Thursday, April 17, 2014

Big Data and the Holy Grail of Museum Metrics

One of the themes covered in CFM’s TrendsWatch 2014 report is the power of big data and data analytics. The ubiquity of internet-connected sensing devices and our relentless use of social media and online commerce generates 2.8 zettabytes (a zettabyte = 2 to the 70th power) every year. This flood of information is being fed into predictive algorithms that yield results that look nearly magical: forecasting spikes in unemployment, global conflict, disease outbreaks, even local crime. As people are quickly discovering, big data analytics, like any tool, can be misused, but when applied to appropriate problems with sound methodologies, they can transform whole sectors.

Can big data transform museums? Data mining can certainly be useful to individual museums--I’m chairing a session on that topic on Monday, May 19, 1:45 pm at the upcoming Alliance conference in May. Data on a museum’s visitors linked to US Census data via zip code can generate reams of illuminating demographic information. Tracking patrons’ use of museum space and amenities can suggest efficiencies of staffing and services. But I’m even more interested in the potential payoff of big data for the museum field as a whole.

As we’ve explored in TrendsWatch 2013 and on this Blog, we live in a society increasingly focused on concrete measurements of outcomes. This poses the risk that museums, in order to comply with these expectations, may focus on doing small, measurable good, while losing sight of the big, ambitious hard-to-measure good that lies at the heart of our missions. How do you measure the improvement art makes in someone’s life? What metric captures the value of an understanding of history? Largely, in the past, we couldn’t measure things like this, and didn’t try. Even in fields like medicine it is rare to find the kinds of large scale, long-term longitudinal research projects that can tease out small and subtle effects of lifestyle and behavior. Museums have never had the cultural equivalent of the Framingham Heart Study or the Nurses’ Health Study, following thousands of individuals over the course of decades, generating the masses of granular data needed to support such analysis. Instead researchers try to get at these questions in bits and pieces (measuring the effect of field trips, or the personal value of museum engagement), but the results are generally limited and hard to generalize.

Now there is an alternative to traditional longitudinal studies like Framingham. The combination of the Internet of Things (which tracks and measures so much of what we do), the Quantified Self movement (mainstreaming individual collection and analysis of minute details of everyday life), and Big Data Analytics could give us the ability to assess the impact of museum engagement on health, happiness, educational attainment, well-being and other measures of success.

People are already envisioning how big data can transform health care. Doctors and health care advocates envision a future in which the internet-connected things in your life—your fridge, scale, activity monitor band, medicine cabinet—communicate with your health provider to provide seamless integration of care. Besides giving individuals a “big picture” look at how their own behavior, diet and environment affect their personal health, this network would create huge databases, supporting analysis that would greatly increase the speed and power of identifying the overall risks and benefits of specific foods, behaviors or environmental exposure. It took decades to make an overwhelming case for the dangers of cigarette smoking. Despite the huge sums the tobacco lobby is spending to defend the next system for delivering nicotine, it may take far less time to quantify the first and second-hand risks of vaping (inhaling vapor from electronic cigarettes).

Educators, technologists and reformers are already envisioning how big data can transform education. The IBM PETALS project (Personalized Education Through Analytics on Learning Systems) is using machine learning and advanced data analytics to identify the individual learning needs of students and recommend personalized learning pathways. Khan Academy is using data gleaned from its thousands of student learners not only to provide feedback to teachers on specific students, but also to identify patterns in how students learn, and what kinds of pedagogy work best with what kinds of learners. Some researchers, and reformers, want to link children’s health and school records to identify factors that cross the home/school/community boundaries to affect children’s ability to thrive. For example, linking hospital records with education records to assess the correlation between smoking during pregnancy and ADHD, or impact of concussions on educational outcomes, or how children with a diagnosis of autism fare in the special education system.

What if we added cultural engagement to the linked data sets of health and education? If we track how people—children or adults—Interact with museums, historic sites, libraries, performing arts, and put that in the big data mix, we could finally document the effects of, say, family museum visits on kids’ educational attainment, or the impact of engagement with the arts on health and well-being.

