Digital Education and Economic Opportunities: The Humanities as a Digital Science – An Interview with Michele Petochi, Managing Director for EPFL in Venice.


Inside the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (©DHLab-EPFL)

Going digital is not simply bringing new tools for transmitting and diffusing knowledge – it also transforms its very production. As everyday life is increasingly digitalized, what are the possibilities and challenges offered by big data and how do they become sources of knowledge? How to offer traditional resources such as archives a new, accessible life? These are some of the questions addressed by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Michele Petochi tells us more about it. Written by Ruth Theus Baldassarre, STC Rome

Digital Science is at the core of the strategy of the EPFL for the coming decade. All disciplines face opportunities and challenges due to big data and the need to compute and visualize it calls for new types of collaboration with computer sciences, thereby generating new research questions. Education too has to adapt in order to prepare students and researchers to data science and unexpected interdisciplinary collaborations.

Disciplines traditionally close to big data are, for example, Mathematics, Physics, Natural Sciences, while Humanities are usually perceived as technophobic. That is changing and it is the reason why, back in 2013, EPFL in collaboration with Ca’ Foscari University, launched a center for the study of Digital Humanities and the future of cities. A first group of researchers with an interest in this area was identified, education activities started and a year later an agreement was signed with the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (the national archives in Venice) for a fascinating long term collaboration in mass digitalization and new frontiers in cultural heritage management. In June 2014, Fondation Lombard Odier confirmed funding in support of the project in its first phase.

In the following interview, Michele Petochi, Managing Director for EPFL in Venice and senior advisor to the EPFL Presidency gives us an inside look at this project and its rationale, focusing in particular on its potential use as a platform for Digital Education.

Q: To begin with, could you give us a few words about the notion of Digital Humanities as a branch of Digital Sciences and outline why EPFL focuses on them?

A: EPFL decided to get involved with Humanities as part of its broader strategy in Digital Sciences, in which all disciplines are involved. Digital Humanities are still a relatively recent concept. Not surprisingly, some describe it as a discipline, some as a method, some simply as a buzzword, some say it is Humanities with a computer, others that it is engineers and computer scientists discovering arts. The debate is very open and that is normal for any new area that may (or may not) gradually gain relevance and, ultimately, academic legitimacy. Behind the decision of EPFL to pursue the Humanities as a Digital Science is a strong belief that the prosperity of Europe started and will develop from the Humanities as foundation of our culture, education and research; and in order to continue this tradition it is natural that the next level in Humanities should be initiated in Europe.

Q: Great vision, but how is EPFL, as an Institute of Technology, linked to the Humanities?

A: It is, for two main reasons. First Humanities are foundational for the way we think, teach, research etc… It is through our mindset, which was shaped by Humanities, that the most interesting questions in our work are formulated. Second, Humanities is a discipline where big data plays a strong role and can become a standard pillar of education and research, as well as technology transfer. Most of our disciplines such as Engineering, Computer Sciences, Life Sciences, Architecture and Basic Sciences can find interesting synergies with Humanities. Machine learning and vision are an example of expertise in Computer Sciences which may concern Humanities. Synchrotron physics and X-ray techniques from medicine may help, in a not too distant future, scan ancient documents at a good speed and with limited damage. Capsules for immersive 3D experiences of artwork or music (you may know EPFL is digitizing the entire archive of Montreux Jazz Festival) are no longer futuristic ideas. These are just a few examples. We are having a lot of internal and external feedback loops on how to best leap frog into Humanities. By developing a new offer, we also hope to attract students with different background and for whom joining a Computer Sciences or an Engineering school may have not been obvious so far.

Q: What are the goals of EPFL in Venice and the reason behind Ca’ Foscari as the chosen location for the project?

A: We have short, medium and longer-term objectives, all functional to each other. On the short term we would like to become a hub of integrated activities in research and education, contributing to new approaches to the Humanities as a Digital Science and preparing the ground for strategic partnerships with scientific institutions and other relevant players locally and internationally.

On the medium term we see the opportunity to shape large research projects bringing together the best European talents. That would also be in line with the increasing interest of the European institutions in the new frontiers in the study and fruition of the cultural heritage, for which larger resources are now earmarked.

On the long term we hope to bring significant portions of the cultural heritage to fruition for scholars’ community and – equally important – for the public at large, with a substantive scientific and economic impact, measurable in number of jobs and business created. Specifically to Venice, we would also like to have an impact on the future of the city through an injection of fresh human capital and strategic use of some of the amazing physical spaces in town.

Ca’ Foscari has expertise in important areas such as Classics, Oriental Languages, Economics, a solid base of Computer Science at general level and a strategic presence in Venice, very much rooted into the fabric of the city as a community and as a physical space. As it is often the case, the vision of two university leaders, Patrick Aebischer, President of EPFL, and Carlo Carraro, Rector of Ca’ Foscari was crucial in initiating this partnership.

Q: Beyond Ca’ Foscari, do you collaborate with other partners in Italy or internationally?

A: Over time our plan is to federate, in different forms and under various arrangements, the best Venetian and other relevant scholars and organizations worldwide that share our vision and offer interesting expertise. Today, scholars from the best universities all over the world work in the Archive, it is natural to be fascinated by the potential of such a global network.

Q: What have been the experiences within the first year?

