Archaetech

Tuesday Jun 26, 2007

Open Archaeology

I just wrote this article with Jo and Chris for Oxford Archaeology’s in-house newsletter. The idea was to write a reasonably light-hearted intro to our policy of Open Archaeology for non-techies. For what it’s worth, here it is: Open Archaeology Leif Isaksen, Jo Cook & Chris Puttick ‘Open Archaeology’ is a phrase that tends to get bandied about quite a lot in certain circles these days. But what exactly does it mean? Ultimately it stems from the view that the value of archaeology, like many other knowledge industries, lies in two related but distinct concepts. The first is that the information must in some way be accurate, either in describing the world or in reflecting the opinions of those who describe it. This is something that archaeologists, in general, do fairly well. The second is that the information must be available to others so that it can enrich their understanding as well. As a discipline, this is something that we tend to do rather badly. Open Archaeology is about the social, methodological and technical dynamics that will allow us to do it better, and hence make our work mean more to the people we’re doing it for (which hopefully isn’t just ourselves). So what does that mean for you and me? First of all we need to think through our place in the whole lifecycle of archaeological exploration. Whether you’re writing reports over a hot desk at the Storey Institute or at the business end of a shovel, the work we do is just part of a long chain that ultimately ends up…where? We’d probably like to think that it wasn’t in a basement filing cabinet bearing a ‘beware of the leopard’ sign, but far too frequently that’s exactly the case. We preserve by record and then preserve our records in administrative formaldehyde. Then we wonder why nobody but archaeologists ever seems to give a hoot about our latest groundbreaking discovery. Which is a shame, because we certainly don’t do this for the money. But can we do anything about it? The answer is yes. We live in an information age in which you no longer have to go to the Bodleian library to find out who scored the German goals in the 1966 World Cup Final. In the era of Wikipedia and Facebook, it’s possible for us to find out what we want, when we want, and how we want (as well as who said so). For example, our databases and grey literature contain information about several thousand projects including where and when they happened, who did them, and what they found there. It would be great if every time we did a new excavation we could get an instant report on what we had done nearby. It would be even greater if we could immediately find out what everyone had done nearby. And the NMR, and the SMR, and who we hired plant from, etc., etc., etc. Life would be easier, costs would be lower (and thus wages higher), our significant others would think we did something useful for a change and, most of all, archaeology would be a more valuable resource for archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike. So much for the dream, what’s the reality? Successful information sharing is based on three principles: Open Data, Open Standards, and Open Technologies (that’s why we call it Open Archaeology). Open Data means that we are willing to share our data so that others can use it as well. Partly because it makes them more likely to share theirs with us, and partly because it was never ours to begin with. Archaeology is not the domain of archaeologists, it the shared heritage of a nation (of humanity, even). Open Standards are the rules by which we share it. There are many ways to tell people your ideas, from MIDAS-compliant web-feeds to sketches on the back of a cigarette packet. Both have their place, but Open Standards like the former make life much quicker and cheaper in the long (and medium) run. And cigarettes are so expensive these days. Open Technologies mean that I don’t have to pay through the nose just so I can see the trench CAD plan you just sent me. ‘Open Source’ software (to use the jargon) also means that I don’t have to be content to use my computer just as it is. I, or my geeky pals in the IT department, can change it to fit my needs. ‘OK, sounds reasonable enough I suppose. So what’s Oxford Archaeology doing about it then?’ Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Some of it is technical, but most of it is about all of us contributing to making our stuff more available. Amongst the specific projects we are committed to are: * seeking funding to digitise our legacy data (approximately 1.7m items!) * providing access to our data as soon as we are able, including the raw data in the form of context sheets, site photographs and images of key artefacts * IT tools for everyone’s use (established and experimental) such as wikis to facilitate discussion, and project teams blogs to help record the process of discovery, interpretation and re-interpretation. * a content management system that will enable us to visibly credit people for all the work they do - internally and externally. At the end of the day, Open Archaeology isn’t really anything new after all. It’s just what ‘Archaeology’ ought to be.

