GILLIAN GRAYSON is the head of Heritage Data Management for English Heritage, spearheading work on heritage inventories, data access, data standards, and a partnership with Local Authority Historic Environment Records.
JANET HANSEN, the deputy manager of the Office of Historic Resources for the City of Los Angeles, is overseeing SurveyLA, Los Angeles's citywide historic resource survey.
DANIELE PINI is professor of urban planning at the Department of Architecture, University of Ferrara, and is a consultant in Italy and abroad in planning and urban design, focusing on urban heritage and landscape conservation.
They spoke with DAVID MYERS, senior project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.
DAVID MYERS: What are the primary end uses and end users of heritage inventories or information systems—and which of those is most important, in your experience?
DANIELE PINI: I work mostly on historic urban areas and use inventories for conservation and rehabilitation plans that I have coordinated for UNESCO, such as in Sana'a, Jerusalem, and now in Cairo. The primary users are administrations involved in the management of these historic cities. Of course we have other possible end users—the greater public, scholars, universities, and professionals. The inventories, first of all, document the state of conservation and the condition of the urban fabric. Second, they are effective in analyzing the threats to the urban fabric—and by threats I mean not only to buildings but also to the open spaces, which have a relevant heritage interest. A third aspect is the implementation and the monitoring of a conservation program, since the inventory represents a baseline for monitoring what is happening to the urban fabric. The inventory can also be a tool to make evident to the greater public what is happening in a city and what problems may exist in a historic urban area.
JANET HANSEN: I see similarities in Los Angeles with SurveyLA, our citywide survey. Los Angeles has close to a million legal parcels within 469 square miles, so we are amassing tens of thousands of records on properties that will be added to an existing inventory of designated resources. Right now we are thinking through who the end users will be but are focusing mostly on providing information for policy makers. The city's historic preservation program is based in the planning department so that we can strengthen the relationship between preservation and planning and use inventory data to inform planning policies and decisions. For example, Los Angeles has a community plan program, which guides land use citywide. These plans are being updated for the first time since 1990, and information on potential historical resources plays a big role in their development. Also, in California and nationally we have environmental review laws that affect historic resources, and having heritage data readily available is important for informing project decisions. We're also considering other uses for the data, such as promoting heritage tourism, which is often undervalued in the US as a preservation tool. Another use is expediting disaster response. Our Building and Safety Department has responsibility for surveying buildings following natural disasters, such as earthquakes. Without information on which properties are designated or potentially significant, demolitions may occur without the proper level of review. We've also been working with the film industry with regard to filming locations. A heritage inventory that can be searched by property type, construction date, architectural style, and location would provide access to new locations citywide. To inform the development of our inventory website we've held meetings with a variety of potential users to ask them how they might want to use the data, how they'd like to see it displayed, and what information they may be looking for.
PINI: Are the buildings you have records on all within a historic
HANSEN: In Los Angeles we are surveying buildings and also structures, such as bridges, objects and landscapes, street trees and streetlights—we cover a wide range of property types.
GRAYSON: It's the same in England. We cover a very wide range of heritage asset types—buildings and archaeology. At the national level, we don't focus on finds or objects unless they are indicative of a monument.
MYERS: Janet, could you define what you mean by "object"?
HANSEN: The definition is taken from the National Park Service resource types. It's a resource that is typically stationary but is not a building or a structure. Examples would be a streetlight, tree, sculpture, and other public art. For example, in our survey, we're recording the city's entire system of air-raid sirens from the World War II and Cold War eras, which is probably one of the most intact systems in the country. We're also recording historic districts. This presents a challenge not only in collecting data, but also in how the data is presented in terms of a heritage inventory because it's about the relationship between resources, and not just about a single resource.
