'Digital Provenance: The Significant Challenge of Today' by Roger Layton, CEO of Roger Layton Associates, Johannesburg, South Africa and Founder of The ETHER Initiative.
In all my talks and lectures over the past few years I have emphasised the important responsibility that our generation has in ensuring a smooth transition from the physical heritage into the digital heritage.
This is our responsibility and cannot be delayed or delegated. This was not the responsibility of prior generations, for whom there was no digital heritage, and is certainly not the responsibility of future generations, who will have our legacy to contend with. It is our and ours alone, and within this piece I argue for urgency in addressing the challenge of provenance as a prelude to digitisation, and not as an afterthought.
Provenance has been the hallmark for authenticity within all of heritage. It is the best way we know to provide evidence that what we have is what we expect.
We ask the questions “where did this come from” and “what was done with this item” and the answers increase our trust in what we see and touch. Trust is not a binary variable but is a range of values from zero trust to total trust established on the basis of the evidence we have – and this evidence is provenance. Without such provenance information the value of an item reduces considerably.
There are considerable challenges in modern collections in terms of the number of orphaned items, for which no provenance or context exists, and yet which are deemed too valuable to dispose of. Within the digital heritage, taken 50 years into the future, we may be in a situation in which almost 100% of the digital objects lack sufficient provenance, and thus may be effectively useless. This will be a direct effect of the actions we take today in how we denote this provenance information and how we structure this to be bound with the digital artifacts so that it cannot be separated.
Work is underway in many quarters to establish the basis for digital provenance, such as the W3C Provenance Working Group, and the Open Provenance Model, both of which have emerged in the past few years to address the general challenges of digital provenance. However, there are more specific needs concerning the digitisation of the cultural and natural heritage which are not addressed by these general approaches, and for which further work is required. One of these needs is the provenance which is carried over from the physical into the digital, so that a digital artefact is not only deemed to have been created at the time the photographer clicked the shutter, but that this continues into the object photographed and the provenance back to its own creator.
My research on provenance has led me to explore analogous situations in chemical engineering and in computer manufacturing, and to apply these into the transformations that we make from physical to digital (scanning), and from digital to digital (digital image processing), as well as from digital to physical (such as printing an email and retaining it in paper form).
It is increasing urgent for us to digitise our collections, but in the absence of a widely agreed approach to digital provenance we may be creating a massive stockpile of useless digital artefacts which cannot be trusted by future generations. To get this right we must ensure that every single digital artefact we produce can provide provenance back to every source and every process that resulted in the artefact. This traceability back to the original creators is the challenge, and this is a hard problem.
Roger will be further exploring this topic on the 26th June at OpenCulture 2012. OpenCulture takes place on the 26th and 27th June at the Kia Oval, London. For more information please visit www.collectionslink.org.uk/openculture2012, call 020 7942 6080 or e-mail email@example.com.