How do we Sustain Open Data?

In 2018, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the AAI / Open Context an Infrastructure and Capacity-Building Challenge Grant. Much of our focus during the first year of the multi-year grant has been on the question of sustainability for a resource like Open Context.

What does sustainability look like for an open access data provider?

Sustainability is a complex challenge especially because the term itself has multiple meanings. Because Open Context archives open data with other repositories (California Digital Library, Zenodo) and because it uses persistent identifier services like EZID, it already has some elements of “sustainability” in place, thanks to the preservation infrastructure provided by a wider network of institutions. The data published by Open Context will be maintained in these other systems managed by other institutions even without Open Context.

However, sustainability needs go beyond the preservation of digital bits of information that we’ve already published. The data we have already published will be more meaningful and useful to wider communities if we can continue to add to it and improve and enrich the ways that we and others can contextualize this information. That requires a sustainability strategy that considers needs beyond the preservation of bits, but also sustains ongoing work in expanding and improving our data publishing services and expanding and improving how the data we publish gets used by wider communities.

An important aspect of our sustainability work explores options and models to finance our data publishing and curation services. We are receiving guidance from a group of individuals representing libraries, museums, and publishers, who have committed to being part of our Sustainability Advisory Board for the next several years. Over the past year, phone interviews with the members of the Sustainability Advisory Board highlighted models such as The Carpentries and Open Library of Humanities that leverage networks of people and institutions for services and sustainability. Interviews also underlined the important role that an independent non-profit plays in this space, where it can serve global communities and not just a single particular academic institution.

Members of the Sustainability Advisory Board meet in San Francisco (Nov. 2019)

In November 2019, the West Coast-based half of the Sustainability Advisory Board met in person in San Francisco for a day-long session hosted by Deloitte and led by John G. Kutz, a founding board member of the AAI / Open Context. The group reached a strong consensus about the value of the digital curation services that Open Context offers. The group also saw unmet needs and opportunities for storytelling around data to make data more accessible to broader and more diverse communities. We discussed possibilities for developing open educational resources (OERs) that draw on the ever-increasing breadth and depth of Open Context data. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation defines OERs as “teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” A recent example in archaeology is the Open Digital Archaeology Textbook Environment, which illustrates how to use archaeological data as a living, changing resource. A focus on developing OERs based on open access data sets would realize the original intent of our non-profit, which received funding 16 years ago from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundations’s Open Educational Resources program to start building a Linked Open Data resource for archaeology (before Linked Data gained wide acceptance). That linked open data resource became Open Context, which today has nearly 2 million objects from 44 countries and spanning 200,000 years.

While Open Context itself is an OER, building materials and demonstrating techniques that make sense of the growing amount of data, both in Open Context and scattered across the Web, promises to be an exciting new direction. As we say, data are for discovery and inspiration, not just management. Why archive data if nobody knows how to use it? The real value is in the reuse, and this is where improving data literacy is critical to the future of scholarship. We will post occasional reports about our continuing work with the Sustainability Advisory Board exploring these ideas and weighing various options for sustaining open data, so please stay tuned!

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