2018: an overview


2018 finished with a bang, as the press release for the British Library/Alan Turing Institute’s Living with Machines project went live. In this project, we’re experimenting with ‘radical collaborations’ around applying data science methods to historical newspaper collections to advance the potential of digital history.

Talks and teaching

January: a lecture on ‘Scholarly crowdsourcing: from public engagement to creating knowledge socially’ for the Introduction to Digital Humanities Masters course at King’s College London, and an ‘Overview of Information Visualisation’ for the CHASE Winter School: Introduction to Digital Humanities.

February: a full-day workshop on Information Visualisation for PhD students in the Digital Humanities for CHASE.

March: a talk on ‘Crowdsourcing: the British Library experience’ for CILIP’s Multimedia Information & Technology (MmIT) Group’s event on ‘The wisdom of the crowd? Crowdsourcing for information professionals’.

April: a talk on ‘Challenges and opportunities in digital scholarship’ for a British Library Research Collaboration Open House, and took part in a panel for the Association of Art Historians (AAH) conference on ‘Sharing knowledge through online engagement’ around Art UK’s Art Detective project at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

May: I was in Rotterdam for a EuropeanaTech panel on User Generated & Institutional Data Transcription projects and gave a talk on ‘Open cultural data in the GLAM sector’ for a CPD25 workshop on The GLAM sector: what can we learn from Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums

June: with Thomas Padilla I co-taught ‘Collections as data‘ for the HILT Digital Humanities Summer School, June 4–8, 2018, University of Pennsylvania. I then went onto Oberlin College to give a keynote on ‘Digital collections as departure points’ at the Academic Art Museums and Libraries Summit.

September: a talk on ‘Crowdsourcing at the British Library: lessons learnt and future directions’ for the Digital Humanities Congress, Sheffield. And a ‘provocation’ for the Building Library Labs event, ‘A modest proposal: crowdsourcing is good for all of us’.

November: I travelled to Bonn to do a keynote on ‘Libraries and their Communities: Participation from Town Halls to Mobile Phones’ for the Semantic Web in Libraries (SWIB) conference, and gave a preview talk on Living with Machines for the British Library Labs Symposium.


An article on Breathing life into digital collections at the British Library for ACCESS / Journal of the Australian School Library Association, 2018.

A chapter for a Routledge publication on research methods in the Digital Humanities, called ‘Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage: a practical guide to designing and running successful projects’ (currently doing final edits)


I was a peer reviewer for conference proposals and articles for museum studies and digital humanities events and journals.

I also gave internal talks on IIIF and the Universal Viewer and taught Data Visualisation and Crowdsourcing workshops on the British Library’s Digital Scholarship Training Programme.

I’ve collected some blog posts and newsletter updates for the British Library at Updates from Digital Scholarship at the British Library.

Lecture: ‘A pilot with public participation in historical research: linking lived experiences of the First World War’, Trinity College Dublin

Trinity lecture poster
Trinity lecture poster

As part of my Visiting Research Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub I gave a lecture on ‘A pilot with public participation in historical research: linking lived experiences of the First World War‘.

The abstract and podcast are below, and there’s further information about my CENDARI Fellowship here.

Abstract: The centenary of World War One and the digitisation of records from a range of museums, libraries and archives has inspired many members of the public to research the lives of WWI soldiers. But it is not always easy to find or interpret military records. What was it like to be in a particular battalion or regiment at a particular time. Can a ‘collaborative collection’ help provide context for individual soldiers’ experience of the war by linking personal diaries, letters and memoirs to places, people and events? What kinds of digital infrastructure are needed to support research on soldiers in the Great War? This lecture explores the potential for collaborating with members of the general public and academic or amateur historians to transcribe and link disparate online collections of World War One material. What are the challenges and opportunities for participatory digital history?

Thursday, 04 December 2014 | 13:00 | Trinity Long Room Hub

A lecture by Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Mia Ridge (The Open University). Mia is a Transnational Access fellow, funded by the CENDARI project (Collaborative European Digital Archive Infrastructure).

Card-sorting activity at the Commodity Histories workshop

The AHRC-funded Commodity Histories project aims to produce a ‘website that will function as a collaborative space for scholars engaged in commodities-related research’.  The project organised a workshop, ‘Designing a collaborative research web space: aims, plans and challenges of the Commodity Histories project‘ in London on 6-7 September 2012.

As part of opening session on the ‘aims, plans and challenges of the Commodity Histories project and website’ I led a card-sorting exercise aimed at finding out how potential scholars in the community of commodity historians would expect to find and interact with content and other scholars in the network.  We prepared print-outs of sample content in advance and asked participants to sort them into groups and then label them.  At the end of the workshop I presented the different headings the groups had come up with and discussed the different ways they’d organised the material.

While some work had been done on the site structure previously, the process was useful for understanding some of the expectations people had about the functionality and sociability of the site as well as checking how they’d expect the site to be organised.  Various other presentations and discussion during the workshop reinforced the idea that the key task of the site is to enable contributors to add content easily and often, and tempered our expectations about how much scholarly networking would be visible as conversations on the site.

has written up some of the workshop at The Boundaries of Commodities.

Managing user-generated content in-gallery and online with WordPress

The subject of centrally managing visitor comments from museum interactives and online spaces keeps coming up on various discussion lists, so I thought I’d start a post about some work I’ve done on this that I can refer people to.  It’s very draft-ish at this stage, in part because I haven’t had time to go back to the original requirements and architecture documents and verify my vague memories.  I have no idea if posts like this would be useful for other people or what I could include to make it more useful – I’d love to know what you think.


When I started at the Science Museum, I discovered there were lots of different systems running the various in-gallery interactives, which meant lots of different usernames and passwords, server addresses and interfaces to master to do things like approve new visitor comments or update content.  The redevelopment of the Wellcome Wing galleries (Antenna and Who Am I?, and the new gallery Atmosphere) was an opportunity to create a centralised backend system that would make it easier to add new content and manage the sometimes huge levels of user-generated content that comes from the galleries.

Sample requirements: Antenna

The updated ‘Antenna’ contemporary science news gallery also had a vision of integrating the in-gallery and online experiences, not only with content flowing seamlessly into different interfaces, but also by bringing responses from visitors in the galleries and online into shared spaces. The system had to be able to manage polls, quizzes, ‘likes’, etc as well as helping manage and publish visitor comments. The galleries are visited by thousands of school children a day, and they can generate an immense number of comments, many of which are unsuitable for publication (i.e. kids will be kids, and they will think it’s funny to swear or be rude about a classmate, and of course there’s a lot of repetition along the lines of ‘I like exhibit x’).

Selecting a platform

After some thought, I settled on WordPress as the backend platform to publish our content and store user-generated content and related activity.  It’s based on PHP so it’s extensible and it’s not too difficult to find developers; it’s widely used so there are lots of decent plugins and themes*; it’s capable of supporting high traffic sites; and it has an API, which meant it would also work with the gallery’s Flash interactives, web and mobile interfaces – anything that can use a web service to push and pull content.  The user experience for the content developers and visitor comment moderators was also important to me, and WordPress was pretty good on that front.

As I posted to the Museums Computer Group list once, ‘As the gallery is about the latest in science news, it had to be easily updateable, and using a customised WordPress system means the same museum content and visitor comments can be shared on the Antenna website and in the gallery.  The system manages content and interaction for the daily (ish) science news stories, the short-term displays, and the in-depth ‘Feature’ exhibitions.  I’m happy to answer questions on the technical architecture and development process (or direct you to the Science Museum/NMSI web team), but questions about the in-gallery kiosk hardware etc are best directed to the New Media team.

Some of the ‘have your say’ applications in the Atmosphere and Who Am I? galleries also run on the same system, which means visitor comments can be moderated via the same central WordPress installation.  I don’t know how often the questions or polls change, but it should help the galleries keep their interpretation up-to-date over the life of the installations.’

* the art of selecting a plugin is a whole different post, and generally I’d say it’s useful to use them for rapid prototyping and early user testing but unless you’re really happy with the way a plugin is written you might want to write any bespoke plugins yourself – this doesn’t have to be difficult process.

Lessons learnt?

One important lesson I learnt rolling out and maintaining this project (before I left to start my PhD) was that a project like this often entails navigating between two views of the museum technology world.

A system like WordPress works in a very webby world, where large and small updates to the underlying codebase are released throughout the year. Plugins are updated, the underlying code libraries and operating systems might also release updates and fixes – all of which requires systems for testing the impact of these changes on your code and pushing out updates to live servers as necessary.

Exhibition and in-gallery interactives often follow a more traditional publishing model – once it’s live, you might spend a week on bug fixing but then you’re off onto the next thing. Software code isn’t written or documented for the same levels of maintainability, and maintenance time isn’t built into resourcing budgets.

A project that builds in links between webby and publishing-style projects needs a clear plan for either entirely freezing code (and managing any subsequent security issues accordingly) or introducing regression testing and roll-outs for all code production.