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Dig the new breed, Part II – open archaeology and ethics

The second in this great series of three guest blogs by Ant Beck. See Part 1 for applications of linked data and remote sensing in archaeology. Part 3 will wrap things up and talk about the disruptive implications of linked open data for impact of archaeology.

Open Science provides the framework for producing transparent and reproducible science by providing open access to raw data, algorithms and interpretations. Efforts such as STAR and STELLAR provide the foundation from which fine granularity excavation data can be made available as part of the semantic web and feed into Open Science analysis. This provides answers to the questions of how and why we should have open access to archaeological data. However, it does not provide answers to what data should be opened or if archaeological data should be opened at all. We move into the sphere of ethics and open archaeology.

Treasure seeking - CC-BY-SA-NC

Recently I have chatted to a number of people and organisations who want to open up heritage data. The conversations tend to have an ethical component. Like other disciplines, such as ecology, there are potential ethical issues in making heritage data open. The oft touted reason, in the UK at least, is that if access is given to this information then it will be exploited by “night hawkers” (irresponsible metal-detectorists) and other “treasure hunters” and sites (a term I don’t really like) will be destroyed.

This argument is polarised and plays to the lowest common denominator: it is based on the premise that “accessible knowledge will inevitably be abused” and eschews any of the benefits that data sharing can provide. Nor does it consider the nuanced ethical arguments concerning re-appropriation of artifacts collected under imperialist regimes or the ethical conundrum surrounding research into aboriginal or other indigenous communities (which, now that I’ve raised them I wont comment on them further). The Portable Antiquities Scheme has done much to improve this argument.

The elephant in the room in this debate concerns those archaeologists who have sat on their archive for decades. We know of its significance but it is not available for academic and research analysis and does not inform the planning process. This has enormous impact on local planning policy, public and academic understanding, theory, practice etc. Since, the 1990 introduction of Planning Policy Guidance 16 (PPG16: essentially commercial archaeology) in the UK, and the later Planning Policy Statement 5 has improved the situation a bit.

But I find the situation somewhat paradoxical. The UK curatorial systems expect that a generalised summary, or synthesis, of any investigation is deposited with the regional curatorial officers. This data is entered into the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) and is publicly accessible. Therefore, the public has access to a generalised dataset. The expectations for primary, or raw, data are different: it’s considered ethically appropriate to deposit fine granularity data (i.e. non-generalised, primary, data, such as those from excavation) with the Archaeology Data Service (ADS), however, there are issues raised if an individual wants to do this outside such formal structures (however, the Perry Oaks Project have released redacted versions of their site data).

Is this an issue of ethics, or where formal and informal work practices collide; or is this simply an issue of cost, where individuals and organisations have the will but not the finances? Alternatively, and possibly most likely, do archaeologists just feel uncomfortable making their fine grained data available to a mass audience without going through a representative authority such as the ADS? My feeling is that within the archaeology domain there is an informal belief that if data is deposited with a repository then the repository also takes the ethical responsibility if the data is released. Deposition so that data is available in perpetuity is part of business and academic best practice, however, deposition does not necessarily mean release and subsequent consumption by other parties (public or otherwise).

Whatever the answer the point remains: archaeologists, for right or wrong, consider the implications of placing fine grained data in the public domain and “Ethical considerations” have been identified as a “barrier” to deposition. However, there appears to be limited guidance as to how to resolve these issues. This means that many archaeologists are re-inventing the wheel. The challenge is to provide some supporting “thing” that makes it easy for individuals and organisations to get to a clear, and hopefully unambiguous, ethical position. Such a “thing” will reduce uncertainty thereby removing one of the barriers to data sharing. The current default position is the equivalent of doing nothing: surely this must change.

Supporting “stuff” which is recognised and approved by national heritage organisations and standards bodies will act as important lubricant to help individuals and groups to release data through informal channels. It should be recognised that the relationship between the “citizen”, the archaeologists and heritage data will change: citizen science and citizen data, will play more of a role in heritage than ever before. Hence, a focus on the informal is important: we don’t want more grey data so we? The Portable Antiquities Scheme is the “poster boy” for archaeological approaches to citizen science – although they do have a range of different user access levels.

I raised this as a topic for the Archaeology working group at the Open Knowledge Foundation. Response so far has been positive and has spilled over to colleagues in the curatorial sector and beyond (the discussion thread can be found here). We’ll be setting up a meeting to discuss these issues later in 2010. Both the Archaeology Data Service and the University of Leeds have kindly offered a venue.

There’s also a start at creating an ethics statement on open access to raw archaeological data – a statement that should be supportable by institutions and individual researchers alike. If you’d like to get involved, please join the Open Archaeology working group and mailing list – involvement could be helping to craft the ethics statement, asking your institution to contribute its own statement, helping to plan and document the workshop.

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