The Other Interface. Using linked (open) data to provide a different kind of access
Pepijn Lemmens, Het Nieuwe Instituut, The Netherlands
AbstractHet Nieuwe Instituut ("The New Institute") is the Netherlands national institute for architecture, design and digital culture. It houses one of the largest architecture collections in the world. Over the past years Het Nieuwe Instituut has been experimenting with different ways to present its own and other collections. From 2020 the institute will start developing a series of new interfaces or "windows" into the collection based on Linked (Open) Data, new types of interface design, artificial intelligence, and reusable technical "building blocks". These interfaces will answer different questions than traditional architecture historical ones. Questions like: How many pink buildings are there in the collection? What was the most commonly used building material in 1965? How does this building relate to that movie? Currently, interfaces are planned for professionals in other fields, like fashion and product designers, writers, filmmakers, etc, versus an interface for a wider, more general audience interested in architecture and architecture history, an interface aimed at children/education, and an interface aimed at a more experimental audience interested in arts and digital culture. Over the upcoming five years, large parts of the collection will be digitized and new "windows" will be added to provide a rich insight into Dutch architecture history.
Keywords: interface design, linked data, open data, Artificial Intelligence, serendipity
Het Nieuwe Instituut (“The New Institute”) is the Netherlands’ national institute for architecture, design and digital culture. It houses one of the largest architecture collections in the world, with over six kilometers of archives dating from the early 1800s to the present day. In 2019, the institute received a large grant to conserve, digitize, and make public a large part of the collection.
The collection is currently available through an interface aimed at research professionals: https://zoeken.hetnieuweinstituut.nl. Over the past few years, Het Nieuwe Instituut has been experimenting with different ways to present its own (and other) collections. Artists, data visualizers, design researches, and professionals from other fields have been asked to think of different ways of opening up and visualizing the collection. This has led to two projects: New Archive Interpretations and Open Archive (together with the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision).
In 2020, Het Nieuwe Instituut will start the development of a new type of interface for the collection. This will be the first in a series of “windows” into the collection aimed at audiences other than research professionals. The new interfaces will target groups including: professionals in other fields, such a fashion and product designers, writers and filmmakers; a wider, more general audience interested in architecture and architectural history; children and educators; and a more experimental audience interested in the arts and digital culture. These different target groups have different interests and ask different questions – if indeed they ask any – than historical researchers. Het Nieuwe Instituut aims to provide customized interfaces for all these audiences using Linked (Open) Data, artificial intelligence, and reusable technical “building blocks”.
In 2019, the entire content of the collection database was converted to Linked Data. Linked Data is structured data which is interlinked with other data so it becomes more useful through semantic queries. Rather than using this data to serve web pages only for human readers, it extends it to share information in a way that can be read automatically by computers. Part of the vision of Linked Data is for the Internet to become a global database by connecting these structured datasources.
Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Linked Data will form the basis of all future interfaces, both Het Nieuwe Instituut’s own interfaces and others; where possible, data will be offered as Open Data for others to use (Linked Open Data, LOD). This means the data is freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents, or other mechanisms of control.
At the same time, a curatorial and editorial team will start developing different stories to be told using the collection. These stories will build on earlier experiences with the New Archive Interpretations and Open Archive projects and will lead to interfaces that answer other questions than traditional architectural-history ones. Questions like: How many pink buildings are there in the collection? What was the most commonly used building material in 1965? How does this building relate to that movie? A technical and design team will create interface components to present these questions and stories for different audiences.
The interfaces will rely on artificial intelligence to create meaningful connections between data, stories and users, for instance for adapting data flows and interfaces to specific user interests or image recognition to extract information from visual data. A controlled form of serendipity will be added to prevent users getting caught in a filter bubble in which they will only get more of the same type of experiences and to provide (hopefully) surprising new insights into the collection and connections to other online collections.
Over the upcoming five years, large parts of the collection will be digitized and new interfaces or “windows” will be added to provide a rich insight into Dutch architectural history and new experiences in design and digital culture. This paper, then, is very much a work in progress, as much will change over the next five years.
