7 Utopia

Hansen's utopia in 1992 (Hansen 1992b, 236) was that National Sites and Monuments Records throughout Europe could be used as a common European database. Documentation in the form of text, drawings, still photographs, video and even sound would be an integral part of the system, while links to literature – grey as well as “white” – would also be listed or perhaps even accessible online, copyright issues permitting.

Hansen made no guesses as to the timeframe for the implementation of this, and obviously we are not quite there yet. The ARENA project has paved some of the way and shown that an interoperable heritage portal is possible, but at the same time also highlighted a number of problem areas.

So what is our utopia seen from 2005? Taking the Danish experience as outlined in the preceding chapters as an example and the lessons learned from the ARENA portal implementation as well as the discussions at ARENA sessions and meetings, we have a number of pointers.

7.1 Information Access

Sites and Monument Records are not just for the professionals. Judging from the present rise in interest the general public and schools will want to access heritage information on a much larger scale in the coming years. And this creates a problem, since most SMR data are – well, data. The data need to be combined into information meaningful to the layman, and this is no small task.

In Denmark public access to online SMR data was introduced in 2003, but only through the removal of the username/access code filter. No changes in data or presentation were made at that time, but it is clear that a different approach to presentation and information is needed to suit the general public.

7.2 Language issues

In the ARENA project language issues were addressed by simply translating most of the search interface to the respective languages. So the query part of the search is easily accessible for citizens of ARENA partner countries. The same cannot be said of the results of the search. Translating database content into five languages clearly would be an impossible task (the Danish NMR alone is 160.000 records). Thesauri for site types and archaeological periods could be a help, but what really is needed to use such a resource effectively, is some sort of automated translation on the fly.

The ARENA project highlighted a number of the difficulties setting up a European portal to heritage information. One was the necessity to translate and map local site types to a common standard – in this case English Heritage's Thesaurus of Monument Types was chosen, but then only the top level terms. When some of these were used in a search (for instance “Agriculture and subsistence”) too many hits were returned, so for future portals it is strongly recommended to include the second level as well.

7.3 Search across sectors

The structures of the respective SMRs were mapped to the 15 element Dublin Core Metadata Standard, and although this has its limitations it seems like a useful way to improve the search facilities in a portal. Since the standard is also in use in the library sector, and the archives sector has tested it with positive results, the idea of portals giving access to interoperable searches within Archive, Library and Museum databases seems a logical step forward.

7.4 Map base

Another area where the ARENA project could be improved is the map base. In the geographical search a general map of Europe in 1:2.000.000 scale has been used. Not all ARENA partners have obtained rights to show their national maps on the internet, a situation not likely to improve in the coming years. But let us include a European consensus that maps produced by government agencies should be made freely available to all heritage and other public institutions in our Utopian predictions anyway.

A common European map base may not be just around the corner, but the EU INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information Europe) initiative is a step in the right direction in that it ensures that the geodata that is available can be integrated seamlessly.

7.5 Mobile SMR access

Internet access for the general public to SMRs is likely to see an increasing shift from desktop computers to handheld devices with location based services. Information when you need it and where you need it. And again, this makes new information derived from the existing data necessary. None of the Danish projects with mobile telephones were able to use data as they are. Text and images needed rewriting and reformatting to suit the new medium, and video and audio commentary recorded.

Location based services will obviously be highly useful to the professional as well. The archaeologist will bring her mobile telephone or PDA (or probably a combination of the two – such devices are already on the market) into the field to check on known sites using the map interface with the SMR data as a separate layer. And if a barrow is seen to be mapped in the wrong corner of the field, the barrow symbol can be dragged to its correct location and the information transmitted directly to the national or regional database, perhaps enclosing a photograph of it taken with the device.

ARENA has demonstrated that interoperable search in very disparate SMRs is possible, and in the light also of what is going on in the individual countries it is clearly not the technology that is the barrier for development at the moment, neither is it lack of innovative ideas for its use. What could possibly be a very real barrier, however, is the workload involved on the data side in producing such facilities as translation on the fly, generating information from data for more general use etc.

7.6 The way ahead

ARENA has brought us an important step forward and seen from the Danish perspective we are now near the end of a phase of consolidation which has given us new possibilities for the recording and dissemination of information. Different national databases on art, architecture, archaeology and culture history has been brought together and we are in a process of upgrading them to a common technical and logic platform and to make them interact with each other as well as with the outside world. For archaeology this means access to information about the sites, to the finds and their documentation.

At the national level we are moving from central to decentralised recording with the combination of advantages and disadvantages it brings. Data are made available to both professional and public use. This is a step towards democratisation of information and the openness reveals quality issues. The museum community have been focussing on the basic recording, which also has its limitations in terms of public access. However, the consolidation means that in the coming years we can now focus on quality issues, if we can get the political accept of this priority. Quality is expensive and the heritage sector is no exception.

This is probably going to be one of the major challenges in the coming years, the acceptance of information of a certain quality as a basic need for the meaningful interoperability both at national and international level.

On the other hand it could exactly be the openness and new way of creating public access to heritage information which actually secures the economic base for our future work. The mobile dimension is without doubt one of the more spectacular ways forward is this respect and it will probably be in this segment we will see the major changes. New mobile devices combining a mobile phone, a consumer level digital camera, GPS and a high resolution screen gives new ways of interaction between the public and the data provider. It provides us with new demands and new possibilities both as professionals and as consumers.


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