Unlocking access to big cultural data for research

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“There’s an increasing demand for access to cultural data in our collecting institutions here in Australia and galleries, libraries, archives and museums have been digitising material that researchers are interested in using. We are however hitting the limits of web infrastructure… and we need a different kind of infrastructure to support research” – Ingrid Mason

Online access to digital cultural collections maintained by Australia’s cultural sector enables all kinds of research, in the humanities, arts, social science and science. This area of research is flourishing, but the current access model is not meeting the needs of all researchers.

Access to digital cultural collections is currently delivered via web infrastructure and data services provided by cultural institutions, such as online catalogues, APIs and GitHub.

However, researchers working in the emerging field of digital humanities are increasingly seeking to work with big or sensitive cultural data, to combine data or work remotely from the data, or use high performance computing and data visualisation tools.

These data-intensive research practices are beyond the capabilities of the web infrastructure that is in place in most cultural institutions, which means new data services need to be developed to support research in this field.

We talked to Ingrid Mason, an eResearch Analyst at Intersect Australia about this problem. Ingrid is working on the Research Data Services project: Access to Culture and Community Data for Research, which is tasked with developing a range of possible solutions.

Mason says the eResearch community and collecting institutions need to join forces to work out ways to target and repackage digital cultural heritage as a data source and link Australia’s research and public infrastructures.

“The solution requires communication, collaboration and change, and the concept of a bridge works well to illustrate what we might do to overcome this problem. The solution is ideally a mix of practice change (in both the collecting and research worlds) and the development or use of connective technical infrastructure,” she says.

Many collecting institutions in Australia – galleries, libraries, archives and museums, or GLAMs, are already connected to AARNet’s high performing research and education network and the project team is interested in exploring what is involved in moving the big cultural data held by these insitutions in and out of research environments, both temporarily and permanently, with the idea of making this activity as regular an event as loaning a physical item from a collection.

“We want to collaborate with our GLAM sector colleagues to work out how to support access to the big cultural data that can’t be accessed via an online catalogue. The first step is to share ideas about how we might go about this together (and bridge those gaps literally and figuratively) and how the national research infrastructure, and AARNet is a critical piece of that, can support this,” says Mason.

Watch the video to learn more



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