Liberact V (and others): What is this document?
What I am sharing with you here is a working version of a white paper for those who are starting to consider developing large-scale visualization environments. I pulled this together from the notes I and my students took during conversations with our Immersive Scholar advisory group meeting in July 2019 and from other sources.
The white paper's tone is (and will be) one of "friendly advice," so it is not overly formal. I wanted to capture the tone and information that came out of the advisory group discussions. That said--and I cannot emphasize this enough!--this is NOT necessarily the precise final language I'll be using, so please do not feel any need to copy-edit this draft; I am instead looking for your thoughts and advice about the overall content and structure!
You'll see that after most sections I have a “Question for Liberact V Participants” that invites further commentary. Please feel free to edit/comment in the space provided below each--but also comment anywhere in the document! This is a working document for participants in Liberact V (and those who otherwise got the link from those folks). If you prefer not to be public about it, you may also copy the document and/or send me your comments directly at the email below.
After getting feedback from you--what did I miss, what strikes your ear as being an especially bad or good idea, how you might rearrange things to make the flow more logical--I’ll use that feedback to more properly flesh out the final text. I have already shared this document with my advisory group and received many very helpful comments, some of which have shaped this draft.
And if, as you read, you realize that you have a great example of some relevant point from your institution, feel free to let me know and I’d be happy to include it if it fits.
Two operational requests:
Finally, don’t hesitate to let me know if you have questions about any of this--happy to clarify! Many thanks!
Virginia Commonwealth University
► DRAFT ◄
In this section I’ll explain the background of the Immersive Scholar grant and VCU’s portion thereof, as at the outset of our workshop.
I’ll also establish a few threads that will permeate the document:
So the purpose of this framework document is to help guide users in considering these matters for their own institutions (museums, libraries, centers, etc.).
There are four specific topics to consider from the very outset of the planning and which should be sustained through the planning, implementation, ongoing maintenance, and future evolution of your large-scale visualization environment. They are:
Include Assessment from the Very Beginning
All too often in institutional technology planning, assessment is something that is tacked on well after the launch of a space or service. Instead, design the entire effort to involve assessment at every major stage. It provides data for decision-making during the planning process and when course-correction is required well into a season of operation. It helps identify gaps and new opportunities. It gives a strong foundation for understanding “success” and for sharing the story of that success with administrators, funders, and partners. A habit of assessment is easy to sustain if it has been baked in from the beginning; it is hard to acquire after the fact. [will link to assessment info]
Include Accessibility from the Very Beginning
As with assessment, it is much easier to design a space from the very beginning with accessibility in mind than it is to retrofit after the fact when you realize how inaccessible elements of the space and its services and programming are. Familiarize yourself with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements; do not simply rely on builders or facilities personnel to have an understanding of those guidelines. Consider exceeding the guidelines. For instance, consider principles of Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning, which are approaches to designing environments and learning experiences from the ground up with thoughtfulness so that they meet the needs of all users at all times regardless of background, rather than designing for a “standard” (non-disabled) user and then coming up with solutions to meet the needs of those who are not deemed “standard.”
Be Inclusive Throughout
Building off notions of physical accessibility, remember to always hold the most inclusive definition of “user” in mind when designing your visualization environment. Some of your users will never have experienced a space like yours before because they come from backgrounds or communities where such resources were never available or cultures where they were not valued. People will come with an enormous range of expertise, from abject beginner to bleeding-edge expert; be prepared to assist all of them, bearing in mind especially those who need the most assistance (rare will be the expert who will resent a program pitched at beginners, but beginners may absolutely shut down at programming focused only on experts). Make a special effort to reach out to groups who are often not well-represented in technology-rich environments.
Always Build Toward the Future of Your Space
The hope and plan for your space is not only that it get started on the right foot, but that it be sustained over the long haul and continues to evolve into something that ever more effectively meets the needs of your institution and community. What do you think that will look like? How do you plan to understand changing needs over time? What decisions can you make for your space now so that it can grow and change in the future? Keeping a vision of what your space might look like down the road and steadily pushing toward that vision will mean that your space does not grow stale and tired; instead, it will always have an energy that will carry all those connected to it forward into its future.
