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|Museums and the Web 2005
Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.
Science Bulletins: Cross-media Publishing of Current Science Stories
Steve Gano, Ro Kinzler, Vivian Trakinski, National Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology, American Museum of Natural History, USA
Science Bulletins is a unique cross-media publishing program of the American Museum of Natural History that brings current science to permanent exhibition halls in the Museum, informal learning centers throughout the country, and, through the Science Bulletins Web site, to everyone in the world. The three Science Bulletins – Astro, Earth, and Bio – present ongoing research and recent discoveries in astrophysics, Earth sciences, and biodiversity. Each bulletin has three types of stories: features, data visualizations, and news snapshots. The stories are updated on a weekly basis on high-definition video displays and interactive kiosks in the halls, and on the Science Bulletins’ Web site. The Science Bulletins’ Web site is assembled using a new publishing system developed in-house using open source software. The new publishing system replaces a third-party custom solution, and incorporates the lessons learned from that first venture. In particular, a clean separation of content and presentation provides flexibility for the interface and feature set to evolve. The flexibility has allowed the team to add new features, such as learning activities for each story, published on the same schedule as the content.
Keywords: Science, Web, Kiosks, Content Management, Digital Publishing
Science Bulletins is a multi-media, cross-platform science program developed to keep permanent exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History and other informal learning centers up to date with current science via high-resolution, large screen media projections accompanied by interactive kiosk programs; and via the Web, to communicate current science to the general public and school settings.
Created and produced by the Museum in partnership with NASA, The Science Bulletins program explores recent discoveries and portrays ongoing research in the fields of Astrophysics and Space Science (Astro Bulletin), Earth Science (Earth Bulletin) and Biodiversity (Bio Bulletin). These disciplines were selected because the Museum opened three major permanent exhibitions in these areas in the late 1990s: The Hall of Biodiversity, the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth, and the Cullman Hall of the Universe. The last two are part of the new Rose Center for Earth and Space, which opened to the public in January 2000. In addition, these topics make sense because scientists at the Museum have substantial research activities in these areas, and because they span the range of research sponsored by NASA.
Two key resources enable the Museum to produce and distribute Science Bulletins: an in-house production crew and research scientists. Museum scientists play an integral role in the creation of content for the Science Bulletins. An Editorial Board, comprised of lead curators and chaired by the Museum's Provost for Science, oversees the selection of current research projects for the Bulletins to feature. These current research efforts are selected from across the scientific disciplines pursued by Museum scientists. While Museum science work is occasionally featured, it is not an exclusive focus. Bulletins' audience learns about what scientists at the Museum, at NASA centers, and at universities across the country and around the world are doing. PhD scientists work on a day-to-day basis to collaborate with the production group to create the content, and lead curators review the content prior to distribution.
A significant challenge early in the development of this current science program was to define the word "current" in a meaningful way with respect to both the process of scientific discovery and the production resources of a museum. Our Museum is not a news bureau, nor would it become one in order to create the Science Bulletins. In addition, while large scale events in the natural world and breakthrough scientific discoveries are best served by the rapid response capabilities of a news bureau, the typical progress of scientific research and the rates of change of the natural world can be captured at less frequent intervals. The solution was to evolve types of content that update at different intervals using various levels of templated production strategies.
The three types of content developed currently are features, data visualizations, and weekly updates. Feature stories are in-depth explorations of current science topics, such as the evidence for water on Mars, and the newly discovered diversity of jellyfish in the deep sea. New feature stories are produced every other month. Data visualizations are animations that let people directly experience large-scale natural phenomena, such as the structure of the universe in AstroViz, the dynamism of the Earth in EarthViz, and the impact of human behavior on the biosphere in BioViz. New data visualizations are produced every month. Weekly updates, called Snapshots, are annotated images captured by satellites, space probes, and observatories around the world and illustrate breaking news about the universe, the Earth, and the biosphere. Each update is published in the high-definition video programs on display at the Museum, which are also distributed to over 20 subscribers around the country, and on the Science Bulletins Web site.
Related Current Science Publishing Programs
It is worth noting that our development of three distinct story-types, or templates, effectively sets Science Bulletins apart from other science centers' approach to current science programming. NASA's ViewSpace (HubbleSOURCE 2005), for example, supplies daily updates of high definition astronomical images to over 100 subscribing science centers. The concise format of ViewSpace emphasizes currency and visually appealing data without revealing the scientific method or the men and women engaged in the science behind the images. Similarly, Earth in Near Real Time at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Smithsonian 2003) presents current data that effectively illustrates our dynamic planet without developing stories that explore the dynamic nature of science itself.
