Monument Preservation 2.0: ‘Conservation funding decisions should be data based’ says heritage data company

'If you don't know what kind of monuments are out there, it’s hard to see where funding is needed the most' - Fenicks founder Jan-Hylke de Jong

Fenicks drives around, collects data, and makes analyses of monuments in the Netherlands. When will Europe follow? Image: Fenicks

Monument preservation is one of the core tasks for heritage professionals. But how do you determine which monuments need more attention or funding? You can’t possibly drive around the country and have a look at them all, can you? Well, if it’s up to Jan-Hylke de Jong – founder of Fenicks and several Heritage Monitors in the Netherlands – that’s what the future of European monument preservation looks like. “We’ve completely mapped the Netherlands, now it’s time for the next step: Europe!”

Ask any heritage policymaker what would make their job a lot easier, and they’ll probably say something about reliable information about the state of monuments in their area. Enter Fenicks: De Jong’s company took on the challenge to find out exactly how many monuments there are in the Netherlands, in what state, and whether action needs to be taken to preserve them. “By mapping all these sites – and providing data on their condition, decisions can now be based on data”, summarizes De Jong.

His company provides governments with data on all sorts of heritage. This data is bundled in publicly accessible databases: for example the Heritage Monitor, with info on the state of conservation and use, the Green/Blue Heritage Monitor (natural and water elements of a monument), or the Archaeology Monitor (where are possible archaeological finds, and what could be a threat for these spots). “There’s also the Heritage Energy Monitor. It could play a huge role in making monuments more sustainable.”

Jan-Hylke de Jong. Image: Courtesy of Fenicks

“By creating an overview with all sorts of parameters, decision-makers can quickly see what types of monuments there are and where. And if action is needed.” Before, we could see how much and where money was spent on Dutch monuments, but now the ‘why’ question can be answered more clearly. “For example, if there’s a monument in bad shape, but the data shows it’s not used at all, you can think twice if you want to put a lot of funding towards such a project. That insight gives a bit of peace of mind for monument owners and governments.”

Double-Edged Sword

“One of the reasons why I started looking into this, is because I don’t like public money being wasted”, De Jong laughs. He continues in a more serious tone: “I noticed that a few dozen people are responsible for decisions concerning a substantial sum of subsidies for heritage. With the information from the monitor, they can now explain through data why they made a particular decision.” So while the decision-makers have a lot of expertise, they now also have an overview of how the monument landscape looks like.

Wondering what’s the conservation state of monuments in the province of Utrecht, which ones are in use, or in what type of planning zone they’re located? One quick glance and you can find out a lot based on the data. Image: Courtesy of Fenicks

About seven to thirteen per cent of monuments are in a bad state says De Jong. “However, if you’re not sure about what kind of buildings are out there, and which ones need restoration work, it’s a lot harder to determine where funding is needed the most.”

The monitor acts as a double-edged sword. “Not only do the data help to identify cases that need attention, but they also monitor the general state, and slowly raise the bar for conservation in general”, explains De Jong. He remembers an example of a province that received an additional €1 million in funding after the national government reviewed data collected by Fenicks. “You can see in detail where you can make a difference, or which areas receive less funding, but should get more based on the statistics.”

700 Monuments a Day

Offering decision makers a proper overview is easier said than done: the Netherlands has around 145,000 protected monuments estimates De Jong. Where to begin? “We started in the province of Utrecht, looking at the state of monumental farms. At first, we tried to assess their state by using photo material already available. That turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected”, remembers de Jong.

So he decided to visit every monumental farm in the province himself to gather information. “Instead of a consultant agency, Fenicks became more of a logistic-focused company. We asked ourselves: ‘What’s the best camera to take pictures with and gather data while working in a muddy field? Or what’s the most efficient route to visit as many monuments as possible?’ Not an easy challenge, but we did it anyway. At this moment we can capture 600 to 700 monuments in one day. That’s three terabytes of data.”

The type of monuments doesn’t matter that much according to De Jong. “We look at the design of a building. If we need an expert for a very specific or special monument, we can pick from a large pool of experts.” Fenicks has now documented every monument in the Netherlands and checks up on them in a cycle of four years. “The condition of a monument doesn’t change in a week or two. But checking in every four years ensures the data is reliable.”

By collecting data on the facade, roof, pipes (red), windows and open areas (yellow), and details of paint on the building, monument owners and policy officers have a clear overview of a monument. Image: Courtesy of Fenicks

No Discussion

The shift in focus meant Fenicks became more of a data collector than a data analyst. “We’ve pulled the qualitative and quantitative work apart”, explains De Jong. “For example, if we take pictures of a monument, they are sent to our server. Then we immediately check and edit them to make sure personal information, such as someone’s face, is blurred. Those pictures get sent to a team of thirty assessors. They investigate and make an assessment of the monument.”

That way De Jong and his colleagues can operate freely, while the monuments are judged without bias. “We even hire an external, third party to assess the data again. So there’s no discussion with clients or doubts about the objectivity of the data.”

Taking care of heritage is by definition a job that should serve the wider community. For Fenicks, the community is at the core of its activities as well. The current team consists of thirteen people, driving around the country in electric cars and gathering data. “I think operating Co2 neutral is important, especially if you drive as much as we do”, explains De Jong.

De Jong has an eye for socially engaged entrepreneurship, and it shows since his team includes a number of neuro-divergent people: “We try to work with someone’s strengths. For example, one of our photographers has ADHD. If we put him behind a desk all day, he’ll feel miserable. Instead, he’s constantly out and about, documenting monuments and focusing on what he does best. One of our data analysts has autism and is the complete opposite of his colleague. He likes to sit behind a computer, delving through piles of data.”

Fenicks even won a Participation prize for Employers last year. The jury was impressed by how De Jong’s company ‘put everything to work to make every employee fit.’

So now that De Jong and his team have mapped the entire Netherlands to provide governments with reliable data to make well-informed decisions, the question remains: ‘What’s next for Fenicks?’

“It’s time for the next challenge: Europe!” He continues: “As I said earlier, I’m all for the efficient use of public funding, and I believe there are many countries in Europe where we could do some remarkable work with data gathering. Of course, we don’t work for free so governments have to take that step. On the other hand, you can see for yourself how well-documented Dutch monuments are. Our work adds a significant value for decision makers and governments.”

But isn’t a small country such as the Netherlands too big of a switch compared to, for example, Germany – almost nine times as big? “We’ve built our operating system in such a way that we can scale up or down when needed. For me, it comes down to calculating how many monuments we need to visit and assess. Whether it’s 1000 or 4000 a week, there’s nothing we can’t handle.”

De Jong ends with a striking example: “The other month we did a survey of the province of Groningen, which has a lot of heritage affected by earthquakes. It seems like such a big task, but with proper planning, we documented all 14,000 monuments in a month.” Now everyone can look up in a national database how Groningen’s monuments are faring, and which ones need a bit more attention. Imagine that in a couple of years, every citizen in Europe could do the same for their area. And more importantly: every decision-maker would know exactly what monuments need preservation.