The British Museum (BM) requests an Officer’s Grant of $100,000, for use over 4 months, to support initial planning, analysis and feasibility work for the ResearchSpace initiative. Such work would be undertaken with the understanding that should the planning phase prove successful, the BM would be invited to prepare a proposal for consideration by the Mellon board to support development and implementation of ResearchSpace.
The ResearchSpace concept, fully described in the appended documents, encompasses a shared information technology infrastructure together with software tools that would facilitate and encourage the sharing of information and data across projects and organisations. As envisaged, when fully developed, ResearchSpace would deliver the following elements:
The present proposal is for funds to support the work needed to define and specify the resources required to initiate and complete a full implementation phase. The goal of this preliminary work is to provide, by the end of August 2010, a practical and costed design for a shared technology infrastructure, ready for procurement, development and implementation. Such an infrastructure would have as its core goal to fulfil the needs of all of the Mellon Foundation’s Museum and Art Conservation’s (MAC) program prototypes to present machine readable collection, conservation, and scientific information via the internet. The broader goal would be to build ResearchSpace in such a way as to support the storage and exposure of any relevant cultural heritage data and multimedia using semantic technologies.
Since RDF data services represent the least known element in this enterprise, the emphasis of the planning phase (and associated budget) is on mitigating the risk of this element, thereby reducing the possibility of technical delays during implementation. Successful testing would also provide the project team and sponsors with greater confidence in the relatively new technology approach. The results of this work should be reusable and reduce the timeline for a development effort.
The ResearchSpace concept is based on a proposal for a shared technology infrastructure provided by staff of the Research and Information Technology (RIT) Program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This proposal was circulated by staff of the Museums and Art Conservation (MAC) Program on August 25, 2009 for discussion at a meeting held at the National Gallery, London on September 14, 2009. The participants at that meeting were invited to consider the Foundation’s efforts to identify ways in which several “pilot projects” that had been launched under the auspices of MAC, and were poised to develop into “prototypes,” might become both sustainable and cost effective over the long term.
The BM was represented at that meeting by Dominic Oldman, Deputy Head of Information Systems, and principal investigator on the present proposal. Immediate synergies were recognized between the shared infrastructure concept and work already underway at the BM, which is actively working to fulfil its public mandate to make its collections data broadly accessible via the internet. As a result of Oldman’s inclusion in these early discussions, the ResearchSpace concept emerged, and between September 2009 and the present has undergone a period of informal review and refinement. The BM, with Oldman’s leadership, now proposes to move ahead with a formal planning and implementation process to bring ResearchSpace to fruition.
The shared approach that would be provided by the ResearchSpace environment would reduce both time and costs (for example, the time and costs involved in setting up a separate IT infrastructure for each project and savings made by reuse of existing technology) as well as diminish the development risks for any particular project. The gradual building up of these ‘community’ tools and services would allow the prototype organisations to concentrate on the collection, organisation, and presentation of their data, rather than deal with technology decisions and issues that most of them are not equipped to manage. ResearchSpace would also be broadly available to any cultural heritage organisation, regardless of their funding source, facilitating the creation and sustaining of a large community of people, data and research tools. ResearchSpace would be owned and managed by the organisations that use it rather than being managed by any single institution.
Oldman and the ResearchSpace collaborators have recently become familiar with Project Bamboo (www.projectbamboo.org), which received support from the Mellon Foundation in 2008. Bamboo has similar objectives to ResearchSpace in that it seeks to bring together collaborative communities using shared services, though its focus is primarily on the Higher Education sector as opposed to museums and other cultural heritage entities. The scope of Bamboo currently seems wider than that envisaged by ResearchSpace, and as such, its approach is significantly different in terms of the resources, framework, and technology required. A meeting was held between the ResearchSpace and Bamboo project teams to understand the potential overlaps and differences between the two projects with a view to informing both projects of possible synergies, either now or the future. The meeting report is included at Appendix H.
