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December 7, 2017

Baseball Hall of Fame's digital strategist lands at HistoryIT as chief tech officer

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
Donny Lowe started Dec. 1 as chief technology officer at HistoryIT, which is based in Portland. He previously served as director of digital strategy at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

After overseeing digital strategy at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for more than three years, Donny Lowe started Dec. 1 as chief technology officer at HistoryIT in Portland.

The 38-year-old self-described gadget geek is the first to serve in that role at HistoryIT, founded in 2011 by CEO Kristen Gwinn-Becker. She moved the headquarters to Portland from Chicago in 2013 and said the team is now at about 30 employees "and growing." They work in Portland, Chicago and remotely.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is a client of HistoryIT, which helps organizations digitize their historical collections, providing not just the software but also helping them craft a strategic plan for how to go about that.

"It's really a holistic approach to digitization," Lowe said in an interview this week in the Commercial Street office he's still settling into, a couple of baseballs already on his desk and a signed bat still to unpack. He spent nearly six years at the Hall of Fame, first as manager of web and digital media and then as director of digital strategy.

"We got about 10% of the collection digitized," he said.

That includes mementos like scouting reports, souvenirs, old scorebooks (like a Chicago Cubs one from 1907) players' scrapbooks, hundreds of thousands of photos and over 16,000 of recorded media, and images of three-dimensional objects — all preserved for eternity and available to the public online.

"Formats change, but we're making decisions now with file types and preservation standards that alleviate having to re-digitize in the future," he said. "That's the goal — to digitally preserve for eternity these physical objects that are going away, even with our best efforts." That includes things like old newspapers, photos and cassette tapes.

Lowe said there are lots of "amazing" stories behind every artifact preserved, like the scrapbook of Art Pennington, a little-known all-star Negro League player in the 1940s, digitized at his family's request for the Baseball Hall of Fame database. Shortly after it went online Pennington was able to go through it with his family, then died nine days later at age 93.

"The technology part is great," said Lowe, "but now it's coupled with the fact that we're literally saving history and making that accessible."

Should the Hall of Fame raise the funds to convert the rest of its collection to a digital format, Lowe reckons it could all be done in about three to five years.

Using Artificial Intelligence

At HistoryIT, Lowe will lead an effort to integrate artificial intelligence — also known as machine learning — into the system to help streamline digitization of large data sets.

In non-technical terms, the idea would be to automate some of the 'tagging' by subject, description and title — thereby saving time as well and money, by taking on some of the 'painful' work currently done by humans."

"Technology is at that point where it's cost-effective to start looking at solutions like that," he said, adding that human input will nevertheless remain important.

"You will never remove the need for humans for creating data," he said. "Machines are not at that point, but we're at the point now in machine-learning where we can make the process a lot less painful."

Asked what he likes most about his work, Lowe said it's the constant change.

"Not everybody's wired this way, but I love the unknown," he said. "I'm a builder … In technology, when you've got something built, the next thing has arrived and you're moving on to the next iteration. I love it." Career-wise he's always followed his passions, going from telecommunications to television production to television production management before landing in new media.

He sees HistoryIT as a 'disruptor' in its niche, and said he was impressed with its vision — as well as Gwinn-Becker's "ability to look into a sector that really hadn't materialized yet, and understand this is the future, this is where it needs to go."

Portland also impressed him during business trips to the city. A self-described foodie, the father of two said he looks forward to Portland Sea Dogs games but has no plans to shift his Major League Baseball loyalties to Boston.

"I'm a Yankees fan in Red Sox country, which is awesome," he said. "It's a healthy rivalry."

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