PINI: In Italy, many regions require a survey of all buildings—be it heritage buildings or not—within the perimeter of the historic center. The perimeters can be large, and information is not merely aimed at defining the heritage value of each building and their state of conservation. The documentation is used to understand what kind of intervention can be done on each building. Last year in the Ferrara region we had an earthquake, and the inventories were extremely useful in making a first estimate of the damage. Very often the inventories of municipalities are more efficient than the regional or national ones, but in our region, the two inventories—one from the municipalities, of buildings within historic centers, and the other from the regional department of the ministry—were merged, which was useful for damage estimates and also for identifying the priorities for intervention. In other regions, it's not always the same.
MYERS: What is the role of information standards, as well as training, in ensuring the quality and consistency of inventory data?
GRAYSON: Standards are essential. It's about common formats and vocabularies for information sharing, enhancing retrieval and promoting consistency. Within English Heritage, we have an in-house team that develops and maintains standards and vocabulary. We've got lots of experience working collaboratively with partners nationally and internationally on developing standards, including the CIDOC International Core Data Standard for Archaeological Sites and Monuments and the CIDOC CRM—the conceptual reference model. And we've worked closely with colleagues on developing vocabularies like the Thesaurus of Monument Types. One of the reasons I'm excited by the GCI's Arches project is because it's using standards we helped shape. It's very useful to be able to evolve our standards based on practical experience from projects such as Arches and other initiatives that have given us insight into how standards can ensure we have systems and processes that encourage sharing.
MYERS: Could you explain the value of vocabularies?
GRAYSON: The words we use to index our information are very important. With a common vocabulary, we know that we're talking about the same things, and that makes it much easier to share information.
PINI: This is a critical issue because information on standards is limited. They mostly concern individual heritage buildings, but in urban conservation inventories they address the urban fabric and may include recent buildings or ones that don't have a specific heritage interest. In that case, it is difficult to use international standards—based on my experience. In every city and situation, you have to define adapted standards and a specific vocabulary when you plan your survey and inventory. Related to this is the training of the surveyor and the people who will use the inventory. This is a critical issue, not only in countries like Egypt or Yemen, but also in Italy. The structure of the inventory could be more or less the same everywhere, but the architectural elements that may be important to define the heritage value of a building in Italy are totally different from Egypt, for instance, and the vocabulary has to be different.
JEFFREY LEVIN: You're suggesting that when you drill down with respect to inventories, international standards are not easily applicable in all situations.
PINI: Not in my experience—probably because we're talking about the interpretation of the architecture and about the suggested types of interventions. International standards mostly refer to the kind of architecture you have in Europe or Western countries, but this cannot apply to buildings where the inner space is more important than the facade, because the real facade of the building is inside, not outside. There are also totally different architectural elements, architectural techniques, and materials. So it must be defined on the basis of local context, local culture, and local know-how.
GRAYSON: We certainly found that international standards are helpful in defining the core data you need. It is really important that you have a core you're able to share with others. Outside that core, of course, we all have specific needs and have to develop those accordingly.
HANSEN: We've had some difficulty with information standards because we had little to work with from the start. We follow state and federal guidelines for completing historic resources surveys, and with those guidelines come a limited set of information standards, which sometimes overlap. These standards are also designed to populate fields on hard-copy survey forms and don't necessarily function efficiently in database format. So we needed to develop information standards based on the core principles in use for state and federal guidelines but with sufficient detail to allow us to classify resources in a way that is useful to us and provides the public with adequate search capabilities. For example, when recording property types, the state has a generalized category for religious buildings, but in Los Angeles many resource types might come under the concept of religion—and maybe not even buildings. And so in our database you will be able to search more specifically by "temple" versus just a religious building, where you'd get the entire inventory of religious buildings. For us, information standards are just as important for the people conducting the surveys as for information retrieval and analysis. It's been critical that the surveyors are all thinking the same way and applying the same terminology. We also have the challenge of dealing with social, cultural, and historical resources, and developing standards for interpreting resource significance within those themes. We have training sessions for our field surveyors so that we're sure everyone everyone is interpreting the standards and terms the same way.