Before diving into the Framework itself, I would want to create a set of definitions to explain the terms used throughout. These would include:
Large-scale visualization systems and environments
A term for technology-rich, scholarly and creative visualization spaces using large screens or tiled screens at scales larger than a standard desktop computing environment, along with the services, personnel, pedagogies, and policies that guide their use.
The physical place in which large-scale visualization hardware is situated.
The creative, scholarly, and pedagogical activities that take place on or through the use of large-scale visualization systems. [That said, is “services” too freighted, with maybe “activities” being a better choice?]
Those who undertake creative, scholarly, and pedagogical activities with large-scale visualization systems.
Those responsible for the operation and maintenance of large-scale visualization systems.
Those with oversight and budgetary responsibility over large-scale visualization systems and the units in which they operate.
A series of questions that institutions should ask themselves as they begin to consider the development of a large-scale visualization environment:
What has prompted the desire to develop visualization spaces and services at your institution in the first place?
As noted above, the origin of spaces like these are as varied as the institutions that house them. Some arise because of administrative interest in innovation or a charge to improve research support. Others stem from strategic plans--at department, unit, or institution levels--that identify needs that can be met through the development of such spaces and services. Still others serve as a centralization of disparate spaces or services already existing at a given institution, or arise as a specific response to a local needs survey.
Having a thorough understanding of the basis for such an environment helps to answer all the questions that need to be addressed as these spaces and services are developed: What will it be able to do? Who will use it? How will it be paid for? What are short-term and long-term goals and how will they be assessed?
One environment arose from a provost’s desire for collaborative, technology-rich research spaces.
Another because they sought a way to engage students creatively in a student-focused, technology-rich public space in a new building.
What will be the nature of its use?
Will this space and its technology be used for research, for teaching, for presenting, for display of creative works, as advertising? Is it a combination of some of these? Is it intended for broad use or is it focused on meeting a specific need?
Who should be involved in early discussions about your environment?
Often the first people to start serious discussions about the development of a large-scale visualization environment are those who identified the need in the first place plus maybe those who will be charged with making decisions about the nature and scope of the spaces and services in question. So early participants in those discussions might include those responsible for running the spaces, either curatorially (making choices about content displayed with these environments) or technically (making choices about the hardware and software systems on which the environments run).
The second group that should have significant input from the earliest stages of discussions are potential users of the environments: the researchers, teachers, artists, students, and other users who have a vested interest in the particular hardware, software, and services that are being developed to support them at your institution.
Identifying these users and potential users can sometimes be a challenge, particularly on university campuses where academic departments and individual units can be siloed in such a way as to make their affiliates unaware of developments in other units. After brainstorming a list of potential interested parties, you might consider other approaches to expanding the pool, such as:
It may be also be appropriate to reach out to administration, especially those responsible for budgetary matters related to the project, and to IT and others potentially involved with technical support in order to involve them from the early stages of the project.
How to refine ideas about what people want from such an environment?
After considering the initial motivation and use cases for creating these spaces and services, it might be helpful to refine some of these considerations so as to focus the effort. It is important to understand specifically what kinds of hardware, software, services, and operational approaches would meet the institution’s needs.
One approach: a local needs assessment survey
You might consider sending out a survey across your institution or to a select group or set of groups to explore potential need for and interest in your developing visualization environment. First explain the potential scope of the large-scale visualization environment, and then ask:
Advice from the field: be cautious about survey fatigue
Another approach: focus groups
Another approach to gather information from the stakeholders in this process is to hold a focus group or series of focus groups (sometimes broken out by specific interest or area of expertise). The people identified above can serve as strong members of the focus group, and the questions outlined above for a survey can serve as the basis for the focus group conversation. [will link to a good guide on focus groups]
A third approach: semi-structured interviews
Another source of rich information is to have in depth, semi-structured interviews (in person or online/over the phone) with key users, stakeholders, or other important players. Giving the interview some structure is helpful to generate comparable data, but the informality also allows the conversation to pursue tangents that may better shape the interviewer’s thinking.