Saturday Jun 23, 2007

Heavy Petting

One of the remarkable things about the emergent Mashup Culture is that you never quite know when you’re going to find yourself repurposed. Whilst doing a little a blog admin this evening (OK, I admit it, I wanted to check my stats) I was intrigued to note that my last post had been linked to by http://petcommunity.net/6-pet-community-june-21-2007-729-pm Now, seeing as my entire pet inventory runs to two dead cats (and an affection for icanhascheezburger.com) a little further investigation seemed in order. Much to my bewilderment, there on the petcommunity newsfeed was a snippet of my post nestled between other feeds, either mourning the untimely demise of ‘Snuggles’ and asking about “good value gerbil insurance”, or informing readers of new fish in stock at Skipton Pet Centre (better than old fish in the skip at Stockton Pet Centre, I guess), or headlining with - the rather alarmist - “Trouble in Puppy Paradise”. It was only after starting to read about one unfortunate young lady’s troubles in coming out to the lesbian community that I began to realise that both us seemed to be attending the wrong party (as it were). In fact it appears that we had been aggregated on the basis of our posts containing the word ‘pet’ (as in ‘pet projects’) and ‘community’ (as in ‘community driven’). So there you go, folks. Be careful what you post about because you might just wind up there. Or thereabouts. Right, I’m off to buy some gerbil insurance. PS If you’ve turned up hoping for something interesting/relevant to read then I can do no better than redirect you to Mia’s latest post (http://openobjects.blogspot.com/).

Heavy Petting

One of the remarkable things about the emergent Mashup Culture is that you never quite know when you’re going to find yourself repurposed. Whilst doing a little a blog admin this evening (OK, I admit it, I wanted to check my stats) I was intrigued to note that my last post had been linked to by http://petcommunity.net/6-pet-community-june-21-2007-729-pm Now, seeing as my entire pet inventory runs to two dead cats (and an affection for icanhascheezburger.com) a little further investigation seemed in order. Much to my bewilderment, there on the petcommunity newsfeed was a snippet of my post nestled between other feeds, either mourning the untimely demise of ‘Snuggles’ and asking about “good value gerbil insurance”, or informing readers of new fish in stock at Skipton Pet Centre (better than old fish in the skip at Stockton Pet Centre, I guess), or headlining with - the rather alarmist - “Trouble in Puppy Paradise”. It was only after starting to read about one unfortunate young lady’s troubles in coming out to the lesbian community that I began to realise that both us seemed to be attending the wrong party (as it were). In fact it appears that we had been aggregated on the basis of our posts containing the word ‘pet’ (as in ‘pet projects’) and ‘community’ (as in ‘community driven’). So there you go, folks. Be careful what you post about because you might just wind up there. Or thereabouts. Right, I’m off to buy some gerbil insurance. PS If you’ve turned up hoping for something interesting/relevant to read then I can do no better than redirect you to Mia’s latest post (http://openobjects.blogspot.com/).

