ArcheoFOSS 2022
Technology that Enables Rather than Distracts: Lessons from Open Context and Sustaining Open Archaeological Data

Eric C. Kansa
Open Context, San Francisco, CA, USA

Panel: I/O: ethics, policies and technologies for programmatic and open access to archaeological online data sets

This paper describes technology sustainability issues faced in over 16 years of supporting research data management in archaeology. Open Context first went online to the public Web in November of 2006. Since then, we have invested in a number of significant software “refactoring” (rewrites) as well as continual incremental maintenance and enhancements that continue to this day.

Open Context initially launched as a PHP application supported by a backend MySQL database. In 2007 and 2008, Open Context began to adopt more formal coding patterns and open source frameworks as it added additional specialized faceted search components. In 2014, we completely rewrote Open Context in the Python programming language inorder to take advantage of a richer ecosystem of open source geospatial and data analysis libraries. While we have maintained the integrity of data and URLs to data through each episode of refactoring, these rewrites have allowed us to cut costs through less dependency on our own custom code and more reliance on better established and maintained open source libraries.

As we look to the future, we will continue in this trend, as open source capabilities increasingly support the specialized and niche needs of archaeologists. Archaeology still lacks widely adopted common information standards. To accommodate and support the diverse ways archaeologists describe their data, Open Context’s initial design and strategies for organizing data, though implemented with different software, were initially heavily influenced by the OCHRE project’s pioneering approaches. Since 2006, greater popularization of Linked Open Data and graph style databases has led to much better open source software support for managing heterogeneous cultural heritage data.

As we move forward, we are now making plans to replace large portions of Open Context with components from Arches, an open source application specifically designed for cultural heritage data management needs. In this way, we hope to better sustain Open Context by avoiding duplicative effort and by benefiting from the significant investments in software engineering, data modeling, and standards alignments behind the Arches project.

We hope that less cumbersome and less costly software infrastructure will help us respond more effectively to core professional and social needs, allowing us to devote more attention to the central focus of our mission– publishing useful open archaeological data in an ethically responsible manner. Rather than fixing bugs, we can do more to focus our use of technology to broaden public engagement with archaeological data and better implement ethical frameworks, especially the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.


This text is released under Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) 4.0 Imternational license