Networking Government Data to Navigate an Uncertain Future for the Past

A paper published today in the journal Antiquity highlights the value of protecting public records of scientific research. The paper, “Networking government data to navigate an uncertain future for the past”, discusses how to incorporate government records into broader civil society networks and ensure their long term preservation and widespread use, drawing on the example of the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA) project. DINAA, led by David G. Anderson (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), Joshua Wells (Indiana University, South Bend), Stephen Yerka (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), and the Open Context team (Eric Kansa, Sarah Whitcher Kansa), works to aggregate, publish, and archive inventories of historical and archaeological sites. DINAA illustrates how broader civil engagement can help protect public sector data from both accidental loss as well as political pressures, and increase its scientific and educational value.

Government agencies create and manage many key scientific datasets. As part of their “behind the scenes” administrative work, State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) create and manage inventories of archaeological and historical sites discovered and documented by research mandated by historic protection laws. These inventories reside in electronic databases of various types and formats. Because so many of this information is now digital, it is much more feasible to publicly share and make use of these data — data amassed by many experts over many years.

DINAA collaborates with state government officials and tribal nations across the United States to make these data accessible to a broad audience while combating looting and other risks by redacting ownership, location, and other culturally-sensitive information. This includes public map visualizations showing site distributions at roughly a 20 x 20 km spatial resolution, a scale excellent for regional and continental displays while still protecting site security. To guard against accidental malicious access breaches, DINAA maintains no sensitive data.

DINAA has partnerships in place or in development with about two dozen states at present, and already has integrated information from half a million sites across much of the eastern United States. By making rich cultural data publicly available, DINAA’s activities help our nation realize the original intent behind historical protection laws. Eric Kansa, a co-investigator on the project and the program director for Open Context, explained:

“For a large fraction of the United States, DINAA now offers the closest we will probably ever come to a comprehensive “census” of America’s population history over the past 14,000+ years. This helps to document historically-unique experiences and richly diverse cultural development of peoples in many different societies.”

By making the data public, visible, and usable DINAA enables exploration of new cross-disciplinary research questions about how people have interacted with their natural environment over vast regions and time horizons.

Public funding from the National Science Foundation (Grants 1623621, 1623644) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (LG-70-16-0056-16) makes DINAA possible, and in the spirit of DINAA’s public support, anyone can access and use the entire DINAA dataset without any technical or intellectual property restrictions.

Citation: Kansa, Eric C., Sarah Whitcher Kansa, Joshua J. Wells, Stephen J. Yerka, Kelsey Noack Myers, Robert C. DeMuth, Thaddeus G. Bissett, and David G. Anderson. 2018. The Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA): Networking Government Data to Navigate an Uncertain Future for the Past. Antiquity 92(362): 490–506.

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