Advice from the field: facilitators in focus groups and semi-structured interviews can interactively prompt stakeholders to think beyond what they’ve seen/experienced before.
External site visits can serve as extremely effective ways to gather information about effective--and ineffective-- ways to establish and manage large-scale visualization environments. It is not unusual for any organization considering a significant investment in a new resource to examine how others have done similar work before them. Below are some suggested approaches to take and questions to ask as you enter this phase of the planning and evaluation process.
What are you looking to learn from another site and why?
The obvious reason to visit another site is to see a functioning space in operation, with its hardware, software, furnishings, programming, and services already in place. Other reasons to visit might include the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of how certain services developed at another institution and an examination of how they complied with or exceeded important standards such as Americans with Disabilities Act or other space management guidance.
If you visit the space of another institution in your community, you may want to consider how the technology and services in your own space may complement that of the other institution so that you expand opportunities rather than compete for them. You may have an interest in making connections with other institutions with an eye on future collaborations or information-sharing. Most likely you will benefit from a combination of these reasons plus others that may arise.
But consider your reasons carefully and be prepared with the questions you wish to have answered after the visit.
Advice from the field: Look for venues out of academia
Advice from the field: Museums and science centers have a lot of experience with “spontaneous interactions with tech” -- pick their brains about hardware that lasts and approaches that work (and vice versa)
What questions do you have about their services?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
What questions do you have about their technology choices?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
What questions do you have about their furnishings and space arrangements?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Advice from the field: Steelcase and other vendors--work with them to build solutions that work for you!
Advice from the field: If it’s portable, it will move.
Advice from the field: Consider outlets and data jacks!
What other questions might you ask?
Other questions might include:
Notes about Photography/Videography
Do not forget to take pictures and video--after receiving permission--during your site visit. Photos can be especially helpful in capturing specific models and configurations and in giving a sense of the overall ambience of a space. Photos and video are also a good way of “selling” the idea for a space to administration or to others who may have interest in or responsibility for supporting the vision for your new space. Remember, too, to document “behind-the-scenes” matters such as cable configurations, hardware racks, storage, and the like.
This section is less about evaluating the needs that a new visualization environment might address than it is about exploring other operational and planning matters that will affect how a new space comes together at a given institution. These are suggestions for areas to consider early in the process of establishing a new visualization environment:
How will you staff your space?
A wide variety of staffing models for large-scale visualization spaces exist. Some are staffed primarily by one or two experts who understand the hardware and software in significant detail. Others have several staff members including hardware and software specialists and specialized consultants who might focus on a particular kind of visualization (e.g. geographic information systems or data visualization). Still others employ someone part-time to manage the space while leaving its operation primarily to other users. There is no one-size-fits-all for staffing, as it significantly depends on the purpose to which the space is put and the funds available to pay personnel.
Questions to consider connected to staffing:
When the time comes to actually decide on specific models of hardware or specific software packages, there is a great deal to consider. The most significant question is, does the hardware/software meet the demonstrated needs that arose from the local needs assessment?
In order to explore options, you might consider taking a few approaches:
Don’t forget operational software, too, such as a calendaring or scheduling application that users may need to access in order to book time in the space.
Advice from the field: desired services/uses should drive technology choices and not the other way around!
Advice from the field: proprietary solutions can be tricky over the long term
Advice from the field: watch out for software being shoehorned into educational purposes when it was designed for commercial ones
Advice from the field: resist the temptation to overbuy while you have funds! Don’t buy complex when simple will do (and will be more easily sustained) and think about the knowledge your users bring to the equation, but also buy what meets the needs
Hiring a Consultant
Hiring third-party consultants can be useful when the project is complex and in-house expertise is insufficient. But it is important to establish parameters when working with consultants.
