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Operating inside a local incubator, Randforce Associates merges technology with historical materials. Photo: Daniel Robison, Innovation Trail.
Operating inside a local incubator, Randforce Associates merges technology with historical materials. Photo: Daniel Robison, Innovation Trail.

Business incubator applies digital tools to history

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Business incubators are typically home to young companies shopping new ideas in technology, such as medical devices or apps for smart phones.

But there's an exception at the University at Buffalo Technology Incubator, a business straight out of the humanities department. The Innovation Trail's Daniel Robison has more.

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Historical materials are tough to translate into a profit. But that’s what Randforce Associates CEO Michael Frisch of tries to do every day.

“One of our tag lines is: We want to put the oral back in oral history,” he says.

Their business is digitizing oral histories, taking in-depth interviews and making their content searchable for museums or the web.

Frisch says this will help researchers better engage with the materials which now mostly exist on paper.

“The transcript is not that human being talking. It has no emotion.”

The Randforce team makes hours long histories easier to navigate. So in this age of shrinking attention spans, more will be interested.

Randforce catalogues each word and theme of an interview and then an interactive index allows users to jump to any point of interest. For example, in this taped conversation with a buffalo man who grew up in the 1920s, I type in the word ‘prohibition’.

Interviewer: “Buffalo was a happening town or city. What made it so dynamic?”

Buffalo Man: “I don’t know, maybe that’s where the bootleggers were.”

Interviewer: “Ooh OK”

Frisch says these raw interviews are like raw ingredients and, when brought together, they make elaborate historical dishes.

“Messin in the kitchen is what its all about," Frisch says. "The kitchen is where the raw and the cooked come together. And with these new tools it kind of democratizes that ability; we’re no longer dependent on documentary film makers or archivers.”

Down the hall from Randforce’s office are all manners of small companies specializing in fields like cancer research and computer software. Residing inside this technology incubator boosts their experimental approach to history, Frisch says.

“So when I say University at Buffalo Technology Incubator, that has caché, it legitimizes the larger academic ground and that’s a lot different than if I just had a private company name, you know, with an office on main street.”

So far, Randforce has created around 60 projects, mostly for museums and foundations. But Frisch says he’s still working on ways to make the historical meals his company cooks up in their kitchen something the average citizen would want to eat.

In Buffalo, I’m Daniel Robinson

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