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On May 15-16th delegates from the global cultural heritage sector joined for the 3rd international EuropenaTech Conference. EuropeanaTech is the research and development branch of the Europeana Network and Foundation that focuses on topics such as search and discovery, delivery, data modelling, enrichment and much more. This year’s conference offered a unique platform to share expertise and debate the future of tech in the cultural heritage sector. In this blog, we share our reflections from the event.

Panel discussion at the conference. Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg, CC BY.

Ruben Verborgh’s presentation. Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg, CC BY.

Highlights

The centralisation vs. decentralisation debate was omnipresent throughout the event, from the opening keynotes to the final panel debate. Discussions centred around the challenge of finding the optimum balance between centralised aggregation on one collaborative platform and individual role of each institutional node in the network. Keynote speaker Ruben Verborgh proposed that while decentralisation is important to pursue, it would be more favourable to embrace the best from both worlds and nurture a network of equal aggregators where each individual node is motivated to be part of the larger community and can reap the benefits of collaboration.

Herbert van Sompel's keynote.

Herbert van de Sompel’s keynote on the web of past and its persistence in the future was particularly intriguing. He introduced Memento Tracer, a collaborative web archiving framework that addresses the issue of scale and quality and enables collection of content that otherwise would be difficult to capture. The success of this strategy largely depends on the active involvement from individual web archiving initiatives, something that Sound and Vision might be able to take part in as well. While at the moment the project is still in its early stages, it will be interesting to follow its evolvement and see how the collaborative efforts can improve the quality of the crawled web for everyone.

Storytelling was one of the stars of the event. The kind of storytelling that emerges from data aggregation, institutional collaboration, community-driven tools and user involvement. A memorable example of this was Vahur Paik’s presentation on Ajapaik, a crowd-surfing geotagging tool that encourages users to fill in the blanks in the descriptions of historical photograph collections. It opens up digitised collections and invites audiences to share their memories, and then the stories write themselves. Projects like this exemplify the role that technology takes on in highlighting these unexpected storytelling possibilities within data. In a sense, technology plays a very necessary albeit supporting role, enabling the content to take the centre stage and shine.

EuropeanaTech 2018 - Why it mattered to me

Thinking about the future

Since the inception of EuropeanaTech, its community was formed primarily from the hundreds of institutes that took part in various projects funded by FP7, the EU’s research funding programme. This led to lots of work that was project based. While these projects allowed incredible opportunities, it also meant that groups were working in project silos, following the protocols and plans set forth by the European Union that by the end of the project could be 4 years out of date. FP7 offered numerous opportunities for cultural heritage institutes to develop their digital infrastructures, test new tools, linked data and of course, aggregation. Horizon 2020, the current funding programme, offers less. This, for better or for worse, means fewer projects for cultural heritage.

The consequences of this were apparent at this year’s conference. At EuropeanaTech 2015, IIIF and Wikidata were very small topics. Linked open data efforts were still infantile in their practical use and a centralized approach to aggregation still reigned supreme. What the conference showed this year is that international, interoperability and community standards driven work like IIIF and Wikidata are beginning to become just as important as aggregation was a few years ago. These tools along with linked open data put more reliance on sharing and facilitating than on consumption and directing. But with less funding, it is really dependent on the buy-in from institutes to allow and encourage their technical and R&D teams to contribute to and make use of these standards.

The head of the Research and Development department at Sound and Vision Johan Oomen presenting the work of Europeana Innovation Task Force. Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg, CC BY.

Numerous speakers touched upon these challenges and opportunities that institutes face in the light of reduced funding while still trying to keep pace with the technological developments and the changing aggregation climate. In line with this, Europeana Foundation governing board founded the Europeana Innovation Task Force to identify research needs in the digital cultural heritage sector and to advocate for support for innovation in areas that matter most to the community. Our own Johan Oomen, the chair of the project, invited all of the participants to share their innovation ideas, and you can find the results of this here.

At the next EuropeanaTech Conference, we hope to continue the conversation about the evolving Europeana network and see even more examples of transnational collaboration based on synnerygization across heritage institutes.