Confused About Scope: Art Online

A few months ago, the art discovery website Artfinder appeared on the scene, providing a place to go to view art (online) from galleries around the world, build your own collections, receive recommendations about other artworks you might like to see (and maybe go and visit for real) and so on. A “Magic Tour” feature allows you to select three art works you like from sets of four, and then view a personalised art collection based on recommendations derived from your selection. Where quality prints of a work are available, there is an option to buy the print (for example, via MemoryPrints).

A couple of other related things that have crossed my radar over the course of the year include the Google Art Project, which offers very high definition reproductions of artworks from galleries around the world, and the JISC funded OpenART project, “a partnership between the University of York, the Tate and technical partners, Acuity Unlimited, will design and expose linked open data for an important research dataset entitled ‘The London Art World 1660-1735′”.

Today, I noticed the launch of a new BBC site, Your Paintings [announcement], which offers you the ability to create art collections, locate artworks by physical gallery location and so on… Hmmmm… (As yet, the URLs don’t seem to support content negotiation as a result of adding a .json or .xml suffix to pircture or gallery page; that is, as yet, the service doesn’t appear to be offering linkable data (hyperdata?) views over the content).

There was a time when Microsoft used to be charged with unfairly influencing the market, announcing it was about to release some feature or product that a rival was trying to market, effectively stifling competition through brand and market dominance. If you read the tech blogs, Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, et al. currently find themselves in a regular situation where the services, applications or features they release are heralded as being likely to wipe out competition in a niche discovered, created, or developed by a startup elsewhere (only in many cases it doesn’t quite work out that way… surviced Twitter’s shortener, Google Buzz threatened no-one, Facebook Places or Google Latitude haven’t squashed Foursquare, etc.).

The BBC has itself faced challenges regarding “anticompetitive”/fair trading behaviour, for example in local online news (local news video), catchup services/internet TV (Canvas) or (BBC Jam).

Now I’m generally a fan of the BBC, but I do wonder what additional value Your Paintings brings, especially given that it’s not apparently being launched with any additional technical capacity building features (i.e. it’s not (yet?) making metadata freely available for others to build on, though a couple of recent tweets suggest this may be on the timeline…)?

Having come across aNobii today (via @maireadoconnor), a service that offers “an online reading community built by readers for readers allowing you to shelve, find and share books”, I wonder: is this another area where the BBC could just “step in”, presumably as a way of building community around the wide variety of programming it offers that have good hooks in to books?

[Disclaimer: I’ve ranted before about the BBC not making more use of structured markup around book identifiers, but if they were to get into reading groupsm this would presumably provide the technical underpinnings…? (e.g. BBC “In Our Time” Reading List using Linked Data.) So I maybe should be careful what I wish for…]

So the point of this post? Just to note my confusion about what it is the BBC actually does, and how it does it… I know that it’s not just about the telly and the radio, but I’m not sure what it is about when it comes to the web?

And it’s not just confusion about the BBC’s role. It also extends to the public facing role of the OU, which I personally view as having more a “public service education” remit than the rest of the UK HE sector (whether this is a view than can survive the increasingly businesslike culture of higher education I don’t know…). In other words: to what extent should the OU be doing more in the way of education related online public service broadcasting?

PS so I wonder:

SO how much does the BBC spend on AdWords?

How much has the BBC allocated to its opening salvo on a Your Paintings AdWords campaign…?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

4 thoughts on “Confused About Scope: Art Online”

  1. Okay, with the proviso that I’m posting here solely in a personal capacity, and everything is “to the best of my knowledge”… but when you link to one of my blog posts, I can’t resist…

    Your Paintings was a long project — it’ll come as no surprise that the intention was for it to have been launched quite a while ago; it’s entirely possible that it would have launched before ArtFinder and co. if everything had gone to schedule, and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have asked some of the same questions if so. Mind you, I don’t doubt that the others were long-term projects too, and they probably didn’t run to schedule.

    The scope for Your Paintings is a little bit different from Art Finder, Google Art and OpenART in that it’s specifically oil paintings, and specifically those in public ownership in the UK — the vast majority of which *aren’t* in galleries, and so probably wouldn’t ever be visible by other means.

    I don’t know the back-story of how the PCF and the BBC came to collaborate on the project: I suspect it’s a case of neither party having the resources to do the bits the other did by itself, and the project being a natural fit for /arts in that respect. You’re right that the BBC has all manner of (frankly, pretty arduous) fair trading and competitive impact regulations that it’s bound by, and I can say with some degree of certainty that some of the finest legal minds in the corporation will have poured over the setup to make sure we’re not doing anything we ought not to be, but I should stress that I’ve not sat in on any of those meetings, nor know for *certain* that they occurred, nor am a lawyer, so I could be talking rubbish.

    Regarding data: Yes.

    The long answer:

    I agree completely, and I know for a fact that the project team do, too. Indeed, the project I work on is very keen for the Your Paintings data to be opened up, because then *we* can use it.

    There are two key facets to it all — first of all is the data ownership: this wasn’t a case of the BBC sending teams of staff out to all of the places where the paintings are held. Instead, the PCF partners with the collecting organisations and produces an aggregate catalogue of the various collections’. This means that not only does the BBC not have carte blanche to do as it wishes, but neither does the PCF. What I *do* know is that it’s being worked on — the unfortunate reality of it is that “we have a catalogue and a load of photographs” and “we have a catalogue and a load of photographs and permission to make the data freely available” are poles apart, and although both support building the Your Paintings website, only the latter would allow for nicely conneg’d hyperdata. The agreements with the collections were (I believe) in place first, so going back and changing them wasn’t going to be on the critical path for this proposition.

    And this leads to the second facet, which is that of time and resources — although adding data views isn’t hugely difficult, when a project is running behind the intended schedule and has hard deadlines to stick to, the non-immediately-user-facing-stuff will be de-prioritised. As much as the long-term benefit of having open data is pretty clear, the short term benefit lies solely in the HTML, CSS, Javascript and images. I know for a fact that at half past four yesterday afternoon, half an hour after the thing was supposed to (really) be live ready for the launch today, it was still all-hands-on-deck and there was talk of whether buying pizza for the DBAs would help. Nothing particular unusual in that, really (no site launch is ever *quite* as smooth sailing as you’d like), but it does illustrate the distinct lack of wiggle-room involved in it.

    So, data will—as far as I’m aware—happen, but it’s not a straightforward process and involves waiting on (to date) sixteen hundred separate collections to agree to it, which is no fun at all.

    As for the OU’s role, the BBC’s role, the OU and the BBC’s joint role, and everything in that space… that’s a conversation best had over a coffee. Or a pint :)

  2. @Mo – thanks for the feedback.. I guess it wasn’t a quick project, and I can but imagine the rights wranglings that folk were involved with…. There’s a host of issues there that I think the folk are going to be faced with when it comes to practicalities of any large organisations publishing and consuming metadata relating to cultural objects.

    As to making the data available so that folk inside the BBC – as well as outside the Beeb – can do stuff with it, that’s one of the most beneficial things to come ut of the whole opendata movement I think? Ie internal friction is reduced and access *within* institutional operations suddenly gets a whole lot easier!

  3. @mo @tony – as part of the we planned to make the research output of a number of Arts faculty projects available as LD. Unfortunately the only data set that we actually managed to deal with in this area was the Reading Expeience Database (post at

    However I know that Fouad is actively working on making the OU Open Arts Archive data available on ‘soon’.

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