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'Collaborating on sustainable services for curation' by Matthew Addis

dr-matthew-addis4C has released a draft of its roadmap document "Investing in Curation: a shared path to sustainability" [1].  I've been looking forward to this for some time and wasn't disappointed.  I really like the layout and the tables of who should do what and when.  Polished, short, and given the complexity of the subject area it’s relatively easy to understand too.  Having spent a lot of my previous life working on European projects, a report of this standard is harder to create than you might think, so a definite achievement.   

Also when working on European projects I used to spend a fair bit of my time working with archives and content holders and suggesting what should be reasonable to expect from their suppliers, especially in the area of software and digital service.  I used to suggest all sorts of things that should be asking of service providers and vendors.  But now I'm on the other side of the fence.  Now I work for a provider of data archiving services.  This gives me a different perspective.  I'm now on the receiving end of all the good advice and intentions that come from projects like 4C.  With this in mind, I looked with particular interest on what the roadmap had to say about the role of 'solution providers’ in the long-term sustainability of curation.

The report has a series tables that say what solution providers should do.  If you add all the suggestions up, there's a pretty big shopping list from 4C.  Automate tools, develop standard practices, provide transparent pricing, deliver scalable solutions, support sophisticated requirements, be part of a community and achieve interoperability, build in accounting and budgeting, and match solution features to curation objectives.  That's lot of shopping, and many of those things aren't always in stock!  I wouldn't disagree with any of these things - they all are good ideas and many are necessary for a mature market.   However, I think there could be more in the report that says how customers or investors can support vendors and solution providers so that these outcomes are more realistic and more likely to happen.  Vendors won't create new products for the '4C shop' unless there are plenty of customers - and that means people need to be inside the shop with a real intention of spending money, and not just 'window shoppers' with aspirational ideas of what they'd like, who look wistfully through the glass at high-end products that they know deep down they're not able to afford.  There is, I think, a very real and present opportunity for organisations and suppliers to work together to identify what's practical as well as desirable.

For example, there is always a risk to solution providers in bringing new products and services to market.  The 4C roadmap clearly suggests that new solutions are necessary.   The risks are higher if the market is niche, the solutions are complex, the timescales are protracted, and there isn't some form of tangible commitment from potential customers to buy a solution when it is available.  All these things are true in the curation/preservation landscape, especially at the moment.  This can be a deterrent to investment into new products and services by existing suppliers, it can be a barrier to new entrants coming into the marketplace, it can be a hard sell when suppliers themselves look for funding to invest into R&D, and generally it's an inhibitor to the rate at which everyone moves down the 4C 'path to sustainability'.  

This might sound like a bit of a whinge that vendors 'have it too tough'.  You could argue that 'where there's a will there's a way' or 'build it and they will come'.  But the reality is for us at Arkivum, and for several other solution providers in this space we've talked to or work with, that it can be hard to commit to building new solutions and services without clear demand and support from the customer side.  In a big company with deep pockets, investing into new products and services without a realistic 'risk-reward' profile is hard enough, but for a small business it can be a killer.

But it's not all doom and gloom.  There are practical steps that the community of customers and suppliers can make which help us all along the road.  Here's some examples:

- Realise that bespoke solutions are expensive and often not sustainable from a vendor perspective.  Everyone likes to think they are unique and have their own particular needs.    But if multiple organisations can come together and articulate a need for a common and simple solution then this often a lot more attractive to a vendor - they can 'make it once, sell it many times'.

- Recognise that suppliers need to take risks when developing new products and services.  Understand these risks from a supplier perspective.  You might think that it is risky to use a given company or a new solution, but suppliers have risks to manage too.  Work with suppliers to minimise and manage these risks on both sides.  For example, maybe work with a supplier using a staged and evolving schedule of work rather than develop the mother of all ITTs.  This provides flexibility on both sides and allows a two-way relationship and solution to evolve.

- Take small steps with shared commitment between customer and supplier.  Share the costs and risks through things like paid pilots, proofs of concepts, and testbeds - especially if components need to be combined from multiple suppliers.  Maybe club together with other organisations with similar problems. Everyone learns a lot this way.  Take these small steps first rather than specify 'ideal world' systems that might never be cost effective for anyone to build.  

- Work with suppliers to promote successes, share good experience, and help them to increase take-up through sales to others.  Being a reference customer that a supplier can trumpet has a lot of benefits to them [2].  Maybe use this to negotiate a better deal or show commitment.  Crucially it also helps alleviate the fears of others in the community who want to see evidence that they are not 'going it alone’.   And the more customers a supplier has then the more sustainable that solution will be for them – and for you.

All these things are about reducing costs and risks for everyone.  Curation and preservation will often (by its very nature tends to?) involve people that are risk-adverse and conservative.  But if this goes too far then paralysis sets in. Reduced risks and reduced costs help people take steps forward and keeps everything moving.

What I'm not suggesting that suppliers get an easy ride, far from it!  Rather it's about organisations working with solution providers as a collaborative endeavour.  And that applies to solution providers working with each other as well - there's a lot of opportunity for providers to combine their solutions to provide something that is more of a 'complete solution' and hence of higher value.

There are also some much larger scale things that can be done too, especially in the area of trust, certification, contracts and procurement - for example the role that framework agreements can have in catalysing a scalable solution, but that's for a follow-up post.

For now, my two pennies worth is that the 4C report should perhaps examine the impact on sustainability that comes from a good understanding between organisations and solution providers on what makes a viable business model, especially when trying to stimulate new products and services for curation and digital preservation.



Matthew Addis, Arkivum

Matthew is part of the 4C Project Advisory Board and repesents Service Providers and Curation Experts. He has spent 15 years leading a diverse portfolio of industry-led applied research projects including archiving and digital preservation, service-oriented computing, data mining and knowledge management to name but a few.