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.


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