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Coding da Vinci featured 20 different projects and added 600,000 files to the Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Thomas Nitz/Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland, freely licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An additional 600,000 free files are now available for the Wikimedia Commons thanks to Coding da Vinci, a recent cultural data hackathon held at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. They range from century-old films to recordings of mechanical pianos, World War II photographs, scans of dried flowers, and other art and heritage, all sourced from German museums, archives, and libraries.

Other achievements ranged from including 65 million pieces of metadata, such as the Integrated Authority Files (GND) and inventory of the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, and about 180 people came to Coding da Vinci’s 5 July award ceremony, despite heat that reached 34°C, for presentations from the competition’s 20 projects.

Still, you can find all of this information in the competition’s press report, along with the five jury prizes and “everybody’s darling” plant identification app Floradex (i.e. won the audience prize). Instead, this blog post focuses on the competition’s project that, in my personal opinion, epitomizes a very special quality of Coding da Vinci.

The Imperii-Viz project

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This deed (a transcription) was proof of Götz von Berlichingen‘s ownership of Hornberg Castle. Photo by Castellan/Burg Hornberg archives, public domain.

Documents similar to the deed above, a remnant from the Holy Roman Empire, are on display in museums around the world. They can be attractive to look at, but very few of us can actually read them—and among the few who can decipher the content, fewer still can understand it.

In Europe, a good number of these documents—most of them deeds of legal transactions—have survived into the present day, despite wars, fires, mold, and voracious bugs, and the sheer amount of time that has passed since they were written. Some are carefully preserved in archives, and non-medievalist historians and similar specialists rarely get to see them; their age alone makes them too precious and fragile.

Now, thanks to the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz, many of these documents are now becoming accessible to a wider audience. The academy is home to the nearly 200-year-long research project “Regesta Imperii” (RI). Here, all administrative documents issued by Roman-German kings and emperors are summarized in what are known as regesta—similar in function to a book’s dust jacket—in a database. At present it contains 130,000 entries, enough that a large team of specialists from various fields was required.

One visit to RI’s website is enough to realize you have to be a specialist yourself not to get lost in the thousands of entries. Goethe once observed that you only see what you know. If you don’t know what you’re looking for because you can’t imagine what these historical documents might hold, then you won’t even be able to think of a research question. When this happens, the documents remain purely decorative: one deed quickly starts to look like a thousand others, and the visitor’s attention soon drifts away.

The dialectic takes hold

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The Imperii-Viz team present their app at Coding da Vinci. Photo from Thomas Nitz/Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland, freely licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In order to reach and hold onto these non-specialists, the academy decided to conduct an experiment: what would happen if they enlisted curious hackers to play around with their database? They released the data under a free license specially for Coding da Vinci, thus making them available for use in an app for the very first time. For programmers, 130,000 data sets make for a very attractive offer, and five young IT students from Stuttgart and Leipzig took up the challenge. They called the result Imperii-Viz.

On the web-based app, the RI data sets are expanded with images from Wikimedia Commons and text on the emperors and kings from Wikipedia. When the user selects a king, a heat map appears showing the European regions where this king most frequently issued such deeds.

Dr. Andreas Kuczera, a scientific researcher at RI, is very positive about the results of the experiment:

The Imperii-Viz app is really interesting. It supports a new approach we should be taking to our database, viewing it from the perspective of big data. That’s new for us. The app isn’t just making these documents available to non-professionals; it’s also helping us researchers to formulate new questions. We definitely want to continue working with the Imperii-Viz team. The first lesson we learned is that we need to standardize the names of all the rulers so the data sets can be used in a more consistent way. We now have to implement this lesson. Discussions on topics like this with the hackers at Coding da Vinci were really valuable for us.

This assessment reflects perfectly, I believe, the dialectical quality of Coding da Vinci: the dialogue and exchange of experiences between two worlds. In an age of increasingly structured data, cultural institutions can use the technical know-how of programmers to build bridges between us and our cultural heritage—thus making our world a more versatile and richer place, and helping us anchor our present lives in history.

Coding da Vinci was organized by Wikimedia Deutschland together with its partners the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB), the Service Center for Digitization, and the Open Knowledge Foundation; several other reports from the competition are available.

Barbara Fischer
Curator for GLAM Partnerships at Wikimedia Deutschland