The Boston Museum of Science's Current Science and Technology Center (Museum of Science 2005) is different model for communicating current science, which offers live museum events, digital exhibits and Web content. Diverse in format, Boston's focus is science in the news, and their story formats reflect those of traditional news media—text, image, video, and moderated discussion. In contrast, Science Bulletins receives editorial guidance from the Museum's own scientists to develop stories not covered in the mainstream media, and to develop presentation formats, such as our data visualization story shells, which require the interpretation and processing of raw scientific data.
Relation to Other Museum Publishing Efforts
The Science Bulletins Web site is the main entrance to our current science content on the web, and is designed for the target audience of people of all ages and backgrounds who are interested in current science topics. Another Museum publishing effort, Resources for Learning (Gano et al, 2004), provides a distinct entrance for another of our key audiences, educators. The two publishing efforts intersect: each new Science Bulletins feature story and data visualization becomes a new resource in the Resources for Learning content repository soon after it is published. Metadata is created for each story, including topic and subtopics that situate the story in our catalog taxonomy, keywords that enable educators to search for specific subject matter, and grade level and teaching time indicators that help educators know if the story is appropriate for their students. Educators can quickly find Science Bulletins stories, and other materials, about a particular science topic by using the search or browse features. They can also browse the entire collection of Science Bulletins stories in its Resources for Learning index (http://www.amnh.org/education/resources/bulletins/), which allows them to sort the stories by topic, title, resource type, and grade level. Having Science Bulletins cataloged in Resources for Learning also makes those stories available for special collections tied to other topics, such as the special collection produced to supplement PBS's four-part NOVA series, Origins. (http://www.amnh.org/education/resources/programs/origins/) Through the Resources for Learning framework, Science Bulletins stories find new purposes and new audiences.
Science Bulletin's Content Production
The production team utilizes a range of tools to meet the different update intervals of the program. Weekly Snapshots are created with Viz RT, a real time high-definition graphics rendering software package. The software enables the team to produce the weekly Snapshots on a timely basis without the added hours of render time usually associated with high-resolution media. These high-definition Snapshots are also encoded as interactive Flash movies to post on the Web along with resource links that enable users to learn more about each story.
By contrast, the Data Viz segments, which are produced on a monthly basis, are created largely in Maya, a 3-D animation software package. These segments incorporate large amounts of high-resolution data presented in three dimensions, such as on a globe, or flying through space. Low-resolution drafts of each segment are produced and reviewed before the high-definition piece is finally rendered on a "render farm". The render farm is a bank of computers configured by the Museum to produce high-resolution animations for several projects, including the Space Shows presented in the Hayden Planetarium's digital dome. The Data Viz segments are also encoded as Flash movies for the Web and published alongside supporting text and resource links.
Six high-definition Feature videos are shot on location each year. The high-definition media is transferred to lower resolution DV Cam tapes, which are loaded onto an Avid non-linear edit system for of editing. Once picture and audio are locked, an edit decision list is generated in the Avid and transferred to Piranha, a real time high-definition video editing software. The final, high-resolution video is conformed on Piranha, while the audio is mixed and sweetened using a Pro Tools system. Concurrently, companion essays are developed and written, and interactive graphics are created in Flash, to be posted on the Web and kiosk along with the feature video for added depth and interactive exploration. The feature video is compressed significantly for streaming on the Web, and is offered in high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth versions.
Each week, a new high-definition video program is compiled for each of the Astro, Bio, and Earth Bulletins, with the weekly Snapshot updates, and any new Feature or DataViz story. The program is encoded in MPEG-2 format, which supports studio-quality high-definition video playback, and is transferred to a high-definition video server for playback at the Museum. The program is also transmitted to a caching server at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. From there the Science Bulletins video program is sent to 20-plus Science Bulletins subscribers at science museums and science centers around the country.
The technical challenges of publishing and distributing high-definition video are significant, but not subtle. The huge video files are transmitted to NCSA over high-bandwidth Internet-2 lines. The high-definition video servers at subscriber sites automatically download new content overnight when it becomes available. From there, the video program plays in a continuous loop through whatever high-definition video playback devices the subscriber chooses.
Publishing interactive multimedia content to the Web and kiosk is also a significant challenge, primarily because of the challenge of designing effective user interfaces for an audience with a wide range of abilities to use interactive technology, and on delivery platforms that constantly offer new and better interface technologies. The rest of this paper will describe the evolution of Science Bulletin's Web and kiosk publishing over its seven-year life span.
