I am not someone who could be characterized as an “early adopter” of new technologies, even when they are whiz bang cool. But I do get excited about technology innovations that suggest new and deeper ways for museums to engage with their public. When I learned about Pachube I wondered: could museums leverage this relatively simple idea about how people, objects, and the web interact as part of a strategy to build on-going relationships with audience members around issues important to them?
Pronounced Patch Bay (the name references the function of an old fashioned switchboard) this open-source code connects people, via the web, to objects in the real world. These objects – or devices – have been outfitted with a sensor that can send data to pachube’s website. Data can be stored, aggregated with other data feeds tracking similar information or from linked devices, graphed, and shared. The connections are many-to-many, and happen in real time so that data streams can be sent to handheld devices, or updated on public websites as they change.
So why is this so exciting? I don’t really need to know if the snack machine on my floor is stocked with my favorite chips before getting up from my desk. And some of the ideas that pachube suggests on its website are a little “gee whiz” – like linking lamps in different cities together so that one turns on or off in response to the other.
But there are some new research potentials that this technology opens up both for professionals and – most relevantly for museums - for citizen scientists. Using pachube I can track, for example, my carbon footprint in real time, and also monitor my community’s energy use or pollution levels. In addition to pulling information in, pachube can send instructions out to its linked devices - for example, turning off the lights when the power grid is running at peak capacity.
Some citizen science projects – like the annual Cornell Backyard Bird Count, or the National Geographic DNA Project– require people to collect information manually, and rely on them to enter it into a database. Pachube is targeting a different kind of (automated) data collection, and at the same time making it easier to collect detailed, specific information. The addition of the smart networking function, which allows devices to be responsive to the data, also makes it possible for individuals (and organizations) to act on this information. Pachube is removing barriers to participation on both sides of the equation.
So how might museums use pachube?
Museums are ideally positioned as the hub of citizen science initiatives, and a number of museums are already experimenting with projects. In addition to serving as a community partner, they are acting as the central access point for hardware and software, and the host of the public interface that allows participants to see both their own data contributions and the big picture. In addition to bringing like-minded individuals into contact with one another, and organizing collective action, many museums see citizen science initiatives as an opportunity to serve as the host for discussion and debate around issues of critical importance to the community.
Pachube’s automation, ability to aggregated data, and emphasis on linking action to results, seems to have the potential to amplify the strategic goals of many museums to play a role as a top-of-mind local resource, and as a hub that links people and resources. It supports a type of activity consistent with museum’s missions, all in a way that is audience-centered and relevant.
How might you use it at your museum?