About Het Nieuwe Instituut
Het Nieuwe Instituut, the Netherlands’ institute for architecture, design and digital culture, was founded in 2013 following the merger of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, the Premsela Institute for Design and Fashion, and the Virtueel Platform institute for digital culture.
Through its activities, Het Nieuwe Instituut aims to increase the appreciation of the cultural and social significance of architecture, design and digital culture, and to strengthen the interaction between these disciplines. In a period characterized by radical change, Het Nieuwe Instituut moderates, stimulates and facilitates debate about architecture, design, and digital culture through research and a public program. The broadening and deepening of public appreciation is a fundamental starting point.
Het Nieuwe Instituut stands for the social and innovative value of culture. A visitor to Het Nieuwe Instituut enters, as it were, “the museum of the future”. In Het Nieuwe Instituut, visitors are confronted with provocative questions which may not be of today, but are certainly of tomorrow. In other words, Het Nieuwe Instituut is true to its name: What it shows is “new” and will eventually be picked up by other national and international organizations. Het Nieuwe Instituut is unrivaled among cultural institutions both in terms of content and organization, and in its ability to point to urgent issues and approach them in a flexible, innovative way.
With the commencement of the second policy period, the programming focus is on strengthening the signature of Het Nieuwe Instituut. New formats and products will contribute to this, not least in the way in which the building – and not only the galleries and study center – are shared with the outside world. Het Nieuwe Instituut will generate new income streams while also expanding its community of users.
A key underlying idea in this respect is to position the institute with its four pillars not as a classical museum, but as an academy that can function as a booster for new knowledge through research and a range of public activities including symposia and exhibits (or even a curriculum around our ecological garden).
About the collection
The collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut contains drawings, photographs, and models from the archives of Dutch architects and urban planners. Among these are the archives of the firm P.J.H. Cuypers and his son J.Th. Cuypers (known for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, figure 1.), prominent 19th century components of the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. The main bulk of the collection is from the period 1900 to 1940, and includes the archives of H.P. Berlage, K.P.C. de Bazel, W.M. Dudok, T. van Doesburg, and Th. Rietveld. The institute collects and manages information about Dutch and international architecture, urban design, and related fields such as spatial planning, landscape architecture, interior architecture, art, digital culture and design. The collection is available for research in our study center and online through the search portal: zoeken.hetnieuweinstituut.nl.
To a significant degree, Het Nieuwe Instituut derives its special position from the range and unique importance of the National Collection for Architecture and Urban Planning, which it manages. The collection, which is constantly growing, has a central place in the institute’s research and exhibit programs. In this respect, the archive has an increasingly organic connection with Het Nieuwe Instituut’s function as a museum for architecture, design, and digital culture, and the central role that research and development plays in generating the content of the institute’s programming. Following the introduction of the 2016 Heritage Act, the collection was also granted heritage status. Once again, this has served to endorse the significance of the collection and ensure structural funding for it. The collection has proved to be of significance not only in addressing historical subjects, but also as a speculative wellspring of 150 years of progressive thinking.
Alongside its significance for the institute’s own activities and for internal research by experts and fellows, the archive is also an important source for external parties – researchers, curators, students and writers – for whom the hundreds of archives containing approximately 4.5 million documents provide indispensable materials. The activities of the Agency for Architecture, Design and Digital Culture, within which Het Nieuwe Instituut has grouped several advisory functions in relation to the creative industries, also benefit from access to these extensive collections.
An important task in managing the national collection and making it accessible is digitization. For Het Nieuwe Instituut, with digital culture as part of its remit, it is natural not only to explore digitizing the collection, but also (as a cultural producer) to employ digitization to generate new meanings.
Het Nieuwe Instituut manages over 600 archives and collections of Dutch architects, urban planners, professional associations and educational institutions, comprising a total of some 4,500,000 documents. The collection is the largest in the Netherlands, after that of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, and is one of the largest architecture-related collections in the world. Besides museum-quality drawings, these archives include sketches, preliminary designs, working drawings (figures 2 & 3), business and personal correspondence, photographs, models, posters, press clippings, and published articles.