PINI: I would underline the need for training of the surveyor.
Training is essential so that all the surveyors do the same kind of
evaluation on the same kind of building and that the evaluation
of different buildings and spaces of the city is reliable and justified.
It's absolutely fundamental.
GRAYSON: Part of our training includes persuading colleagues that standards are really important—and that can be quite difficult. For example, specific vocabularies can be viewed as a constraint, so we have to persuade them that there are real benefits in using standards and shared vocabularies because it makes information searching and sharing much easier.
MYERS: How important is sharing cultural heritage information among different systems, and how do you address this challenge?
HANSEN: This is something we've grappled with. We have survey data going back to the 1970s—most of which exists in hard copy only. Some survey data is accessible in electronic format starting from about the 1990s. For us now the goal is to get all cultural heritage data into one place, and we're hoping the SurveyLA database becomes the repository for survey data from all city agencies in Los Angeles. For example, there are surveys going on concurrently in the Bureau of Engineering and the Housing Department, and without access to their information, we don't know what they've done. In addition to city agencies, the school district and other county, state, and federal agencies also conduct surveys. We're duplicating efforts in some cases, which is a huge waste of resources. Having all survey and other heritage data in one place that's easily searchable and accessible by any of these organizations is critical to developing a comprehensive inventory for Los Angeles.
GRAYSON: We've grappled with this as well. We've championed the use of common standards and vocabularies in our databases, but systems development has often focused more on recording information within those systems rather than on getting data in or out. We've got systems that still have limited data import and export functionality. It frustrates our partners because they need data in formats that they can easily use, and sometimes it's a struggle for us to provide that. In the past, development of information systems has been driven by specific projects, rather than by broader information strategies. We're addressing this by developing structures that encourage people to collaborate and by thinking about interoperability. We've also established working groups that operate across the organization—for example, a terminology working group that encourages use of common vocabularies rather than each system developing its own vocabularies. We've become better at making data available online too, including the National Heritage List and PastScape, a website that provides access to the National Record of the Historic Environment. We've also got a website called Heritage Gateway, where you can cross-search nine national resources and forty-seven Local Authority Historic Environment Records. The next step is improving our data download facilities so that users can easily include our data in their own systems.
PINI: In many Italian regions, municipalities are obliged—within the framework of the urban plan—to give a description of each building within the perimeters of the historic centers. We have huge databases for cities like Venice, which has some forty thousand records. But even with huge databases, there are two problems. First is the technical issue—some administrations don't have digital inventories or are not well equipped digitally. Moreover, not all administrations have compatible software because some of them use very old databases. Then you have a political problem because in order to overcome this technical technical difficulty, you need political will—you need to spend money and you need to train people. It can be a political problem if the political color of the municipality is not the same political color as some specific ministry, for instance. So the situation in Italy is diverse, and there is a need to solve technical problems as well as political ones.
LEVIN: How important is it for cultural heritage information to be broadly accessible, and under what circumstances does it need to remain confidential?
PINI: In the databases of the municipalities you may have information concerning the income and tax paid by the lenders, and this, of course, is not accessible. But the rest is public, to help prevent any possible demolition, and to prescribe the type of intervention that can be done on a building. Generally, data concerning land use, number of households, number of inhabitants, and, of course, the heritage values of the building, type of construction and so on, is available. This data, for instance, is used by my students when they work on a revitalization project for a neighborhood.
GRAYSON: We strongly believe that heritage data should be as accessible as possible. But there are instances when information must remain confidential in order to protect the historic environment. For example, sensitive archaeological find spots won't be identified precisely online so that sites can be protected. It's not so much an issue for our national record because generally we don't record finds except where they indicate monuments, but it is an issue for initiatives like the Portable Antiquities Scheme that encourages voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by the public. It's also an issue for our Local Authority Historic Environment Records, which include that data. Approaches taken to reduce the risk include website registration—you have to register to access more advanced functionality, or you have different levels of access for different user groups.
