07 Mar 2019   |   Network Updates   |   Update from University of Amsterdam
These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

University of Amsterdam to unleash big data of the past: the European Time Machine project

The European Commission has chosen Time Machine as one of six proposals to develop a large-scale research initiative. The European Time Machine project will receive 1 million euros in funding to prepare a detailed roadmap of the initiative. Time Machine’s goal is to design and implement advanced new digitisation and artificial intelligence technologies (AI) to mine Europe’s vast cultural heritage – its historical ‘big data’. The free and fair access to information provided by this data will support future scientific and technological developments in Europe. The UvA, at which work is being done on the Amsterdam Time Machine, is one of the main partners in the consortium behind the project.

Unprecedented scale and complexity

The Time Machine will create advanced AI technologies to make sense of the vast amounts of information gleaned from complex historical data sets. This will enable the transformation of fragmented data – with content ranging from medieval manuscripts and historical objects to smartphone and satellite images – into useable knowledge for industry. In essence, a large-scale computing and digitisation infrastructure will map Europe’s entire social, cultural and geographical evolution. Considering the unprecedented scale and complexity of the data, The Time Machine’s AI even has the potential to create a strong competitive advantage for Europe in the global AI race.

Virtual time machine

The project is being led by a consortium of 33 core institutions, with more than 200 other organisations from the research, heritage, public and business sectors involved. At the same time, Time Machine is also a growing network of cities, including Amsterdam. ‘The Time Machine project is the dream of anyone interested in history: the ability to travel back in time, explore the past as if we were there, just like the canonical Tardis space-timeship in the British TV series Doctor Who. Think of it as a sort of Google Earth for the past, in which you can navigate historical Europe in time and space’, says Julia Noordegraaf, professor of Digital Heritage at the UvA and board member of the European Time Machine consortium. ‘We are immensely pleased that the European Commission sees the potential of the Time Machine project. The big data of the past could in future have an enormous cultural, economic and social impact.’

Amsterdam Time Machine

In a large number of cities work is being done on local Time Machines, following in the footsteps of the Venice Time Machinecreated by Frédéric Kaplan (coordinator of the European Time Machine) and his colleagues in Lausanne and Venice. Together with UvA historian Claartje Rasterhoff, Noordegraaf is coordinating the Amsterdam Time Machine. ‘For the project, we aim to build an online platform for data on the city and its inhabitants from various sources, connected and harmonised in one big bag of big historical data, and accessible via space by linking to historical maps and 3D reconstructions of the city in various periods’, says Noordegraaf.

‘We then make this all spatially accessible by linking historical maps and 3D reconstructions of the city in different periods’, adds Rasterhoff. ‘To get a better idea of this, one can look at the beautiful visualisation that the Amsterdam City Archives made of the growth and expansion of the city in the 17th century (see video below). This shows the construction of the canals, but also the extension beyond the old city walls and the arrival of the Westerkerk church. Our aim is the same with the Amsterdam Time Machine, but then enriched with all the information we have about the people, objects and events that played a role in the life and culture of the city.’ 

‘With such an advanced space-time machine, we can study the development of the city and its inhabitants on an unprecedented scale, thereby providing new insights into the historical roots of contemporary urban issues’, concludes Noordegraaf.

The members of the European Time Machine consortium will meet for the official kick-off on 18 and 19 March in Brussels. On 9 and 10 May, a second consortium event will be held at the UvA.

This release was first published 6 March 2019 by the University of Amsterdam. 

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