A: We started to federate a number of small research projects with a strong link to National Archive; our lead professor Frederic Kaplan and his colleagues in the Digital Humanities Lab have called the projet Venice Time Machine (see TED talk) and it indeed promises to become a search engine allowing to travel through the past [ offering access to a broad range of digitalized archives and resources and by creating visualizations – ndlr.] In education, as part of collaboration with Ca’ Foscari, we already have a second running annual school for PhDs and postdocs. Behind all that is the ongoing collaboration with the Archivio di Stato, whose materials are so rich and sometimes just mind-blowing! With the passion and competence of the team, it makes this collaboration absolutely unique.

image post Italie

Q: The education element is core to your strategy. How is the project positioned as a digital education project? What are the different elements and forms of digital education it involves?

A: These are great questions touching on new perspectives in education, and at the same time on what we are discovering in Venice. At a general level let me take a step back. As Ken Prewitt, a senior Columbia professor, puts it, “Education, especially Higher Education, face the pressure of globalization, competition and commercialization”. Costs raised in the past decades (especially in the West), combined with the current tough economic conjuncture, have also contributed to these pressures. That, plus good technology now available, and the extra credibility the Stanford/Silicon Valley background of the first movers probably offered, has fed the recent boom in MOOCs, now in its third year.

Online courses are not new, but for the reasons we’ve just mentioned this time it is different. Most of the major universities are now either involved in online education or are asking questions about the effects of technology on the future of education. There is an ongoing debate on new models in higher education, including but not limited to online courses. One recent data point: A projection from Ranku, a US search platform for online education, is that in 2014 3.55 million US students will take 100% of their classes online, with 66% of US universities offering courses online. One recent development: Starbucks announced it would cover the cost of the online degree at Arizona State for its employees in an effort to secure retention. A few days ago the Government of Singapore decided to back an online training program in Data Science Specialization offered by Johns Hopkins University through Coursera, one of the main MOOC platforms. Online vocational training for skills such as coding (see the incredible success of Codecademy) is also booming. These are just examples one can find on a daily basis. What the future will look like is still to be seen and the debate is ongoing in many different ways for many different universities in many different countries. In other words it is hard to synthesize this topic. But everybody seems to agree that the recent boom in online education has triggered a broader reform of education in the coming decades; that those universities able to produce the right blend of online and offline education will thrive; and that interesting new organizations, either from the academic world or from entirely different background, may emerge.

Q: What about Humanities, how can they benefit from such development?

A: As far as the Digital is concerned, it is natural that Humanities courses – just like in other disciplines – would benefit from the online component. First, the online element in the education blend allows students to take classes and perform assignments with more flexibility, classrooms will de-congestion and so on. Second, in terms of the content of education, we believe that the moment all these historical sources will be visible and searchable online through thesauri that can “read” and “see” documents and images to help the user visualize and study them, the quality of the teaching material and the assignments will be really high. Educators too would clearly benefit from such shift.

That will hopefully make users more passionate about the study of topics that may not be immediately attractive. If I had to imagine an online course, say in modern history, in a few years from now, it would look like an amazing videogame allowing to literally navigate the canals and palaces of a city like Venice, and to get to know the people who lived in those palaces at specific points in time! I mentioned vocational training, as it is reasonable to believe that the audience of an online offering in Digital Humanities should not be limited to standard university students, but to a broader set of users. Think, for example, at teachers of primary and secondary school, technical personnel of archives, tourist guides, screenwriters, digital advertisers and the like.

Q: Who will have access to the digitized documents?

A: The principle is open access. The download and printing of these documents are subject to laws and fees that vary at the discretion of the source and that deserve a separate conversation. What might happen in the coming years, but it is just an opinion based on what I read and hear as an observer, is a gradual differentiation of fees between research and commercial purposes.

Q: Could you outline the economic opportunities of the project Digital Humanities & Future Cities, for Switzerland, Italy and internationally?

A: This is a difficult question because it is related to our very motivations: why are we doing this, especially in a country such as Italy that is challenged by 40% youth unemployment? How to make this kind of project not just an extravagant initiative but something really contributing to an economic prospect through research, education and tech transfer?

For example, a growing interest in digitization and visualization of content from Humanities may boost the creation of new jobs in the Media and Entertainment sector or in Tourism. Moreover, important archives may become engines of innovation in data management, offering human capital to other repositories or other organizations with a need to organize their past (and future) memories. New businesses may stem from that and collaborate with public and private clients. Data from the past on the evolution of Venice as an economy and as a natural environment may help understand the mechanics in the evolution of man-made environment, and potentially feed urban management policies. Not surprisingly, numerous economists rely on archival data from Venice in their studies: a panel data of 1000 years! In any case, whatever the use we will make of the Humanities it will have to be relevant to the economy.

Federal Councillor Alain Berset visiting the Archivio di Stato (©DFI)

Federal Councillor Alain Berset visiting the Archivio di Stato (©DFI)

Q: At the beginning of June, Federal Councillor Alain Berset, in official visit for the opening of the Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale of Venice, visited the Archivio di Stato, one of the main partners of the Digital Humanities & Future Cities Program. Could you recap some of the highlights that you pointed out in your presentation?

A: The visit of Federal Councillor Berset to the Archive and to our project, which on a more global scale is very much in line with the emphasis the Swiss Federal Government has recently put on the digitization of the archives as part of the preservation of the Swiss cultural heritage, was an opportunity for him and his team to appreciate the size and quality of the materials of the Archive. That per se is a highlight for any visitor. At the same time the team of the Archive had assembled an amazing selection of documents focusing on Switzerland. Among these documents were a history of Switzerland; a passport with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s original signature; an ancient map for travelers from the Grisons to Venice, including explanations on how to avoid transiting through Austria and seals of Bern and Zurich.


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