The biggest challenge to this “holy grail” of museum metrics isn’t technological—it’s cultural. The kind of blanket surveillance that enables us to collect this level of detail is frankly, freaking people out, and leading to a backlash of concern about personal privacy. Do you really want your toothbrush ratting you out to your dentist? While you may feel better if your mom’s pillbox emails you if she doesn’t take her meds, do you want your pillbox emailing your kids? Do we want our museum logging when we visit, and how long we stay? (Well, maybe with appropriate incentives, we do.)

If we as a society ever do decide the potential benefits arising from mass collection of personal data outweigh our concerns, it may be with regard to our children. We already accept limits to kids privacy and autonomy in the interests of ensuring their health and safety, limits that we would not accept for adults. So I’m waiting for the first city to propose the trifecta of big data on children, merging health, education and cultural data to find out what really fosters happy, healthy, successful kids. Let me know if you see a movement toward this starting in your community…

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: WindPunk

Hooked on this weekly (nearly) wordless glimpse of the future? You can find more images, and links to related stories, on the CFM Pinterest Boards

Read more about the BAT floating windmill

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday Musing: the Future of Education, Testing & the Common Core

Weekend before last I was in New Orleans, at the National School Boards Association conference. I was there to talk up the Alliances soon-to-be-released report "Building the Future of Education: Museums & the Learning Ecosystem" (more on that in a bit).

Katherine Prince, who directs forecasting on the future of education for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, was at NSBA speaking on potential futures for America's young learners. Katherine and I have long been swapping notes on this topic,  and the message she delivered in NOLA highlighted projections which we both feel are very likely: the coming era of transformation in US education; the danger of creating a fractured landscape of learning which exacerbates social and economic stratification; the potential of integrating resources offered by museums, libraries and archives into a vibrant learning grid that serves the needs of all learners. Katherine was kind enough to give me time, at the end of her talk, to invite board members to come talk to me and my colleagues in the Alliance booth about what they want, and get, and need from museums, to sign up to receive CFM's education report and to volunteer to be part of a larger conversation between museums and schools.

I confess I was expecting resistance to the premises that underly the vision of education Katherine and I buy into: that learning works best when it is self-directed, passion-based, experiential and directed towards "real world work." These principles align very well with the growing consensus that, in order to thrive in the 21st century, young people need to hone their skills of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. They don't mesh so well with the current focus on regimentation, standardized teaching and hyper-testing. I went to this conference assuming that the majority of school board members support the status quo.

Instead, I found that NSBA had seeded the conference numerous educational critics and reformers--Sir Ken Robinson, Thomas Friedman, Nikhil Goyal, Erin Gruwell--who hammered home the point that current political and social trends are doubling down on an anachronistic educational paradigm. And the attendees seemed largely receptive to their messages, though hesitant and unclear on how to change to a new paradigm. The most common question I heard, lobbed at several of these speakers, was "how do you feel about the common core and standardized testing?" I was interested to hear each give variations on the same answer: common core and standardized testing are two different issues, even if they are yoked in current policy discussions. None were fundamentally opposed to their being some common framework for society "we all should be conversant with this"--even if there were varying degrees of enthusiasm about the content of the current standards. All felt that the current narrow focus on testing was immensely counterproductive, destructive both to teachers and students.

So, (at last I get to my musing for the day) I was heartened to return to DC and find this headline in my inbox, sent by a colleague:

Education Taskforce Meets in Boise to Eye Ideas

The article reports that the [Idaho] governor's Task Force for Improving Education met to discuss legislative proposals, including "a switch to mastery-based education that would let students advance based on when they fully grasp a concept, rather than the time they spend in a classroom." It notes "Proponents hope more autonomy on local levels will give teachers room for creativity and innovation — possibly sparking a better way to reach students" but acknowledges that this is at odds with the push towards standardized teaching and testing, and that the task force members don't have a clear idea on how to meaningfully measure mastery. 

