Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

Forget Long-term Access, We’re Struggling With the Short-term!

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On Friday I attended a one-day conference at the e-Science Centre at Edinburgh University, entitled “Maintaining Long-term Access to Geospatial Data”. The quote above came from one of the speakers and, to me, it was the key point that came out of the day. Having said that, some interesting themes emerged that align nicely with ongoing discussions amongst the geospatial crowd.

Firstly- the overwhelming trend in all the discussions was a move towards a service-based decentralised architecture for geospatial data storage and sharing. This requires good and standard metadata, and of course a transparent Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI). The title quote refers to the fact that we haven’t really suceeded in either of those two areas yet, for data sharing now, let alone 50 or 100 years into the future.

Steve Morris, from the North Carolina Geospatial Archiving Project (NCGDAP) said that the establishment of an SDI should be seen as a catalyst for future discussion, and presumably experimentation/innovation within the geospatial community. I find this encouraging- as trying to create something that suceeds right from the word go is daunting, if not totally off-putting. In a later discussion, James Reid from Edina asked whether we should be trying to create global or national SDIs, or whether more localised or sector-based approaches might not be better. At the risk of over-using a phrase, should we be Thinking Global, but Acting Local? Given recent discussions about the lack of success of many current SDIs, perhaps this approach might be the way forward. Certainly I would like to see both an archaeological SDI, which could be global or national in scope, and a UK SDI focussing on datasets with national coverage. In particular, I would like to see the establishment of an SDI as an aim of the OSGEO Archaeology Special Interest Group (follow the link if you’re interested).

Clearly a good SDI is totally reliant on good metadata. Without going into a long discussion on the merits and pitfalls of metadata, there is a tendency to overdo the amount required, making it unlikely that people will produce any at all. There is also a tendency to invent entirely new standards, making it more difficult for data producers to know what they should be complying with. Tony Mathys, again from Edina described something emminently sensible in his discussion of the Go-Geo! Project, which is the creation of sector-based profiles, all of which contain a small number of required core elements, and additionally only those elements that are relevant in that sector. Again, I would like to see something like this created for archaeology, particularly in the UK, but I don’t want us to reinvent the wheel when we could create an “archaeology profile” from existing standards.

Finally, there was a suggestion that producers of geospatial data are generally “temporally impaired”. In other words, we rarely consider future uses or interpretations of our data as we are concentrating on fulfilling a particular objective in the present. We rarely maintain archives of old versions of files, and our metadata tends to refer to a snapshot in time. At OA we try and get around these issues by maintaining an archive of geospatial files, when storage allows it, and we try to keep a “lab notebook” detailing the work process (and hence any changes made) throughout a project. Storage space is an issue though, as is educating people about the need to do this.

Overall, this was a very useful conference to attend (the food and facilities were great too), and it provided a very useful insight into how larger institutions such as the UK Higher Education bodies are addressing issues of data sharing and archiving. For OA, the main thing is to keep moving forward, get our own SDI running smoothly, get sharing data with our colleagues elsewhere, and produce the right metadata to go with it all. Phew!

Update 16th November: There’s a report and presentation of the conference available.

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