Europeana Space Photo pilot: Innovate your photographic heritage … and your future business!

Europeana Space

Europeana Space

The web and the smartphone have changed photography irrevocably. No need to explain that selfies, instagram, GoPro’s and the sheer ubiquity of the image have completely transformed the place of photography in our lives. It also had a profound effect on professional photography.

It is true that classic business models have suffered from this: news photographers now have to compete with thousands of citizens ready to share their smartphone pictures with news outlets, often having the first scoop on events. The classic photo print shop experiences difficult times, and no need to buy illustrated books or to pay for image rights when you can download any picture of about anything for free on the web. In particular, the IP-based business models underlying the photo industry are under strong pressure, forcing photo archives, photo agencies, museums and publishers to innovate or perish.

But of course the new situation also holds tremendous opportunities. Some of those are currently underexploited. In the EuropeanaSpace Photo pilot, we are zooming in on the fact that currently there is an enormous wealth of photographic heritage from trusted sources available on platforms such as Europeana, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr commons and the likes, where high digital quality is paired with useful metadata. In the EuropeanaPhotography project, some of the Espace partners contributed to put almost half a million images from early photography on Europeana, all digitized to the highest standards. Not only are these images true to the source, the state-of-the-art digitization means that the maximum information in the analogue source was translated into the digital file. This was demonstrated in the exhibition “All our Yesterdays”, where early photographs from this collection were reprinted in a breathtakingly high quality rendering a dynamic range that was never before available. We can now see these images in a quality hitherto unseen, including by the original photographer. In this way, the past comes to life in a very peculiar way.

Gaston Paris - Young women at a fair 1935

Silver gelatine glass plates reprinted in HDR with very high resolution give a totally new photo experience, with these beautiful girls laughing at you from decades away.
Gaston Paris | location unknown (France), 1935 Young women at a fun fair. Roger-Viollet collections © Gaston Paris / Roger-Viollet

And yes, partners such as KU Leuven, with its Digital Lab and ESAT/Visics research group, and iMinds, who are involved in many aspects of digital image standards and in digital restoration of high value paintings, are at the top of innovation in image digitization. But this is not the kind of innovation we are aiming at in Europeana Space. Innovation is maybe a word used to cheaply, but what is sure is that it covers different meanings and can come in many guises. There is of course the innovation that comes directly from scientific research, such as valorisation. And there is innovation coming from bright ideas. Where the first is more and more the result of careful planning and dependent on a steady stream of resources, the latter are more difficult to plan, there is always some serendipity involved. But these innovations alone do not necessarily translate into new practices, in new markets, in new revenue streams. The photography pilot aims at innovation in photo agencies, archives, museums and education through reuse of the photographic content available on Europeana and similar open repositories, mixed with copyrighted and user-generated content stemming from modern day photographic practices.

A more durable and radical impact on innovation often comes from the availability of new sources, new raw materials. It is our opinion that the digital cultural heritage now available through sources such as Europeana (with >30 million objects) is such a new source. This is also the conviction of Europeana itself, which wants to stimulate the reuse of the contents it brokers trough Europeana Creative.

The Europeana Space Photography pilot wants to contribute to this effort, as this will lead to a much deeper innovation in the long run: how can users become more proactive in the reuse of digital photographic heritage in Europeana? How can they re-appropriate these contents and the past they represent in their current and future cultural practices? How can this increase in the number of proactive users lead to the emergence of real creative industries that build new business models on top of it?


To this end, the Photography pilot started with the development of demonstrators, which aim to show developers what possibilities are available on 3 different levels. First of all there is a multitude of already available apps that can already be used to innovate existing image businesses. We showed how e.g. the Blinkster app, using image similarity recognition algorithms, can be used to enhance photo exhibition experiences. This is further explored in the Espace museum pilot. We carefully review what are the possible showstoppers in applying these already available technologies to innovate what is happening in exhibitions. The innovation we are talking about here is not a technological innovation, it is more focused on innovation of procedures and approaches within the museum exhibition world.

In a second demonstrator, we want to show how people can create innovative new ways of social activities based on the remixability of digital photographic cultural heritage. We use early photography images from Europeana, and create challenges and events where people are invited to take their own photos of old scenes in a city. In particular, we use photos of early twentieth century Leuven and ask people to look for the same streets and scenes and try to reinterpret them with their smartphones. This demonstrator makes use of the in museum and cultural heritage institutions very popolar Omeka front-end, combined with the Espace back-end.

