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Be proud of your data, the public will still like you if it is less than perfect Lucinda Blaser, National Maritime Museum
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Be proud of your data, the public will still like you if it is less than perfect Lucinda Blaser, National Maritime Museum



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  • Places like Museum and Libraries hold data about their collections and around their collections.The NMM hold data about its objects in Mimsy – what an object is, looks like, who made it – the usual stuffIt holds data in its collections. A prime example of this would be a ship’s log book or a crew list. – Lots of great data there that people would love to get their hands on.It also holds data around its collections, about the topics that the Museum covers.I’d like to talk to you about how the Museum has changed the way it looks at its data in order to make it accessible and usable by the public through crowdsourcing approaches.I think first we need to take a look at a few of the main reasons why we aren’t making it generally available.
  • Some paststatements:It is not completeIt might be wrong and needs more researchSpelling mistakes – it needs to be closely looked atIt is not in a format that we can useIt is the usual suspects stopping these problems being solved – time, money, man power. The Museum worries about its reputation as a respected source of knowledge. We can’t be seen to be saying something that is wrong, but then people ask why we have not made often extremely useful information available or more usually they can’t ask because they just don’t know it exists.It is by admitting the problems and issues we face with data and having the ability to say that we don’t know – do you? That we can make this data available to the general public, and in the process satisfy our needs and theirs.Another worry that common is that the data may be made available but that it can’t be found easily due to the errors. Research has been undertaken by various people into how some of these mistakes affect people finding information online, but often we focus so much on data quality that the data never makes it online and will not have a chance of being found and used. (Jeffrey Beall (2005) Metadata and Data Quality Problems in the Digital Library)
  • The NMM has recently refreshed its approach to how it puts its collections online. This is the lovely new homepage.Prior to the summer this year no record was put online unless it met a set of requirements.Does it have an image?Does it have a very detailed – curator written and approved – description?Has the object been thoroughly researched to gather all possible information?This meant that the publication of object records online was a slow process that was influenced by the research drives of the curators and by the exhibition programme. As a result the star objects and material of high levels of interest – such as Nelson – were well catalogued and represented but other material where the museum may not have a subject expert was under represented. Without a change in requirements would these objects have made it online?
  • Previously this record would never have been available to the public.It doesn’t have a quality imageIt has very little supporting informationAll the appropriate fields aren’t completed.Since our change in the way we look at our collections data all objects need to go online in the simplest terms are a title, credit line and a basic description. This resulted in a large number of objects becoming available online.Now that this object is publically viewable someone might search the name ‘Captain Rostron’
  • They would easily find the following information.He was a key figure in the rescue of the Titanic survivors.
  • With such a huge collection and other demands on curators time it would have been unlikely that this object would have made it online and publically searchable. It would have been an approaching anniversary, such as the one for Titanic next year and we would have been unable to locate easily an object like this within our collection because the impetus has not previously been there.By letting the public know that we want to share our objects with them and want to give them as much as possible but hold our hands up to the problems with what is there we have been able to increase access to our collections.We have asked for their help, giving users an increased sense of ownership of the Museum. It also makes the collections more usable for them and our staff. It highlights objects to us that may be useful for projects that we would not have otherwise considered and it helps us fill in the gaps and errors in the data. Participation can be a light touch with a tag or fully developed research which they can submit through the share your knowledge button.We have had people do simple things from correct spellings, tell us the wrong image is attached, help us with translations of inscriptions, and identifying subjects in paintings.
  • Here is one of our commentsWe had a ship plan of a Russian vessel go online and for years it was thought that the ship’s name was written at the top of the sheet. Once this plan went online within a short space of time we were informed by a Russian gentleman that this wasn’t the ship’s name, it was the Russian for Copy.From the comments that we have had so far I would guesstimate that around 90% have led to improvements in our records. The comments are checked and confirmed by curators before any update takes place on the collections record.We don’t publicise the comments left on our pages – they are only viewable in the back end of the system but we thank users for their useful contributions and acknowledge them at the bottom of the record page.For our collections site many knowledgeable and dedicated people are already using the site and have a passion for the subject matter that they were willing to contribute without much impetus from the Museum. It was through making it clear that we wanted their help and that their knowledge is valued that the number of contributors has increased.
  • Admitting problems on out own site was a big step for the Museum.We had previously worked with sites such as Flickr to put up our historic photographs collection and seek the help of the public in filling in the gaps there and pulling the information back into our collections before they went online.Recently we have partnered with Wikimedia UK to help us with our data about historic Royal Navy warships.
