Venice Time Machine project temporarily sunk

Chris Burns - Oct 25, 2019, 3:51 pm CDT
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Venice Time Machine project temporarily sunk

Over a thousand years of history in physical paper documents were in the process of being digitized by a state project called the Venice Time Machine Project. These state archives of Venice would have collected massive numbers of documents through the most modern means, allowing waves of ancient data to be interpreted with machine learning algorithms and utilized by data scientists aplenty. Unfortunately, a few mistakes were made between the start of the project and now. That’s effectively a half-decade of scanning data that might be dead in the water.

The project started officially in the year 2014 when three organizations signed a “non-binding memorandum of understanding.” The three groups were the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and of course the State Archive of Venice. Over the past 5 years, the project scanned around 190,000 documents, gathering approximately 8TB (terabytes) of digital data in the process.

On September 19, 2019, State Archive of Venice directory Gianni Penzo Doria sent out a release to the press. This document said that the Time Machine Project was suspended. The suspension, it said, was due to a bit of an oversight in the original agreement back in 2014.

At the head of this project was (and hopefully still is, at some point soon,) computer scientist Frédéric Kaplan. Kaplan is also director at the Digital Humanities Laboratory at the EPFL. “I think it’s essentially a misunderstanding,” said Kaplan, speaking with Nature. Kaplan suggested that the oversight in the original agreement could be dealt with by said collaborators relatively easily.

Gianni Penzo Doria suggested that the digital files were essentially “useless” because the process itself was not properly documented. He said that the project did not follow archival-science guidelines as described by the International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems (InterPARES) project. You can learn more about this set of rules at ResearchGate right now if you do so wish – under title “Authenticity of digital records: An archival diplomatics framework for digital forensics.”

Kaplan suggested that the digital files were scanned and documented using the rules set forth by the International Council of Archives. That’d be the International Standard Archival Description (ISAD) guidelines – which you can read about over at “ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description – Second edition” with ICA (the International Council on Archives.)

Back in 2014, the director of the State Archive of Venice was Raffaele Santoro. He also spoke with Nature, suggesting that he did not know which methodology was used from the beginning, but assumed that everything was scientifically valid due to the close collaboration between the various groups – including the archive’s own staff.

Cross your fingers that Santoro’s confidence is rewarded. If what he suggests is true, all that’d need to be done to comply with “additional standards” would be to update the files that’d already been scanned with information that’d actually been documented – just not recorded at the time at which the digitization was done.

If you’d like to know more about the Time Machine Project, head over to TimeMachine dot EU. What began with the Venice Time Machine has since expanded to other cities across Europe!


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