But at least this task force is trying to change the system. As Sir Ken pointed out in his talk, we can't expect to teach creativity through an educational system that is itself designed around standardization. I find it encouraging that not only individual school board members, but their national association and policy makers at the state level are taking this message to heart.

Now, what can museums do to help create the new educational era, one premised on diverse, creative learning environments? That is what the Alliance is beginning to explore, starting with the release later this month of "Building the Future of Education". We will use this report to start discussions at the local, state and federal level about what it would take to break down the barriers between museum educational resources and the full spectrum of young learners---whether they are in public or private schools, home schooled or unschooled--and what role the Alliance can play in making that happen. Keep an eye on the Alliance website, and this blog, for the release of the report. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on who we should recruit into this discussion, and what experiments we could try, as we explore next steps.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Futurist Friday: The Happy City Index

You may be familiar with Bhutan's "Gross National Happiness Index," established to measure something more than economic well-being of a country. Or perhaps you've followed the UK's Happy Museum project, which takes a holistic approach to sustainability and well-being.

Now this approach is beginning to take hold in the US. (Or at least it is gaining a toe-hold.)Your Futurist Friday assignment is to watch this [2 min] video about the city of Santa Monica's Well-being Project, one of five projects to be funded through Bloomberg Philanthropy's Mayors Challenge.

You can read more about the project in this article

This project aims to expands Santa Monica's Youth Wellbeing Report Card to create a metric that serves the whole city. The Youth report card already takes note of museums (for example, the Santa Monica Museum of Art 's Park Studio, which is a spring break immersion program for high school students). If this approach spreads to other cities--how might it help measure, and value, the contribution of museums to a community's well-being?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Revisiting the Ransolm

CFM's latest forecasting report, TrendsWatch 2014, has been out a month now, and I have been getting great feedback. The magic chip reports the paper has been opened over 1,700 times. Carol Stapp, director of the museum education program at The George Washington University, wrote to say (regarding her students) that "the issue of invasion of privacy via surveillance/tracking in TrendsWatch 2014 scared the bejeesus out of them, so much so that they revisited themselves online and tried to clean up the record of their cyber selves." Hope that helps with some future job applications :).

These students' reaction to an increased awareness of surveillance fuels not only the trend towards Privacy that we documented in TW '14, but also the theme of Respite & Retreat (aka "Digital Detox") we first visited in TrendsWatch 2013. You can't watch what you can't see, and digital surveillance depends on our hyper-connected world. Being creeped out (by in-store tracking, counter-terrorism AI or by tracking chips) is just one more reason to "unplug."

In combing the Blog archives for relevant throwbacks, I came across this 2010 post riffing on our first forecasting report—Museums & Society 2034. That paper speculated that, in the face of the increasing technological noise and clutter of the future, museums may become oasis in which people escape from multi-tasking. To explore that scenario, I invented the (fictional) Ransolm Museum of Art—a 21st century institution that has capitalized on the desire for respite, retreat and the real spawned by our hyper-connected, multi-tasking, increasingly virtual daily environment of work and play. I think that now is a good (creeped out) time to revisit the Ransolm, don't you?

Museum Design 2034: Respite and Retreat

Originally published Monday, April 12, 2010

The Ransolm Museum of Art in Los Angeles provides a jarring contrast to the bustling city outside its doors. After passing through the four acre “buffer garden” (which conceals advanced sound baffle devices that block 90% of the noise from surrounding streets) visitors are required to check all non-medical electronic devices at the museum’s door. Visitors using technologically based accessibility-enhancement devices such as EnhancedSight and EchoLocator are encouraged, but not required to forgo these devices as well. In fact, smuggling in an earphone bud or cloudlink device won’t do you any good, because the museum’s walls are engineered to block all electronic signals from outside.

Once inside, the Ransolm’s exhibits are a throwback to a bygone era. There is one set of labels (print), rather than the abundance choice of interpretive “threads” museum-goers are used to selecting using portable interfaces. They don’t offer recorded audio tours—not even old-fashion cassette tape packs (though this was suggested by one board member, who waggishly contended it would be retro enough to fit the museum’s low-tech ethos.) Visitors requesting audio commentary are personally escorted by a staff member who obligingly reads the label, providing translation as appropriate, or describes the painting or sculpture in question.

