Prologue to a Digital Adventure

Wales’ Digital Adventure 

In any great project there will be more than one strand, more than one thread, that will weave a path through activities, through participants, joining together communities in new endeavours.

The promise of the Digital Adventure is to create a truly great and global, Welsh digital heartland. It should invigorate the local economy in Wales through developing a digital service infrastructure that will sustain the adventure; it should bring together the story, the community and the institutions; it should use the adventure to reflect the historical, technological, industrial, linguistic, social, cultural and political identities of Wales; and it should inspire future academic research, not least through Wales Studies in a new, broadened guise that supports Wales’ great adventure.

This digital adventure will require Welsh Institutions to come together in a way as yet unforeseen, adopting and creating methods as yet unknown, as exponential digital development is inherently impossible to plan.

If we can build it, someone will do something completely unexpected and unexplored with it.

The challenge is to build it, and build it in a way that will support a vibrant, emergent digital culture.

In the direction of the Beginning

In the beginning was a range of digital and digitisation projects. It is a world revolving around metadata, the digital world, web1.0, web2.0, silos of digitization, compartmentalization, technology and training. This prologue can go on too long; the question must be is it time for Wales’ Digital Adventure to move into Act II?

Many institutions across Wales (Universities, Government, RCAHMW, Archives, Museums, etc) have been heavily involved in a fledgling digital culture, digital humanities and digital world movement. Many others have at some stage been involved with or touched the edges of these activities. What do we learn; but from them comes a set of discrete projects that does not construct any whole. From Gathering the Jewels to the WWI project, Dafydd ap Gwilym to Welsh Journals and Newspapers, Welsh Ballads and Mapping Medieval Chester to the Book of Aneirin, these could, and should be part of a greater whole, but are not.

It has been said that Wales’ disjointed communication links, the ability to get around the country hampered by the inadequacy of road, rail and other transport is, in general, unhelpful to the development and prosperity of the country. But however disjointed it may be, it is nothing compared to the situation in which we find our digital cultural heritage, which sits flittingly, randomly, dotted around our digital estates.

How can we expect to glow, as a nation, about our heritage, our collections, and our research, if we don’t know about it, or cannot find it ourselves? Does all our society have equal access to rich learning and cultural resources on the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and STEM (STEAM)? Do researchers have access to a world class resources on Wales and Welsh identity, history, culture and linguistics. The answer in some cases is yes – but only if they are willing to brave those transport links, or if they are able to find online resources through digital word of mouth. And for global scholars and our diaspora, what of them?

The Digital Adventure

One of the advantages of being a small, bilingual nation is that national scale projects in Wales are feasible, and are able to address the many challenges inherent in UK wide sectors, but initially at a more manageable scale.

Wales has been on a digital and online journey since the early days of the Internet; it was the first to nationally connect Further Education into HE, the Internet and World Wide Web in the 90’s; then to roll out the WG/ERDF funded Welsh Video Network in the early 2000’s to FE and HE – with 80 videoconferencing studies being established across every institution, enabling shared and collaborative teaching and remote meetings to take place for large groups and small meetings alike. It was maybe ahead of its time – but today’s experience with online services such as Zoom and MS Teams owes a lot to lessons learnt from these early projects and our work with suppliers and teachers. The Welsh Repository Network JISC-funded project began in the late 2000’s helping Higher Education institutions roll out Public Open Access Repositories and work continues to this day in repositories, digital humanities, and across public engagement, teaching and research; from crowdsourcing to Technocamps and GLAMLabs.

If we ask what it takes to be a digital nation, we must start at the small scale: do fundamental services enable Wales and the Welsh language to operate in our digital estate and online. Can a user select a Welsh language keyboard and type and read characters? Do the operating system and applications support Welsh language packs? Do Welsh spell- and grammar checkers exist? Do domain names/URL’s support Welsh characters so the Welsh language can be used equally to English online, in e-mail addresses.

