The race to digitise the world’s heritage

Non-profit organisation has big plans to gather data from 500 sites over the next five years


San Francisco/London. CyArk, a US non-profit organisation dedicated to digitally preserving the world’s cultural heritage, has archived data from around 100 sites to date—from the ancient cities of Pompeii, Thebes and Chichén Itzá to prominent 20th-century landmarks such as Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the Sydney Opera House. Now, the company, which has its headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, is upping the ante by asking governments and the heritage community to help it add 500 sites to the archive within the next five years. An advisory council consisting of members of international heritage bodies such as Icomos (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) and the World Monuments Fund have drawn up a list of the first sites to be laser-scanned and archived. They will be announced at the launch of the “CyArk 500 Challenge”, which is due to be held at the Tower of London on 20 October. A two-day conference on technology and heritage preservation will follow the launch.

“We are losing heritage sites faster than we can physically conserve them,” says Ben Kacyra, the founding director of CyArk (a shortening of Cyber Archive), who attributes the loss of these sites to global warming, urban encroachment and the escalation of acts of human aggression, such as the destruction in April, in Syria, of the minaret of Aleppo’s Great Umayyad Mosque. It was the deliberate destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2003 that led the Iraqi-born civil engineer and entrepreneur to start CyArk 10 years ago. Kacyra hopes that the “500 Challenge” and conference will draw attention to the plight of the world’s vulnerable sites and to the benefits of using technology to help save them.

Kacyra sees the digital documentation of these sites as a non-invasive, inexpensive and quick means to preserve vital data for the future. The information can be used to create detailed 3D models as well as educational and cultural tourism media, such as mobile apps and virtual tours. It can also assist conservators in their work; for example, detailed blueprints can be used to develop site maintenance plans. In the worst case scenario, the data can be used to recreate or rebuild a lost site. Information gathered in 2009 proved invaluable a year later when a fire ravaged Uganda’s Kasubi royal tombs—a Unesco World Heritage Site. CyArk was contacted after the fire to see if the data were available so that they could be used in the reconstruction efforts. “That [moment] validated everything for us… all of the work we’ve done,” Kacyra says.

Kacyra estimates that each project costs between $20,000 and $30,000 to collect data in the field—a process known as “scan and can”—and get it to the point at which it can be preserved for the future. Although the time needed to scan a site varies, a typical project takes around five days to “scan and can” and a couple of months to complete, depending upon what is requested—such as virtual tours and apps—by the site’s owners. Data from completed projects are added to an open-source archive. All of the data are available to the public, except for “sensitive” information that the site’s owner may choose to restrict. However, when scholars have requested more information, the owners have agreed to provide it.

Is 500 sites in five years an achievable goal? According to Kacyra it is, but not without a few challenges. The organisation has laid the groundwork in terms of technology and manpower. It has established technology centres in the US, Brazil and South Africa, hopes to open a centre in Ethiopia and has trained local people to use the technology.

“There is no question that if you break down the projects per year and divide [by] the available teams, this is achievable,” Kacyra says. The biggest challenge is funding, which he hopes to attract at the launch. “Most governments don’t have budgets for this, so we’ve had to rely on multinational corporations, foundations and private donors,” he says.

“Our heritage is much more than our collective memory. It’s our collective treasure and we owe it to our children, our grandchildren and the generations we will never meet to keep it safe and to pass it on,” Kacyra says.

• For information on CyArk and the conference, visit