Managing content in a rich media world

IT is finding new solutions for indexing, searching, and accessing libraries of A/V content

For years, directors at the Dallas Museum of Art faced a daunting problem that threatened to stifle the growth of the century-old organization. The prolific use of computer-generated content was requiring them to store ever more videos, audio clips, and digital images relating to the museum’s vast collection of works to assist in research, accounting, outreach, and other day-to-day operations.

As the number of digital assets grew, they were scattered across a handful of machines that were maintained by different departments.

Meanwhile, IT workers were still relying on DVDs to back up all the various content, thereby relegating it to a nonsearchable format. Employees who wanted to track audio narratives, video documentaries, or digital images involving a particular collection frequently had to hold lengthy meetings just to get a thorough tally. “Everybody in the museum sort of worked in little silos,” says Homer Gutierrez, the foundation’s director of IT. “Whenever they wanted to find something, it was a nightmare.”

So three years ago managers at the museum — which houses rare works by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse among its 26,000-strong collection — embarked on an ambitious plan to digitally reproduce nearly all its works in the form of high-resolution images and place those images where anyone with a Web browser and the proper credentials could quickly find, edit, and access them. To bring order and accessibility to the vast library of rich media, IT sat down with librarians, marketing personnel, and other business stakeholders to lay the groundwork for creating a single repository where multimedia content could be indexed, stored, and retrieved more efficiently.

Museum directors now employ a software solution by Stellent (which Oracle recently acquired) that allows employees to enter and index newly created high-resolution images, for example, as soon as they become available. So far, the museum has checked in only a fraction of its digital images, but already Gutierrez is seeing a benefit.

“It has broken down a lot of barriers as far as information was concerned within the organization,” Gutierrez says. “The ultimate goal for us is to share our media with other museums and have a standard for all the museums.”

The problem vexing the Dallas Museum of Art is one shared by a growing number of organizations. Creating images, audio, video, and other types of digitized content is easier and less expensive than ever. Faster bandwidth and cheap storage systems that house mammoth amounts of data are resulting in an onslaught of digital assets (see also "Getting data asset management right").

But those assets have to be managed effectively in order to retain their value and future potential for profit.

“Digital asset management systems are no longer seen as nice to have,” says Mukul Krishna, an analyst who follows DAM for the research firm Frost & Sullivan. “The perception is changing to ‘must have’.”

The art of retrieval

The proliferation represents a double-edged sword. For the first time, corporations have the capability to store and manage branding, marketing logos, promotional and training videos, and other digital content in-house — instead of paying outside agencies to store those assets in geographically dispersed, hard-to-access locations. That creates new revenue opportunities by making it easier to repurpose those assets for distribution on Web sites, kiosks, cell phones, and other channels. Those benefits can only be realized, however, if the right assets can be searched and retrieved by the right people — a big “if” when talking about tens of thousands of images and other sorts of unstructured data that consume terabytes or even petabytes of space.

That’s where DAM (digital asset management) comes in. DAM uses a methodical taxonomy of metadata — and in some cases voice recognition and optical character recognition — to make it easy, say, to locate an obscure video from two years ago or the exact slides used in an old marketing campaign.

But DAM goes well beyond that. Once the province of media, entertainment, and marketing professionals, a host of new industry players are embracing DAM and using it in rather innovative ways. Just a few of the newer applications for DAM systems: Call centers that use phoneme recognition to identify the cause of a large spike in complaints (think “battery failure” in a computer manufacturer’s support center), pharmaceutical companies that organize and distribute digital content to the FDA for approval of new drugs, and casinos that index vast amounts of surveillance video. In order to create a repository for digital media, the ultimate challenge is to create a structure where it didn’t exist before.

“There’s still that saying that a picture is worth a thousand words,” says Stouffer Eagan, CEO of Autonomy, a provider of DAM systems that have the capability to read license plate numbers captured in video, analyze phonemes within audio, and automatically generate smart tags based on concepts in an underlying search result. “If it has in it what you need informationally, it’s probably worth 10,000 words.”