Wednesday Jun 20, 2007

News from the Ouse

On Tuesday I headed off for an interesting day in York and a bit of a natter with the ADS gang. The idea was to bounce around some ideas for collaboration with Antiquist, as well as get their angle on the future of archaeological data repositories and much else besides. The thoughts below are my take on some topics arising from the discussion (mainly with Stuart Jeffrey and Julian Richards, though with fleeting conversations with most of the rest of the team as well). Data Sharing One of the things that most people seem agreed upon these days is that a distributed model for data sharing is a Good Thing, but that it’s not so easy to accomplish in practice. Whilst an important debate as to the legal and ethical aspects of making this data available continues to unfold, one of the other pieces of the jigsaw revolves around agreeing on data standards, and what ought to be done if organisations can’t (or won’t) comply with them. A few developments seem to be taking this closer to reality however, and the view from ADS is that we may be closer than we think. The first factor, which I touched on in my last post, is that a number of repositories are beginning to expose their data as web services, albeit privately, and these may begin to emerge as de facto standards. This is not a fact that will please everyone. Legitimate concerns about transparency need to be raised, and, prior to seeing the documentation which is currently lacking, it’s hard to know how viable they are for general uptake, although Stuart seems positive that they are generally based on standards advocated by e.g., FISH. Markup Languages like KML have also demonstrated that it is possible for useful standards to emerge from organisations who have developed them for their own needs. The real issue lies in whether those organisations will release them for open management by the community or whether they will want to maintain control of them. This relates heavily to the second aspect of the problem – for a distributed network of repositories to function, they all have to sing from the same songsheet, and the idea of using HEIRNET as a registry of web services would be predicated on that fact. In some ways these next few months could be interesting as we begin to move away from a situation in which there are no immediate solutions to providing archaeological web services to one in in which there could be several potential candidates. As is frequently the case with such things, the one most likely to gain acceptance is the one which gains the most adherents early on. I, for one, will be voicing support for the most open and community-driven. With that in mind, I look forward to seeing a few more specifications popping up in the weeks ahead. Let battle commence. :-) Search Party Stuart gave me a demo of the ArchaeoBrowser which I liked a lot (and a nod to Stewart Waller for the nice interface) but also provides a cautionary tale about using proprietary software solutions. Effectively it’s a browsing tool for archaeological entities across the entire UK drawn from a large number of HEIRs. He was at pains to point out that the dataset is not yet perfect, but it contains a million+ records and uses faceted classification in order to give an ultra-quick search result which can be done either spatially or semantically. The system has its drawbacks – the indexing has be done on the entire aggregated dataset so effectively it has to copy their data and hold it centrally. The final results ultimately point the user back to a URL hosted at the original HEIR, there is potential for broken links and there’s no live updating (a problem I’m familiar with from the VLMA). On the other hand, the ability to cross search and retrieve heterogeneous data in a common format using a common schema is really cool. But there’s a final twist. ADUIRI, the company who created the groovy but proprietary indexing software have ceased to exist. That means there’s some serious work to be done before any new information can be introduced to the system, if at all. York have also just received a grant from the recent AHRC-JISC-EPSRC funding round to undertake their Archaeotools project which will look at further methods for data mining an ever increasing mountain of material. By using Natural Language Processing to harvest data from grey literature, it could revolutionise our understanding of what’s ‘out there’. And I’m glad to hear they’re committed to using OS solutions this time round :-) The Great Antiquist Jamboree/CodeCamp/SwapShop/Thing One of the ideas we knocked about was something I’ve also discussed with Mark Lake, Dave Wheatley & Graeme Earl – namely to get the Antiquist CodeCamp (OK, so we do really need a new name for it) off the ground. The plan as such is to have an annual event over several days in which Master’s students from the various Arch/IT courses can attend workshops run by professional practitioners and tackle pet projects with help from their peers. As well as providing skills which would be of immediate benefit to the students, it would also be a practical exercise in collaboration and a great opportunity for them to network. There may be some work to do in getting the university beancounters to see the benefit in all this, but if the students get on board as well then the logistical problems will hopefully take care of themselves (yes, I know that’s naïve, but sometimes you just have to think positive). Internet Archaeology Lastly, one comment from Judith Winters, the editor of Internet Archaeology, really fired my imagination. Mike Charno gave us a demo of an integrated IA article and ADS dataset which were an examplar of the LEAP project at CAA UK earlier this year. I found the ability to have an article which actually has the complete supporting data embedded within it revolutionary, so I was delighted to hear that once the practicalities of this kind of integration have been ironed out they hope to start partnering with folks outside York/ADS on similar projects (cf. StORe). Now where did I put that Crossbones report…?

Thursday Jun 07, 2007

HEIR Tonic

http://leifuss.wordpress.com/2007/06/05/heir-tonic/

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