A Digital New Year: An Update on the Monumental Archive Project

In a post in August, I introduced the concept for the Monumental Archive Project (MAP), an open database of historic cemeteries, as a means of encouraging much needed data reuse and sustainable practice, as well as creativity and collaboration in this area of research. It outlined a plan for a website that would provide a platform for the curation of data, user-friendly access and interactive collaboration. Whilst in Michigan, surrounded by extremely talented mentors who make even the most complicated programming problems look like child’s play, that plan looked easily achievable.

Upon realizing that on my own, my skills were not quite up to snuff, and finding myself completely bewildered by the process of building this monumental ‘thing’, I spent the fall putting myself through digital training. While I am a strong proponent for jumping right in, I decided to take the tactic of jumping into smaller ponds before I jumped into a big one.

Epi.Curio website and award.

Epi.Curio – a digital resource for an edible curiosity cabinet, created for The Heritage Jam.

I learned about the blogging world and the twitter world (both of which I’m now passing on to my fourth year students), I tackled some more coding courses (now working on Python, which is about as scary as the name implies), and perhaps most notably, I entered the University of York’s Heritage Jam 2015 – an event that brings “people together to design and create forward-thinking pieces of heritage visualisation in a short space of time.” Inspired by the theme for 2015, ‘Museums & Collections’, and discussions from the DAI in August, regarding the role of technology in broadening access to more experiential heritage, I designed and built Epi.Curio – a website that provides all the inspiration and directions to build an edible cabinet of curiosities, so that you can not only see the archaeological record, but also make it, pick it up and eat it, to experience the textures, tastes and smells of the past.

While the project was a lot of fun, merging my interests in archaeology and baking/eating, more importantly, I learned to build a website in three days. It wasn’t quite from the ground up – I modified a Bootstrap theme as a framework and used GitHub’s gh-pages to host it for free. I could easily have just worked on a small-scale project privately, but the very public nature of the Heritage Jam added some much needed pressure to be productive and to make things work in a short period of time, with the value of feedback from a group of very impressive folks. My efforts were kindly rewarded with a Judges’ Choice award, so I couldn’t be more honoured that my participation was well received.

The Monumental Archive Project: Record. Collect. Preserve. Connect.

Screenshot of the MAP website – a work in progress.

These mini challenges for myself have not meant that MAP has been completely on the back burner, but there is only so much to be said about cleaning data, and then cleaning data some more. I have also been actively advocating for open data amongst archaeologists recording cemeteries. While it has been well-received in theory, this has not resulted in any new datasets presently. For the time being, MAP will focus on creating a proof of concept using data that I have collected in Barbados, with the hopes of then expanding with further North American datasets once people can visualise the system as a real platform for preservation and exposure.

The challenges that I am currently working on:

  • Building the website that will stand as the front-end interface for engaging with the data;
  • Funding for ADS to manage the preservation of the data;
  • Cleaning the data and, with the wise words of one of my mentors, Eric Kansa, establishing controlled vocabularies.

I would welcome input on user-friendly formats for presenting controlled vocabularies – because the MAP will welcome the contribution of datasets, but is premised on comparative data, it will be important to standardize categories of monuments, iconography, text, etc. and to present those standards in accessible ways. There are not strong standards in monument recording, so establishing and promoting controlled vocabularies will be crucial to the success of this endeavour.

I would also be interested if anyone can help me with suggestions for free (and straightforward) analytics software. I was unsuccessful in establishing any analytics for the Epi.Curio website. I attempted to incorporate Google Analytics into the code, as well as some other free online software, however none of these seemed to function properly (probably a reflection of me more than anything). While I used Twitter and social media to gage some of the use of the website, measuring usage and interaction with MAP will be much more important.

I don’t think that I need to set myself any specific New Year’s resolutions to continue to challenge myself digitally in 2016; the plans I set in motion for MAP in 2015 have ensured that this year will be both exciting and stimulating. So stay tuned for updates on crafting an open access database, engaging with the dead in digital formats, and the hiccups that spring up along the way, and in the meantime set your own digital challenges.

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