Publishing Science Bulletins On The Web And Kiosk
The Science Bulletins Web and kiosk publishing program is in its third incarnation. The Museum's Hall of Biodiversity opened in 1997, and introduced Science Bulletins with the Bio Bulletin high-definition video wall and kiosks in the exhibit hall, and the Bio Bulletins Web site. A second version of the Web and kiosk were developed for the opening of the Hall of Planet Earth in 1999 and the Hall of the Universe in 2000. The third version of the Science Bulletins Web site was launched in July 2004, and a new kiosk will be introduced in the summer of 2005.
Version One: Single solution for Web and kiosk
In this first version, the kiosk and Web content were identical. The kiosks presented the Bio Bulletin Web site in a Web browser, with a track ball and button interface. The Web site design by Media Farm, a New York design firm, was simple, clear, and appealing. Feature stories included short video clips, images, and several written essays on topics ranging from horseshoe crabs to wooly mammoths. Page templates and a simple custom publishing tool made it easy for Science Bulletins staff to produce and publish new stories. And because the same Web pages were used for both the Web and kiosk, one publication served audiences on the Web and in the museum.
But Web browsers do not make for robust and easy-to-use kiosks. Web browsers in the 1990s could not run for long periods of time, as kiosks must, without crashing. Unless they are severely constrained by custom configuration, Web browsers offer open invitations for visitors to surf the Web. And Web browsers are not ideal user interfaces in settings where users are standing at arm's length from the screen, in a public space where many other sights and sounds compete for their attention.
Page designs and user interfaces that work for the Web do not work as well in a kiosk setting. Kiosk users need larger graphics, fewer and larger buttons, and much less text in a much larger font. Using a typical kiosk in a museum exhibit hall has more in common with watching television at home – viewing and acting at a distance, wavering attention, and the need for simple choices that can be made without concentrated focus. However, Web browsers can be useful in a museum setting if the visitors are permitted to sit close to the monitor and focus intently, as they would with their home or office computer, or with a book. This was, in fact, the setting for the first Bio Bulletin kiosks.
Version Two: A Custom System, Built To Order
For the next two Science Bulletins, the kiosks would be integrated into the exhibit environment, to be used while standing. In the Hall of Planet Earth, which opened in June 1999, the kiosks were placed directly below the high-definition video wall that played Science Bulletins content. This setting demanded a different kiosk interface design. Also, our experience with the first kiosk prompted a desire to have more interactive visual content, and to have that content more closely correlated with what visitors saw on the video wall. The Earth Bulletin Web site would still offer in-depth essays, along with video and interactive content shared with the kiosk. This new approach meant that, at some point in the production process, the methods of publishing to the Web and to the kiosk would diverge.
An Australian firm, Magian Design Studio, was contracted to design a new kiosk interface, Web site, and an integrated publishing system to produce them both. They also contributed to the technical and creative design of the media content for the video wall, kiosk, and Web. The kiosk and Web would present feature stories in four themes that were central to the big ideas of the hall. For Hall of the Universe, the themes were Universe, Galaxies, Stars, and Planets. For the Hall of Planet Earth, they were Volcanoes, Storms, Earthquakes, and Earth Works (for stories on space-based Earth observation). As new stories were published, prior stories remained available through the Archive section of the kiosk and Web.
This system operated splendidly during the first few years of use. However, as we gained more experience producing Science Bulletins stories, and evaluating kiosk and Web visitor responses to the stories, the concept of what Science Bulletins stories should be, and how they should be presented, was changing. Many good story opportunities did not fit neatly into a single exhibit hall theme. Also, the Bulletins' editorial board encouraged us to include more frequent news stories about current science topics, and to present more stories based on visualization of real data.
The new kiosk and Web interface would present three types of stories: features, news, and data visualizations. Feature stories would continue to be in-depth treatments of topics, led by a five- to seven-minute video documentary, and augmented by interactives on the kiosk and Web, and by essays on the Web. News stories would be concise reports on current events. Data visualizations would be animated visualizations of data from Earth and space-based observing and monitoring instruments that showed large-scale phenomena, such as changes in the Earth's ozone layer or the structure of the universe.
The development work to implement these revisions proceeded incrementally, and was done by local contractors. Web and kiosk interface changes were made successfully, and the publishing system was updated to publish the new format. The original publishing system was not very supple or easy to change, largely because the capability to update the user interface or change the story model was not made a requirement of the original system. After these modifications, and a change in the Museum's internal network configuration, the publishing system no longer reliably published to the kiosks. The Science Bulletins' staff had to work with Museum engineering teams to manually publish new kiosk stories, and to fix kiosk problems when the process failed, as it often did.
