EuropeanaTech Conference 2015: Review

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On 12 and 13 February, professionals from the cultural heritage and tech communities across the world gathered in Paris at the National Library of France for this year’s EuropeanaTech Conference. Imogen Greenhalgh and Gregory Markus report

It was an exciting chance for researchers, archivists and developers working in diverse fields to come together to learn from one another. As the Europeana Foundation’s R&D manager Antoine Isaac observed: 'This gathering was the perfect opportunity for our community to meet, discuss and celebrate its most innovative realisations. We are thrilled that more than 250 people, established members of our network as well as new faces, were able to join.'

The theme for the conference was ‘making the beautiful thing’. But what exactly is the beautiful thing? Defining the answer to this question sat at the heart of much of the programme. As the assorted talks, workshops and panel discussions on data quality, data modelling, multilingualism and re-use demonstrated, the answer is the richly varied interaction the public has with their digital cultural heritage.

Though we can work towards enriching this interaction, we cannot define it entirely. For an audience of numerous back-end developers, as well as archivists and researchers, this conclusion might seem unexpected. Interpretation in the online environment, however, proves diverse, and therefore a role for users to take up, rather than institutions. Though we can give people access to a rich experience of digital cultural heritage,  we cannot predict or dictate what shape this experience will take. Rather, a focus should remain on making data and content widely available, as well as providing comprehensive contextual information for it.

Keynote speakers at conference included Young Rewired State MD Ruth Nicholls, DPLA’s Dan Cohen, Trove’s Tim Sherratt, Seb Chan from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and award-winning designer George Oates.

The empowerment of the end-user – the researcher, the student, the creative developer – emerged as a shared priority. As a number of talks and sessions highlighted, people are looking for something special with digital cultural heritage, and the ways they approach it vary. Active journeys of exploration and discovery are valued over traditional searches and the passive consumption of facts. As Chan observed: 'Search is a niche solution to a broad problem. People do not visit museums to perform a search.'

Chan’s groundbreaking work for The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum provides a colourful case of this idea in action. In his keynote speech titled ‘No End in Sight’, he explained the need for a dual focus in his work, ensuring unique visitor experiences at the museum alongside the growth of the museum’s digital presence. By releasing their API and some excellent open source tools, Chan was able to achieve this.

Chan’s views chimed with George Oates’ keynote, ‘Openness is Wilderness’, presented during the final afternoon of the conference. With her design firm ‘Good, Form & Spectacle’, Oates works to ensure the public gain as much as possible in their digital encounters with cultural heritage. She stressed the need to make digital space feel more like the curated, physical space of a museum. In an observation which sits in fruitful dialogue with Chris Welty from Google Research’s call for more data, Oates voiced instead a desire for improved pathways through this data, and more help finding the best quality data she can use: 'Search engines don’t give any guidance, but that is what cultural institutions are so good at!'

This desire will hopefully be met with developments such as Europeana’s new Channels feature, which launches this year. Europeana’s Bram Lohman also presented the Content Re-Use Framework, which will also improve the user’s ability to discover high-quality and freely usable content.

Involving users informed another keynote, ‘Translating the Technology for Use’ with Dan Cohen, Andy Neale and Tim Sherratt. For Neale from Digital NZ, the message was firmly user-oriented.  The end-user’s needs and desires must not come last, he cautioned, but first, and inform projects every step of the way.

Sherratt, who joined via a video link from Australia, discussed the crowd-sourced improvement of OCRed text on Trove. Here, Sherratt emphasised just how central a role Trove users play: as anyone can jump in and amend the OCR output, an astonishing 150 million lines of text have been corrected.  Enhancing both the front-end experience and the back-end running, these correctors help to build the site they use, and Sherratt proposed redefining them as 'discovery engineers'.

For other speakers, though user experience remains a high priority, there are different aspects to focus on. For Chris Welty from Google Research, making search as powerful as possible through cognitive computing remains key. Now, Google can trawl through images using image recognition as well as text – an astounding step forward in the quest for a more effective search capability.

What began to materialise from these diverse, even contradictory, perspectives was a new landscape for digital cultural heritage where openness sits at the forefront of everything we do. As Ruth Nicholls highlighted, for digital natives the line between the real and virtual has almost disappeared entirely, and the stories they tell and tools they create online must be appreciated as we move forward.  

In keeping with the spirit of innovation at the conference, which began with the LoCloud hackathon open to conference participants at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris the day before, an emphasis on the fertile potential of unpredictability emerged. Dan Cohen observed: 'People have uses for collections that collection builders cannot anticipate.' Anything designed for a preconceived ‘general public’ will, by definition, fail.

This needn’t be cause for concern, however, but for boldness and celebration. An awareness and readiness for openness and changeability enables an exciting and endless future of possibility.

As a community of memory institutions, a major part of this preparation for an innovative future includes a readiness to accept past failure. As Chris Welty underlined, the need to 'invest in failure' is tantamount to any quest for that eventual 'golden nugget' of success.

Though an openness to imperfection and failure might seem like a unlikely outcome from a conference dedicated to creation and the development of future tools, it comes with an important conclusion. What the conference enables, in conference MC and head of partnerships for BBC Archives Bill Thompson’s words, is the 'opportunity to share our tales of woe and tales of triumph'; as a legacy, it is vital. Together, we can transform setbacks into steps forward in shared progress, finding solutions to the issues we face in promoting the discovery, exploration and use of digital cultural heritage as they arise.

Imogen Greenhalgh is editorial and press officer for Europeana; Gregory Markus is EuropeanaTech community manager