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Learning about digital preservation and people around it

Posted: 2009-06-03 23:05:59, Categories: Travel, Work, 665 words (permalink)

IASSIST conference reception at the Tampere old city hall. I wrote half a year ago about my new job with environmental and cultural data. During the last seven months I've learned a great deal about ensuring long term access to digital data or digital preservation as it is commonly called, about museums, libraries and archives and about people who work in them.

My main focus has been on the Finnish National Digital Library project (Kansallinen digitaalinen kirjasto in Finnish) and in particular the long term preservation of digital and digitized cultural works. Those who can read Finnish can take a look at the preliminary functional requirements document which also gives a good overview on what the project is all about. The information is already slightly outdated as a working group has been drafting the overall system architecture during April and May, but it's still good for taking a more in depth look and sending comments if you have any.

One of the best aspects has been meeting people from museums, libraries and archives, learning at least a little bit about what these cultural institutions are doing behind the scenes. The National Digital Library project seems to be a strong motivator for the previously rather isolated sectors to work together. Interesting things are being revealed even within each sector: for example how two archives can arrive in two perfectly logical but semantically incompatible descriptions of an object although both are using the same metadata standard.

Finland is not alone: in particular the Europeana portal for cultural works has inspired many countries to set up similar projects during the last couple of years. One of the objectives of the Finnish National Digital Library is to bring content online so that it can be found not only via the Finnish interface but also through Europeana, Google and other search engines. Online access to cultural works in a few year timeframe looks therefore rather bright — at least from a historian's point of view. Old works whose copyright has already expired will be made available, but it's another question how much of the more recent content will be easily accessible.

Being assigned to a national project, I've traveled less than earlier when I was representing CSC in Nordic and EU projects. I haven't missed it much: flying back and forth between cities spending most of the time in meetings wouldn't satisfy my travel appetite and feel bad from the environmental point of view. Nevertheless, I spent a week in Rome in March learning about data repository risk analysis before CouchSurfing with four lively Italians, and last week I was at Tampere in the IASSIST 2009 conference. IASSIST was suprisingly lot of fun in addition to the information content: jokes were flying around, people liked to party and the photo session at the end wrapped up everything perfectly. The most inspiring presentation was given by Dr. Michael Batty on data visualization, in particular on what can be done using GMap, Image Cutter and other tools developed by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis in University College London.

My work contract has been extended until the end of the year. Like until now it's 80 hours per month, approximately half time. As I've been working for more than that during the winter and spring I'll start the summer with a two month vacation, getting back to work in August. Travel destinations will this time include Canada, United States, Finland and Norway — but that's already the topic of another post.

By the way, Ministry of Education also finally got out the survey on the current state of geographic information related data in Finland to which I contributed a little bit. I have no idea whether the information and suggestions in the report will really be used or whether they'll become buried and forgotten — we'll see. If you want to read more about my thoughts on the topic in general take a look of my earlier article.

(Minor edit 2009-08-13: links updated to point at the new National Digital Library website.)

Playing with clay

Posted: 2009-04-18 22:53:31, Categories: Helsinki, Art, 513 words (permalink)

Clay works and people watching them. Picture taken from the center, on top of the remaining pile of clay. In late March, a white hall appeared on the Kaisaniemi field in the center of Helsinki. Inside in the middle of it stood a pile of one hundred tons of clay. For ten days, anybody could sign up as a volunteer, step in the hall and get creative. Over a thousand people participated, ranging from professional artists to random passers-by and small children. It was a collaborative art project called Clay and the Collective Body.

The hall had no windows, simply white roof and light gray floor. No cameras, mobile phones nor tools were allowed inside, just people and clay. The artist Antony Gormley wanted to make it a primitive experience: touch the earth and be a child again. It worked from the beginning — anyone could play that game, nobody needed to be told what to do. Antony said that many were a bit hesitant first but then got an idea or found others to work together with and became enthusiastic about creating something.

Imaginary clay scene of three people in front of the Men-an-tol stone in Cornwall. Part of the idea was that one could build on what others had built and that produced some of the most interesting results. Someone placed simple blocks of clay after each other on one day, later someone else shaped one section of it to look like the Great Wall, a dragon head appeared at one end and fourth artist added some flowers on top. Most however chose an empty space and started working on something from scratch, either alone or in a group. We are taught to just watch and not touch the art of others and that behaviour can stick quite deep.

After ten days the artwork was finished: doors were opened for public to walk around, view and take photos of the result. It was an amazing wealth of creative energy gathered in one place, reflecting all aspects of society. There were sculptures of people and animals, pictures of war and death, happy love scenes, historical buildings, items from recent news, realistic looking everyday objects, abstract shapes and surrealistic views. One could easily walk for two hours looking around and still find many unnoticed works and details during the next round.

Now the doors have already been closed and the clay returned back to earth. It's similar to snowmen in the backyard and sand castles on the beach: no permanent objects to be preserved for years to come. However, there are plenty of photos and some videos on the official site of the project. The first photo in this blog entry shows an overview towards one corner taken from the center of the hall, and the second is the scene I made together with Sandra, a German girl who was visiting Finland. It was fun both to create and to admire what others had created.

Clay and the Collective Body was the first project of the recently founded Pro Arte foundation, which plans to bring one visible modern art project in Helsinki each year. I hope the next projects will also include public participation in a way or another and be as inspiring as this one!

Celebration of winter in the south

Posted: 2009-02-18 00:59:34, Categories: Travel, Finland, Helsinki, 263 words (permalink)

Ice swimming place and a lonely skier on the Laajalahti bay, Helsinki, Finland. For the last couple of weeks there has been enough snow for skiing also in southern Finland, including Helsinki where I live. Last winter there was never snow for more than a few days which makes it feel even more special now. The sea has received a beautiful ice cover which is thick enough to safely ski, skate or walk on. On Saturday I went out for a small cross country ski trip and saw dozens of ice skaters and a few kitesurfers on the Laajalahti bay. One place was kept open for swimmers but the only person next to it was another skier.