While there were increasing difficulties publishing the interactive content, the high-definition video content was produced on a regular schedule, and was winning awards. In partnership with NASA, we began to distribute the high-definition content by subscription to other science centers and museums throughout the country. Currently, the program has over 20 subscribers, and is growing. More information about the Science Bulletins subscription program can be found on the Science Bulletins Web site, at http://sciencebulletins.amnh.org/distribution/.
From the start of this distribution program, it was our intention to distribute the kiosk content along with the high-definition video program. However, we had to first solve the problems introduced by the publishing system modifications before the kiosk could be reliably published. Moreover, the original program design did not lend itself to efficient distribution. Publishing a new story necessitated a full rebuild of the kiosk program, and made it more vulnerable to breakdowns, which would require more customer support than our group is able to provide. To provide kiosk content to subscribers who have requested it, we produce and mail DVD-ROMs with the latest content. This is clearly not a long-term solution.
The need to efficiently distribute and update Science Bulletins kiosk content, plus the desire to update the Web site to include all of the content developed for the wall and the kiosk, prompted the National Center to undertake a third major redesign of the Web site and kiosk, and to develop a new publishing system for both.
Version Three: More Flexibility Through In-House Development
With our accumulated experience in producing Science Bulletins and in repairing and maintaining its publishing infrastructure, we could easily define some important goals for a new system.
It was important to unify the story structure across all three Bulletins to make Science Bulletins a more coherent product and a more distinct Museum brand. Wherever people would encounter Science Bulletins – on the Web or in an exhibit hall, at our museum or at any of our subscribers' installations – they would see a feature story, a current science news Snapshot, and a data visualization. We also contracted a local design firm, Flat Inc., to create a simple but elegant new logo that would work in high-definition video as well as on the Web and kiosk screens, and in print.
Our experience showed that, no matter how happy we might be with today's user interface, we will want to change it in the future, whether to incorporate some new interface technology, or just to update its look and feel. We wanted to minimize the impact such changes would have on the publishing system and the production process.
And it was important to create a kiosk distribution system that would let subscribers easily install the software and receive the weekly updates efficiently. A simple, Web-based kiosk administration application would let subscribers manage their kiosks, select which stories to present on the kiosk, and, hopefully, overcome most problems they might encounter with content updates over the Internet, and so help minimize the need for customer support.
The key strategy for meeting these goals is to make as clean a separation between content and presentation as possible. Each story type will have a clear definition of its intent and scope, and a set of content components that can represent it well in a range of presentations – title, a brief description, key images in a range of sizes, a set of media files, and so on, and these elements will be stored in a database and linked media files. For a story's Web presentation, a small number of page templates are created: these draw from those basic story components, and minimize the need for any Web-specific media. For the kiosk, a navigational shell is created, a "skin", which is lightweight and fast, and, most important, easy to replace with new or better kiosk navigation ideas. As much as possible, the Web and kiosk will use the same media files and text content.
The Web site redesign was begun first because it was to be the most comprehensive of the three publication formats, and would potentially have the largest audience. We contracted with a local Web designer, Anna Arbuckle, who quickly produced a clean, crisp look and feel for the Web site and a comprehensive style manual to guide our further work.
In parallel, we began designing a new Web publishing system for the Web, and in doing so, began to look more closely at the story types, specifically what the distinct nature of each story was and how best to present it on the Web. We looked at good examples of regular publications on the Web, such as Time Magazine and the New York Times, to learn how they presented stories with multiple media elements. Working from Anna's first Web design, we changed the emphasis of certain story elements, gathered media elements together in a single navigation scheme, and included new features that we hadn't considered before the first Web design, such as a map showing the location of a given story. This was a lively, iterative process of meetings, e-mails, and cobbled-together Photoshop files to illustrate our ideas, with input from all groups: the editorial, production, and development teams.
Once we established a consensus on the Web site architecture, we had strayed somewhat from Anna's original page grid system, and so we contracted with her for a second round of work. Though she did not agree with all of our choices, Anna worked closely with the development team to reestablish a crisp, clean design discipline on the new architecture, to produce the page designs that we use today.
It is easy in retrospect to see that the Web architecture specification that we gave Anna for her first design was incomplete. But it can be difficult to make definitive design decisions until you see them fully rendered on the screen, especially when making significant changes in the product concept as we were with Science Bulletins. One must plan for several iterations of design and review, and include evaluation with target users, however informally.