Building on the basics we move into areas such as automatic transcription (speech to text), language translation tools, text-to-speech support for Welsh and voice recognition and control systems – including for smart assistants such as Alexa and Siri. The availability of on-demand Wales-born and Welsh language film and TV, cultural heritage, literature, music, and all aspects of online live. Gaming, coding and creating in Welsh all could be considered part of being an advanced digital nation.

In parallel with the print world, with these digital activities grows the recognition that digital services and digital infrastructure are required to preserve and protect the digital past, as well as its present. Our digital estate has grown through born and digitised material from creative to heritage, from business to government sectors publishing in English and Welsh. Research and education organisations create large quantities of digital material of and about Wales every year, yet Wales’ services do not have a digital archive and preservation service in Wales.

Furthermore each of the projects, the activities, inevitably live in their own online bubble, as silos of information often unlinked, unknown and in some cases uncared-for and lost, and the network of those involved is relatively weak, needing support to build it into a vibrant and active community of digital. Cultural practice.

Meanwhile many organisations in Wales are creating and making available online content – both behind paywalls and through public Open Access. Researchers continue to publish – yet in no single place could you find out what has been written about Wales, or in Wales, on any given subject. The Learned Society Wales’ Wales Studies activity wishes to work along these lines to bring together the research output of Wales; a grander scheme was initiated by a former Librarian of Wales, Andrew Green, when he described a service based on the Theatre of Memory – capturing and making available the entire published output of Wales. The National Library of Wales, the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales, National Museum Wales and many other organisations and archives have fantastic digital collections emerging online. But digital curation, preservation, discovery and access lag significantly behind, and this puts our digital collections at risk.

Today, we also are not only considering traditional digital versions of printed materials – but must also take into account the work of organisations such as RCAHMW, with virtual reality/3D models of historical sites. Chapel interiors have been 3D scanned and Natural Resources Wales explores the ecology and biology of our Natural World. Data, from air quality to traffic volume is gathered, or created through research, at an ever-advancing rate and the importance of Knowledge Management comes to the fore to gather and curate, and make discoverable, a digital ecosystem that can deal with information and data on this scale – while respecting privacy, intellectual property rights and data’s many other facets.

The Digital Future of Wales and other nations will rely on digital Knowledge and Information Management; data and information being curated as we have learnt to do with libraries, archives, galleries and museums for physical collections. Progress stands on the shoulders of giants, and we read, watch, see and learn from the past – and must continue to be able to do that in the online world.

This curated and accessible content is critical to address our other online challenges; digital inclusion and equalities, the wellbeing of future generations, and digital democracy will rely on access to trusted knowledge, information and data. The current climate with COVID-19 scare stories and false remedies, and the work being done, but only partially successfully, by industry giants such as Facebook and Google, shows there is a need for trusted and curated national digital resources.

The next step in this digital adventure for Wales would build on existing initiatives, and to develop open repositories of research and heritage collections – creating singular or (more likely) a devolved or delegated ecosystem; a set of Trusted Digital Online Repositories, that would open up Wales’ collections and data to its inhabitants and the world. Sharing research about Wales, publications made in Wales, heritage collections held in and about Wales, archives and public records, there is an opportunity to work in partnership across Wales’ research, government, education and public organisations to develop this roadmap and initial service offerings.

From metadata, to liked data, to machine learning and AI, this infrastructure will need to be developed with the next 10 years in mind. We must not simply replicate our physical repositories, but develop a new model for preserving, curating and making discoverable and accessible the activities of our digital worlds.

Digital creatives, tech startups and others, from makerspaces to community groups will all have a role to play in creating and reusing content; so the aim should be to make it easy to access content, easy to reuse and mash-up sources, while retaining an appropriate degree of editorial curation. 

This is an opportunity to develop Wales as a truly digital nation, to open doors to digital capabilities and training for all, and to advanced-tech services for entrepreneurship and employability that today we are only just starting to explore. We can promote the jewels of the nation globally to support heritage and trade. The history and activity of Wales, across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as in STEM, has barely begun to be surfaced digitally; now is the time to advance our Digital Adventure.

Steve Williams

May 2020

Prologue to a Digital Adventure