TechWomen and CyArk

CyArk works with an emerging cultural heritage professional from Palestine to transfer digital preservation knowledge

by Taline Ayanyan and Najlaa Ataallh
October 31, 2013
Today brings an end to a very special month at the CyArk Oakland office. We say farewell to a very special visitor who has joined us for a one-month mentorship to learn about our digital preservation process. Our visitor was Najlaa Ataallh, an architectural heritage professional from Gaza in Palestine, a place rich with history and heritage.

Najlaa was here as a part of the TechWomen program, which is an initiative of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program was launched in 2011 by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Each year, the program empowers a selected group of emerging women leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields from the Middle East and Africa through a five-week mentorship program. Each woman is placed at a leading technology-driven company in the San Francisco Bay Area or Silicon Valley. This year, CyArk was very proud to participate in this program and host Najlaa as our Emerging Leader.

It was a special honor for me to represent CyArk as Najlaa’s professional mentor during her time here. While we have joined a very prestigious group of Bay Area technology firms participating in this program (Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), CyArk’s specialized mission for digitally preserving the world’s cultural heritage is what matched us up with Najlaa, who is interested in developing her skills in the field of heritage management.

CyArk’s commitment to provide Najlaa with this mentorship was a great way to advance one of the main pinnacles of our organization’s mission, technology transfer. Through workshops and the establishment of Technology Centers all over the world, CyArk works to transfer our advanced methods and empower students and professionals all over the world to digitally preserve their own local heritage. As a part of the TechWomen program, the CyArk staff got to share our specialized knowledge with Najlaa, but also learn so much from her about her home in Gaza. The office will be sad to see her depart, but we look forward to a continued relationship with her and hopefully some opportunities to work together to help digitally preserve the amazing cultural heritage in Gaza.

We’d like to leave our CyArk readers with the following special message from Najlaa.

I arrived in San Francisco city just five weeks ago on a very special trip, coming from a very different place with a conservative background and a hard mentality of dealing with women. It was the TechWomen program that has allowed me, as a Muslim lady from Gaza in Palestine to embark on this experience.

My name is Najlaa Ataallh and I hold a B.A. in Architecture. Due to the difficult circumstances in Gaza, I have not been able to practice architecture as a career, so I applied to the TechWomen program with great hope of finding a new path that can put me on the way towards architecture, particularly the area of architecture that I love most, heritage.

At first, the coordinators at TechWomen were not sure if they could find a placement for me since my interests were so specialized in comparison to the other tech firms that they had already worked with. But at the eleventh hour, wow, it was done! I received an email saying that I had been matched to an organization that might be a perfect match; an organization that works in the digital archiving of historic buildings.

After spending one month with the CyArk family, I am actually speechless as to what I gained from them, especially Taline, my professional mentor. CyArk is a mission-driven nonprofit organization and my mentorship with the team showed me the experience of working for something that you care deeply about. It has revived the passion in me to continue practicing in the field that you love most.

Being in touch with history is a matter of creating your future from your past, and that is what CyArk does. The organization uses 3D digital modeling to archive historical buildings using an advanced laser scanning technology and different types of software. This process is a mechanism for adding value and preserving the culture embodied within a heritage site. Moreover, it provides much-needed visualization of the buildings through immersive panoramas, photos, or virtual tours.

Training at CyArk and researching the sites that they are working to digitally preserve was an opportunity to go back to different eras in different parts of the world; living what they lived, understanding the circumstances that they were surrounded by, and becoming aware of what our ancestors had left for us. For me, the value of archiving historical buildings is not just a matter of recording and digitizing, but a matter of finding meaning in what you do.

My experience with CyArk is like a story made up of different chapters.The first chapter involved realizing the digital preservation mission in order to convey the interesting story of a heritage place. For me, the mission was telling the story of a site for which CyArk had a donated data set, Fort San Lorenzo in Panama. My professional mentor first took me on a virtual tour around the whole process and gave me a map for the upcoming “chapters”. These included textual research about the site, processing the point cloud data, then creating a basemap, panoramas, perspectives, and animations.

Each of the tasks above is a world in itself. Through our training with the textual research alone, I learned several techniques (researching, verifying information, writing, and editing). The most interesting part for me was the tremendous care towards publication rights. It reflects a real respect of others’ work.

Once we were done with the textual research, we switched gears to start playing with 3D software. I finally got to start working with the point cloud! The first thing that I got to learn was how to clean the donated point cloud. But this brought up the question: How do we collect such amazing data in the first place? The answer was: at the field, with the laser scanning machine. One of the most interesting parts of being in CyArk was the chance to practice these techniques in real life. I did just that by going out with the field team and learning from them how to operate several types of laser scanners.

By the end of my technical mentorship at CyArk, I got to work with point cloud data, moving between various software (Cyclone, Scene, Photoshop, AutoCAD, PTGui) each with an important role within CyArk’s unique process for creating a digital preservation dataset for a historical building. The tangible vision of what you can produce using these software creates inside you the enthusiasm to continue until the last breath. I was so excited while learning and practicing simultaneously, that I felt that my experience was the real translation of the old Chinese proverb "Tell me, I'll forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand." Last, but not least, one of the most memorable aspects of my time at CyArk was integrating within the team. I got to see how each member of the team plays such a necessary role for the whole process.

No matter how much I write about this unique experience, I will never ever give it its full worth. Indeed, I cannot find the appropriate words to describe the limitless knowledge that I gained. Actually, the whole experience exceeded my expectations by as far as the earth is away from the moon.

Looking towards the future, I wish this experience can be lived by other women like me in the field of heritage in the Middle East. I am now looking towards my return to my home country, knowing that my next step will be to continue in the path that I have finally found and refined within the last month.
Najlaa (third from right) joined the CyArk team on a local demonstration of several laser scanning machines.
Najlaa practicing with leveling the survey tripod during the local demonstration of laser scanning with the CyArk team.
Najlaa (left) and CyArk's Taline Ayanyan during a visit to Oakland's 16th Street Train Station, a local historic building that the team hopes to digitally preserve.
Related Projects:
Fort San Lorenzo