Once the page designs were nailed down, work on the publishing system proceeded rapidly. The in-house development team, technical producer Matt Tarr and technical developer Drew Koning, used our open-source Web application platform of MySQL and PHP to create simple Web forms for uploading and editing Bulletins content. They adapted some of the functions and user interface elements developed for administering another Web site, Resources for Learning. With the publishing tools, Science Bulletins producers can quickly upload media files, lay out multiple page essays with embedded images or interactives, produce a feature story glossary, and immediately preview their edits.
The Science Bulletins production staff is small and works in the same office, and already had well-established practices about ownership of production tasks and communicating status and needs. Some common features of publishing systems, such as version control and communications functions, were not prescribed, which helped reduce complexity and development time. For our simple, custom publishing tools, the emphasis was on simplicity and flexibility, and the ability to extend features to meet new, unanticipated editorial and production needs.
For example, a few months after the new Science Bulletins Web site was launched in July 2004, the National Center began a new pilot project to evaluate the use of the Science Bulletins Web site in middle and high schools. For the pilot, each story would have two or more learning activities that suggested ways to use the story in the classroom. A new page was added to each story and listed the learning activities and provided related links to NASA and Museum content related to the story. The publishing system was extended to publish these new pages, and to enable a new user role, the learning activities producer, which had limited editing options. This update was accomplished in-house over a few weeks, more quickly and less expensively than it might have been with a commercial system or outside developers.
Between the system launch in April 2004 and January 2005, five feature stories, eight Data Viz stories, and over 100 Snapshot stories have been published with the publishing system. But additional work remains before the entire means of production is in the hands of the editorial and production staff. Some of the media production tasks, such as producing closed captions for the on-line video, are still done by the technical staff.
The next major development project for Science Bulletins has already begun: the creation of production templates for interactive versions of the Data Viz and Snapshot stories. Currently, these stories appear on the Web as streaming video animations, just as they appear on the video wall. Our goal is to enable Web visitors to interact directly with the data to gain deeper insights into the topic, and to experience to some degree the same analyses that scientists use on the data. The challenge will be to create interactive templates that enable such interaction, but which can also be produced by the small Bulletins staff at the same frequency and quality as they are now.
As of January 2005, the new Science Bulletins kiosk and kiosk distribution system is still in development. Several functional prototypes have been built, each with the goal of making the interface simpler and more engaging than the last one. In a formal user interface evaluation in May 2004, we learned a number of surprising things, such as the visitor's desire to use the kiosk to control the high-definition video wall, as if the kiosk were a remote control. This finding suggests that we've met our design goal of making the correspondence between video wall and kiosk clearer, but still have some work to do. The current prototype retains that clear correspondence while offering distinct ways to explore the material presented on the video wall.
The recurring theme in Science Bulletins' development over its lifespan has been, like the Earth, the biosphere, and the universe itself, one of constant evolution. The story format concept has, over several years, converged on the current configuration of in-depth feature story, visualizations of real data that represent large-scale phenomena, and concise snapshots of recent events and discoveries, and that configuration seems solid and likely to last for a while. But the technology for presenting those stories continues to advance steadily, and so must the publishing tools and templates. By keeping the publishing system simple, flexible, and homegrown, we hope to be able to assimilate new and better ideas of how to bring current science content to a wider audience.
The real product of these efforts is not a new Web site or a publishing system, which we know to be ephemeral, but rather an improved institutional capacity for media publishing. If digital media production and publishing are to be core competencies of an organization, the organization must develop institutional practices that it can depend on for the long term. The first step toward that development is to build a skilled team that can discover and define the best practices in support of the institution's goals. The practices become institutionalized, and the competency becomes core, when new team members flow through the process, learn from it, add to it, and keep it evolving.
Gano, S., Kinzler, R., Koning, D., Philippo, M., Tarr., M. (2004). A Scalable, Modular Framework for Publishing Museum Educational Materials. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2004, Selected papers from an international conference. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 113-122. aslo available http://www.archimuse.com/mw2004/papers/gano/gano.html
HubbleSOURCE (2005). ViewSpace. Consulted March 8, 2005. http://hubblesource.stsci.edu/exhibits/viewspace/
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (2003). Earth
in Real Time. 2003, last updated Sunday, November 23, 2003 6:43:58
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Museum of Science, Boston. (2005) Current Science & Technology.
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Gano, S., R. Kinzler and V. Trakinsky, Science Bulletins: Cross-media Publishing of Current Science Stories, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at http://www.archimuse.com/mw2005/papers/gano/gano.html
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