[open-archaeology] Ethics, archaeology and open data

Anthony Beck ant.beck at gmail.com
Tue May 11 10:58:24 BST 2010

Dear All,

I thought it about time to raise the spectre of open approaches and ethics.
Of recent I have chatted to a number of people and organisations who want to
open up their data. The conversation always comes back to the ethical
issues. I’d like us to generate a statement or a set of ethical principles
to help move this forward.

Like other disciplines, such as ecology, there are potential ethical issues
to making our data open. I personally think the benefits outweigh the costs.
However, that is not the point: this is going to be a recurring question
and, as a group, we should be able to provide a position statement to
provide clarity. I’m sure we can get advice/feedback on such a statement
from national heritage agencies (RCHMS etc.), umbrella institutions (ICOMOS
etc.), extant repositories (ADS, HEAcademy) and global affiliates
(Earthwatch etc.).

Anyway, the position as I see it:

   - there is an ingrained friction to providing open data
      - complex underpinning rationale:
         - contract units (whose data is it anyway?)
         - national bodies (organisations inertia)
         - academics (stealing of publication thunder? Does anyone have any
         documented evidence that this has EVER happened?)
         - individuals (it’s just not something people are used to doing)
       - Public access is provided to some data (either patchy coverage or
      - Regional and national monuments record
      - Repositories (like the ADS: offering static as opposed to dynamic
      data holdings)
   - The really interesting and useful stuff is grey (source data is silo-ed
   and inaccessible)

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 (I don’t like
that word) will be destroyed. This is obviously biased and plays to the
lowest common denominator. It does not bring into play any of the benefits
that data sharing can provide.

I think the opposite argument is about those archaeologists who have sat on
their archive for 10’s of years. We know of its significance but it is not
available for academic and research analysis and does not inform the
planning process. It is in someone’s attic waiting to be written up in their
dotage. This has enormous impact on local planning policy, public and
academic understanding, theory, practice etc. etc. Since PPG16 came in
(essentially commercial archaeology) in the UK (early 90s (?)) there has
been less of this approach. However, there are a number of locations where
these grey records are the most intact heritage statements for substantial
areas of the UK.

In my mind those are the polarised worst case ethical scenarios. Somewhere
in between lies the path of reason. So basically I'm asking:

   - Is this the kind of thing we should do?
   - Who should do it (I'm happy to lead or just to participate: if this
   floats someone elses boat)?
   - Do we need legal advice (can OKFN help in this capacity - you do, after
   all, have some lawyers on board)
   - Should we align this with other international organisations (I think
   so: UNESCO, ICOMOS and EAC spring to mind)

Any thoughts?


As an aside I believe the heritage system, or the UK heritage system at
least, has too much of a bias towards the generation of synthetic material:
time and money, IMHO, that could be better spent on putting the data in
order and making it available. How can we realistically advocate informed
regional research agendas (which we do in the UK) when the data to support
these agendas is not available or generalised to such an extent that it is
not useful?
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