Semantic Web 101: The Cinémathèque Québécoise Commits to an Open Data Culture
With institutions such as the Cinémathèque québécoise launching semantic web projects, how can holders of documentary catalogues collaborate with these initiatives and make their data free, open and interoperable? Are they ready to incorporate this revolution into what they do?
Those who hold the rights to multiple documentaries are not only concerned with marketing them. It’s also important to make them last. There’s the issue with media conservation, currently a hot topic that, if it does not get attention immediately, dooms our documentaries to extinction.
However, there’s also the issue of content, and showcasing it.
We want our catalogues to be available everywhere, to anyone. We have a modest hope that our contribution will become part of a body of knowledge. The first part of the reflection process, before dealing with the technological aspect, involves inventorying and evaluating our content. The data referencing plan is then incorporated into the sequence of actions. Here, the semantic web is full of promise, but it requires some study. New objects, a new language, a new method for working and collaborating. In other words, it raises some challenges, and we have to become learners again.
We could wait for developments, for other people to mark out the terrain and then introduce practices that have proven effective. Or we could be pioneers.
WHAT IS THE SEMANTIC WEB?
For theoretician and inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, the semantic web assumes that information will no longer stored on the Web, but deciphered by computers to help users find what they’re looking for more easily. In this way, the semantic web allows data to be read by machines as well as humans. To achieve this, information on the internet has to be linked and structured so that the knowledge it contains can be accessed.
A collaborative approach to promote Canadian cinema
The Savoirs communs du cinéma initiative put forward by the Cinémathèque québécoise sheds some light on this new territory by enhancing the production and dissemination of free knowledge on Québec cinema. The project was launched in 2018 with backing from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Digital Strategy Fund (Transformation of Organization Models component). Its initial one-year phase was developed in partnership with Wikimedia Canada and the Université de Montréal, and the project is now taking aim at the future.
Marina Gallet, who instigated the initiative, is Collection Conservation and Development Director for the Cinémathèque québécoise. She is especially interested in open access to culture and the digital humanities and holds two master’s degrees in these fields, including one in managing audiovisual assets from the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA). She described the project’s broad strokes at the 3rd edition of the Semantic Web Conference staged by Université TÉLUQ in June 2019; she had announced the project’s launch at the conference’s 2nd edition in 2018.
The project’s aim is to become a key reference for the showcasing of Canadian cinematographic data by disseminating it under free licenses. Its originality draws on a collaborative model that allows Cinémathèque teams to work with specialists in related fields, ranging from digital museology to law through more technical aspects and codesign. Citizens also participate, reappropriating the information. This allows the resources and knowledge that the Cinémathèque has been conserving for over half a century to be reused.
From technical implementation to transforming practice
The project is unfolding in three phases. In the initial development phase, the Cinémathèque team, together with the cultural stakeholders associated with the project, was able to contemplate the issues of the semantic web and develop a shared vision of how to showcase cultural content and network, establishing how it could adapt its work methods and tools to the new context.
When the first phase wrapped up, the Cinémathèque set out an open data policy. The next phases—proof of concept and deployment—will solidify a potential action plan for semanticizing and enhancing data and content.
The Cinémathèque will then select the initial data to process according to its criteria, based on the potential for reuse, as well as legal and technical considerations. The data loaded onto the collaborative Wikidata platform will be distributed under a Creative Commons licence. Moreover, within the organization, the person in charge of the open data policy will have each department and define the data, and provide for its quality.
In this new digital environment, copyright is a key issue. The Cinémathèque asked Olivier Charbonneau, LLD, a research librarian at Concordia University, to produce a report on the matter that identifies the legal issues created by distributing cultural metadata under a free licence.
What place will documentary filmmakers and collection holders have?
Will a collaborative space be available for those with rights in data that is not part of the first corpus selected by the Cinémathèque?
In this context, the sharing of expertise is a priority issue. By making guides available (on cataloguing standards, for example), institutions such as the Cinémathèque will allow the documentary scene to carve a space for itself in this community, which will encourage them to get involved in the work and participate in the pooling of resources.
Development of an open data culture at the Cinémathèque québécoise could have a ripple effect on the scene, encouraging documentary filmmakers to sign up for Savoirs communs and collaborate on archiving data.
To make its data free, open and interoperable, collection holders who want to draw on the project will have to incorporate a data referencing plan into their sequence of actions. With a view to abiding by copyright, collections holders will have to become familiar with new objects, a new language, new work and collaboration methods. In short, they will have to accept the challenge.
Beyond the issue of media preservation, which is critical in every conservation project, the issue of showcasing collections requires a thought process that, before it introduces technology, focuses on inventorying and evaluating content, and includes promotion and marketing, as Josée Plamondon notes in her article on seeking the Holy Grain: discoverability. Of course, technology is not an end in itself.
Although it will take institutions time to introduce the new culture, we can expect the same will apply to the creators in the documentary community.
To understand and explain the semantic web, and what linked data is good for, the Cinémathèque is setting up training sessions to demystify Wikipedia and Wikidata.
For documentary filmmakers, the web offers the opportunity to introduce their thinking to the broadest possible audience. The semantic web raises the hope that this content will become accessible by exploiting semantic data, as well as by using a few key words.
By creating new forms of knowledge production that benefit both citizens and institutions, the Cinémathèque is fulfilling its role as a leader in showcasing cinema. As she works on this project, Marina Gallet is getting a glimpse of the magnitude of the project. “It’s starting to take off,” she concludes.
Clearly, this is the start of a revolution.