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Improving the Arts through Technology: Westphal and CCI Faculty & Students Collaborate on Museum Knowledge Project

Westphal IMLS project heat map
A heat map of museums in the United States, generated from data collected by CCI graduate student researchers working on Westphal Professor Neville Vakharia's IMLS "Museums Count Research and Development Project."

April 2, 2015

Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design Assistant Professor and Research Director of the Arts Administration program, Neville Vakharia, recently partnered with College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) students to assess the scope and role of our nation’s museums as part of a two-year, $93,500 research and development grant the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

The project, titled “Museums Count Research and Development Project,” is Westphal’s first grant from IMLS; it was also a perfect fit for Vakharia’s research interests in building institutional and sector-wide knowledge in the arts, cultural and creative sector by investigating the connections between technology, data and information and the sector’s sustainability.

“I believe that technology plays a critical role in both operational and programmatic success of all [arts and cultural] organizations,” Vakharia said. “Museums must embrace technology and pursue data-driven approaches to improve their ability to serve their communities.”

In supporting the creation of tools and resources for museum leaders, researchers and students entering the museum and cultural sectors, the project outlines four major outcomes including: collecting and compiling data to create the first-ever, comprehensive list of U.S. museums, historic/heritage sites and living collections (such as zoos, arboreta, etc.), known as the Museum Universe Date File (MUDF); developing a web-based technology platform containing museum data to better understand the impact and scope of museums; developing a publicly-accessible “Museum Finder” app; and using the data and technology tools to create educational materials and curricula that can be used to build analysis and research skills in arts administration, museum studies and related programs in higher education.

As the first task would require a high level of technical skill, it became clear through Vakharia’s discussions with CCI Professor Xia Lin, PhD that students in the graduate library and information science and information systems programs would be ideal for the project.

“I wanted to engage students who were comfortable accessing large amounts of data and who were going to be very methodical in their research skills,” Vakharia said. “It was also helpful that the students with whom I worked had a clear interest in the goals of the project and the impact it could have.”

Unlike the many projects available to graduate students that require on-site research, the benefit to the MUDF development process was that the work could be conducted remotely; as such, the entire CCI team was comprised of online students.

To begin, each student was provided with unique batches of data containing thousands of records via Google spreadsheets. During a video conference to kick off the project, the students learned a detailed protocol developed by Vakharia, which they then used to review, update and clean each record.

The task to create the MUDF was challenging due to the sheer amount of records (e.g., in May 2014, IMLS estimated that there are 35,000 active museums in the U.S.). The team—including master of science in information systems student Steve Mann, and master of science in library and information science students Mary Boykoff, Karen Sanders, Elayna Turner and Timothy Dewysockie—sifted through thousands of records, many of which lacked relevant or easily retrievable data.

“As I searched for each museum and historical society to verify their information, it was a challenge to find all of the appropriate information,” Turner said. “Were they still open? Where were they located? Do they have a phone number or email? Do they even have a website? Occasionally, I found myself chasing news stories that were local to the area of the museum to see if they were still locally active.”

Although the students found the development of the MUDF daunting at times, they quickly discovered the work complemented their education. “Much of what I was doing on the project paralleled what I was studying at CCI,” Dewysockie said. “I was studying how search engines like Google work, as well as how to conduct basic and advanced searches.”

Mann, who is also a 1993 graduate of CCI’s bachelor of science in information systems program, tapped into skills he gained in his graduate studies when looking at how to organize large amounts of data. “Through my CCI studies in courses such as Information Retrieval Systems [INFO 624] and Content Representation [INFO 622], I attempted to provide value within the MUDF database by thinking about how an end user would search for particular museums and historic sites, and incorporating metadata and/or alternative information to increase each item’s relevance,” he said.

Boykoff, who began working on the project in her third quarter at Drexel, felt that the project directly tied in a fundamental quality of the library and information science career field: helping people to better find information.

“Knowing that I was on a project working for an organization like the IMLS was very exciting for me, as I enjoy visiting museums in my free time [and would like] to work in a library,” Boykoff said. “I liked that I was contributing to a project that would ultimately help people nationwide obtain information about museums and cultural sites in their area.”

With the MUDF successfully completed, Vakharia is continuing his interdisciplinary approach to the project by working with Drexel’s AppLab on the Museum Finder app, with support from students from the College of Engineering.