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Unleashing big data of the past: Ca' Foscari joins European Time Machine

The European Commission has chosen Time Machine as one of the six proposals retained for preparing large scale research initiatives to be strategically developed in the next decade. Ca’ Foscari University of Venice is among the 33 European partners of this initiative, aimed at extracting and utilising Big Data of the past. The team of universities, organizations and companies has received 1 million euros in funding for preparing the detailed roadmap of the project.

Time Machine foresees to design and implement advanced new digitisation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to mine Europe’s vast cultural heritage, providing fair and free access to information that will support future scientific and technological developments in Europe. 

Venice Time Machine

Venice will be the protagonist of the project, with a special ‘Time Machine’. Over the years, Ca’ Foscari University has built a pole of transversal knowledge in the field of Cultural Heritage and a solid network of cooperation with local conservation institutions that store these assets such as archives, museums and libraries. The University’s fundamental role in the Venice Time Machine would be to make the most of archival knowledge, history of books, archeology, history and art history, palaeography, epigraphy and the Venetian language to work side by side with engineers, physicists , chemists, IT and design a multi-functional platform that could have an interesting economic impact on the areas of smart tourism, creative industries and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums).

“The idea behind the Venice Time Machine - explains Dorit Raines, Professor of Archival Science and scientific coordinator of the project for Ca’ Foscari - is that extracting millions, billions of authenticated data inserted in interoperable, searchable and open-access platforms, we would be able to raise new questions especially regarding invisible structures and narratives that will tell the history of Venice from a different angle or make us understand both on a micro and macro level economic, social and cultural processes that have contributed to shape Venice the way it is today”.

One of the most advanced Artificial Intelligence systems ever built

The Time Machine will create advanced AI technologies to make sense of vast amounts of information from complex historical data sets. This will enable the transformation of fragmented data – with content ranging from medieval manuscripts and historical objects to smartphone and satellite images – into useable knowledge for industry. In essence, a large-scale computing and digitisation infrastructure will map Europe’s entire social, cultural and geographical evolution. Considering the unprecedented scale and complexity of the data, The Time Machine’s AI even has the potential to create a strong competitive advantage for Europe in the global AI race.

Cultural Heritage as a valuable economic asset

Cultural Heritage is one of our most precious assets, and the Time Machine’s ten-year research and innovation program will strive to show that rather than being a cost, cultural heritage investment will actually be an important economic driver across industries.

This constant source of new knowledge will be an economic motor, giving rise to new professions, services and products in areas such as education, creative industries, policy making, smart tourism, smart cities and environmental modelling.

For example, services for comparing territorial configurations across space and time will become an essential tool in developing modern land use policy or city planning. Likewise, the tourism industry will be transformed by professionals capable of creating and managing newly possible experiences at the intersection of the digital and physical world.

These industries will have a pan-European platform for knowledge exchange which will add a new dimension to their strategic planning and innovation capabilities.

A new age for Social Sciences and Humanities

Time Machine will mark a new age for Social Sciences and Humanities, as it will offer open access to Europe’s past via unified data and new AI services. This will give “super powers” to researchers by revolutionising the individual researcher’s search capabilities, drastically raising the overall scale and scope of social sciences and humanities research.

The resulting knowledge will enable the field to effectively contribute to the development of strategic answers to major pan-European challenges such as sustainable growth, social welfare, migration and integration of migrants, and the safeguarding of European democracy.

Transforming education

Education is a crucial factor for the social and economic well-being in Europe and the world, and Time Machine will help transform it by creating a dynamic new industry for the production of educative digital material based on aligned massive datasets. The resulting online courses, materials, simulations and other experiences will promote active engagement with our combined cultural heritage and make continuous learning more accessible and inclusive.

A unique alliance and a network of cities

Time Machine promotes a unique alliance of leading European academic and research organisations, Cultural Heritage institutions and private enterprises that are fully aware of the huge potential of digitisation and the very promising new paths for science, technology and innovation that can be opened through the information system that will be developed, based on the Big Data of the Past. 

In addition to the 33 core institutions that will be funded by the European Commission, more than 200 organisations from 33 countries are participating to the initiatives, including seven national libraries (Austria, Belgium, France, Israel, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland), 19 state archives (Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary,Lithuania, Malta, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Slovakia, Sweden, and Switzerland), famous museums (Louvre, Rijkmuseum), 95 academic and research institutions, 30 European companies and 18 governmental bodies.

Time Machine is also a growing network of cities. The project is based on a “franchise” operation model grouping scholars, cultural heritage organisations, government bodies and large groups of volunteers around specific integrated projects focusing on cities. 

The engagement of a large number of volunteers, often local citizens, in these Local Time Machine initiatives is another key element to ensure their long-term sustainability of the project. Local Time Machines are currently being developed in Venice, Amsterdam, Paris, Jerusalem, Budapest, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Dresden, Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Naples, Utrecht, Limburg and more. 

In the next 12 months, Time Machine is expected to grow as a large community of communities, sharing a standardised platform, with more empowering tools.


In early 2016, the European Commission held a public consultation of the research community to gather ideas on science and technology challenges that could be addressed through future FET Flagships. End of 2016, Commissioner Oettinger hosted a round-table event with high-level representatives from the Member States, industry and academia. They agreed on three major areas where promising grand science and technology challenges could be addressed by the FET Flagships: "ICT and connected society", "Health and the life sciences" and "Energy, environment and climate change". As a result, a call for preparatory actions for future research initiatives was launched in October 2017 as part of the Horizon 2020 FET Work Programme 2018. From the 33 proposals submitted, six were selected after a two-stage evaluation by independent high-level experts.