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portrait of Beth Daley

Beth Daley

Editorial Adviser , Europeana Foundation

How we’re using smart tech to create richer cultural experiences

Since January 2015, Europeana has been one of the European Union’s Digital Service Infrastructures (DSI). The EU has several of them, others include safer internet for children, electronic health services, and business management. The Europeana DSI showcases and provides online access to Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage through the Europeana Collections platform and supports cultural heritage institutions as they adapt to this digital age.

Last year, the European Commission published an evaluation of Europeana, which outlined our achievements and some areas to focus on next. In this series, we will look at some of the Europeana DSI activities that the evaluation considered a priority, giving you a greater understanding of the endeavours and challenges we’re working on right now.

Today, we look at what Europeana is doing to take advantage of the advances in digital technology, particularly ‘smart’ technology, that can bring our cultural heritage to life in exciting ways.
 

Background

Having tens of millions of pieces of European art and cultural works available via a website is great, but it’s not enough. There’s so much more we can and should do with them. New and evolving technologies have the potential to help us reveal and use these treasures in smart ways.  

Think of how much more efficient technology makes us and what that could do to our data ingestion and processing processes. Automation instead of manual manipulation. Fast and efficient processes instead of labour-intensive ones. Machines that learn; machines that get to know our data better than we can. That’s what artificial intelligence and big data could do for us. And if we invest time and effort in their research and set-up, we will be able to tailor developments here and there, repurposing and personalising as needs and demands change.

Smart tech can offer culture lovers brand-new visitor experiences, through installations in museums or through apps and online experiences that audiences can access anywhere. High-quality digitised collections can be used to educate, to inform, to entertain, to connect - to support any mission statement a museum might have. 

Goal

We want Europe’s cultural heritage to be found, used, shared and loved. We want to use the most exciting and advanced technologies we can to help Europe’s cultural heritage institutions share their collections in innovative ways, reaching as many people as they can. 

Innovative technologies should improve data quality and eliminate some of the time-consuming and expensive manual work that cultural heritage institutions perform at the moment. We hope that by implementing such technologies into Europeana’s processes, we can save our partner institutions significant time and resources. 

Challenges

The kind of smart tech we’re talking about is dependent on being fed sufficient, accurate, useful data. So, once again, encouraging and supporting cultural heritage institutions to provide high-quality, complete and open data has to be the foundation of everything we do. 

Finally, being smart isn’t all about using advanced technology. We need humans too. Machines can’t (yet) decipher context and relevance in the way that a person can. So we’re looking for human-centric solutions that give us the benefits of today’s tech with that important personal touch.

What we’re doing

New innovations

Europeana is working with partners on a range of projects that will help to bridge the gap between the present and future for cultural heritage institutions.

Balancing tech with the human touch

  • With a project called Enrich Europeana, we want to transform casual users into cultural curators by giving them tools to transcribe, enrich, and add notes and tags to material on Europeana Collections, making it even more useful for culture lovers, educational and research institutions alike. So far, we’ve worked with contributors to design and create a specialised website with transcription and annotation tools. Artificial intelligence looks at the transcribed text, searching for named references that can help bring context to the item. Next will come integration of automatic suggestions for enrichment that are presented to the user within the tool. Try it now.

  • In CrowdHeritage, an open platform lets cultural heritage institutions share metadata that might need a little fix or enrichment, and harnesses people power by asking the crowd to contribute with annotations. It also uses artificial intelligence with images to identify, for example, prominent colours in a picture of a dress. Try it now.

Making culture accessible to all

  • With St George on a Bike, we’re working to make images more accessible and findable, which is of particular importance to helping visually impaired people to fully appreciate images online. Machine-learning software will ultimately use information contained both in an object's image and in its metadata to create a more complete and useful description of that object. For example, ‘This is a picture of St George on a horse’. 

Ongoing activities

We’re always working on improving Europeana Collections and building on past developments to make them even better. 

  • A new browsing experience that’s in development groups material in useful ways, so you can see, for example, all content by a specific person, or on a certain topic, like Mozart, photographs or Art Deco. More context is provided by combining information from Wikipedia with results relating to a person or topic. We’re continuing to test and develop this feature so look out for updates.

We’ve been working with partners on collaborative projects applying tech to the cultural heritage sector.

  • With partners in the V4Design project, we’re applying tech like 3D modelling to cultural heritage material so that it can be used in video games. 

  • As a partner in the GIFT project, we’re finding out how digital formats can be used to develop new ways to explore the museum both as a physical and a digital space. 

  • In 2018, with partners Sound & Vision, we published an Innovation Agenda. It includes a list of the most urgent challenges and opportunities across the European cultural landscape - including in technological innovation. By focussing attention on the innovations considered as top priorities, the Agenda hopes to support the sustainable development of a technologically advanced, economically stable and socially conscious cultural heritage domain. 

We’re at the start of these journeys with smart technology and we’re positive about the changes they can bring about for both the cultural sector and the culture lover. So watch this space for developments as they come.

Find out more

Europeana works with a network of partners and organisations, including EuropeanaTech  - a community of experts, developers, and researchers from the research and development sector - who help ensure we’re not just keeping up with the latest developments, we’re leading them. Read EuropeanaTech’s journal: Insights

In related work, the Europeana Foundation is involved in Time Machine in which Europeana Collections is one of the building blocks in a project that will, it’s hoped, use artificial intelligence to mass-digitise and interpret archives, to develop visualisation technologies such as augmented reality, and exploitation strategies that will make Europe a leader in the field of innovation using ‘Big Data from the Past’. 

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