On Monday I commuted to work on skis, across the same bay. When coming back, the sun had already set and stars were covered by clouds. I had a headlamp, but the clouds reflected surrounding city lights down to the snow so that there was no need to use it. Gliding on the smooth white surface with lots of open space around gave a joyful feeling of escaping the city while being all the time less than 10 km away from the center.

Snow and ice are essential elements of winter for me. It's just so much more beautiful and enjoyable than +5°C and rain. If there wouldn't be snow, I might as well move somewhere close to the equator and wear t-shirt and shorts every day. The change of seasons, from green and warm summer days to the cool shades of ice and snow in the winter and back again, is a miracle of nature to be celebrated.

Privacy and Lex Nokia surveillance law

Posted: 2009-01-31 02:05:49, Categories: Finland, Helsinki, Politics, 484 words (permalink)

A sign saying (translation): Our basic rights are being taken away from us in silence, piece by piece. Hand in hand with the introduction of new surveillance systems, methods and laws, personal right to privacy is eroding bit by bit. Latest addition in Finland is the law proposal dubbed as Lex Nokia (full text in Finnish). It has raised quite a few critical voices nationally and got some international attention through EDRI and articles in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper international edition.

In short, corporate and community Internet subscribers (yhteisötilaajat in Finnish) are about to gain substantial rights to monitor the behaviour of individual users in their networks. Publicly the law has been presented as a means to detect trade secret leaks from companies, but the proposal extends much further than that. For example libraries and university dormitories could check up on their users who they are exchanging emails with or which web pages they are visiting, with the broad excuse of suspicion of violation of network rules. The violation doesn't necessarily mean anything illegal, it is simply something which has been forbidden in the terms of use in that particular network.

There are some restrictions and privacy safeguards mentioned, but the proposal is written so unclearly that it's very difficult to say when exactly snooping would be allowed and when not. I tried but honestly couldn't figure it out. One thing is clear: the Finnish police is only allowed to browse the same kind of private information when the user is suspected of a crime, and minor crimes don't even apply. In other words, corporations and "community subscribers" are getting broader rights than the police. Oops.

There will be a public demonstration against the law proposal in Helsinki on February 5, 2009, starting at 14:30. If you agree with the message and can make it to the parliament house that day, be there! Another interesting related effort is creating two short TV commercials about the law and buying some prime time on one of the national channels to get the message out. The commercials will be aired a few times between Monday 2nd and Wednesday 4th of February.

There is something absurd about concerned private individuals campaigning against a surveillance law by buying airtime on television. Little by little, the world is being shaped towards the fictional reality described in George Orwell's famous book Nineteen Eighty Four (1984). His prediction was just a few dozen years ahead.

Update 17.2.2009: The TV commercials were aired and the public demonstration held, gathering about 300-400 participants. Discussion about the law proposal has continued lively in the media. The proposal has been criticized by the central bureau of police. The youth organization of the conservative party Kokoomus has issued a statement demanding the law proposal to be rejected. It will be interesting to see whether any of the conservative party members in power will follow their wish and vote against it. At least no politician can claim any more not having heard about problems related to the proposal.

Cheap flights and Japan at the Helsinki travel fair

Posted: 2009-01-26 21:53:49, Categories: Travel, Japan, Helsinki, Ecology, 445 words (permalink)

Japanese style torii at the Laatumatkat stand. The yearly Helsinki travel fair held during the third weekend of January had a timely official theme: Vastuu yhteisestä maailmasta (Responsibility of our common world). However, another theme emerged more prominently: Fly far and cheap. Finnair, Air France, KLM and other airlines had huge booths where they were selling long distance flights for lower prices than ever. Return flights to India, Thailand and China were less than 400 €, to North America, Northern Africa and Japan well below 500 € and to South American cities around 750 €, all taxes and other fees included. With more than 85 000 visitors attending the event they probably sold quite a few of them. I didn't really figure out how the official and the unofficial theme connected with each other, but never mind.

I spent most of the time at the Japania ry booth, answering questions about traveling in Japan and Japanese cultural events in Finland. A typical visitor had just booked flights to Japan and was searching for hints about which places and cities are worth seeing, where to stay and other practical things. Another common category were fathers and mothers who came to ask about manga and anime (Japanese comics and animated films), because "our teenage kids are crazy about them and we don't understand anything".

Japanese youth culture is certainly hip in Finland now and it's a bit surprising that the Japanese Embassy doesn't do much to embrace it. Japan didn't have any official presence at the travel fair either, so Finnish-Japanese friendship organizations and a couple of travel agencies tried to fill the gap. Laatumatkat had a fancy torii (Shinto style gate) in front of their stand which is featured in the picture of this blog post. I also made a small photo gallery of Japan related stands at the event, including a few portraits of people in cosplay dresses (dressed as manga characters).

I tested a couple of booths with my favourite question What can you tell me about bicycle travel in your country?, but didn't meet anybody too enthusiastic or knowledgeable about it. Last year the Georgian representant did very well. :-) The narrow corridor where all the volunteer run friendship organizations were placed next to each other was again the best of the show: had a couple of nice discussions there. Otherwise I didn't find much of interest as I didn't want to book a cheap flight somewhere or collect a bunch of thick brochures. A bit too late I realized that I had missed the domestic section completely; that might have been worth visiting. For international travel, much better information is available through web sites and by contacting locals or other travel enthusiasts.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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