In a third demonstrator, we will use these old and new images to create augmented reality experiences, where old and new images can be overlayed and mixed to create stunning  visual experiences such as instant time-travel.

The only aim of the demonstrators is to set the stage for a hackathon event on 25-27 February 2016 in Leuven, where developers and content providers are invited to test new ideas. To test some ideas already, the Photo pilot participated in the Espace TV Hackathon in Amsterdam, teaming up with Noterik and World Press Photo to propose a “Photo expo 2.0” app, using the Noterik multiscreen Toolkit.

Again, these are not innovations in itself. What we aim for, is to study what are the pitfalls, the lacking elements in the chain that make or break the possible emergence of radically new practices. We already identified two major elements that can enable the creation of more genuine interaction, and that are currently lacking in the Europeana environment: the possibility for user login and a protected space for copyrighted content.

User login

First of all, the Europeana portal as it is now is a first generation web application that doesn’t allow for users to login. This limits severely the possibilities for users to become engaged on the one hand, but more importantly it prohibits the content providers to glean interesting knowledge about who is using their content when. Europeana Space provides the possibility for users to login and to save their own data on the Espace server, combined with both open content and copyrighted content made available in the Europeana Space Content space. The Espace API will provide functionalities to exploit these user login data, with full protection of privacy and rights.

Protected space

Part of the content available through Europeana is Public Domain labelled, or dedicated for reuse through Creative Commons licenses. However, one of the biggest showstoppers and impediments of reuse is that much of the content remains copyrighted. This is not only for commercial reason: many archives do not want commercial reuse of their content for moral integrity reasons: they feel their cultural heritage deserves respects and should not be alienated.

To make it possible for innovators to experiment with new applications before having to negotiate for the rights on content, Espace develops a “protected space” both legally and technically: it aims to complement the interesting work already being done by Europeana in the context of the Rights Labeling Campaign, by adding more refined reuse metadata. The whole point is that in creative industries new IP is created adding on top of existing IP from content owners. Because of the unclarity of this relation many content owners are reluctant to share their materials online, fearing that other business will make profit with their content without the content owner sharing in the revenue. This was clear in the EuropeanaPhotography project, where it proved very difficult to convince current photo businesses to open up their content for reuse. In Europeana Space, Photoconsortium members add content to the Espace content space for innovative reuse in applications.

These two elements combined, the user login functionality and the protected space, aim to create a context where creativity can flourish, and new business models can be explored jointly by proactive citizens, creative industries and content owners and caretakers such as musea and archives.

In the Hackathon, the tools from Europeana Labs will be provided together with the Europeana Space API, which gives access to the protected space. Open tools will be provided to connect CMS software such as Omeka to this backend environment. Besides access to the open content, the possibility to upload and manage user generated content and access to copyrighted Europeana Space content will be available to developers. The Blinkster application will be available as well as augmented reality tools and specific image processing algorithms. The challenge will be to bring all these elements together in such a way that content providers and users meet in innovative ways mediated by the content. There will be clear guidance into how IPR issues can be anticipated and monitored throughout the whole design process.

The kind of innovation we are aiming at is innovation in the long run, contributing to a basic layer that brings creative cultural activity to a new, sustainable level.  We like to call this “tidal’ innovation: making sure that when a new massive availablility wave occurs, as is the case now with abundant photographic content flowing from Europeana, it is picked up so that wave after wave the there is more impact on the coastline. More than hoping to yield from the hackathon that single bright idea that could become in itself a new micro business model, it is more the general strengthening of the intermediate layers required for many of these new bright ideas to emerge that is our core concern. Finding the links between the photographic heritage content, the wide variety of general public, amateurs, pro-ams and professional developers through an intermediate software architecture that provides real role identification and task burden sharing while at the same time improving transparency on rights is the real challenge. The big issue with the “Long Tail” is not so much the small group of pioneers and neither it are the massive amount of passive followers. It is the intermediate groups in between that link the bright leaders to the masses. This is the place for innovative, sustainable, professionally maintained infrastructures. In this way Europeana Space hopes to contribute to the overall success and relevance of Europeana.

About fredtruyen

Responsible for Digital Media at the Institute for Cultural Studies KULeuven. Teaches Information Science and Online Publishing.
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