Dancing Digital Progress Blog

On Sustainability and Access

by: Eugenia Kim, doctoral candidate

The questions of sustainability and access are crucial for any content-driven digital project in the 21st century. They are also some of the most difficult questions to answer.

It was toward the end of two long but fruitful days that we sat down to listen to and discuss several presentations on these two topics. Our moderator was Sybil Huskey, and our panelists were (in order of presentation) myself, Libby Smigel, Lane Czaplinski and Susan McGreevy-Nichols. This particular combination of presenters reflected a wide range of experience and perspectives. As such, rather than simply reporting the events of the session as they happened, I have briefly summarized each presentation and identified key points that were raised by various members of the group.

Sybil began the discussion by establishing a definition of sustainability and access. There are, of course, many aspects of access, and it is important to note that our session did not focus on access as it specifically pertains to ADA regulations, nor to open access of software, e.g., the shared development of code. She defined these various types of access and focused our conversation on several main objectives. A selection of these definitions and objectives included:

Definitions:

  • Sustainability: the use of resources without the resources running out
    • Five roots: capacity, fitness, resilience, diversity and balance
  • Access: being able to get to what you need

Objectives:

  1. Discuss what is needed for a pilot’s “digital home.” (e.g., What functions are necessary?)
  2. Discuss how resources will be obtained and maintained.
  3. Discuss financial sustainability of the project.

After Sybil’s opening, my presentation focused on how sustainability is often where a digital project fails. Several factors are responsible for this, including the omission of sustainability considerations in initial project planning, a frequent reliance on limited-term funding, and the challenge of building audience use and demand. In light of these factors, I offered two suggestions: 1) to no longer think of sustainability as making something “in perpetuity,” and 2) to refresh content and interface in order to maintain relevance.

Libby followed up with a perspective formed by years of working with non-profit organizations. She suggested focusing on building effective partnerships with organizations that have good user networks, as they are in touch with what content the general public is interested in. Other important points included (1) rethinking accessibility in terms of technology, (2) finding ways to measure the impact of digital dance repositories on community, and (3) learning to discuss uncomfortable collections, such as those that preserve art that has drawn on racial stereotypes.

In the third presentation, Lane focused on the value of video as a primary form of performance documentation for the future and the need for sustainable ways to create access to this documentation. For OnTheBoards.tv, which he founded, Lane’s strategy was to take an off-the-shelf mentality to starting up their services instead of developing bespoke solutions. He also expressed a particular interest in bringing attention to marginalized populations, specifically artists whose work or stories are not often given exposure.

Susan wrapped up the session by showcasing the Online Professional Development Institute (OPDI) developed by the National Dance Educator’s Organization. The OPDI could prove useful to the Dancing Digital Project as it distributes content to users who might not normally be able to access it. Pairing OPDI courses with new content from Dancing Digital could also help build enthusiasm for the project.

After the presentations, the panel opened discussion to the other attendees. Some key points that were raised during this discussion were:

  • The importance of understanding what artists may or may not be doing as part of their practice and how this empowers them (Lane);
  • Preservation through propagation of materials online, specifically with the logic that it is better to have a lot of copies many places in case one source goes down (Harmony Bench);
  • The cost of video storage is much higher than text for multiple reasons, including that video also requires accompanying text, not just metadata (Harmony);
  • Given the variance in size of video files depending on quality, uncertainty as to how many videos can be stored within a given block of set storage; similarly, questions of how to allocate percentages of that block based on type of content (Libby);
  • That fungibility is a key element of sustainability, as something that’s unalterable has a shorter life (Peter Jaszi, Rebecca Salzer);
  • The need for users to be enticed to use a resource, feel self-empowered, and excited (Susan, Imogen Smith);
  • That curating content for users can serve to guide and excite users about content that they were not aware of (Shana Habel);
  • That there are still challenges in identifying and collecting content for legal use, and the problem of needing initial content to entice new users (Melanie Aceto).

From the beginning, the Dancing Digital team knew that sustainability and access were going to be complicated. This symposium session clarified the complexity of sustainability as an issue and brought to light ideas that we, as a group, may not have previously considered. Although there were no clear answers as to how to guarantee a steady stream of funding or increase the user base, the additional issues raised in this session continue to help inform the team’s approach.