Why the Historic Environment needs a Spatial Data Infrastructure

Peter McKeague 1*, Anthony Corns 2 and Axel Posluschny 3

1. *Corresponding author: Historic Environment Scotland, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh Scotland, EH8 9NX, United Kingdom.
2. Discovery Programme, 63 Merion Square, Dublin, D2, Republic of Ireland.
3. Keltenwelt am Glauberg, Am Glauberg 1, 63695 Glauburg, Germany.

Cite this as: McKeague, P., Corns, A. and Posluschny, A. 2017 Why the Historic Environment needs a Spatial Data Infrastructure, Internet Archaeology 43.

The INSPIRE Directive (2007) mandates European Union countries to share environment-related datasets so that they can be easily accessed by other public organisations within their own and neighbouring countries to inform policies or activities that may impact on the environment. Key to delivering INSPIRE is the establishment of Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDIs) providing frameworks for coordinating the policies, infrastructure and standards needed to acquire, process, distribute, use, maintain and preserve spatial data through discovery, view and download services by 2020. Archaeological information is inherently spatial yet, despite the environmental focus of INSPIRE, guidance is limited and ambiguous for archaeological datasets and consequentially there is limited engagement from data curators. Although Protected Sites is an INSPIRE theme, does it cover only those formally designated through legislation or include sites managed through legal or other effective means?

INSPIRE publishes data to help inform environmental policies and if data is unpublished there is a risk it will simply be ignored. Complex modelling of environmental change through Ecosystem Services remotely consuming web services is already happening but the lack of published reference datasets from the historic environment compromises consideration of the resource in decision making processes.

Development of SDIs for heritage can bring wider benefits for the profession. Too often fieldwork extents and results are confined to paper publications or reside in project archives. Consequentially we lack a spatial record of fieldwork activities. Although cultural heritage data often has a strong spatial component, the full potential of the geographies created through discovery, recording and analysis is far from being realised. Harmonisation and publication of spatial data to consistent standards through an SDI is an essential pre-requisite for mainstreaming the use of heritage data in the 21st century to get cultural heritage to work for Europe.

This extended abstract is also available in hard copy in K. May (ed) 2017 Digital Archaeological Heritage, EAC Occasional Paper No.12, Archaeolingua, Budapest.

Heritage professionals create or use spatial data on a daily basis across a range of processes from desk-based assessments, remote sensing techniques and field survey to excavation. Objects in museum collections and the results of scientific analysis also have an inherent spatial relationship derived from location.

Brought together, results from diverse data sources and projects combine to form the evidence base to support decision-making processes across a range of sectors and actors. Data informs heritage management activities, including formally protecting archaeological sites, buildings and landscapes, applying conditions as part of the planning process, asset management, for both academic and personal research and increasingly for public engagement.

However, co-ordination of spatial data for the historic environment is lacking. Approaches are fragmented across national and regional boundaries, between national and local agencies, the public, private sector and academia. Accordingly, there tends to be no consistent approach to capturing, storing, sharing and presenting spatial data about the historic environment. The value of data captured at some expense is simply not being realised. It may be retained by the creator, lost or, if deposited in an archive, it may not be stored in an easily accessible or in a reusable form, accessible only as an illustration in a publication orphaned from other datasets. Intellectual Property Rights, copyright and restrictive data retention also inhibit reuse.

Existing methodologies may be convenient for individual projects and organisations but the fragmented and inconsistent approaches to sharing spatial data about the historic environment can appear unprofessional. Attitudes are shaped by the need to deliver projects and established institutional practices are slow to adapt to the impact of new technologies.

APIs delivering remote access to data and particularly publication of spatial datasets as view (Web Map Services – WMS) and download (Web Feature Services – WFS) enables spatial data held by one organisation to be accessed remotely, combined and used with other datasets outside the host body. Yet the lack of consistent data standards and data harmonisation prevents historic environment data realising its potential.

Across Europe, there is already a requirement to share some historic environment data. Through the European Commission INSPIRE Directive (, transposed into member states national legislation since 2009, all European Union countries are required to share environmentally related datasets so that they can be easily accessed by other public organisations within their own and neighbouring countries for the purposes of community environmental policies and policies or activities which may have an impact on the environment. There is an increasing expectation that publicly held data should be available without undue restriction, to inform decision making about the environment. Key to delivering INSPIRE is the establishment of Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDIs). An SDI provides the framework for coordinating the policies, infrastructure and standards needed to acquire, process, distribute, use, maintain and preserve spatial data to deliver GI enabled business applications and services for social, economic and environmental benefits.

Within INSPIRE, the Protected Sites theme covers a range of historic environment data including the World Heritage Convention; the national laws of each European country, EU and international sector policies and National Monument Records. Protected Sites may also be managed through other effective means including planning guidance.

Individual data holders across Europe already publish a range of datasets through Web-GIS portals often supported by INSPIRE compliant metadata, WMS and WFS. Some of these portals and services have been published through national SDIs and harvested to the INSPIRE Geoportal ( where users may discover datasets and services logged on the register. Whilst very powerful, the Geoportal is not designed for ease of use and definitely not for someone interested in the cultural heritage and historic environment of Europe. There is a strong case for developing a dedicated website to enable the easy discovery, access and monitoring of national and regional portals, metadata and the various WMS and WFS to promote heritage datasets. What is required should build upon existing European Infrastructure projects such as CARARE ( and EUROPEANA (, or the recently launched ARIADNE Portal (

Spatial data is more than simply the mapped extent of each asset; it also includes associated attribution. For Protected Sites data, INSPIRE defines a simple or core application schema, containing a very limited set of fundamental attributes, including geometry, identifier, name and legal foundation date and document reference. Within the extended schema INSPIRE recognises and publishes through the INSPIRE Registry Designation, UNESCO World Heritage Designations ( and National Monuments Records ( Research through the ARIADNE Project can help develop data harmonization for some of the attribution.

View and download services not only provide live data to dedicated heritage portals, they can also stream data to third party portals for display alongside related environmental datasets. These services can be consumed directly into remote computers for use alongside proprietary datasets to inform project work and decision making. Data must therefore be current. With the open approach to data, more consideration of the attribution is required so that the non-specialist can understand the value of the data. For some approaches, detailed classifications may need to be supplemented by ranking the value of individual assets into broad brush, High-Medium-Low values. This will become particularly important as automated process will inform decision modelling process for eco-system services scenarios.

INSPIRE only applies to a limited range of datasets used to inform decision-making processes. It does not address the full range of spatial data created in recording our cultural heritage, particularly that collected through fieldwork. The Directive only applies to publicly held data whereas much of the primary archaeological data is created by the private sector or through research. Publicly funded projects may stipulate data preservation in an appropriate archive and data from developer or privately funded work may eventually be deposited with a public archive at which point it is held and managed at public expense.

Realising the value and potential of these datasets requires the development of a thematic SDI for the historic environment. The metadata and attribution for each dataset should include the following categories of metadata:

Whilst a wealth of spatial information is created through fieldwork and interpretation, the potential value of that data is not realised beyond the individual project. A thematic SDI for heritage will help realise that potential, improve accountability and delivery efficiencies. The building blocks are already in place. As an inherently spatial discipline, there are plenty of resources although datasets and standards need to be defined. Existing research initiatives could be expanded to address spatial data while both the CIDOC-CRM and The Europeana EDM point to interoperable datasets. What is lacking is a coordinated approach underpinned by a sectorial framework to harness the potential of spatial data for the historic environment. If the OpenStreetMap community can develop a collaborative approach to produce an editable map of the world, why can't the historic environment profession collate their data?

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