In contrast with the replicas and holographic projections used by many museums today (which according to the American Association of Museums, comprise an average of 20% of the material on display in a typical art museum) all the objects at the Ransolm are “real” and genuine. Their conservators even follow the quaint (and many would argue out-dated) convention of carrying out repairs in a way that renders them distinct and identifiable.

This does not mean the museum is non-interactive. Sketching and (old-fashioned mechanical) photography are encouraged. Over a dozen “appreciation” groups have regularly scheduled meetings in the museum to discuss exhibitions or individual works of art. The museum’s “contemplation rooms” are particularly popular—here a visitor (after browsing the collections via the web, from home) can book time, unobtrusively escorted by a staff member, to sit and examine a work selected from the collection for up to an hour.

The museum has mined a rich source of revenue via its corporate retreats, enabling companies to rent the museum after hours or on Mondays for staff “personal renewal” time, or for “single tasking” sessions in the museums meeting rooms and auditorium. (Which has excellent acoustics despite the absence of electronic speakers. Of course, computer projection is not available.)

In a 2033 poll by the Los Angeles Times WebNews service, LA residents voted the Ransolm Museum the “Best Secret City Treasure.” This despite the fact that it receives over 60,000 visits a year (which is above the national average for an art museum of its size.) At peak hours you may be sharing the museum with 300 other people—but it would be difficult to tell that as you enjoy the quiet and peace of its galleries.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Machine Learning and the Future of Authentication

Look what machines are teaching themselves to do:

All courtesy of what is called "machine learning": the ability of artificial intelligence programs to learn from their own performance working with large data sets, enabling them to do things they are not explicitly programmed to do. Basically, machine learning gives computers the ability to generalize from experience. 

In TrendsWatch 2014,  I noted that, with regard to the implications of machine learning for society, "the biggest challenge facing doctors, investment analysts, engineers, policy makers and managers is learning to trust analytic algorithms rather than their own judgement." Or to bring it down to a personal level--would you trust a self-driving car to "take the wheel" because it is a safer driver than a human pilot?

We have good reasons to learn such trust, because it turns out that recognizing patterns in data is something that computers can be really, really good at. For example, when IBM Watson looks at a patient's symptoms, and then combs medical databases for matching cases, it isn't hobbled by preconceptions about what this patient "should" be suffering from. This frees Dr. Watson from the classic "hoofbeats=horses, not zebras" paradigm. (Which is a fine rule of thumb, unless you happen to be the rare patient actually suffering from a zebra infestation.) It also helps avoid the all too common situation in which a cardiologist, an oncologist, and a neurologist each attribute the same problem to the heart, cancer and nerves respectively. Computers don't have preconceptions, or, so far, egos. 

So, I'm wondering what happens when Watson, working its computational way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at last turns its attention to art. Art authentication is an increasingly fraught field, with artist-specific foundations, collectors and experts tangled over who has the final word over attribution. Some foundations, like the Pollock-Krasner and the Warhol, have ceased doing authentication whether from fear of lawsuits or other concerns. 

Often authentication rests on induction from objective evidence: the age and chemical nature of paint or canvas, the presence of accidental inclusions such as pollen, or hair. Even those clues, however, may only help to detect conscious, asynchronous forgeries. What about the endless reclassification of works into "by [insert great artist here]" versus "from the workshop of.." with attendant vast swings in monetary value and prestige?

When it comes down to recognizing what we have previously described as "style"--the ineffable quality that can only be recognized by instinct and training--I wonder if museums are going to need to learn to trust analytic algorithms rather than their own judgement. While art historians aren't driven by the need to process huge amounts of material (which has fueled the application of machine learning to text classification) they certainly could use an unbiased arbiter with no skin in the game. (Heck, in Watson's case, with no skin at all...)