Vol. XVI, No. 3
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Winter, 2004

From One Context to Another: Building a Common Information Environment for Archaeology

William Kilbride

In my first year as an archaeology student, a tutor told me that if I didn't develop a healthy respect for archaeological contexts, then my career in archaeology would be short. Only a few days of excavation made that point abundantly clear. As I continued my career, however, I became increasingly aware of the need to understand the wider contexts of archaeology. We don't always pause to think on it (and have little reason to) but archaeologists work with and in many different contexts -- while sharing information between and among them: the university, the museum, the laboratory, the field, contracting units, CRM companies, government agencies and the like. In an international discipline like archaeology we become increasingly aware of the need to cross political, legal and linguistic contexts too. A diverse array of institutions and individuals are interested in our data: local, national and international; commercial, public and private; academic, amateur and professional. Each is dependent on information yet has a unique context in which to use it, and each depends to some extent on the others to preserve, produce, manage and distribute information.

Thus, though we seldom have cause to reflect on it, the practice of archaeology depends on information moving freely across many different sectors and being re-cast to be effectively used in each. We've always understood this problem implicitly. In the analogue age the methods for ensuring effective information flows were implicit. In the digital age, the information flows can be a great deal more extensive -- creating new demands on us to exploit them and demanding explicit mechanisms. In addition to these needs for using and re-using data in many contexts -- and to some extent over-riding them -- is our need to pass such information to future generations of scholars so they can access and assess the work we have done.

The goal set for the ADS and HEIRNET in April 2003 was to find ways to present archaeological data in different contexts and in ways that permit the use of archivally preserved data in the distant future. We were invited to demonstrate the potential of a "common information environment" in archaeology to meet that goal. The resulting demonstrator - under the working title of "My HEIRPORT" -- makes four important contributions to the development of web-based information services. It personalises content to meet the context of the users and the tasks that users are undertaking. It exploits geography as a universal theme in classification, even for resources that may express geography in different ways. The demonstrator unites archaeological data from across a very wide range of institutions and services. Finally, it draws a line under the need for long-term preservation and the need to manage the life cycles of the data that we produce.

It has long been known that different users bring different levels of skill and different expectations to their work - not to mention the different contexts already discussed. All combine to yield the adoption of different kinds of behaviours when using resources; so we tried to identify the different types of behaviour that users adopt. Thus, rather than presenting a single interface, we developed six presentations. These interfaces drew on the same basic building blocks in each case, but presented them differently depending on the contexts different users understand.

For those interested in exploring their local environment, we developed the "My Historic Environment" interface: a simple interface where much of the technology was hidden and the requests for user input restricted to commonly understood words or phrases. We presumed that researchers had more background knowledge and a desire to get straight to information quickly; so we developed a "Researching" interface. We created a "Learning" interface that provides a structured engagement for students who aren't yet ready to be researchers but need to be trained in what will be expected of them. A technically advanced interface was designed for occasions when users need to understand or exploit the fundamental computing infrastructure. Related to this was an interface for collection management. A further interface was designed for those using location-aware and mobile devices.

sample web page
Fig. 1 - A view of the web page showing various modes of access.

Three specific parts of the project exploited the spatial nature of archaeological information. Nick Ryan of the University of Kent at Canterbury developed a module that was based on location-aware devices - using hand held computers that track global positioning satellites. Because such devices already know where they are, they make it possible for users to phrase queries as simple as "What is there around here?" They also raise the prospect of marrying this sort of information with other location-based information like weather, traffic or accommodations, and so links into a much wider heritage and tourism industry. Staff at the RCAHMS took the problem of map awareness further by connecting the outputs of search returns to their Web-GIS server CANMAP. This shows the possibility of using web-based GIS in a widely distributed environment by exchanging data in XML formats.

Another innovative tool was brought by staff at EDINA, the JISC data centre in Edinburgh University Library. They used a developmental geographic gazetteer service, searched it (using grid references) for all place names falling within the specified area, then used those place names to search the Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland. These historic texts have no grid references and none have been introduced; the middleware gazetteer used here thus shows that map-based searching need not be restricted to map-based data sets. This makes it theoretically possible to interrogate any data set using a map-based query mechanism.

The data presented through these interfaces came from a wide range of UK-based institutions: Durham County Council, English Heritage, RCAHMS, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, SCRAN, Edinburgh University Library, the Archives Hub, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cornucopia, HEIRNET and the ADS itself. A common metadata standard was applied to give the data a uniform index, and rather than having to find or invent a new classification scheme for this diverse set of information, the geographic properties of the information were exploited. Thus, users were able to ask, "What is there in this vicinity?" and get back meaningful results. The range of institutions is impressive but ultimately could extend much more widely; there is no specific reason why they have to be located in any one country, and indeed much of the work done for the demonstrator has already been put to good use in the European-funded ARENA project

The demonstrator also underlined the need for long-term preservation facilities. One commentator recently noted that the UK government has spent some two billion pounds (£ 2,000,000,000) digitising content. Such a huge investment implies a long-term commitment to access; we don't want to have to repeat this colossal digitisation effort again. By drawing attention to data from so many agencies, we draw attention to the relative fragility of these facilities in some of the sectors in which we work. It also presents an interesting case study of the relationship between long- and short-term data needs. Much of the data in the demonstrators related to artefacts or physical archives held in a number of agencies. In some cases it also pointed to the digital archives held in the ADS, and thus secure for long-term preservation. In some cases, the data is only held as catalogue material and thus, while vital, is necessarily fluid: in other cases, changing the records would be a substantial change to an original source. What becomes obvious is the importance of the life cycle of each -- and the need to manage these life cycles effectively to ensure that access is viable in the long term.

The Common Information Environment is a vision for the future, not a tool for the present -- and the demonstrator that we built is not intended for release beyond a narrow band of decision makers. It was released to an audience of civil servants, chief executives and senior managers in January 2004 and its success can only be measured in the longer term. It has shown that, with the right commitment from a dedicated group it is possible to create a common information environment across different public sector agencies.

Although the demonstrator is not intended for public release, it has nonetheless informed the development of existing services. Heirport, the Z39.50 portal that ADS maintains for a consortium of partners, will be relaunched in the next few months with elements of the demonstrator. These include a choice of interface, like that developed for the demonstrator, the use of map-based searching and map-based results delivery. Both of these make available for public consumption work that was initially intended only as an experiment.

Archaeology, with its broad community in a myriad of different agencies is well placed to demonstrate what can be achieved. In the digital age -- as with stratigraphy - an awareness of how one context is related to another is the key to understanding how to proceed.

For more information on the Archaeology Data Service see http://ads.ahds.ac.uk

For more on the Common Information Environment Working Group see http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=wg_cie_home

For more information on the HEIRNET see http://www.britarch.ac.uk/HEIRNET/index.html

-- William Kilbride

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