’s a good match for the available resources and partly to test the benefits of a more agile approach.

If you have more questions for Mia please post them as comments below. To find out more about the exhibition and the objects on display check out our earlier interview with Ali Boyle, Curator of Astronomy.