WOMEN IN HIGH-TECH
Lizzy Jongma is a passionate advocate for historical memory, a highly skilled user of the digital workspace, and a thriving woman in tech.
Coming from a professional background in history, Lizzy recognized soon after her graduation the importance of technology and digital transformation and has since then become an inspiring female thought leader working on digitization and linking data about the Second World War using new digital technologies.
She has a longstanding relationship with the Semantic Web Company and uses the PoolParty Semantic Suite in order to connect terms, dates, and events—recreating the lifelines of almost 400.000 people who fell victim to the Nazi terror regime.
This is Lizzy’s fascinating story…
Partner Success Marketing Manager
Creator of the Women in High-Tech Series
Technology has the potential to bridge distances of both time and space. While the traditional aspects of history remain, it is clear that technology is reinventing the way we see, consume, and understand historic events and memories.
Senior Project Lead, Network for War Collections WWII
As a project manager, Lizzy works on digitization, opening up and linking data about the Second World War using new digital technologies. Oorlogsbronnen.nl collects and connects over 15 million historical objects to describe and explain WW2, to recreate the lives of victims and perpetrators and to show hidden gems from over 250 collections in The Netherlands and abroad.
Hi Lizzy. It's great to have you on the series. Can you illustrate the milestones of your career for me and tell me why you joined the War Collection of the Dutch Heritage ?
I am a trained historian and used to work at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. There I was part of the team that created and launched its current website. The museum was closed for renovations for more than a decade and during this period we started digitizing the museum’s collection.
It was an exciting process, and we were able to digitize and share online enormous amounts of historical documents. Once the museum reopened , I realized how fond I had become of working within an online frame and was looking for a new challenge.
My current job at the Dutch Heritage War Collection came to me at exactly the right moment in time and I’m very pleased with where I currently am.
You said you applied for a position, that was digital only, why?
I enjoy working within the digital, online workspace and have learned over time that I thrive while creating exciting project-based digital projects. It is rather difficult to facilitate them in an actual museum, because the focus is and remains on the physical experience and visitors. We started out with a very small budget (laughs), which I had to get used to, but it was worth it.
Oorlongsbronnen takes a very different approach and forms a central online access point to original sources, information, and knowledge about World War II. We operate strictly online. We are the starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about World War II in the Netherlands. May it be in the form of original photographs, objects, letters, administrations, diaries, posters or newspaper reports. We linked all these sources together around events, places, people, and themes.
What was a major digital challenge you had to solve ?
The Dutch War Collection grew enormously over time, so that at one point we were left with over 12 million digital objects. Now, the big challenge we faced was that there was no visible and feasible connection between the items and therefore no storytelling aspect.
The mission of Oorlogsbronnen, however, is to explain what happened during World War II by using source material and connecting it to the four questions every good historian asks.
What are these four key questions historians always ask?
What happened? Where did it happen? Who was involved and when did it happen?
How did PoolParty assist with the challenges a historian or online war collection might face ?
We understood early on that we needed an extra layer of information architecture. PoolParty helps us connect the terms to dates and events; it allows us to interpret this data and draw new and insightful conclusions from it. We are attempting to extract data from various archives and metadata from photographs, objects, and books and recreate historical events and people’s lifelines based on that information using new technologies. By doing so, you can see, for instance, when and how Jews were transported from cities to concentration camps. In the next step, we can then take it even further and see who else was on the trains with them.
We can combine the data of many different resources to also create a more in-depth and lifelike image of what actually happened. In Ooorlongsbronnen, we currently illustrate the lifelines of almost 400.000 people. We are trying to move from an object-driven portal to entities. By modeling people, places, and events you are able to connect source material in new and unknown ways.
We have a thesaurus that is just dedicated to different places relevant to World War 2, like Auschwitz or Neuengamme, and can then connect people, photographs, and other archival material together to draw lifelines and diagrams and sharpen our understanding of World War II history.
How did you get into technology ?
I am a trained historian, so I don’t consider myself a woman in high tech, though I think that I am one. (laughs) I’m more of a historian with strong IT skills.
