By David Halevi
Google has taken upon itself "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," according to the company's mission statement. And now that mission has been extended to helping Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, make information about the Holocaust widely available.
"For some time, Google has been working to bring the world's historical and cultural heritage online. The Internet offers a great opportunity to preserve and share important materials stored in archives," says Yossi Matias, director of Google's R&D center in Israel. "We're privileged to be able to work with the world's foremost Holocaust archive on this project."
Yad Vashem has for years sought a way to put its collection of documents and photos online, says Matias. Now, thanks to Google's technology, 130,000 of Yad Vashem's collected photos are online in full resolution. Each photo has relevant text and documents attached to it, explaining the context and additional information. "Each photo has a story behind it, and we enable viewers to see the information about the photo, leave comments and read documents, enhancing its historical value," says Matias.
The photos encompass the entire Jewish experience of the Holocaust - from pre-war European shtetls, to concentration camps, to displaced persons' camps. In just a few short months, hundreds of people have gone online to identify their parents, grandparents or themselves in photos that Yad Vashem has collected over the years.
Many of the images were already digitized, but Google tagged and classified the photos, creating an easy-to-search database that allows users to search for specific photos by keyword, city, event, or even name.
Many original documents have been digitized as well, using Google's OCR (optical character reader) technology to convert written and typed documents to digital text, associating documents with appropriate photos. And, thanks to Google translation technology, information that was previously available only in German or Polish - or Japanese and Russian - can now be located and read in English and Hebrew.
Outgrowth of an exec's '20% time'
How did Google get involved with Yad Vashem? Outgoing top Google executive Jonathan Rosenberg visited the institution several years ago and was immediately struck by the amount of information there - and how much of it wasn't online. He decided to help streamline the organization's online presence as part of his "20% time," which Google encourages all employees to do.
"It's sort of like an incubator inside the corporate structure," Matias says of the concept. "Programmers spend 20% of their time on a project that has nothing to do with their day-to-day work, coming up with new ideas and products. Many of Google's great ideas have come out of the 20% program" - like the Yad Vashem project, which was unveiled on January 26 in honor of International Holocaust Memorial Day.
Several years ago, the search engine giant set up Yad Vashem's Youtube channel. The site went live in April 2008, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, with channels in English and Arabic. The English channel contains testimonies from Holocaust survivors; archival footage; historians' lectures; footage from visits to Yad Vashem by President George W. Bush in January 2008 and Pope John Paul II in March 2000; as well as human-interest stories, such as family reunions. The Arabic channel has testimonies and archival footage with Arabic subtitles. In January 2011, Yad Vashem added a channel in Farsi.
Said Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev: "Today, when there is so much disinformation and distortion easily available online, we provide an alternative to anyone who is interested in the truth."
Centers in Tel Aviv and Haifa
Google's two research centers in Israel - in Tel Aviv and Haifa - have helped develop many of the popular tools and services the search engine offers, such as Autocomplete, where the search box suggests terms when you type in a few letters; and Live Results, where users get automatically updated information about sporting events, ski conditions and other constantly changing situations. Google Israel also developed YouTube Annotations, which allows video uploaders to put text notes and links on scenes to enhance the user experience.
"It's pretty rare for Google to have two development centers in such close proximity as it does here - Haifa and Tel Aviv aren't that far away from each other," Matias says. "Israel has a strong reputation as a high-tech innovation center, and Google made a strategic decision to locate here. There is a wonderful match between the Google culture of innovation and the entrepreneurial culture here in Israel that encourages the development of ideas from the bottom up. It's a philosophy Google understands and respects, and finds among many startups in Israel," he adds.
In the case of Yad Vashem, Google has put that spirit of innovation to work for the benefit of the Jewish people around the world.