HANSEN: From the beginning of SurveyLA, we've promoted public accessibility to the data. It has always been our intent to develop a website that is broadly accessible, and in that regard, we are working with the GCI right now as part of their Arches project. We're fortunate to be getting the core version of Arches customized for Los Angeles, which will allow us not only to manage the data but also to make that data publicly accessible. Confidentiality for us applies primarily to archaeological resources, and we're not surveying those at this phase of SurveyLA.
PINI: About confidentiality, we had a problem when I worked in Jerusalem with UNESCO. The GIS database was meant to be accessible to both Israelis and Palestinians, but there was a difficult political discussion about some data being made available to both parties. The sensitive data concerned the occupation of buildings—if the buildings were empty or were used, how many inhabitants and so on. In the end, we managed to make all the data available to all. Concerning the vocabulary, this was also an interesting story. Buildings can have different names in different languages or for different groups: an Islamic name, a Hebrew name, and another one for the Christians—and you have many types of Christians. So one problem was documenting the different names of each building using different alphabets. This created a technical problem with the software.
GRAYSON: The vocabulary issue is quite common and something we've been tackling. Generally we're focusing more on concepts because you can attach labels in different languages, and it more accurately reflects the different words used to describe things, rather than having to choose one as the preferred.
LEVIN: Could we talk a bit about the need to increase public engagement with respect to inventories?
GRAYSON: We believe that by understanding the historic environment, people value it. By valuing it, they'll want to care for it. By caring for it, they'll come to enjoy it—and from enjoying the historic environment comes that thirst to understand. With the inventories, we're trying to achieve this by ensuring that we hold, acquire, and provide easy access to up-to-date information and also encourage users to provide feedback so that we can enhance the information. For the National Heritage List for England—our statutory information—we've got a fast-track correction procedure for dealing with what we call minor amendments to the list entries. These include changes of building names and street numbering, and simple spelling corrections. Requests for minor amendments can be submitted by e-mail, while amendments that affect the grade or the reason for designation have to follow the full statutory amendment procedure. Again, we've got online application forms for people to do that. For the National Record of the Historic Environment, our other inventory, we've got a feedback form on our website, and users can contact us by e-mail. So we're encouraging people to work with us. Engagement is so important for protecting and caring for the historic environment.
PINI: In Italy we don't have anything equivalent to English Heritage. Our ministry of culture and the regional offices of the ministry don't do public engagement except in a few cases. This kind of work is done mainly by two or three associations, and they're beginning to have their own inventories, which are very limited. Unfortunately, heritage to us is an economic asset—from the real estate point of view or the tourist point of view. In other countries, the situation is even worse, with no public engagement. For instance, we did a historic Cairo visitor map, where we used our inventory to identify the most important registered or not-registered buildings. But the distribution of this map has been limited to professionals, academics, and administrators.
MYERS: In your work outside Italy, to what extent do you engage with the public to gather information for your inventories?
PINI: The inventories are made by us and the team we set up, using the local ministry of culture or relevant administrations. We plan the survey and the system, design the database, and train the people to do surveys. In Jerusalem it continues, and the system is more or less used. In Sana'a, it was used for one year and then completely stopped because the general organization for historic cities of Yemen was without budget and staff. Now, after five years, the GIS we set up is completely useless because it's never been updated. Nobody uses it. Which makes the point that keeping the system alive is probably the most important task. In Cairo, we are beginning an urban conservation inventory, training twelve surveyors from different Egyptian administrations who are working together for the first time. What is interesting is that there are two NGOs that have been involved in the survey's development and are organizing events to raise public awareness, with schoolchildren, women's associations, and so on. Hopefully, preparation of the inventory can be an activity that raises public awareness and that asks people to consider their own historic environment in a different perspective—not simply as old houses to be demolished but as a heritage to be preserved. This just started, and it's an exciting experience—but I cannot be very optimistic because of the situation in Cairo now.
