UNSW unearths Android's potential for archaeology

FAIMS project looks at open source tools for data capture, archiving

Researchers at the University of NSW are spearheading an effort to build new digital tools for archaeologist to help update a field where on-site data capture is often handwritten, or, sometimes, conducted using a dated PDA-based systems, and records storage is not infrequently paper-based.

The Federated Archaeological Information Management System (FAIMS) Project is led by Dr Shawn Ross, a senior lecturer at UNSW's School of History and Philosophy, and is funded by the federal government's the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources (NeCTAR) program.

Ross said that FAIMS, which is the recipient of a $950,000 NeCTAR grant, is seeking to construct an open source software ecosystem for the capture, analysis and archiving of archaeological data.

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"The project has got a number of components that work together to the end of developing an information management system for archaeology that will shepherd data from digital creation in the field using mobile device applications through to processing, analysis, visualisation," Ross said.

The intention is that the process will begin with capturing data in a digital form and end with the depositing of primary data sets in online repositories in a consistent and machine reusable form.

"The single biggest piece [of the project] is to develop mobile device applications because those don't exist," Ross said.

"Wherever there are existing resources that we can just work to tie together that's what we're doing but there hasn't really been anything developed yet for modern mobile devices."

FAIMS will develop apps to aid excavations and archaeological surveys, although the project is also looking at developing artefact processing apps, at the moment primarily for pottery and stone tools.

"We're hoping to get high quality digital data created in the field," Ross said.

The mobile apps are likely to be Android-based, although that decision, as well some scoping decisions, will likely come out of a four-day workshop that started yesterday.

"We are putting off all of these final decisions until we get the feedback from the workshop over the next four days because we've got a really good mix of technical and archaeological people," Ross said.

There are currently a number of digital repositories for archaeological data, but one of the aims of FAIMS is to develop interoperability protocols to make accessing data as easy as possible.

The ultimate goal of the project is to make primary data sets more widely available in a digital form. "This facilitates so many things in the sense that archaeology has pretences towards being scientific in its approach... we should be able to look at raw data.

"One archaeologist should be able to look at another archaeologist's raw data and reinterpret it and check that archaeologist's conclusions and analysis, and that happens relatively little right now," Ross said.

"Now the standard thing is you run a project for say three to five years then you get your team together and you publish an edited volume in print at the end of your project.

"That will have appendices where you present in tabular format along with plates and drawings some subset of your data. But of course print like this is expensive, especially for photographs and drawings. So the data that is published is limited; it's usually some percentage of the data that you collected."

There are currently digital repositories in the US and UK, as well as at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and FAIMS won't try to reinvent them. Instead it will redesign existing systems to work on NeCTAR's research Cloud and devise interoperability mechanisms.

"Our highest priority is to develop these interoperability protocols for various databases and as part of that to get Australian based repositories up and work so Australian researchers can deposit their data there," Ross said

The NeCTAR grant has a deadline of the end of 2013, although one of the topics workshop participants will be discussing is sustainability strategies for keeping the repositories running and developing further applications. Development is being conducted in-house at UNSW for the mobile apps as well as through the Intersect research consortium in NSW and VeRSI in Victoria.

"We're hoping in the long term to help facilitate the emergence of a healthy ecosystem for archaeological data management, with mobile device applications, visualisation tools , analysis tools; these sorts of things.

"And we will establish a range of repositories for historical archaeological data, indigenous archaeological data and data that is produced overseas by Australian archaeological researchers."

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia and Computerworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at idg.com.au.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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