Figure 3: Design for wall paintings for the large picture rooms on the first floor of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, without year. Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut, RYKSt2252The collection offers insight into 130 years of development within Dutch architecture and urbanism. The uniqueness of many resources, their artistic quality, and the added value of the complete collection, give the archives of Het Nieuwe Instituut their great cultural and historical significance. The archive of so-called born-digital material is growing rapidly and currently contains approximately 60,000 files. This shift is one of the reasons for our increased investment in digitization, both in terms of time and funding. One of the key outcomes is a new search portal, which provides access to the largest digital architecture archive and contains more than 140,000 images.
About Disclosing Architecture
To enhance the consultability of the archive (the collection of architectural drawings, the photo collection and the Theo van Doesburg collection in particular), extensive restoration and conservation is required. Over the coming six years, the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (in Dutch: Onderwijs, Cultuur Wetenschappen, OCW) is investing 11 million euros in the visibility – i.e. the restoration and digitization – of the architectural collection administered by Het Nieuwe Instituut. Het Nieuwe Instituut plans to use this support to achieve two goals: to enhance the collection’s physical consultability, and to improve the accessibility of the digitized collection.
In 2019, Het Nieuwe Instituut launched a six-year program – called “Architectuur Dichterbij” (Disclosing Architecture) – to improve the architecture collection’s visibility and accessibility. One of the projects within the program involves the conservation and restoration of a large number of design drawings and photographs.
The project involves tens of thousands of objects, which will be transferred to restoration studios in phases over the following few years. In addition, the storage facilities are being redesigned to make room for materials that will be rehoused.
Het Nieuwe Instituut intends to use this financial support for two main objectives, namely:
1. Increasing physical consultability
2. Improving accessibility to the digitized collection
The realization of both these main objectives is of great social value, as they will enable Dutch architectural heritage to be preserved and made available to both current and future generations. The accessibility of the architecture collection will be increased by:
- Improving the search portal of Het Nieuwe Instituut and making it visible through an app
- Increasing the accessibility of the study center
- Bundling the digital collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut with other digital collections within a network of collection-managing institutions
- Sustainably preserving the digitized collections in the digital archive currently under development
- Collaborating with Wikipedia
- Researching copyrighted elements of the collection (around 5% of the collection).
Het Nieuwe Instituut believes that it is of social importance that the specialist knowledge gained during this restoration and digitization project will not only benefit the national collection, but will also be shared with the outside world in the form of publications and symposia. Through this approach, Het Nieuwe Instituut is positioning itself as a knowledge center for fellow institutions with similar collections.
About The Other Interface
The Other Interface offers different windows or front ends for the collection for different target groups. A window is a rounded unit of information, aimed at a specific target group, with its own subdomain and its own design.
- Increasing the accessibility and awareness of the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut for a wider audience of architecture/heritage lovers and professionals from other creative sectors
- Improving the accessibility of the digitized collection
- Laying the foundation for the online marketing of the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, and Het Nieuwe Instituut itself
- Reinforcing the architecture component in the broader story of the collection of the Netherlands (linked to the canon and other collections)
- Bringing together the expertise within Het Nieuwe Instituut (architecture, design and digital culture) for mutual reinforcement in strengthening the degree of visibility of the collection
- Providing a meaningful application of Linked Open Data(LOD) from the heritage sector for the digital generation
- Providing a surprising, personalized experience
- Providing a platform for other collections
- Bringing together the expertise of Het Nieuwe Instituut: architecture, design, and digital culture.
- One or more public-friendly collection interfaces that is operational and focused on discovery and association
- The ability to tell different stories about Dutch design culture through different windows, to be able to share them, and to have a platform for online marketing
- A technical and editorial structure in which architectural heritage can be efficiently accessed
- An interface to present and combine LOD in a meaningful way
- The first heritage-wide platform for LOD for a wider audience than heritage professionals
- Model products in which architecture, design, and digital culture reinforce each other.
The Other Interface stems from the ambition to make Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection accessible to an audience that is wider than heritage professionals. The institute’s collection is currently accessible via the search portal: zoeken.hetnieuweinstituut.nl. This platform is primarily focused on research into architectural archives and is structured accordingly. For an audience that is interested in architecture, but not directly in archives, it is therefore often difficult to extract content.