Advice from the field: be careful if the consultant is also a product vendor--there’s incentive for them to maximize sales
Advice from the field: It’s not just an AV project, it’s an IT project, both!
Funding for Your Space
It is not unusual for spaces to be given funds for the start-up phase that may be separate from the funding that will sustain them in subsequent years. Consider where each will come from and whether there are specific requirements that guide their use.
Start-up funds may come from:
If you seek funding from a grant, make special note of the limitations or guidelines of the grant program; some might restrict funds from being spent on salaries, for instance, or fund operating expenses but not capital expenses. Note, too, that soft funding such as grants can have a compression effect on salaries over time. Look beyond national agencies and nonprofit granting organizations for funds; corporate grants may be another source to consider.
Advice from the field: it matters what kind of grant you get--NSF, NIH is different than Mellon or IMLS in some circles.
Regular institutional operating funds are often used for sustaining a space after the start-up phase, with small grants, special technology funds, or other “pockets” tapped for specific new purchases or occasional equipment refresh. Consider how the hardware and software will be sustained and on what cycle, and how those funds will be procured year by year. Become familiar with the budget cycle for your institution.
It is also important to consider the question of whether to charge for any of the services of the visualization environment or its staff, and if so, in what circumstances and at what rate(s). Most do not charge for regular use. Some visualization centers will charge for consultations, either internal or external or both. Some organizations will establish a rate scale to use if they are being asked to be written into a grant (either to receive direct funds or to act as a part of an institution’s in-kind contribution, for instance) but don’t otherwise charge.
Marketing and Outreach
Consider the ways in which you might market your space to potential users and partners. You may wish to create complementary efforts in multiple media; print pieces such as brochures or rack cards; a website (more below); social media, which may be effective with visually-arresting images from projects on large-scale visualization environments; word of mouth by users, partners, and colleagues who might be out talking about institutional efforts or introducing services to a wider audience.
The programming done in your space can also attract attention. Options might include:
Questionnaires and assessments, useful from an information-gathering perspective, are also themselves a form of outreach, building awareness of possibilities in your spaces. Campus PR and newspapers or other news sources are often excited to cover what they see as “flashy” institutional efforts such as visualization environments; invite them to cover both one-off events and tell the story of the ongoing programming in the space.
Advice from the field: You are eye candy but don’t JUST be eye candy -- have substance!
When building a website for your visualization space and services, think through all the elements the site may require: an introduction to the space and services, details of hardware and software, information on and a system for scheduling use of the space, staff and contact information. The website is also place to provide resources for people who want to learn how to start doing work in spaces like these: the idea is to lower barriers to their participation. Offer information on how they can be trained and how these resources can be incorporated into class or into research.
Advice from the field: many sites say nothing about how to use spaces--do better than that
Start to consider the policies that will guide the use and management of the visualization environment at your institution. Consider areas such as:
Here are some communities where you can find others who are doing related work:
I may also set up a kind of checklist version of the above areas/questions, something that an interest organization could use to help frame their own effort.
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries sincerely thank the following for their generous participation in discussions that deeply informed the content of this framework:
Coordinator - Research Data & Visualization, Visualization Research Services
University of Calgary Library
Associate Dean for Research Data Management; Hodson Director of the Digital Research and Curation Center
Johns Hopkins University, Sheridan Libraries
Founding Director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) and Professor of Computer Science
Assistant Professor, GIS; D-VELoP Data Visualization Experience Lab of Purdue
Purdue University Libraries
Graduate student (visualization systems research)
Johns Hopkins University, Sheridan Libraries
Lead Librarian for Interdisciplinary Research
North Carolina State University Libraries
Assistant Professor of Digital and Kinetic Imaging; Hurley Convergence Center
University of Mary Washington
Associate Dean, Public Services; project lead of CURVE: Collaborative University Research & Visualization Environment
Georgia State University Library
Danielle Albers Szafir
Assistant Professor of Information Science; director of the CU VisuaLab
University of Colorado Boulder
Head, Innovative Media
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries