JDCC09: Nick Poole: Digital Britain

Nick Poole is the CEO of Collections Trust, and has been involved in many issues to do with digitisation, including advising on digital strategy.

He began by setting context, beginning with the manifesto Building Britain’s Future and various political issues – a new European Commission; a weak pound against the euro; a recessionary economy; a reduction in public expenditure; an increased emphasis on a “Digital Economy” and an increased pressure on HE/FE and the heritage community to generate value.

The Digital Britain report highlights five priority areas: modernising broadband infrastructure; provide a favourable climate for investment; to secure high-quality public service content; develop the nation’s digital skills; secure universal access to broadband. In terms of the Treasury, they have two programmes running – the public value programme, and the public sector efficiency programme. The public value programme wants to maximise the social outcome of work done in the sphere; the public sector efficiency programme wants to save money – so we need more output with less money.

There are two options – either take the value of a decade’s worth of investment in e-content and use it to created something consumer-facing and market-competitive to show how we’re contributing to Digital Britain; or argue amongst ourselves, spend a lot of time talking about standards and interoperability, and let digital content turn into digital landfill.

There are several problems we share – first, money. When you have a high failure ratio for funding bids in a competitive sector, it’s obvious money is tight. Second, politicians – this is all likely to change, but we are reinventing attitudes every few years depending on administration. Third, trust – we have had to embrace technology and cope with shifts in demographic and expectation, and now we need to establish trust. Where are the limits of our tolerance? Will we want a controlled model? Either trust the crowd, or don’t – there are no half-measures. Where will the limits be?

Fourth, projects – lots of skilled people are enthusiastic about their projects, but then funding applications and losing staff affects their enthusiasm.  Fifth, managers – the issue of business cases, an idealised model which looks to prove that taking a risk will turn out OK. We don’t have a business case; we don’t know how the models will work; we don’t know if something is a good idea or bad idea. Sixth, copyright – we go on and on about copyright as if there is something fundamentally wrong with copyright law, and there isn’t. We need to get off the fear of copyright and think about taking risks, and remember there is no long tradition of case law here.

Seventh, users – we are pursuing an idealised model of an user, and it keeps shifting. At the moment it’s of the Xbox generation, and we think we should use Web 2.0 models. Users are different, of all ages and technological backgrounds. Eighth, strategy – this is not an area you can strategise in. Marshalling effort is difficult, but you can set an ambition and then galvanise people towards that.

Ninth, digital – it means many different things, from the use of computers to manage collections to driving economic value through the web to broadband access. Finally, marketing – the internet is a competitive ecology like none before it, and if we don’t tell people it’s there, they won’t see it. Sustainability is a side-product of a successful service.

In the heritage sector, we are becoming a public service broadcaster – sending content into people’s homes without a direct economic return. Over the last 10 years, over £200 million has been invested in the heritage/culture sector, but that’s still not enough to digitise everything, and nor should it be.

RIN produced a report, Discovering Physical Objects, that suggested creating a researchers’ charter to manage expectations and connecting catalogues and databases. Our response to that has been the Culture Grid – cultural databases need audiences, so value is being aggregated and fed through to the “Google generation”.

We could do more. We could look at joint e-content procurement.  We could work together to consolidate the decade of content generation. If we don’t, we’re looking at more of the same – inefficient use of resources; the risk of duplication; sounding dissonant at a political level; and producing a decade of digital landfill.

We have the chance to work towards a very exciting vision, and if we don’t, we’ll regret it for the next ten years.


Catherine Grout, JISC, asked about the impact of the SCA. Nick Poole replied that the sector is lucky to have the SCA. They are taking the problems that confront us all and are doing things to solve them.

A delegate said that with a finite pot of money, there’s either content free at the point of use, or there’s a marketplace, which is changing very quickly.  Nick Poole replied that what we’re monetising is reputation and trust. We may not be selling images, but we do have a role as digital content curators that we can monetise.

Another delegate asked about “value”, and if there is a consensus about what constitutes value. Nick Poole replied that there is no consensus, and everyone is learning.  Value is what a user attributes to something. We are not clear about which audiences we are serving. It isn’t for us to establish a consensus, but we need a model that allows us to establish a trade of value with those audiences.

Another delegate added that there must be a distinction between public value and private value. Nick Poole said that there is a balance between providing public value and receiving government funding.

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