Smithsonian boosts network, tools to meet increasing digital demands

Thursday - 10/10/2013, 12:17pm EDT

Deron Burba, CIO, Smithsonian Institution

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The Smithsonian Institution wants to change the way the public accesses the more than 400 terabytes of data in its collection.

To do that, the Smithsonian must continually improve how it stores, manages and presents its huge library of information.

Deron Burba, the Smithsonian's chief information officer, said one approach is to use new 3-D technology to let researchers and others manipulate digital images like never before. They will be able to zoom in, change lighting and details and interact with the object in a way that could only be done in person.

Burba said the Smithsonian will roll out the 3-D technology later this fall.

"It's something that is core to what we are doing here in trying to make our collections' objects more accessible to the world," Burba said. "There is just so much that we have in the 137 million items that has value to the world, and anything we can do to use technology to make it more available to them is really our focus in creating a digital Smithsonian."

Of course, for the 3-D technology to work, the Smithsonian needs to upgrade other pieces of its technology infrastructure first.

Burba said the agency almost has completed its network upgrade to include providing easier access to Internet 2 — a high-speed nationwide network used mostly by researchers and educational institutions to share information.

"Having the bandwidth that you couldn't get from a commercial Internet service provider gives us a platform that enables us to do things that wouldn't be possible without that capability," he said. "That includes working with partnerships with research centers, including transferring very large research data sets for things like genomics to large 3-D datasets that will allow schools to be able to have those datasets, to be able to explore themselves, to be able to produce print outs of things that we have in our collection for their own use. It's really an enabling platform for many different things, and it ties us even more tightly in with the education community and research community, which is very important to us and our mission."

Burba said Internet 2 is only for a certain set of Smithsonian employees. Others are connected via a wide-area network that stretches across the U.S. and internationally.

The network upgrades also will help the Smithsonian start offering WiFi at museums. Burba said the organization is in the middle of a pilot at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and in Chantilly, Va.

"We are very interested in providing WiFi, particularly as more and more people bring mobile devices with them into our museums, and finding ways that we can leverage that WiFi to enhance their experience during their visit," he said. "We're looking at ways that we can provide much more content and information to be able to enhance the visitors' experience. There's just so many objects and so little opportunity for us to provide all the information someone may want to explore as part of their experience in seeing something that we have in our collections."

Burba said outfitting WiFi for 6,000 to 7,000 people at any one time comes with a host of challenges starting with the size and construction of the buildings.

For example, the Air and Space Museums are akin to airplane hangars, while the National History Museum is about 100 years old and built with thick layers of concrete and other material that WiFi signals don't travel through well.

"The other thing with it in terms of being a pilot is exploring the ability to leverage things like location services, which is particularly challenging since the various mobile providers or platforms aren't converging on a single standard," Burba said. "We are exploring how we can do things that would have mobile apps or websites that could take advantage of location to help people and make that experience just more dynamic, and get information about what they are seeing and where they are."

Burba said the back-end infrastructure that lets visitors access more information also is getting an upgrade.

The Smithsonian developed an architecture to support its digital asset management system, and is constantly expanding the types of and amount of data.

Burba said the digital asset management system has more than 4 million assets, including 250,000 which the Smithsonian added in August.

The Enterprise Digital Asset Management System brings all of this information together through Web services platform called the Enterprise Digital Asset Network (EDAN). EDAN connects 30 disparate databases and lets the user more easily search through the entire collections.

"The EDAN system is very important to our digital priorities here. It will continue to expand, and we will look to build new capabilities that leverage that information, making it easier for people to find things at the Smithsonian," Burba said. "But also being able to do things like our transcription service that is now part of our digital volunteer platform, being able to take the data that we now have aggregated through both our Enterprise Digital Asset Management System and EDAN and build applications that help us solve our problems, as well as make our information more accessible to the public."

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