The Future of the Past (EC Preservation Planning Meeting)

On 4-5th May 2011 the EC hosted an invitational event to discuss and consult on future plans for digital preservation in Europe.  It sought to look beyond the current Framework Programme and establish priorities for research in digital preservation for the next programme. This apparently will not be referred to as FP8; they are instead going to bundle together various things into what they are calling the ‘Common Strategic Framework’.

Aim of the meeting was to think about what the research questions are in digital preservation over the next few years. The meeting was convened by the new Head of Unit – Javier Hernández-Ros. He’s the Head of Unit for Cultural Heritage and Technology Enhanced Learning and reports to Kahlil Rouhana who leads the Digital Content & Cognitive Systems Directorate. Javier explained that there will be another FP7 preservation call in January 2012 (and they are looking to refine this over the next 2 weeks) but that they are also now closely focusing on their programme of funding for the period beyond 2014. They need to put their portfolio of programmes (for the period 2014-2020) in front of the Commission for consideration by the end of this year so the next few months are a critical period for feeding ideas to them for inclusion into future programmes.

The main business of the meeting consisted of small group work on the part of the 60 or so attendees. On day 1 we were asked  to think about some questions and formulate some topics that would form the agenda to be tackled on day 2. The questions were:

I. How do you see the Digital Preservation Landscape Today?

II. How do you see the future of digital technology? What would you like DP to be like in 2020?

III. Provide 2 research topics that the EC should invest in over the next decade

A great many topics emerged (more than 30) but were finally clustered and streamlined and boiled down overnight by the EC staff to a more manageable number and to topics that they felt were plausible and possible to address in the context of EC programmes.

The 14 topics that emerged were:

  • new approaches to bit preservation (this was subsequently dropped – arguably, this is a solved problem!)
  • extraction of preservation information (more effective metadata)
  • integrated access to digital resources (over time, across ‘live’ and ‘archive’ systems, by various communities)
  • embed preservation as a computer science problem (taught on degrees and as an engineering challenge)
  • integrated emulation systems (usable and accessible emulators)
  • knowledge preservation (maintaining contextual information about resources)
  • quality assessment (the ability to check large digital collections for problems and errors)
  • preserving complex digital objects (get industry involved and make tools easier to use)
  • automation (to cope with scale, e.g. rule-based systems, AI methods – to hide complexity and reduce costs)
  • ease of use (implicit and invisible processes for personal archiving and the mass market)
  • integration into asset management (digital objects as commodities and managed as such)
  • standards development (metadata, persistent identifiers and certification)
  • markets and cost/benefits (economic frameworks for preservation and effective partnerships)
  • self-preserving objects (embedded micro-objects changing the nature of the information lifecycle)

Over the course of the 2 days, some of these topics emerged more strongly than others and were featured more often in the conversations of the delegates over cups of coffee. To my mind, the real keywords to emerge from the meeting might be summed up as follows: automation, integration and intelligence. Hmm …. sounds like the name of a programme! It was a good meeting … well done to all responsible at the Commission.