In order to better meet the needs of this audience, we are developing various interfaces for the collection that are more focused on discovery than searching, and that target groups such as education and professionals from other related fields, including design and fashion.
For The Other Interface, Het Nieuwe Instituut is making use of the standardized Digital Heritage Reference Architecture (in Dutch: Digitale Erfgoed Referentie Architectuur, DERA), a subset of the Dutch Government Reference Architecture, (in Dutch: Nederlandse Overheid Referentie Architectuur, NORA). Ten user goals and profiles are recognized within DERA:
- Acquire targeted information
Scientific researchers, professionals, hobbyists, and life-long learners who are driven by specific, content-related goals, building on existing knowledge on specific topics or to further develop skills
- Browse & discover
Browsing and delving into objects and subjects that spark interest
- Experience intensity
Immersive experiences and/or contemplative, aesthetic, or spiritual experiences that are relaxing and recharge one’s batteries
- Create with objects
Create something based on content on the internet, or by uploading your own creations online
- Create with data sets
Creating apps or enriched datasets based on heritage data
- Co-creating in a community
Conducting heritage practice online by using co-creation projects (adding metadata, describing photos, etc.)
Both acquiring knowledge and skills and having them acquired in an educational framework (captive learning instead of free learning)
Play based on or using heritage materials. The aim of the game can also be covered by another usage profile such as serious gaming with learning objectives, games to create metadata for heritage objects, and so on
Sharing one’s own experiences and/or opinions with others. In many cases, this forms an integral part of the other usage profiles
- Around a physical visit
Preparing digitally while planning a physical visit, and/or visiting digitally after a physical visit in order to find and/or enjoy additional information.
The focus of The Other Interface is on profiles 1, 2, 3, 7 and 9 and 10. Within these profiles, the project focuses primarily on laypeople with an interest in architecture, and professionals from related disciplines.
Within the project Disclosing Architecture, the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut is made accessible in various ways. In addition to the interfaces being developed as part of the sub-project The Other Interface, parts of the collection are also being made available via Wikipedia, the collection search portal is being updated, and research is being conducted into a digital learning environment in the field of architecture and urban design.
Interfaces and Windows
The Other Interface offers different faces, looks, and windows into the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. These windows focus more on discovery than research. Each window consists of a template, components, and content – all of which are made as reusable as possible. Consider, for example, project descriptions, biographical information and media. Currently, the following windows are planned (but may be adjusted during the course of the project according to changing circumstances and wishes):
Architecture story bank
For an audience of architecture lovers, information and experience seekers, educators, and future generations, there is the wide window of the Architecture Story Bank (working title), Dutch architecture for beginners. These are the top pieces from the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. All of them say something about the character of the Netherlands. Not in a single story, but in many; after all, Dutch identity has many shades. This interface shows diversity and richness through a series of themes, timelines, trends, maps, and image clouds. Together the different elements form a portrait of Dutch architectural history, and therefore Dutch society. At the same time, they hold up a mirror to us: Do we still recognize those themes from the past in today’s architecture? Are they still important to us? It also directs questions back to visitors: “What are my values?” they might ask. “What is important to me?” But also: What is not included in the selection? Why not? Who decides that? What is the value of a selection like this?
This broad interface invites you to take a journey of discovery through Dutch architectural history and offers the possibility to dive into deeper layers at any time; every object, place, architect, etc., is linked to in-depth information from the institute’s search portal.
Creative businesses and professions -The Other Pro
Other windows into the collection are opened for an audience of professionals from other creative sectors: “How does architecture develop in relation to fashion?” “What were the favorite materials of the 1960s?” “Show me all the photos with pink as the main color.” “I am looking for a photo of a church building with three windows”… and so on. This interface offers a window for speculative/artistic research, presents surprising entry points to the collection, and invites you to build on this by making personal sets, downloading and reusing material, etc.
An important feature in this window is its different, more visual way of searching compared with, for example, the search portal: Objects and their properties take the lead, rather than archives. We will determine the desired entries in consultation with the user panel, considering color, material, etc. Within this window, the possibilities of image recognition and user profiling are further elaborated.
