Sharing Archaeological Data: Part 3 – What is your Dream Tool?

Last time I stated that it is probably impossible to build a “perfect resource” for data sharing, largely because user needs and the context in which they work are so diverse. In order to find out what archaeologists want to do with primary data and how they want to interact with it, we asked them to define their perfect resource. We call this their “dream tool” and I now have enough data from phone interviews, workshops and surveys to start mulling over the responses.

Here’s how we put it:

Describe your digital “dream tool” for research? What would it offer? How would you use it? How would others use it? How would it change the way you do your work?

I’ll attempt to summarize the 45 first responses here. Bear in mind, these are my impressions of the descriptions alone, not taking into account each person’s other answers, position, place of employment, etc. Also bear in mind that these responses are all from people who already use technology in their work (i.e., the choir). That is, we’re not asking people if they use technology, but how they currently use it (and would like to use it).

The responses to the dream tools question are pretty diverse. It is clear, as expected, that no one tool is going to serve everyone’s needs. But can we identify some common needs among this diversity? Here are some early thoughts on the first batch of responses to this question:

  • One third of the respondents wants tools that link published project information with other types of content (such as images, databases and gray literature) and offer integration beyond the project level.
  • There is great interest in accessing relevant literature and a great concern over gray literature.
  • Related to this is linking information from many sites—many people mentioned wanting a map interface to be able to get information from a region.
  • A number of people mentioned specific field tools for easily recording and integrating excavation data, and a few said a “closed” system for a field team would be ideal. That is, there is a need for field/project tools that will help organize and integrate content from a single project from the start, but then also (later) allow that content to be searched by anyone on the Web. Any tools being built should allow for this transition to be made smoothly or we will end up with very well documented and integrated field projects sitting in silos where no one else can benefit from them.

Above all, the “dream tools” described by all these people work toward two ends: comprehensiveness and efficiency. People want a tool that will allow them access to ask a question and be assured that they’re getting all the information from all the sources in a given region. This makes their research faster and also assures them that they are attaining a sufficient depth of information.

Some observations on what wasn’t mentioned:

  • So far, there has been very little mention of archiving. Is this because provisions for archiving are assumed for any online content? Or is it because people just want to get their research done now and don’t actually care that much about longevity? I suspect it’s the latter but it might just be the nature of this respondant group. If we’d asked a bunch of librarians, I would imagine archiving would play a much more prominent role. This also ties into the Efficiency issue—people are concerned about their own research, at the moment it’s being done.
  • While many respondents mentioned sharing their own research (as opposed to just using the research of others), very few people mentioned citation or worries about proper attribution.

Just because the above weren’t mentioned doesn’t mean we should forget about them. On the contrary- most of the above points are implicit (and expected) features of digital communication- archiving, formatting, metadata- things that happen in the background and are part of “best practices” for working with digital content. One of the challenges will be to try to give users the tools they say they need, but also develop the background services that go along with those needs.

Finally, community contribution was mentioned very little, and only in cases where the dream tool proposed a discipline-specific forum for identifying or discussing artifacts. The general impression is that people want to share and access primary content that hasn’t been altered by reuse. In cases where the tool’s function is to solicit community input to work towards standardization of methodologies or identification criteria, the community of contributors is circumscribed—that is, not just any old person with an Internet connection can contribute.

What is your dream tool for archaeology? Feel free to add a comment to describe your dream tool, or point to any dream tools out there. Take the survey, if you have a spare 10 minutes and would like to contribute your thoughts, ideas and experiences to this study.

Oh, and…of course… I had to make a Wordle cloud of all the dream tools responses.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *