"Knowledge is a mashup"

Dig into the Smithsonian Commons and you'll find Gov 2.0 in action.

These days, we hear a lot about open data, open government, and Gov 2.0. President Obama’s Open Government directive has given us access to huge data sets through avenues such as data.gov. But we have a lot more assets as a country than just digital 0s and 1s in CSV files. We also have artifacts and science and history and experts. Can open government apply to those assets as well?


If the Smithsonian Commons project is any indication, the answer is yes. I talked to Michael Edson, director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian about the project.

The Commons, which is currently being prototyped, is one of the best examples I’ve seen of “Gov 2.0 in action.” Highlights include:

  • Open access to data and knowledge, applied in a way that matters to people’s lives.
  • It’s transparent, participatory, and collaborative in a way that harnesses what Clay Shirky has called “the value of combinability” — an end result greater than the sum of its parts.
  • It is made significantly more useful by our contributions.

If these things are important to you — if you see the power of freeing real objects and history and culture — then go check out the prototype and let the Smithsonian staff know what you think. They need to hear from you before they can go on to the next phase in the project.

What is the Smithsonian Commons project?

Gov 2.0 Summit, 2010The Smithsonian Commons project is an effort to provide online access to Smithsonian research, collections, and communities. After all, not everyone can pop into one of the Smithsonian museums anytime they want. Even if they could, the buildings hold less than 2 percent of the collection. And anyway, if you’re a teacher and want to borrow some American history for a class lesson, I hear the people that work at the museums don’t like it much when you collect a bunch of that history in a shopping bag and fly back to Seattle with it.

But that description makes it sound like the project is about making a web site and putting pictures of stuff online, and that’s not really it at all.The project goes well beyond just access. This is key, as making information available should be merely the first step. It also has to be applicable and useful to people’s lives and it has to be the foundation for collaboration that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

How can people use the information? In the case of the Smithsonian Commons, Edson says the idea is for it to be a catalyst and a platform to empower “innovators, explorers, and sense-makers.”

In addition, Edson says the Smithsonian Commons “isn’t just a commons of stuff the Smithsonian owns and controls … Rather, the commons is about seeking powerful network effects from the sum total of the stuff, and the data, and the expertise, and the activities and programs, and the communities that form where stuff needs doing and figuring out in the real world.”

He notes that, “in the 19th and 20th centuries the best way to do this was to build big bricks-and-mortar institutions and throw all the stuff and experts in there together so organized work could happen.” But now, “we have important and audacious new goals that won’t yield easily to the old ways of getting stuff done.”

The prototype home page shows how this could work. A teacher can search through the vast collection for material for her class because the public has collaborated on tagging, recommending, discussing physical objects (from across all Smithsonian museums), and assembling videos, articles, and community-uploaded material. The teacher can filter by grade level and can download or share what she gathers, as well as store it in her personal collection. The sample video associated with the prototype shows the teacher downloading the information to a PowerPoint slide, but she could just as easily share the information to a Facebook page. (OK, maybe students don’t want teachers to know about their Facebook accounts. But you get the idea.)


Why is the Smithsonian Commons project important?

We tend to think of information as data on a screen, but as Edson points out, the physical items that museums house represent ideas, science, culture, and history:

“I think museums, libraries, archives, and research organizations have a critical role to play in building the preconditions for sustained rational thought and discourse in society,” he said. “And we can and should be an engine for creativity and innovation. I think we provide the building blocks for this by publishing our collections and research data in as open and free a way as possible. We provide scaffolding through scholarly research, exhibitions, publications, and public programs. But the mortar — the connective tissue that holds it all together — comes from the curiosity and activity and participation of millions of users, makers, and participants.”

How does the Smithsonian Commons project impact developers, makers, and innovators?

When I see the work of the open government movement, I am impressed by how much has been accomplished, but also see there is so much more to be done. Developers need to take that raw data and make it applicable to the every day lives of citizens. Makers, hobbyists, and experts can take what the Smithsonian Commons project hopes to provide as a foundation for collaboration, innovation, and relevance to our every day lives.

And that ability is one of the core attributes of the Smithsonian Commons project. Edson explains:

“I often describe the Smithsonian Commons in Maker terms — that a commons is a kind of organized workshop where the raw materials of knowledge creation can be found and freely assembled into new things, by us, by you, by anybody. Cory Doctorow or Mister Jalopy might say that the Smithsonian Commons is a museum and research complex as it would exist if reconstructed around the Owner’s Manifesto. Knowledge is a mashup!”