Autonomy’s ability to deduce patterns and relationships was particularly attractive to managers at the NewsMarket, an aggregator of video for journalists in print and broadcast. The product, which Autonomy markets under the name IDOL, reads pre-inserted metadata to help reporters find content related to SUVs, for instance. But it can also recognize that some of the images emphasize fuel efficiency or were featured at the New York Auto Show. Says Shoba Purushothaman, president and CEO of the NewsMarket: “IDOL tags things with stuff we didn’t think of.” The New York-based company also uses the product to make suggestions based on an individual customer’s browsing habits to help find video suited to their precise needs.

A quest for collaboration

Because of its highly unstructured nature, rich media tends to be a mishmash of interrelated video, still images, and PowerPoint presentations. It can be particularly hard to manage when it’s created and edited by a large team located in multiple locations throughout the world. Furthermore, digital content frequently needs to be stored in a variety of formats, from broadcast-grade video to compressed files suitable for streaming. That means DAM systems must also be able to handle transformation, check in, access privileges, and workflow processes.

For the international real estate firm Hines, with 3,000 employees in 80 offices, it was becoming increasingly difficult for workers to collaborate on and share video and still images related to the properties they were managing and selling. Content was scattered all over the world, often creating costly delays when a worker in one time zone had to rely on a colleague halfway around the world to access or process a piece of work.

So Hines turned to EMC’s Documentum to centrally house and index the content and make it available to authorized workers via Web browser. It has proved a boon in helping salespeople discover past work that a separate office may already have done for a client, or conduct specialized searches to find all content related to art installations performed in a particular location.

“For the corporate communications group, it really turned that group around,” says Beth Franssen, Hines’s manager of electronic corporate marketing. “It allowed them to be more strategic and provide a better service.”

An end-to-end solution is attractive to many customers, but others, including the NewsMarket’s Purushothaman, say Documentum lacks advanced tools such as those for handling video.

Another formidable DAM services vendor is IBM. A longtime player in the enterprise content management space, it tackles the rich-media challenge with a combination of WebSphere, Content Manager, and analytics plug-ins, such as the open-source UIMA (Unstructured Information Management Architecture). Because most DAM systems sit on top of an enterprise-grade database, IBM’s solution integrates easily into its DB2. It also plays nice with other IBM products, such as its grid-computing offerings.

That was a big plus for the IT department at the National Digital Medical Archive, which provides an infrastructure that stores, manages, and distributes almost 13 million radiological images — or about 1PB of data — for about 50 health care operations. Rather than manage the images themselves, customers can rely on the NDMA’s grid, which is built on a service-oriented architecture that’s accessed using a front-end “Wallplug” that the health care provider’s IT department can set up in about an hour, says Derek Danois, CEO of NDMA.

IT managers at NDMA needed considerable help for IBM consultants to customize the software so it could richly index the content, which in addition to radiological images, includes audio files of transcription from doctors, and videos of colonoscopies and other medical procedures. Not only does it allow doctors to access patient records from anywhere, it’s also HIPAA compliant.

“We’ve coalesced all of this into a highly customized instance of DB2 and Content Manager that allows us to deliver a final-and-ready solution for hospitals and other medical professions to use without having to worry about complicated IT decisions,” Danois says.

No magic bullet here

The market for solutions that manage rich media is highly segmented, and no single vendor meets all needs. That means IT managers who are ready to deploy a DAM system should consider the products carefully before choosing. Discovery, a broadcast network that owns the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and other properties, has such specialized needs that it uses DAM systems sold by four different providers to manage music, video, royalty images, and royalty-free images.

IT professionals must also decide whether they want to outsource the system to a company such as Getty Images or Corbis, or to manage the system themselves. “IT loves the fact that they can wash their hands of it,” says Susan Worthy, vice president of marketing at ClearStory Systems, another hosted provider. Other organizations, such as government agencies handling highly sensitive information, often prefer to house their data in-house.

Perhaps most important of all is for IT professionals to closely coordinate with managers in every department that works with rich media to clearly map out how the system will be used, says Melissa Webster, an analyst at IDC. “The solutions are quickly differentiated once you understand whether it’s about supporting the creative phase of the lifecycle or the publishing phase,” she says. “Working with business stakeholders is the first thing.”

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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