• The Courtauld Institute of Art: Master of the Fogg Pieta / Maestro di Figline ProjectTaken together, these projects represent a coordinated effort to create new digital resources that are able to interface with those of other institutions and involve the gathering, storage and dissemination of cultural and heritage content.
• The National Gallery, London: Raphael Research Resource
• The Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD) with The Royal Picture Gallery, Mauristhuis: The Rembrandt Database
• The Stiftung Museum Kunst Palace: Cranach Digital Archive
The following work has been completed to date, largely by Oldman, and in collaboration with the above mentioned partners:
Collaboration Environment - Collaboration software is now well established in both open source and commercial communities. In addition, development against these systems is proven (for example CollectionSpace uses the ‘Nuxeo’ content management system). The project should therefore be confident that a robust evaluation process of leading content management systems that support collaboration services will be sufficient.
Research Tools – It is anticipated that many different research tools would be developed for the ResearchSpace environment over time. Each individual tool would carry its own level of development complexity and its success would depend on the robustness of analysis and design applied to it. Initially the ResearchSpace project should easily be able to provide a basic range of useful and productive tools leaving others to be developed gradually. The type of development work is considered to be more standard and reflect established functionality already proven in other environments, for example, the Zotero plug-in system.
Data Services - RDF technology has been available for some time but the significant increase in its use has been relatively recent. Some RDF tools are well developed but overall development of the technology continues. Although institutions using RDF are now not seen as early adopters, its use is still considered innovative. The British Museum has mitigated its own risk by conducting a pilot within Collections Online that is now live on the internet.
Given that the more standard elements of ResearchSpace development are reliant on interfacing with an RDF data store, further end to end design and feasibility work of this technology, based on a larger set of data to inform the main project, would be prudent. The RDF element is therefore considered by the proposal as a relatively higher priority for preparatory work because it will provide important information for assessing feasibility, risk and cost. As such the technical work in this proposal deals with data services and other components would be developed more fully in another later phase of the project.
To specify a shared hosting model (and costs) and determine a shortlist of appropriate hosting providers who would be willing and able to support the shared technology model. The hosting model would require the agreement of MAC project stakeholders and the Museum would use its own hosting environment as a benchmark for selection.
• Priority 1 - The provision of a XML/RDF schema designed to support the process and movement of data between participating institution’s local database systems and ResearchSpace. The schema should be based on the British Museum’s data schema and support the implementation of the CIDOC-CRM ontology framework.
• Priority 1 - A detailed and annotated architecture diagram (with technical documentation) showing how data in ResearchSpace would be edited, annotated, published and generally managed (with authority, version control and security).
• Priority 2 - A prototype system implementing the process above using the British Museum’s data.
• Priority 2 - Performance testing of the RDF (using the full set of BM collection records) benchmarked against traditional systems (like the Collection Online relational database) using appropriate indexing.
• Priority 3 - If possible, some prototypes implementing some of the data management processes above.
• RDF and OWL (Web Ontology Language) specialistsIt is expected that objectives 5 and 6 would be completed using consultancy from Seme4 Ltd (a consultancy set up by Southampton University staff). Other objectives would be achieved through the contract employment of an independent Business Analyst (most likely employed through an IT recruitment agency) who would deliver the main specification documents and recommendations that would be used to plan and specify the full project. This type of post is relatively standard and the author does not anticipate any difficulties in recruiting in the current job market.
• Business Analyst (IT bias)
In relation to the quote from Seme4 Ltd, a single tender process has been adopted and approved by the Museum’s Director of Administration under Museum tendering rules. This procedure is allowed in the following circumstances:
The British Museum intends to provide some support for further analysis and manipulation of its collection data. This would involve the following resources:
• Programming analysis – from the existing IS programming team
• Collection data expertise – from the Museum’s collection specialists.
The project will be submitted to the British Museum’s project gateway process and be reviewed by the Museum’s Project Board chaired by Andrew Burnett, Deputy Director. Any intellectual property produced with support from the Mellon Foundation as a result of the project would adhere to the Foundation’s intellectual property policy.