A new API and hack competition – this time not from a tech company but by a museum!

Having an API into your data is a very cool idea. It allows third parties to use your information and embed it into their products, thus improving their products and allowing you at the same time to reach their users. Everybody wins. When a technology company provides an API, it creates an opportunity to see what external developers can do with your data. This brings innovation to your company from the outside and allows you to spot talent to hire. As one of the trailblazers of the open data and API world, Yahoo understands the value of open APIs; over the last few years we've seen more and more tech companies follow suit.

It is quite interesting to see that the idea of API and mashup competitions is moving beyond technology companies into other arenas. The latest surprise for us was to hear that the London Science Museum is publishing an API this weekend and running a mashup competition. We've caught up with Mia Ridge of the Science Museum to tell us about that.

CH: Hello, Mia. What is your role in the Science Museum in general and specifically in regards to the API and the competition?

Hi! My title is 'Lead Web Developer', which amuses me because I'm also the only web developer at the Science Museum… A typical day would involve working on the public interfaces to our collections and exhibitions, though I also spend a lot of time in a 'web producer' role, working with internal teams and external agencies to produce content and functionality for the Science Museum websites.

We've produced small APIs before, though they've been public versions of internal APIs we use to share data between the web and gallery interactives rather than something developed especially for public use.

This collections API is also the result of some work internally on systems to automatically link our collections and image management systems together but it's designed to be easy for the public to use. It's kinda unglamorous but it's also important for our goals of improving access to our collections - with this system it's easy for curators to add content into our collections data aggregator through an off-the-shelf CMS.

Finally, with this release we've added a layer of API goodness to wrap up and publish the whole thing. We hope it'll be useful for people who want to explore museum data in ways that our existing websites don't support.

I'd been asked to create a microsite for the 'Cosmos and Culture' exhibition, and realised that there was a really good match between the amateur astronomer community and the API - turning some of the web budget for the exhibition into a competition prize seemed like a good way to experiment with this kind of access.

CH: What data will be available in the API and in which formats?

We've gone pretty basic for this first release. We've got images of the objects, information about what they are, when they were made, who made them. We've gone for really simple XML and JSON - I'd be interested to hear if that works for developers or if they'd like different formats.

The API goes live on Saturday, and I'll have a first go at documentation alongside it. I know documentation is important, so I plan to update it as the competition runs to make sure it answers people's questions.

We've also going to try and nab some of the interactives created for use in the gallery and release those for use in the competition.

CH: What will the competition be about, what are the criteria and who'll be the judges? What about prizes?

We're going to release our data about the objects in the Cosmos & Culture gallery and let people do what they want with it. We want to see what kinds of stories people create, how they mix our objects up with related data or create new ways of visualising the information.

We're offering two prizes of £1000, one for the best website for adult audiences and one for the best for an audiences aged 11 - 16. The winners will be credited on the Science Museum website, and of course their work will be admired by our online audiences.

Entries will be judged on their use of collections data, creativity, accessibility, user experience, and the ease of deployment and maintenance of their interface.

The judges are , well, you (that's me, Chris Heilmann) and Chris Lintott from the Physics Department of Oxford University. Chris researches star formation and he is the principal investigator for the Galaxy Zoo project, as well as co-presenter on the Sky at Night program alongside Sir Patrick Moore.

CH: How come a museum runs a mashup competition? What do you expect to get out of this?

Well we hope to get an innovative web interface to host on our site. We had a relatively small web budget available for the project and instead of making a safe, but possibly bland microsite for the exhibition we decided to take a risk and see what ideas other people could dream up.

One of the messages that came out of the gallery is that astronomy is one of the few scientific fields where amateurs can still make a contribution. It's fitting then that to open up the museum objects to other people's interpretation. We're really hoping that the competition can shed new light on our collections and bring out some of the stories behind our objects that we didn't have a chance to explore in the gallery.

The competition is also one way of finding out if anyone actually wants to use a museum API. I'm a strong believer in the idea of APIs being UIs for developers, so I want to use the feedback from the competition to improve the user experience for developers. Ideally, I'd love to find a community of developers who are interested in working with museums (or their data, at least).

CH: Will the API get a table for YQL? Considering the benefits (ease of use, caching on Yahoo, rate limitation for free) it would be a great thing to have.

I'd like to add YQL - I know the National Maritime Museum have been doing some really cool stuff with it.

My job keeps me pretty busy, so I'm interested in quick wins - using existing services is a great way to improve our overall offer.

CH: I get the feeling that there is a thriving underground of hack ideas and plans in the museum world. Do you think your competition will become an example for other museums to publish their data, too?

I hope so! Museums have challenges similar to broadcasters and print media - curators can see the power of crowdsourcing but they're also uncertain of our role when authority is destablised and decentralised.

If the competition produces a few lovely interfaces, it's one good way of demonstrating the value of this kind of openness. At a really basic level, it's also helpful for other museums to have an example to point to when pushing for innovation in their own organisations.

CH: Do you need some more help? What can people do to help you with your crusade to bring museums out into the open as places of innovation rather than preservation?

In the short term, they can enter the competition! I have no idea what people are expecting to see - I've set up a wiki so that people can ask questions, find team mates and share resources they've discovered at http://cosmiccollections.pbworks.com/. I don't know if people would be willing to share but it's a good place to start a conversation with us or with other developers. I'm also tweeting at @coscultcom.

As it's an experiment, it'd be really helpful to get constructive feedback.

I don't see that we have to make a choice between innovation and preservation - but it's brilliant to have people outside recognising it when we do try and innovate.

Chris Heilmann
Yahoo Developer Network