New heritage insights through satellites and social media

News - 31 January 2019 - Communication BK

The HERILAND project applies satellites and social media to provide new insights into heritage. Satellite photos quickly provide a perfect image of the development of cities and their protected areas. Social media show how people appreciate and use these areas. Ana Pereira Roders, professor of Heritage & Values, leads this first ITN-Marie Curie networking project of BK Bouwkunde. 

From up above, it may be difficult to see some things, while other things are actually clearer. For example, taking photographs at regular intervals makes it perfectly clear how a city is developing and shows the role played by heritage in this regard. 'Collecting data on the ground and conducting human analyses can easily take up to a year for just one city. With satellite imagery and automated analyses, it only takes five minutes to cover the entire globe', explains Ana Pereira Roders, Professor of Heritage & Values. 'What makes these modern techniques so good is that the analyses never become dated in terms of urban development. The satellite takes new photographs each time it passes overhead, and the automated analyses spot any changes immediately'.

Photographic exploration from space in the HERILAND project focuses on UNESCO World Heritage sites. Satellite images show subsidence, if any, whether buildings have disappeared, or if new buildings have been added. They also show the real-life impact of policy. Does heritage benefit when it is fully protected, or is integration into the ever-changing urban environment preferable?

Pereira Roders is primarily interested in the relationship between heritage and spatial planning. Satellite data makes it possible to compare cities throughout the world. If one city protects a large area, whereas in another only individual buildings are listed, satellite data can indicate which approach has the greatest impact on how the city develops. Pereira Roders: 'Like having two children with completely different upbringings'.

The Chair of Heritage and Values has something of a head-start in this project. Pereira Roders began identifying cities with World Heritage areas back in 2008. In 2015, more than 1,600 cities had been identified since 2009, a twofold increase in just five years. HERILAND sheds light on the current total, and how these cities have developed.

Is using satellite data not simply a means of playing Big Brother from space? Absolutely not, says Pereira Roders. 'Using satellite data gives cities equal opportunities to gain fresh insights into their heritage, irrespective of whether they have the resources to conduct extensive data collection and analyses. It also helps to chart the connection between heritage in larger areas. In remote regions such as the Silk Road in Asia and the Silver Route in Mexico, world heritage areas may comprise as many as 100 villages'.

Social media

The second subproject from BK Bouwkunde at HERILAND focuses on Heritage and Democracy. For this project, Pereira Roders uses photographs of cities and their protected areas that are posted publicly on social media. She examines the images to show how people value and use these areas. What images do people post of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or the Acropolis on Flickr, Facebook or Instagram, and what do they write alongside their photograph? Do the local population and tourists post different photographs and comments? Based on these photographs and comments, the team can create detailed spot maps with both hotspots and coldspots in cities. People commonly share moments of pride, but also their concerns, which councils and governments could use to improve liveability and the sense of feeling at home.

Pereira Roders: 'In the past, heritage was primarily acknowledged and administered by experts. This helps us to democratise the process, allowing everyone - experts, local residents, but also tourists - an equal opportunity to offer their opinion on existing and future heritage, and on how it should or should not be treated. After all, heritage belongs to us all, and social media is the modern equivalent of the Agora, which people all over the world are increasingly using to connect with others and where necessary, to call for action'.

Ana Pereira Roders, Professor of Heritage & Values, started a collaboration with the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) - the German counterpart of space agency NASA. This collaboration offers unique opportunities for BK Bouwkunde to jointly carry out pioneering projects with other faculties, such as Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science; Aerospace Engineering; Civil Engineering and Geosciences; Technology, Policy and Management.

HERILAND is the first ITN-Marie Curie networking project of BK Bouwkunde, aimed at training PhD students (read more here). A total of fifteen PhD students work at HERILAND, two of whom are from Delft. They will start the four-year project in October. HERILAND trains a new generation of academics, policy makers, professionals and entrepreneurs in the digital age. They are trained to develop new insights into heritage, using modern techniques and knowledge.