I learned to program because there were no jobs in history when I graduated from university in 1996. This is why social services offered me IT training. I even got in because I’m a woman.
In the beginning, I didn’t like it very much, but the moment I built a website all by myself, I felt proud, and something shifted. In a funny way, this tech training, assigned to me by social services, was the beginning of a long-lasting career in tech.
How did your background in history help you succeed in tech ?
As a historian, you are trained to ask specific questions and work with sources. It is about being able to conduct in-depth investigations into historical topics where there appears to be little to no information available. We want to tell stories similar to journalists and have the important job of not only preserving information but also making it accessible to the greater population. Historical interpretation has been one of the most common aspects of that mode of information collection.
We’d like to tell stories without making them up. A lot of websites about WWII focus on commemoration. They are often very emotionally charged, which is wonderful and important.
However, we as historians look for original documentation and let the facts speak for themselves. In Ooorlongsbronnen, we wanted to be more factual. IT people don’t really understand how archives work, so you have to explain it to them a lot of the time.
Since 1999, I have been working on digitizing collections of data within archives. The combination of collections, historical content, and the website are the things I love to do and work with.
Lizzy, how can we use modern-day technology to keep our historical memory alive ?
Technology has the potential to bridge distances. While the traditional aspects of history remain, it is clear that technology is reinventing the way we see, consume, and understand historic events and memories. It can be a valuable resource as well as the foundation for our work with the thesauri.
From a personal point of view can I only say that we can and should all remember. The job of a historian is to remind us all of what happened in the past and explain how and why things happened. Having said that, the Shoa could happen again. In the 1930s, there was a climate of exclusion that began in philosophy and then sought to enter politics when tyrants came to power and began to institute exclusionary systems.
Its everyday mechanisms can perpetuate dangerous trends that might lead to disaster. We still exclude people, we still register huge amounts of data about people, and the Nazis used the registered data about people to find Jews, Roma, and Sintis. Watch out for privacy and exclusion. In my job, we try to find local stories and make them more relatable to people.
How did you educate your children to deal with technology in a responsible way?
I’m not sure I have. It was very important to me to be transparent with my children and explain to them the dynamics behind social media and the internet.
I explained to my youngest daughter that TicToc is a Chinese state-owned company and asked her if she was willing to share her private information, which resulted in her deleting the app from her phone. I felt bad for her (laughs).
Having an open dialogue with my children and vice versa is essential in our family. I’m always surprised by how much young people know and notice when it comes to technology.
What is technology to you ?
It’s a tool that enables us to tell stories. Technology makes it possible to tell our stories in many different ways and share them with the world. For example, the PoolParty thesaurus helps us to link information from different sources and can assist us in gathering information about people, places, events, and concepts from WWII. We also use it for semantic matching and entity recognition.
Do you think there is a lack of women in technology ?
There is definitely a lack of women (laughs). I remember when I started my first job after finishing my IT training, people would approach me with questions and ask, “Can I talk to a real IT person?”
Unfortunately, there is still such a prominent stereotype about who works in IT.
Oftentimes, women were and still are not encouraged to go into tech. I don’t know if they don’t feel comfortable in the field or if we just think that it’s too complicated for us to do. It is, and it has always been complicated.
In our current project, I used to be the only woman working in IT. But we are growing now, and hopefully, things will change.
How are you handling the fact that you are the only woman in your team?
Well, I’m an older woman now. I have many years of experience, and I learned to stand my ground (laughs). I think the fact that I am now a bit older helps. I’m a mother, and I know how to be an authority figure. So for me, it’s less difficult to communicate what I want and how I picture the projects and tasks at hand.
Often, women have the tendency to overexplain themselves or try to be nice. Now that I’m in my 50s, I’m not the nice girl anymore. I had to grow into this role, and it took me a long time.
It was a pleasure, Lizzy !
Thank you, Vicky
Interested in more exciting content about women in tech? Check out my latest interview with Dana Bublitz from Microsoft