Fraunhofer researchers have received the European Innovation Prize from the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO) for software that reconstructs files of the East German state security service.
The secret files of the East German state security service (Stasi) filled 16,000 large sacks, as, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in autumn 1989, employees of the former secret police of the German Democratic Republic shredded about 40 million pages of documents, creating about 600 million paper fragments. Hidden within these fragments was information on such topics as Stasi employees, their informers, and the victims of secret police action. Assembling the resulting fragments by hand was a particularly labour intensive task that would have taken centuries.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK) in Berlin developed the ePuzzler, software which evaluates pre-digitised fragments with the help of complex algorithms. The digital images are matched based on a number of criteria including shape, colour, texture, lines, and lettering, then joined together. ‘We immediately reduce the search space of the immense quantity of pieces this way, and thereby accelerate the actual puzzle-solving process considerably,’ explained Jan Schneider, head of the IPK project.
Dr Bertram Nickolay, who initiated the project, and his team from the IPK have now been awarded the EARTO prize for economic and social innovation. ‘It is a real honour for my team and myself to receive the EARTO Prize. In addition to the challenge of advancing into new and unique technological territory, we were also always motivated by the social import of developing the reconstruction technology,’ Nikolay observed.
The ePuzzler has been optimised for the production operation; the next step for the Fraunhofer researchers is to develop means to automate the digitisation process. The ePuzzler technology has applications beyond the reconstruction of Stasi files; the researchers are also interested in how the technology could be adapted for the preservation of culturally and socially significant materials.