Within the Disclosing Architecture project, data from the collection is made accessible via Linked Open Data (LOD), which offers the possibility of linking the collection to other LOD collections belonging to other institutions and data sources. It gives creators the space to get started with Het Nieuwe Instituut data, but also gives Het Nieuwe Instituut the opportunity to connect its data with that of others. A LOD app is being developed for this purpose.
The app is powered by linked open data from various sources. These include, of course, the Het Nieuwe Instituut collection, but also Wikipedia entries, other collections, image and sound archives, etc. By means of learning algorithms, the LOD app makes connections between aspects of Dutch history, learning from the preferences and environment of the user, the time of day, etc. Every user makes a completely unique journey through the app – a visual story in which he or she loosely determines the direction. To prevent filter bubbles, the built-in LOD serendipity machine sometimes deliberately sends the user in an unexpected direction, presenting surprises and seductions. Users can create and share their own routes and tell their own story. Obviously objects and routes can be shared in a meaningful way via social media.
The LOD app is set up as a framework for presenting LOD. Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection is the basis, but the aim is to achieve broader collaborations. Het Nieuwe Instituut is in an ideal position to develop such an app, connecting architecture, design and digital culture. The LOD app sets the standard for the way in which heritage institutions can display and connect their collections in a public-oriented, unique manner.
The basis for The Other Interface is the rich content from the Het Nieuwe Instituut collection. All the basic data objects for The Other Interface are available in the basic collection database of the institute. However, this content is not immediately publishable for the desired purpose. An editorial team will determine which content is required for different windows and will be responsible for the enrichment, editing, and translation of this content.
The starting point is that content is processed as closely as possible to the source. In principle, records in the collection database are made suitable for publication. If this is not possible, content is made available at a higher level, for example within the Content Management System (CMS) or the media module.
Because content production is based on demand within the windows, and is tackled at the lowest level possible in the infrastructure, content is enriched for all sources during the entire duration of the project.
The editorial team is also responsible for the translation of content into English; in principle, all content is bilingual.
Because The Other Interface builds on the collection database of Het Nieuwe Instituut, it also connects to the content types already available there. These are to be further elaborated in the information-architecture phase, but the set will consist of the following at least:
- Stories: collections of curated, contextualized, narrative content
- Styles: architectural/art history styles
- Projects: architectural projects, buildings
- Objects: archive objects (models, letters, photos, etc)
- Makers/creators: architects, urban planners, and agencies and institutions.
Users of the system constitute a special content type. Users can create sets, assemble collections, and respond to issues. To this end, they can create a user name and login, and thus become a content object.
Below the surface, The Other Interface analyzes users’ behavior in order to offer them more stories that have just been created. Offered content can be adjusted based on environmental values – such as geolocation, time, temperature, etc. – and based on knowledge about the user based on previously-made choices.
Telling stories through heritage is central to The Other Interface. As a national institute for architecture, Het Nieuwe Instituut has a long history in storytelling about architecture in the form of lectures, debates, exhibitions, publications, tours, but also digital means. The forerunner of Het Nieuwe Instituut, the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), launched Urban Augmented Reality (UAR, figure 4) in 2010, the first architecture augmented reality application to position buildings in 3D in reality – not only new buildings under construction, but also buildings that existed in the past or alternative designs for the same location.
In addition, The Other Interface builds on earlier projects that open up the archive in a different way, such as: New Archive Interpretations (figures 5 & 6); Queering Architecture; the ongoing research project Rethinking the Archive; and the Open Archive project with the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. Central to all these projects are the stories that can be told based on the collection; stories that are sometimes not immediately obvious, but that are meaningful for the Netherlands and for Dutch architectural history.
In addition to curated stories, we also want the collection to speak and connect with the user. By means of artificial intelligence, user profiles are drawn up and enriched, which allow the system to tell stories to individuals in an increasingly personal way. To prevent filter bubbles, the system has a “serendipity engine” that occasionally sends users in different directions and entices them to follow other routes.