  • These records were microfiched in the 80s for use by our Library and then OCR’d a couple of years ago. It was only people visiting the Library at the Museum who were able to make use of this resource. The histories are wealth of information and would aid the interpretation of our collections. Using the data we would be able to link our collections by the related vessel – a chronometer travelled on this ship, here is a painting of the captain and of a battle that it fought in.
  • Example record.Having the data OCR’d introduced spelling errors, it was noticed the data was incomplete and without a serious amount of curator time we weren’t sure of the extent of errors.
  • We partnered with Wikimedia UK.From informal discussions it was noted that Wikipedia had a large amount of information available about American Naval ships but were sadly light on information for British ships. We went into partnership – Wikipedia would be able to use our information about the ships and they would help us tidy up our records in order for us to be able to use.We have admitted to everyone the history of the data and the known problems and it has been received well. We are following how our information is updating their records which will help show the Museum the value of this information.Again the drive and thirst for knowledge was already in place that could be taken advantage of. This data would not have been included in Wikipedia without a visit to the NMM to look at the data.We plan to take a look at progress after 6 months and hopefully to pull out the data back into our own system in a year.
  • We did a trial with Wikipedia to see the impact of our data.Here is a list of revisions made in Wikipedia from our data for HMS Dragon (1647).We were able to add large amounts of service data that was not available in any other published information.
  • Finally I’d like to tell you about a citizen science project that the Museum partnered in – Old Weather.Old Weather asks volunteers to look at ships logs and extract weather readings that will be used to enhance the accuracy of climate reconstructions that will allow scientists to predict climate change.It was this need that prompted the digitization of the ships logs.
  • Logbook – Prosepine – 2/10/1916Ship Logbooks record where the ship went and events that happened as well as weather information. This event data is important to us as the weather readings as it gives an insight into daily life aboard ship which for the fist batch of logs which date from the first world war it is of great interest to many. The project is therefore being used to extract important information from these documents.The project has been a great success and is for a great purpose but it has been the historical side of the project that has kept the volunteers coming back as they learn about the ships and the crews that manned them. Volunteers have started to identify with vessels and become like a member of the crew joining at port for the start of a mission and following the entire voyage and the lives of the crew. Several volunteers have even found ships that members of their family served on.The logbooks – unlike other previous zooniverse projects – does not have data that could be interpreted as beautiful. It has been the value of the information that has kept the project going. By admitting to people that there is fantastic data in these records but it can’t be extracted without the help of people as computers just are not up to the job the volunteers have been willing to sit and transcribe large amounts of text.Before this project came along the data would never have come to light without a lot of research time. It has been by looking at the data in a new light – with the eyes of a scientist – that the drive came to get these records digitised and transcribed.
  • As one of our volunteers put it, these log book records are tweets from the past.We have short and to the point accounts of events. They range from recording that large amounts of potatoes were stolen, the sighting of comets, trials of the sailors who have been up to no good and retrieval of guns that have been dropped overboard.The transcribing tool that the Zooniverse have created for Old Weather is open-source which will allow anyone who is facing problems of extracting data from such records as these to make a start in transcribing them.
  • In the cases of Collections Online and Warship Histories the data has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license.For Old Weatherthe data is still in the process of being extracted from the images and is not yet available to the general public. Scientists at the Met Office are updating the blog regularly to show the impact of the climate data in graphical format allowing users to see the results of their work but for the historical data will eventually be accessible as well. As I said in the beginning initially the Museum had been worried about it’s reputation but I believe that by doing these projects we have only enhanced it and increased our visibility to new audiences.


  • 1. Be proud of your data, the public will still like you if it is less than perfect Lucinda Blaser Digital Project Manager National Maritime Museum
  • 2. What is stopping you putting your data online? • Time • Money • Work hours
  • 3. Collections.nmm.ac.uk
  • 5. Warship Histories• 20,000 Naval ships• c. 1500 – 1970• Compiled by a curator in the 1970s• Many people have contributed resulting in different cataloguing styles
  • 6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:GLAM/NMM
  • 7. Oldweather.org
  • 8. 80lbs potatoes stolen during nightComet spotted off BrazilDecorating HMS New Zealand for a ball while atport in WellingtonHMS Endeavour fumigatedCourse diverted to investigate whalesGerman ships engaged and destroyed. Survivorsbrought aboard.