Edson says this collaboration is important in achieving the Smithsonian’s five-year plan of “unlocking the mysteries of the universe, understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet, valuing world cultures, and understanding the American experience” which Edson notes is doing what “Tim O’Reilly would call “stuff that matters.”

Why the Smithsonian project is “crazy good”

“We say that the Smithsonian Commons will be vast, findable shareable, and free,” Edson says. “These four things together give us something powerful and unique. Take away one and you get something good, but not crazy good.”

What does this mean in practice?

  • Vast: Anyone can have access to the entire Smithsonian collection, staff, vistors, and partners.
  • Findable: Search, navigation, and user experience design, recommendations, comments, and social networks come together to help users find exactly what they need
  • Sharable: The project encourages use and reuse for work, pleasure, education, online and offline
  • Free: “The Smithsonian Commons will be built on the premise that free, high-quality resources will spread farther and create more opportunities for discovery and creation than those that are restricted by unnecessary fees and licenses,” Edson says.

Who is the Smithsonian Commons project for?

Smithsonian Commons is for everyone, of course. But in the beginning, the makers and innovators are key. The Smithsonian wants to operate the Commons project a bit like a Web 2.0 startup: launch early and often. Iterate based on how people use it and what they really need. Who can make the best use of what the project has to offer and what is most useful to them?

The Smithsonian Commons prototype is the first step in that process. Publish some ideas and get feedback. Iterate. Repeat. Then ramp things up once the best direction becomes clear. Edson notes that getting permission, or at least forgiveness, for working this way is perhaps one of the greatest challenges in the Gov 2.0 movement: “In Gov 1.0 and in most large organizations, we like to design things in toto, pour the concrete, and be done with it. Varying that process requires a lot of stamina.”

I think this is an awesome approach. Now that we can put things online easily and let people use things the way they want to rather than force our audiences into a particular model, why not take the best advantage of that? Edson says that it’s easy to make generalizations about the Smithsonian audience, but in reality the Smithsonian is “the consummate long-tail business”.

This project will be a great experiment to see how a large government organization can operate like a Web 2.0 startup and learn the needs of the audience as the project evolves.

The power of what the web can be

This project is an amazing example of the true capabilities of the web. It merges offline and online information, makes experts available in any topic we want, provides global collaboration, and gives all of us access to valuable knowledge as building blocks for something even greater. In “Cognitive Surplus” — and noted above — Clay Shirky talks about “the value of combinability.” This project is a perfect example of what he describes. As I wrote about this concept on my blog:

“Shirky writes “if you have a stick, and someone gives you another one, you have two sticks. If you have a piece of knowledge — that rubbing two sticks together in a certain way can make fire — you can do something of value you couldn’t do before.” And here too is another new surplus the culture of the web gives us. By sharing knowledge, tools, failures, successes, ideas, we can better combine them for sums much greater than the parts. He notes that the community size has to be big enough, sharing has to be easy, there should be a common format or way of understanding the information, and then, there’s the last component, the one that technology can’t solve — people. Can we work well together? Do we understand each other, trust each other, want others to make what we do better?”

Edson says:

“The thing that makes the Smithsonian Commons different than a commons developed by a commercial entity is that the Smithsonian is in the forever business. By putting something in the Smithsonian Commons we’re asking people to trust us. We’re not going to scam you. We’re not going to violate your privacy. We’re not going to get bought by a competitor or just decide to go out of business one day. We’re going to be honest about what we do and don’t know, we’re going to be open to new ideas and points of view, we’re going to help each other figure out the world, and these promises are good, forever. Museums and libraries and archives are some of the few organizations in our culture that enter into those kinds of promises, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

So what’s next?

Edson says that the Smithsonian has never done a project like this before, so they’ve got no real process for it. Right now, they are soliciting feedback and comments. You can head over to the prototype right now and tell them what you think, what you would like the project to be, and how you’d best be able to use it. The reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive. But the Smithsonian wants to hear from as many people as possible before going forward so, ultimately, they build what people really want rather than what they think people might want. That’s a true Web 2.0 approach to Gov 2.0.


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