The Other Interface will use artificial intelligence and machine learning. Parallel to the implementation process of the various interfaces, a research process is ongoing looking at, among other things, the use of artificial intelligence in relation to the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. AI is a rapidly developing field the implications of which are difficult to predict over a longer time period. Currently we are aiming at two applications with AI:
- User profiling: Getting to know users better on the basis of choices made. Establishing relationships between other users, creating knowledge and interest profiles, etc.
- Image recognition: The Other Interface aims to answer user questions other than those that can be answered from metadata: “What color is this image?” “How many windows does this building have?” and so on. Using machine learning for image recognition will enable us to answer such questions.
As AI research develops further, other applications will be added.
The collection database of Het Nieuwe Instituut is currently stored within collections management system Adlib. Via a custom-built search interface by Picturae, it is accessible online on the search portal: zoeken.hetnieuweinstituut.nl.
As part of the Disclosing Architecture project, the search portal is being replaced as is the link between the Adlib database and the various front ends. Data from Adlib is disclosed as Linked (Open) Data. The updated search portal indexes this data in a form that is comparable to the current portal, primarily aimed at archive researchers. By opening up the content via LOD, it is also possible to make links between different data objects, internal and external: relating architects to their offices and colleagues, but also artworks to buildings, articles to objects, etc.
The linked (open) data from Adlib also becomes the raw material for the various other interfaces. A headless CMS retrieves this data via the middleware layer, connects and enriches it and offers it to the visual editor in which interfaces and stories are designed (figure 7).
In the visual editor, HTML/CSS templates are loaded with various technical-functional components: a map interface, timeline, list, image cloud, etc, and published in different interfaces (figure 8). Because the project is built in an agile manner and works as much as possible from a single source and with shareable technical components, new functionalities made for certain interfaces become immediately available to others and the possibilities can grow during the project’s five-year duration.
The Other Interface is also a complex design assignment: Which windows can we offer for which audience? How do these windows relate to each other? Which interfaces coincide and which are separate? How do we build a stack of components that reinforce each other? With a networked team of design, heritage and technical professionals from within and outside the institute, Het Nieuwe Instituut wants to answer these questions iteratively and in an open setting. Knowledge gained is actively shared.
As a national institute for design, architecture, and digital culture, Het Nieuwe Instituut is in an excellent starting position to connect these disciplines to each other through The Other Interface.
The Other Interface project was set up using an agile project model in which user stories are central. The needs of future users determines the next step in the process. We will involve the target group in every step. Do they think we are on the right track, what are their other requirements?
We are drawing partly on existing audience groups: the artists who are involved in Open Archive and selected Members of the institute form the user panel for the window for other professionals. the Friends’ Association is setting up a target group of “interested lay people”, and so on.
Wherever possible, rapid application development and/or mockups of functionalities are used in the interim to present to users.
For the implementation of the program Disclosing Architecture, it was decided to work according to the philosophy of the Agile method. The basic principles of agile are:
1. Individuals and interaction above processes and tools
2. Working solutions over documentation and accountability
3. Recording and planning ahead together with the client
4. Responding to change rather than just following the plan.
Bearing in mind the agile project design, The Other Interface starts with a smaller window and creates the minimum number of building blocks required to arrive at an MVP (minimal viable product). Various components are inventoried and prioritized based on user stories. In an iterative manner, small steps are taken in the process, whereby a new finished product is delivered after completion of each phase.
Four sub-project teams are involved in The Other Interface, each of which works iteratively on product development. Two sub-project teams that provide support:
1. Curatorial Team: substantive development of stories and windows
2. Editorial Team: editing, enriching and creating content
3. Design Team: user-interface design, interaction design, graphic design, templating
4. Technical team: development of technical components.
These teams are supported by:
1. Expert team: research and advice, both solicited and unsolicited, to various sub-project teams
2. Audience team: responsible for user panels and testing.
Achievements and next steps
The Disclosing Architecture program has a total duration of six years (2018-2024). 2018 and 2019 were mainly devoted to setting up the “hard” side of the project: making an inventory of objects to be restored and digitized, tendering assignments, etc. In 2019, a start was made on making the project results more visible and the development of subprojects and teams for this visibility. The first project results from The Other Interface will be presented in 2020, after which these will be built upon incrementally.
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