MYERS: When you collect data, do you interview the local
community to determine the significance they attribute to different
buildings or public spaces?
PINI: Yes, we do interviews with families on social and cultural aspects. Cairo, from this point of view, is a very special case because 75 percent of the households have never left historic Cairo. There is an extraordinary rootedness of the population, and an extreme wealth of oral information. I don't know what we can do with this kind of information from the regulatory point of view, but I hope it will be used by anthropologists or historians.
LEVIN: Janet, isn't public engagement critical to the work your office is doing?
HANSEN: Correct. In the US generally, public engagement in surveys and the development of heritage inventories is critical. From the start of SurveyLA, we developed an extensive public outreach program that we've added to and modified over time as we've learned what works and what doesn't. For example, we, too, have an online form that people can fill out and send electronically, which provides information about a particular building or a historic area that should be included in the survey. We fully admit to the public that SurveyLA is a huge endeavor, and with limited resources we don't have the luxury of doing intensive property-specific research that is generally associated with historic resources surveys. So the more input we get from the public the better. We've held public meetings with varying levels of success, and more recently we have developed a social media program with a social media coordinator and a website called MyHistoricLA.org. The website allows people to map and submit information about places of importance to them. Generally, they are submitting information in response to questions we post about specific themes and topics. We emphasize places of social, historical, and cultural significance because those are more difficult to determine in the field than resources that may be architecturally significant.
GRAYSON: Volunteer projects are also important to us. With greater pressures on resources, it's even more important to engage communities and to harness that interest and enthusiasm for the historic environment. Volunteers can be powerful advocates, and that's really important.
LEVIN: What recommendations would each of you have for improving practice related to inventories and information systems?
GRAYSON: I've got four. First is the importance of safeguarding data for the future. I'd like to see us address that by working closely with partners to put in place joint policies and strategies. Second is to focus on working collaboratively to share knowledge, expertise, ideas, and tools—and to be much more mindful of the needs of our partners and stakeholders. We tend to focus on our own requirements and don't always see the bigger picture. I'd like to encourage broader thinking and working jointly to eliminate overlap and duplication, particularly in the context of diminishing resources. My third recommendation is to make data as widely accessible as possible. I'd like to see greater use of common standards and vocabulary, and much more of our data available as open data. And I'd like to see more investment in databases and other tools that support easy and efficient data sharing. My fourth recommendation is that we continue to invest in audience research so we can better understand the needs of our users.
PINI: I agree on all the points that Gillian made and would stress the importance of a holistic approach to heritage—linking heritage protection to urban planning and considering heritage not only as an economic asset but also as a driver for social cohesion. Heritage should be deemed an asset for the future. Every conservation activity is future oriented. We also need to keep these systems alive. As demonstrated by the experience in Sana'a, if you don't continuously update information, the system in the end will be almost useless. This requires continuity in the presence of the staff and in training. I would also emphasize the importance of local communities, which are absolutely essential to the protection and rehabilitation of historic areas, and also to the regeneration of the life and environment of these areas.
HANSEN: One problem we have in the United States is agencies sharing information about systems being developed. And the fact that we are developing separate systems to conduct the surveys and manage the data. And sometimes it is one or another, but not both. The optimum—and this grows out of our SurveyLA experience—is to have an integrated system that works efficiently for conducting field surveys and then allows for a seamless flow of data into the data management system. There is much we learned in the years leading up to SurveyLA and then, of course, during the survey process itself. There may be a benefit in sharing our experiences. As we move toward the project's culmination, it would be great to take the lessons we've learned and apply them in other situations. In some respects, I think we've changed the way that people think about doing surveys and using survey information. While the survey data we're collecting is, in itself, an amazing accomplishment, what we have learned along the way is just as important.