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AI offers families a glimpse of the real Masters of the Air

Viewers of the new Masters of the Air series who are curious about their own ancestors’ experiences of the Second World War in the US Army Air Force (USAAF) now have the opportunity to find details of their family’s war record in Norfolk at the click of a button.

The Friendly Invasion - war bride

The Norfolk Record Office, working with Microsoft, is rolling out a trial system that will use AI to help the descendants of thousands of USAAF servicemen learn more about their relatives’ service in the Second World War.

Norfolk Record Office is custodian of hundreds of thousands of historical documents, including approximately 30,000 documents and images related to the USAAF Second Air Division, which was stationed at Horsham St Faith and Ketteringham Hall during the Second World War. While these documents have been available online for some time via the Second Air Division Digital Archive, the scale of the collection made effective tagging and sorting of the archive a daunting task.

The Friendly Invasion of Norfolk

Now Microsoft’s new Artificial Intelligence technologies are in use extracting individual names from the documents, creating a cataloguing system that will allow users to look up the name of a single serviceman and immediately be given access to all the documents in which that name appears.

Already over 10,000 names have been identified and are browsable on the Norfolk Record Office catalogue, available at nrocatalogue.norfolk.gov.uk/mc-371-ai

Cllr Margaret Dewsbury, Norfolk County Council’s Cabinet Member for Communities and Partnerships, said: “It is wonderful to be offering even more access to these important archives at a time where, with the launch of the new Masters of the Air television series, there is huge interest in the American’s serving in Norfolk during the Second World War.    By connecting with family members from the past, people can form a deeply personal bond with Norfolk’s links to the United States. This enables us to remember and honour our those who served and encourages international visitors to come to Norfolk to discover their own personal connections.”

Steve Neufville, Senior Account Executive, Microsoft UK said “The emergence of generative AI has enabled the transformation of many industries, however I cannot think of a more powerful example of the potential of this technology, than enabling families and visitors to learn the stories of those who served and gave so much during the Second World War. We are delighted to be working with Norfolk County Council to make these stories accessible to all.”

The Friendly Invasion - meeting the locals

The sorting and cataloguing is being done with Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning tools, utilising the potential of AI to sort through the documents and carry out work that would otherwise take years of staff time.

The work has been carried out by Norfolk Record Office and Microsoft utilising existing funds within the Norfolk Record Office development funding.

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