National Lottery Heritage Fund: Digitisation Leadership Event

This half-day event focused on digitisation in relation to the UK’s economy, the cultural sector, and international standing.

Executive Director of the Flickr Foundation, George Oates, was on a panel with colleagues from the British Film Institute, the Natural History Museum, and the National Archives to present and discuss priorities for UK government around digitisation in the cultural and heritage sectors.

“Digitisation is not a singular process, but a set of stages, which in turn are often part of a wider programme. At its core, digitisation is a combination of releasing digital data about collections and creating digital representations of analogue or physical objects.”
Josie Fraser, Head of Digital Policy, National Lottery Heritage Fund

The event was part of a larger program to build digital skills and influence policy in the UK. Find out more on the Heritage Fund website or read their write-up of the event, published 26/4/2023.

We were asked to speak for five minutes on the topic, so I decided to explain what was, and also speculate on the possibility of “scheduled digital monuments.” Here is that script:

Hello, and thank you to Josie and the team for inviting me to this panel today. I want to make a pitch for meaningful, accessible digital perpetuity.

I was in the Guildhall Art Centre here in London the other day. It’s built on top of the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. A sign in the basement said, “This is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is an offence under The Ancient Monument and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 to cause any damage to this exhibit.” I wondered… what could a Scheduled Digital Monument be like?

I’m a software person and the director of the new non-profit Flickr Foundation, Our mission is to determine how to make the huge Flickr image collection last 100 years. It’s about 50 billion images now, so I hope you’ll agree that monumental is an excellent word to describe it. As we get established, our strategy is to design a 100-year plan. A plan that is explicitly multi-generational for an organisation we hope will outlive us. In a scenario like this, actual technologies slide out of the frame. We can’t anticipate particular tools or services that might exist in 2050, but what we can do is design an organisation that expects and intends periodical technology renewal. 

How many of us have a hard drive or an old laptop stashed in a box somewhere that we haven’t turned on for a few years? I found one of my old laptops the other day, which has some of my favourite design work hiding on it. I can’t even turn it on. It holds unique files that don’t exist in any cloud or other place. I wasn’t rigorous about that when I was working on those projects. Digitisation has dwarfed description. I expect many cultural organisations worldwide to be in a similar position: lots of digital objects locked on old or obsolete technology, never to be seen again.

On the other hand, “the cloud” has ironically removed so much friction from the work of digital copying that Amazon Web Services has quietly but steadily grown into one of the enormous storage monopolies on the planet. I find it strange that we throw our identities and cultural assets into such nebulous things, but perhaps that’s how the world is going.

Contrast that with our material things. We know we’re good at paper and paintings. I’ve heard people who work in culture and heritage say it’s a relief to know they can open a drawer full of paper they haven’t opened in 10 years and find it just how they left it. I wonder if heritage professionals would take comfort in handing off these stable things for companies to look after, but we readily do with our digital assets.

Building this capacity level will take time, and it will require a lot of redundancy. The short-term funding pattern our cultural organisations have to live with makes this practically impossible. We have to support our culture workers to build skills and confidence to run digital technologies at the same level we handle paper or buildings. We could learn a lot about maintenance and care from the people who maintain historic buildings nationwide. It’s estimated that eighty percent of the information and knowledge generated on the Internet has disappeared since its creation.

The “benefit to the UK” question for the panel was a bit strange for me. I’m a migrant, and practically all of my work happens digitally. It’s odd because it’s so fundamental that digital things cross national borders. Open source software development and other digital collaborations I’ve experienced do that too, and corporations regularly back up data to different regions for redundancy (and for legal and tax advantages).

But, there’s an opportunity for the UK to create durable digital preservation techniques that other countries can share. Take inspiration from the radical work the early team at put into the world. That group changed the way the governments of the planet deliver digital services. The UK could also provide such a bright guiding light at this particular moment in the churning waters we’re now in around cultural and historical meaning and power. The challenge for the Heritage Lottery Fund will be to provide stability for developing so-called Scheduled Digital Monuments, and now is the right time to begin. Thank you.