Seeking Digital Excellence

(by Nick Youngson, CC BY-SA 3.0)

What constitutes a truly excellent research publication in Digital Archaeology?

This question arises in the context that, like every other subject area in the UK, we’re under pressure to prepare for the next round of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the periodic review of research quality across UK universities which is anticipated to take place in 2021. The results of these reviews affect institutional and subject-based rankings and also feed into the calculation of the annual research block grant (Research Excellence Grant) from central government which here in Scotland was just under £232,000,000 for 2017-18. So money and reputation are at stake: small wonder University administrators across the country are turning their minds to interim reviews and internal assessments in anxious anticipation.

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Interfacing the past

Interface
CC0 1.1 by Max Pixel

As archaeologists, we spend a great deal of time and effort looking at interfaces, be they between soil horizons or between cultural horizons, for instance. We pay rather less attention to the digital interfaces through which we access and analyse our evidence. And yet it is important that we do consider the nature of the negotiations that take place through the mediation of those interfaces. As Johanna Drucker has argued:

No single innovation has transformed communication as radically in the last half century as the GUI. In a very real, practical sense we carry on most of our personal and professional business through interfaces. Knowing how interface structures our relation to knowledge and behavior is essential. (Drucker 2014, vi, emphasis in original).

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The idle archive?

dont-wear-out-my-archiveWe often hear of the active archive, but what about an idle one? In a post on Digital Data Realities, I suggested that, although we might wish otherwise, our digital archaeological data repositories seemed relatively little-used. The Archaeology Data Service access statistics did not suggest a large uptake for the project archives it holds, and the ADS had not found it easy to attract entries to its Digital Data Reuse Awards in the past. In that light, I commented that it would be interesting to see how the OpenContext & Carleton Prize for Archaeological Visualization would get on. Well, the jury is now in, and the winner is … the ‘Poggio Civitate VR Data Viewer’, an impressive-looking data viewer, though as it requires an HTC Vive to use, I can sadly only watch the video rather than experience it myself …

However, as interesting are Shawn Graham’s reflections on the experience of organising the contest:

“We offered real money – up to a $1000 in prizes. We promoted the hang out of it. We made films, we wrote tutorials, we contacted professors across the anglosphere. We had very little uptake.”

(accompanied in his presentation by an image of tumbleweed) … Indeed, only the one winner was announced for the team prize – no individual or student prizes were awarded as was originally intended. So what’s going on?

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Ghosts in the machine

spectre3We’re accustomed to the fact that much archaeology is collaborative in nature: we work with and rely on the work of others all the time to achieve our archaeological ends. However, what we overlook is the way in which much of what we do as archaeologists is dependent upon invisible collaborators – people who are absent, distanced, even disinterested. And these aren’t archaeologists working remotely and accessing the same virtual research environment as us in real time, although some of them may be archaeologists who developed the specialist software we have chosen to use. The majority of these are people we will never know, cannot know, who themselves will be ignorant of the context in which we have chosen to apply their products, and indeed, to compound things, will generally be unaware of each other. They are, quite literally, the ghosts in the machine.

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Re-visualising Visualisation

VisualisationVisualisation is much in vogue at present, especially with the increasing availability and accessibility of virtual reality devices such as the Occulus Rift  and the HTC Vive, plus cheaper consumer alternatives including the Google Daydream and Sony’s Playstation VR, and there’s always Google Cardboard. We’re told that enhancing our virtual senses will increase knowledge, especially when we move into a virtual world in which we are interconnected with others (e.g. Martinez 2016), and the future is anticipated to bring sensors that go beyond vision and hearing and transmit movement, smells, and textures.

Hyperbole aside, we generally recognise (even if our audiences might not) that our archaeological digital visualisations are interpretative in nature, although how (or whether) we incorporate this in the visualisation is still a matter of debate. However, we understand that the data we base our visualisations upon are all too often incomplete, ambiguous, equivocal, contradictory, and potentially misleading whether or not we choose to represent this explicitly within the visualisation. I won’t rehearse the arguments about authority, authenticity etc. here (see Jeffrey 2015, Watterson 2015, Frankland and Earl 2015 (pdf), amongst others).

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Gatekeepers in Digital Archaeology

open-apis-v5_smallWe’re becoming increasingly accustomed to our digital technologies acting as gatekeepers – perhaps most obviously in the way that the smartphone acts as gatekeeper to our calendar and/or email. In fact, this technological gatekeeping functionality appears everywhere you look, whether it’s in the form of physical devices providing access to information, software interfaces providing access to tools, or web interfaces providing access to data, for example. A while ago, I mused about the way that archaeological data are increasingly made available via key gatekeepers, and that consequently “negotiating access is often not as straightforward or clear-cut as it might be – both in terms of the shades of ‘openness’ on offer and the restrictions imposed by the interfaces to those data.”  Since writing that, I’ve essentially left that statement hanging. What was I thinking of?

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Deep-fried archaeological data

deepfriedmarsbar
Deep fried Mars bar

I’ve borrowed the idea of ‘deep-fried data’ from the title of a presentation by Maciej Cegłowski to the Collections as Data conference at the Library of Congress last month. As an archaeologist living and working in Scotland for 26 years, the idea of deep-fried data spoke to me, not least of course because of Scotland’s culinary reputation for deep-frying anything and everything. Deep-fried Mars bars, deep-fried Crème eggs, deep-fried butter balls in Irn Bru batter, deep-fried pizza, deep-fried steak pies, and so it goes on (see some more not entirely serious examples).

Hardened arteries aside, what does deep-fried data mean, and how is this relevant to the archaeological situation? In fact, you don’t have to look too hard to see that cooking is often used as a metaphor for our relationship with and use of data.

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