Yad Vashem and Hewlett-Packard seek to bring big data to Holocaust education

Yad Vashem has been working on digitizing its massive archives for several years and has generated a wealth of data comprising video and audio.

STUDENTS FROM Germany visit the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
STUDENTS FROM Germany visit the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yad Vashem has a problem.
The Holocaust memorial and research center is sitting on millions of documents and testimonials that it has to make relevant, and it does not have a way of quickly or efficiently sifting through such vast amounts of data.
Touring the museum’s archives two years ago, David Lander, incoming vice president and general manager of tech giant Hewlett-Packard, began thinking about ways to make Yad Vashem relevant to the next generation.
“It’s all about big data,” he told The Jerusalem Post during the product of his musings – a “Hackathon” in which Israeli university students and HP employees competed to find the most innovative ways to merge cloud computing, web applications and Holocaust history for what one challenger termed the “ADD generation.”
“The challenge they faced at Yad Vashem was about how much data they had and how to make it relevant,” he said.
Aside from Lander’s passionate belief in the importance of Holocaust education, for HP the draw was obvious – a partnership with Yad Vashem would present it with significant advantages.
Yad Vashem has been working on digitizing its massive archives for several years, and has generated a wealth of data that include video and audio recordings, scanned documents, databases and other types of files. According to Lander, this collection will provide HP with a proving ground for the cloud computing and big-data-service technology it’s aiming at corporations with similarly large collections.
During the Hackathon, programmers in casual attire ascended the stage in Yad Vashem’s auditorium, pitching apps, websites and programs capable of transforming vast and disparate sources of information into a user-friendly experience that can highlight individual victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
“You are too old. You aren’t the main client,” one software developer quipped to the audience, describing the 30 teenagers she had gathered in order to observe their online media consumption habits.
This testing led her to develop a mobile app.
“Most teens want wanted to see a personal page of each survivor and what [memories and experiences] he collected during and after the war,” she said.
Ed Lewin, a trustee of Britain’s Holocaust Educational Trust and an HP vice president, agreed, telling the Post he believed that “people want a personal experience, and the scale of Yad Vashem is daunting.”
Another presenter showcased a website providing on-the-fly subtitling of survivors’ video testimonials collected by Yad Vashem, while another created an online program for Yad Vashem’s digital collection that presented information as an interactive map and time line.
“We want to be relevant to our audiences,” Yad Vashem’s chief archivist, Dr. Haim Gertner, told the Post.
“We are dealing with very complicated and fragmented data,” Gertner said, “so the challenges of connecting such a huge amount of data... in a relevant way, when most of it was not created in the digital age, is a huge challenge that Yad Vashem is in the forefront of dealing with.”
He said that over the past decade, his team had managed to digitize millions of items and get them online, yet there was still a long way to go. He added that Yad Vashem was interested in several of the proposals presented during the Hackathon.
“I’m sure this will enable us to continue connections with HP,” he stated.
Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev described the challenge of trying to find “technological ideas and solutions that would provide accessibility to survivor testimonies – audio, video or written – from the Yad Vashem collections.”
“Yad Vashem is relentless in its pursuit of innovation in the service of memory,” he said.
“Through these efforts,” he continued, “Yad Vashem hopes to bring the voices and stories of each individual survivor to the masses. For decades, we have looked for ways to make our immense archives and collections, which we have amassed over the years, more easily accessible to a global audience.”
Speaking to participants, Education Minister Naftali Bennett made parallels between the technology used by those making the presentations and the interactive nature of the Passover Seder meal, which has kept the memory of the Exodus alive for thousands of years.
“The best example for remembrance exists in Judaism,” Bennett said of the Seder, citing the “interactive” aspects of the meal in which children are encouraged to ask questions, as well as the “experiential” nature of many of the evening’s customs that serve to make participants feel as if they had lived through the events being commemorated.
By adopting technology of the type presented at the Hackathon, he said, “we will be able to keep [the Holocaust] relevant for thousands of years to come.”