A regular guest blog post at the start of every month aims to provide an fresh insight into issues which are covered in the UK Web Focus blog.

The month’s guest blog post comes from Mike Ellis, who posts on the Electronic Museum blog. Mike was also the lead author of a paper on Web 2.0: How to Stop Thinking and Start Doing: Addressing Organisational Barriers presented at the Museums and the Web 2007 conference, which I contributed to.

Recently, Ross Parry from the University of Leicester Museum Studies Department asked me to help put together a “mashup” day as part of the Museums Computer Group conference. I was delighted to be involved. Anyone who’s had the misfortune to hear me speak will know that I’m a big fan of a “just do it” attitude to Web development. We spent a day producing some interesting stuff which made us all think in new ways. We purposely ignored the constraints; we didn’t think about the politics. These are debates which happen quite enough elsewhere across our sector. In this session, we just wanted to do, to be naive, to see what we could come up with, with only 6-7 hours of focussed development time. Some people will claim that we were just playing, and to a certain extent that’s true – but R&D time for anyone working in this field should be rigorously defended. Furthermore, I believe that you can only produce great Web applications with two key approaches:

  1. by providing frameworks and project structures which are wholly driven by – and tested with – your users.
  2. by challenging what you’re doing, and have done before, with left-field, iterative, Darwinist style build and testing.

Often, these approaches are used in isolation to each other. The first is often seen as process-heavy; the second as belonging to the institution mavericks. I take the line that actually they complement each other beautifully. On the one hand, if you don’t listen to what your users want; if you don’t understand exactly who they are, you’ll never, ever achieve anything of any use. On the other, if you fail to innovate or to challenge the erstwhile status quo, you’ll never find better, cheaper, more innovative ways of doing things: you fail to embrace the whole point of technology.

The Web itself is a huge user-centred experiment – a sprawling, evolutionary, grungy mess. It has no vision, no roadmap, no sustainability plan, no overall purpose, no governing body. And that’s what makes it such an interesting, dynamic ecosystem.

Mashups echo this wilderness, and by that very fact, they’re immensely challenging:

  • They’re challenging for IT types because they’ve spent their entire careers building and encouraging systems which are stable, known, specified and tested.
  • They’re challenging for academic types because they are based on new paradigms of authority.
  • They’re challenging for people who sell stuff because they define a model of shared ownership which at first seems at odds with any concept of profit.

For many others, “mashing” simply isn’t a way of thinking which is familiar. And that’s difficult, too.

At the same time, the mashup approach give you unprecedented access to a limitless pool of data, services and ideas. It is liberating to work in this way. It is also (reasonably) easy, and usually free. You can read more about what we did, and why I think mashups are important over on Slideshare.

I’m really excited to see that UKOLN are hosting a similar opportunity the at IWMW 2007 event (and gutted that I’m on holiday when it’s on..). The museum and HE sectors have many similar traits. On the plus side we have brains, content and ideas. On the minus, we’re famous for our “Institutional Treacle”. The more we can do to challenge the latter and do justice to the former by JUST DOING, the better. Go forth and mash!

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