Thursday, March 08, 2007

Location, Technology and Cultural Patrimony

Out of Virginia came this very interesting story about a website that enables users to contribute submissions to and track small, local suburban cemeteries. The website of the African-American Cemeteries in Albermarle and Amherst Counties is a superb example of what happens when cultural heritage meets the Internet age.

Though it is not completed, the mashup that maps where these small cemeteries are helps to tell the story of this regional community, the cemeteries themselves and the families linked to both. What an amazing amount of forethought on the part of the site’s creator to connect this finite data to the ground (and locations) in which the objects are rooted – literally.

I wonder if similar technologies could be used to enhance other situations involving cultural heritage and patrimony such as tracking archeological sites, museum objects or repatriation candidates. The challenge, it seems, is enabling the data itself to balloon and feed these types of services and mashups. The flexibility and extensibility of object records and data sources are the technical constraint on how far the geo-representations can mature.

(To get a sense of how far mashups and visualzation can go, check out Infosthetics. They have a number of great threads and conversations regarding the visualization of various information sources.)

Currently, within the cultural sector, the biggest push in the preservation realm seems to be digitizing and cataloging objects. This is essentially a first-order concern; how do we preserve and index digital copies of objects to make them accessible. And while this itself is noble, the question of what will happen next with the data must be asked. You've got the data, great. Now what? In answering this question, a foundation must be laid now of the possible future uses of the information. In digitization projects, the groundwork that is laid at the data level today, will define how the objects engage and interact on the web in the future.

The impact this can have is fantastic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Timeline of Art History is an award winning website that maps the trajectory of art and culture across all continents and 5,000 years of history. This suggests possible directions localized object data can lead.

Another example from outside the cultural sector, Transportation Alternatives manages a site that presents the 10 most dangerous intersections for pedestrians and cyclists in New York City. Link The impact of this service is the convergence of both search and indexing services along with the visual representation. And while this mashup does not include, say a picture of the intersection, it still makes an experiential impact that the data by itself would lose. For a much weightier example, check out the Map of Sex Offenders.

The point of these two advocacy sector examples is that location and local context can be extremely powerful allies in educating and raising awareness. When developing data sources and services that digitize an object, additional consideration should be given to how this data can be recapitulated. I can imagine any number of organizations that would benefit from such an approach, World Monuments Fund, National Trust for Historic Preservation or even the Smithsonian Repatriation Office.

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